Academic journal article The International Journal of African Historical Studies

African Evangelism and the Colonial Frontier: The Life and Times of Paulo Rrafifing Molefane

Academic journal article The International Journal of African Historical Studies

African Evangelism and the Colonial Frontier: The Life and Times of Paulo Rrafifing Molefane

Article excerpt

In August of 1865, venturing far beyond the border of the Cape Colony, the German explorer Gustav Fritsch and his entourage arrived at the community of Moshupa in what is today southeastern Botswana. In addition to admiring the scenic beauty of large granite outcrops in the area, Fritsch was amazed by a large crowd of people, many dressed in European fashions, that gathered on Sunday to sing Christian hymns and listen to preaching by fellow Africans. Several day's journey from the nearest European mission station, Fritsch regarded the African-run worship service as superficial "aping of European customs," but he also saw it as an indication of the supremacy of European civilization over Africans and the inevitable erosion of "the primeval, national structure of their public and private lives" by expanding foreign influence.1 In this assessment, whether promoting or lamenting the spread of "development," Fritsch expressed what would become the dominant view of African-European relations during the colonial era and beyond. Missing from Fritsch's description, however, was an awareness of African perspectives during the decades prior to European conquest, such as those of the "native preacher" who led the worship service in Moshupa and thus ostensibly served as the primary local agent of modernization.

Although not identified by Fritsch, the leading African preacher in Moshupa and nearby communities during the 1860s was Paulo Rrafifing Molefane. Like other early African evangelists, Paulo was involved not just in the labor of building the first missions but also in the translation and propagation of Christianity for African audiences and in the mediation of early African-European relations. Paulo was more than an indispensable assistant to Robert Moffat, David Livingstone, and other missionaries. He often worked with little or no European supervision, offering his services as a consultant for Tswana rulers and European missionaries in the ways of the other.2 As ambassador, cultural broker, and purveyor of foreign goods and ideas, Paulo also became involved in the tensions that accompanied a growing European presence during the mid-nineteenth century, and the ties that he and his family formed between Europeans and Africans played an important role in the development of those relations. Paulo Rrafifing Molefane was far from being simply an agent of mission Christianity. Rather, he demonstrates the significant levels of contestation, cultural malleability, and individual initiative that arose in the broad, indeterminate borderland between African and European.

African Christian agency during the colonial era has already been widely recognized by scholars, but Paulo's life raises fundamental questions about the extent and nature of earlier European influence in Africa during the decades prior to colonial conquest.3 At what point did a few isolated Europeans in the African interior become the vanguard of colonialism? In Moshupa during the 1860s, were Sunday worship services, the acquisition of European goods, and Gustav Fritsch's portraits of "natives" best understood as evidence of Tswana weakness and subjugation, or rather of their prosperity and resilience?4 There is a lingering tendency to regard the activities of European explorers, missionaries, and merchants before 1870 as proto-colonial exploitation of an African periphery by an industrializing European core. But such privileging of European ambitions and anticipation of eventual conquest ignores the ability of Africans during much of the century to profit from their relationship with Europeans and maintain control over their lives and resources.

Recurring discussions of the "colonial frontier" have come to regard that term as inadequate for describing what is more accurately understood as a zone of interaction between different societies than the front line of European expansion. The roles of African Christian evangelists in that borderland merit greater scholarly attention. …

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