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Home » Volume 55 Issue 4- February-March 2018 » Feature » Article Details

Serowe UCCSA- A Monumental Ode to Church and Tribal State Relation

Located close to an ascending, long stretch of tarred road in the heart of the Central District capital, along the way from the Khama III Memorial School, Serowe Congregational Church in an imposing building.

Built in 1912 by the London Missionary Society (LMS) during the reign of Bangwato royal Khama III (1837-1923), this was among the first modern architectural designs in Serowe, erected just ten years after the Bangwato capital was established in 1902.

Crucially, this local church of the United Congregational Church of Southern Africa (UCCSA) symbolises the historic relation between church and tribal state, which also underpinned the move towards the Western acculturation of the Bangwato and the broader Batswana nation.

“One of the most historic features in the church is the chair Khama III used to sit in while worshipping,” Scobie Lekhutlile, the curator of the Khama III Memorial Museum says. 

“The chair remains in the church, and is a reminder of the man who changed Bangwato cultural life by inculcating the Christian belief system brought about by the European missionaries.”

A picture of the son and heir of Khama III, Sekgoma II marrying the queen Tebogo Kebailele (the wedding ceremony of the parents of Botswana’s founding president Sir Seretse Khama) at the church is on display at the Museum.

Although taken in the 1920s, close to a century ago, the structure of the church that forms the backdrop of the couple posing, remains the same.

With so many modern buildings having sprung up in Serowe since independence in 1966, and particularly in the post ‘diamond boom’ 2000s, the Serowe church has become drowned in a sea of modernity.

Now, one does not easily realise that for decades this was the stand out modern building at a time when small mud huts and other similar rondavel structures dominated Serowe and other Tswana tribal capitals.

The Serowe church was built with a modern brick design that has withered the storm and survived to become a national monument 106 years after its completion.

“German Lutheran missionaries were the first to introduce Christianity to the Bangwato at Shoshong,” Lekhutlile states. “Thereafter the British Congregational missionaries of the London Missionary Society (LMS), who had been the first to do work among the Tswana at Kuruman in South Africa’s Northern Cape and at Kolobeng near modern Kumakwane, had the lasting impression on Bangwato royalty.”

“The LMS had first established a mission church among the Bangwato at Shoshong, and then at Old Palapye- that well known abandoned building.

When the tribal capital moved to Serowe in 1902 the church met at the kgotla, then in 1904, the Thataganyane church came into being, before the current church was opened in 1912,” Lekhutlile adds.

According to historian Jeff Ramsay, it was under Sekgoma I (1815–1883) at Shoshong that the Bangwato developed into a tribal empire.

Their territorial dominance gradually overshadowed that of the Bakwena, who had hitherto been the main Tswana royal house, from whom the Bangwato, Bangwaketse and Batawana royal houses owed their descent, and in whose lands the Bakgatla (Kgafela and Mmanaana), Balete, Batlokwa and Bahurutshe settled into upon moving from present-day South Africa.

Although Sekgoma I led Bangwato expansionism into large swathe of land that is now the Central District, the Bangwato Empire was consolidated under his son Khama III, whose reign spanned nigh on half a century- the years 1872-1873 and 1875-1923.

“Khama III converted to Christianity and was keen to learn the modern ways of conducting tribal affairs, establishing a trading company, that was based at what is now the museum here in Serowe.

European traders did business with Khama III, and he had good relations with LMS missionaries, and he worked on introducing modern methods into tribal society,” Lekhutlile says.

The LMS introduced the first modern midwives into Serowe society and a school was erected to introduce basic literacy.

But some of Khama’s reforms- the phasing out of tribal regiments and ‘lobola/bogadi’ dowry as well as the outlawing of alcohol, brought him into conflict with his tribe.

As Lekhutlile notes, “Khama was eager to reform society according to his Christian beliefs, but the society he led was accustomed to its cultural norms.”

In 1895, Khama III, Sebele I of the Bakwena and Bathoen I of the Bangwaketse went to England where they had an audience with British royal Queen Victoria and colonial secretary Richard Chamberlain. They sought to ensure that Bechuanaland Protectorate is not handed over to Cecil John Rhodes’ British South Africa Company.

In this journey, they had been accompanied by Rev William Charles Willoughby of the LMS, underlining how influential the church had become in the tribal capitals of Serowe, Kanye and Molepolole.

“If you read historical accounts of the journey of the three dikgosi, you realise how Khama III made a great impression on the British, to an extent where some of the British news articles from the time give the impression that he was the king of Bechuanaland; while he was a territorial paramount sovereign with two of his contemporaries,” Lekutlile says, releasing a hearty laugh.

With most Batswana tribal communities having little contact with a colonial administration that was based at Mafikeng in present-day South Africa, as well as resident and district commissioners that mostly dealt with their royals, the Christian church acted as the point of entry of modern education and healthcare.

The Serowe church was built at a point the LMS had been working for almost a century in introducing Christianity among the Tswana. 

The work had started in 1817 with Robert Moffat at Kuruman, who worked on developing the first written Setswana orthography and in the translation of the Bible and Congregational hymnal (Kopelo ya Dihela tsa Lontone) into Setswana.

Thereafter Moffat’s son in law David Livingstone settled amongst the Bakwena of Sechele and established the Kolobeng Mission in 1847, the first Christian church in modern Botswana’s confines. 

Thereafter John Mackenzie established an LMS mission at Shoshong in 1862, following up on the work done by the German Hermannsburg Lutheran Missionary Society there.

This laid the foundation for the later work done by the Roman Catholic and Lutheran churches amongst the Balete at Ramotswa, the Dutch Reformed Church with the Bakgatla at Mochudi and the Seventh Day Adventists augmenting the earlier work of the LMS among the Bangwaketse at Kanye, with hospitals and schools availed to locals.

The Serowe church is an epitome of this history of the church and tribal state, with its telling inscription, “This church was erected to the glory of God by Chief Khama and the Bamangwato.
This stone was laid on the 6th August A.D. 112 by his honour Lieut. Colonel GW Panzera CMC, Resident Commissioner of the Bechuanaland Protectorate.”

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