Moses Holango R.I.P.

‘With deep sorrow, Rev. Moses Holonga is late and will be buried in Nswazwi near Fransistown this weekend.’ That’s the message I receive from friends at Kgolagano College today.

I first visit Rev. Holonga in 1988, when I am still a seminarian. (I write about that visit in a Botswana diary entry dated April 27, 2010, available on this website.) At the time I am interested in grassroots theological education, and I am excited to see the work that Kgolagano, under the leadership of Basil Manning, is doing. After visiting the school, they send me off to spend time with one of their students, Moses Holonga.

I remember him to this day, his driving me in his pickup to his home, located northwest of Francistown, a remote spot with a thatched compound, cattle and goats. I am given glimpses of his ministry.

He is, folks at Kgolagano tell me in 2010, ‘very old.’ I regret not managing to visit him again.

He is a leader of one of the African-initiated churches, meaning he is a part of a church not established by European missionaries. Some come into being on their own. Others are breakaways from European missions, some because of disagreements over theology (they used to be called Zionist churches), others because of disagreements with mission leadership (they used to be called Ethiopian churches). There are thousands of them all across the continent. Kgolagano has trained many of their Batswana leaders.

He will be buried in Nswazwi, they tell me.

I make no claim to know much of the history of Nswazwi. I do know that around 1901 the London Missionary Society (LMS) sends a Rev. Motiki to work among the Ba Ka Nswazwi, and by 1921 a church has been built there. The ruins of it remain.

One of Rev. Motiki’s converts, Rev. Holonga, takes over in 1910, and he is the one who opens the new church in 1921. He is eventually replaced by his son, Rev. Moses Holonga. At some point ‘my’ Rev. Holonga – the son – leaves the LMS and enters the world of the African-initiated churches. I do not know when, nor why.

The only other thing I know about him has to do with a second, non-church, theme in the history of Nswazwi. It seems that a chief of the BaKalanga Baka-Nswazwi by the name of John Madawo Nswazwi and another ethnic leader find themselves in conflict back in the 1940s, and Chief Nswazwi is on the losing end. He is exiled by the British to Mafeking, in South Africa (the city actually serves as Botswana’s capital during the colonial era), in 1947, then finds refuge in Zimbabwe, then Rhodesia, the following year. He dies and is buried there in 1960.

Which brings us back to Rev. Holango. Chief Nswazwi and his followers want him to be buried back in Nswazwi village, and that finally happens in 2002. Abel Abednico Mabuse, writing recently in the newspaper Mmegi, says that Rev. Holango ‘is famously remembered for the reconciliatory sermon he offered during the reburial of John Madawo Nswazwi.’

Now, this weekend, Rev. Holango will be buried there too.

I wish I knew more about his story. I am at an age where people’s stories, especially their faith journeys, intrigue me. How does this man – kind, hospitable, welcoming – travel from following in his father’s footsteps as a pastor with what is now the United Congregational Church of Southern Africa (Botswana Synod) into the independency of an African-initiated church? What marks his ministry? What might we know beyond his studies at Kgolagano, and his giving a ‘reconciliatory sermon’?

For those who knew him, may his stories remain. For the rest of us, may his soul rest in peace.

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We travel the short distance to Kgolagano College, an ecumenical program that focuses primarily upon distance learning, what is often known in Africa as theological education by extension (TEE). Rupert Hambira is the principal, and we sit down in his office. Tea and sweet muffins soon appear.

I first visit Kgolagano in 1988. I am a seminarian with a small grant to visit grassroots theological education initiatives in southern and central Africa. Kgolagano is seen as being cutting edge back then, a strong testimony to the emerging world of contextual theology.

The place looks very much the same, but now there are fewer Anglican students and more from African-initiated churches. Their tutors travel across the country, holding intensive classes before moving on to the next place, leaving behind resources and assignments, until next time. The College still struggles with what recognition they are allowed to offer – certificate is all at the moment. We talk about ways Kgolagano may assist the Diocese in ministerial formation.

Toward the end I mention that back in 1988 Kgolagano arranged for me to spend a weekend with one of their students from what were then called African independent churches, historic breakaways from missionary control. He was an older man, I say, in a rural area northwest of Francistown. ‘Oh yes,’ Rev. Hambira quickly responds. ‘Moses Holonga.’ ‘Is he still alive?’ I ask. ‘Yes,’ he answers. ‘But old. Very.’

My mind takes me back to Mr. Holonga’s place, not even in a village, reached by following a dirt track through scrub. I remember deciding that I couldn’t make it through the night, so I took my flashlight, climbed out of my bed, left the small thatched house, and wandered out to a kraal where a herd of goats were penned. It seemed the most appropriate spot. I stood there, contributing to the goats’ own collection of waste. Most were tolerant, although a couple bleated a small protest. What I remember is looking up at an endless array of stars, stunningly pressing down upon me. It made the night-time outing memorably worthwhile.

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