The Northern Cape town of Kuruman has been a centre of focus for Christian missionaries and explorers for almost
200 years. David Rogers travelled ‘the road to the interior’ and immersed himself in the spiritual and historical
splendour of the desert Eden which David Livingstone once called home.
Hidden behind a jumble of moss-covered rocks in the centre of Kuruman is one of the largest natural springs in the southern hemisphere. It’s called The Eye and every day it pumps more than 20 million litres of clear water into a lake fringed by luxuriously green lawns, towering palms and shady willow trees.
In a region where towns have been given names such as Hotazel, Pofadder and BrandvIei it’s an unexpected and pleasant surprise to happen upon this lush oasis. It has, over the past 200 years or so, offered water and shade to weary travellers and missionaries as they made their way through the and Northern Cape.
The crossroads of all this activity was, however, not here at The Eye but four kilometres away on the bank of the Kuruman River in a little piece of paradise called the Moffat Mission.
Before venturing into the mission, let’s return to the mid-1790s when Englishmen of several denominations established the London Missionary Society to send “the glorious Gospel of the Blessed God to the Heathen.”
As the first waves of British settlers streamed into the Cape, society members William Edwards and Jan Kok joined the first official Cape delegation to penetrate the foreboding interior.
However, these two men did not possess the stern stuff of which most missionaries are made. Instead of educating the locals they turned their attention to personal gain, with Kok becoming an ivory merchant and Edwards returning south to become a Stellenbosch wine farmer.
The London Missionary Society was, however, not so easily distracted from its task and 14 years later, in 1813, a London clergyman named John Campbell was sent from England to establish contact with Chief Mothibi of the local Batlhaping tribe. He was well received by the chief who promised to be “like a father” to any missionaries Reverend Campbell cared to send.
So it was that Messrs Hamilton and Evans arrived there in 1816, fully believing that the chief and his people would “dance for joy at their arrival.” They were wholly wrong and were forced to return to Griquatown where the society had established another mission station 280 kilometres to the south.
It was time to send in the ‘big guns’ and so the Reverend James Read, who had been part of Campbell’s original delegation, returned to ask the chief to meet his earlier promise. Read undertook to protect the tribe in the event of an attack and Hamilton was finally permitted to stay.
It was at this time that Robert Moffat (and his young wife Mary) joined Hamilton’s family who were now living with the Badhaping tribe at Maropeng, 14 kilometres from The Eye.
Although Hamilton was the more experienced missionary, Moffat quickly asserted his leadership and conceived plans for an arable garden on the bank of the Kuruman River.
Moffat was a gardener by trade and the site he chose (where the mission still stands today) was selected because it was wide enough to plow and had a permanent supply of water from The Eye. It was called Seodin, which means the ‘land on the bend of the river’.
Before long the crops were under irrigation (he built a four-kilometre clay canal from a dam constructed at The Eye) and it soon became clear to the Badhaping that life with the settlers could be good. There was, of course, a pay-off – and by 1825 the tribe began to attend Moffat’s sermons and at first at least pretended to accept Christianity.
Communication proved to be a barrier so in 1828 Moffat went to live in a remote Tswana village where he mastered the basics of their language. Now able to communicate the fullness of his message he celebrated his first successes.
“We were taken by surprise,” he recalled. “Eyes now wept, which had never before shed the tear of hallowed sorrow . . . the sympathy of feeling spread from heart to heart, so that even infants wept.”
That weekend, much to the delight of the missionaries six families were baptised into the Christian faith by Moffat. As if to prove the blessedness of the mission, an unexpected gift of communion silver arrived from a friend in England just in time for the ceremony.
Among the first converts was Aaron Joseph, a freed slave from the Cape. He had purchased his freedom from the authorities in exchange for elephant tusks, and was now so inspired by Moffat’s preaching that he and two companions set to work “without the subject once being hinted at” on the first permanent schoolroom.
Moffat first completed homesteads for himself and Hamilton and then set to work on the church which when it was completed in 1838, was the largest building in Southern Africa beyond the confines of the colony.Having completed the garden, schoolroom and church the final ingredients were books and Bibles. Once again Moffat triumphed – using a small printer to produce spelling books, hymns and excerpts from the scriptures. But his goal was set to continue “till the whole is completed” and he toiled long hours translating the entire New Testament into Setswana.
When he completed the task in 1838 he found that he was unable to print the massive tome locally, so he returned to England with his wife. It was their only visit home in 50 years and when they arrived they were surprised to discover they were famous!
The couple remained three years, gathering funds and support, and returned with the New Testament printed in Setswana, 50 tons of luggage and three new missionaries: William Ashton, William Ross and David Livingstone.
Livingstone’s name is inextricably linked to the Moffat Mission. This was his first home in Africa, the base for his travels and where he met his future wife, the young Mary, Robert Moffat’s daughter.
The mission was on what was dubbed ‘the road to the interior’ and Livingstone was just one of the many travellers and missionaries who experienced their last slice of European comfort in the Moffat’s garden sanctuary.
Most of Moffat’s work revolved round the mission and educating his growing number of faithful followers. His Bibles were in great demand and in 1857 he printed his first run of 2 000 books. According to Alan Butler in his booklet Kuruman Moffat Mission this was the first time the Bible had been printed anywhere in Africa and the first time in a previously unwritten African tongue.
The Moffats continued their work for 50 years until, aged 75, they were both recalled by the London Missionary Society. They arrived in London for Christmas and shortly afterwards Mary died.
Robert lived for 13 more years, during which time he continued his work travelling in England. He was there when Livingstone’s body was returned to his homeland and was first pall-bearer carrying the coffin of the famous explorer into Westminster Abbey.John Moffat continued his father’s work at Kuruman and soon the Batswana congregation grew to many thousands. There followed many great leaders including Maphakela Lekalake, who was the first Batswana to be ordained as a minister.
By the late 1800s winds of change were blowing across the interior and with the discovery of diamonds and gold the demand for land increased. By 1885 the area round Kuruman was annexed by the British colonial government and soon a town developed between the mission and The Eye.
Once the dam was destroyed, the mission garden (which had been worked on a cooperative basis for nearly a century) was flooded and fell into disrepair. By 1916 all but 10 hectares of this once-proud 372-hectare garden had been sold to the newly established Kuruman Municipality.
The success of the mission can be attributed to the close link between education and the Church, but in the 1950s the Nationalist Government declared its monoploy on education and the oldest school north of the Cape’s folded mountains closed its doors.
The Group Areas Act, which decreed the mission to be in a white area, was a further blow – dividing the people from their church, which fell into disuse.
The Reverend Humphrey Thompson who, like Moffat, ran the mission for 50 years, did what he could to maintain the activities during these troubled times. Then in the 1980s things began to improve under the Reverend Alan Butler who saw it as being “a focus for new hope in a disturbing age.” He restored the buildings, promoted tourism and developed a retreat and conference centre which is still in use.
Butler, who wore a beard every bit as dramatic as Moffat’s, wrote much about the mission and most of the information in this feature comes from his writings.
The mission buildings occupy four hectares and the whole complex takes about two hours to explore, but with so many interesting photographs, sketches and memorabilia you may want to linger.
Near the entrance, I noticed boxes of Setswana Bibles ready for distribution. The words have changed little since Moffat’s translation and it is testimony to his success that the Batswana of the area are almost entirely Christian to this day.
Passing beneath the striking canopy of acacia and pomegranate trees the path leads through the wagon house where an assortment of yokes and harnesses may be seen. The walls to the right are hung with rough sketches of the Batswana dignitaries and on the left a mural depicts a group of Bushmen peering out of their cave at the procession of settlers that was to change their lives forever.
These diminutive hunter-gatherers were exterminated during official campaigns throughout the 1800s. Not even the missionaries could intervene and it is said that some even contributed to the Bushmen’s demise.
The mural depicts Wonderwerk Cave near Danilskuil where indigenous people are said to have lived almost continuously for some 80 000 years until the arrival of the white settler farmers.
The cave, which is about 200 metres deep, is an important archaeological site and if you are interested in pre-history you can arrange a visit through the owners of the farm.
In addition to the interesting excavation and rock art, you can also visit the nearby information centre which was developed by the Kimberley Museum and illustrates the natural history of the area.
After leaving the murals in the wagon house behind, I continued along the appropriately signposted ‘missionary road to the interior’ which hugs the edge of a furrow.
Although the clay canal has now been fortified with concrete, the sluice gates are still opened each day to let the waters from The Eye flood what remains of the mission gardens.
Stepping over the narrow bridge, I enjoyed a short walk in the garden. The highlight of the stroll was stopping at the remains of the almond tree where David Livingstone proposed to the young Mary Moffat – probably the only eligible white woman between Ceres and Cairo!
I returned over the canal and made my way into the dim interior of the Moffat homestead. This was the first building erected on the site and is the oldest-known European construction in Southern Africa north of the Orange River.
The house contains valuable books, paintings and memorabilia belonging to the mission, including the silver communion set which was so timeously sent to the Moffats. My favourite item was the touching photograph of David Livingstone and his youngest daughter. She is looking up at him with seemingly mournful, loving eyes and, according to the caption, this was the first occasion she had met her wandering father.
After browsing round the book shop, I wrote a few words on a postcard which was franked with the Moffat Mission stamp and deposited into the bright red “H.E.R.” mailbox outside.
Back on the ‘missionary road to the interior’ I arrived at the large, stone-walled church. It has two wings which can accommodate up to 800 people and was constructed from local stone while the roof trusses were brought by wagon from the Marico Valley 350 kilometres away.
Walking under the high ceiling over the smooth dung floor, I pondered over the baptismal font dedicated to the Reverend Maphakela Lekalake and tried to imagine the sweet sounds of Batswana voices carrying through the air.
Just then a gentle-faced women appeared and introduced herself as Dineo Phaka. She explained that she was a theology student who worked at the mission and stayed, along with several other mission employees, in Hamilton Cottage which is next to the church. (As is the case with other ‘working’ buildings it is not open to the public.)
We proceeded to the school building built by the ex-slave Joseph after his conversion in 1829. Although the original
section of the school is now in a state of ruin, its more recently added right wing (1904) is still intact.
On the wall I noticed a plaque dating back to 1825. It recalls the death of Robert Moffat junior aged five days and is said to be the oldest example of written Setswana.
Inside the schoolroom were seven rows of simple, wooden benches facing a large green board on an easel.
“What does all that mean?” I asked Dineo pointing to Setswana words that were chalked on the board.
“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want,” she replied, easily repeating the famous introduction to Psalm 23.
An old wagon recalling the days of early explorers has been wheeled among the ruins of the original schoolroom, while next to it is a fine bronze bust of Robert Moffat. It is identical to one at his birthplace in Ormiston, Scotland and was first erected in the Brixton church where he worshipped in his old age. The building was bombed during the Second World War and the bust sent to Kuruman. It was placed here to mark the centenary of his death and unveiled on 6 August 1983 by his great, great grandson, Dr HJ Moffat of Gaborone.
The final leg of the mission tour leads to Livingstone’s quarters at the back of the homestead. According to mission director Reverend Steve de Gruchy there are plans to restore these but the only current recollections of the famous explorer are a map of his travels and a rather tatty bust, which appeared to be made of plastic. The map was interesting, however, and shows the routes of his expeditions in 1841-1856, 1858-1864 and 1866-1873. The first was the most extensive, taking him to Luanda, Zanzibar, Lake Tanganyika and, of course, his most famous discovery, Victoria Falls.
De Gruchy added that another exciting development for the mission is the return of the Kuruman Press, which has been housed in the McGregor Museum in Kimberley since early this century. “We have been campaigning for its return for some time,” he added.
The Moffat Mission is currently owned by the United Congregational Church of South Africa (which absorbed the London Missionary Society in 1967) and is still active in missionary work, promoting education and serving as a venue for religious conferences.
Although it is principally a Christian sanctuary, tourists are welcomed and are an important source of income.
While I enjoyed the ancient aura in Wonderwerk Cave and the cool surrounds of The Eye, there was something unfathomably spiritual about the serene mission. Perhaps it was on account of its almost saintly history or the sheer magnificence of this lush, sanctified oasis in an otherwise harsh environment, but as I walked back through the alley of shady trees I felt physically and mentally invigorated by the experience.
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