The Mission of Apolo Kivebulaya

Despite lockdown my monograph is out now (international hardback and e-version), and will appear in East Africa next month with Twaweza press. Here’s some thoughts on its process and aims.

I was formally introduced to Apolo Kivebulaya in December 1993 – at his grave outside the Anglican Cathedral in Boga, Zaire. After contemplating the simple metal cross with stone plinth and the graves of other church leaders beside it, I was taken to meet one of his adopted children. We walked past the hospital and the schools which Apolo had instigated, to the house of Yoweri Rwakaikara, now an elderly man. Rwakaikara regaled me with stories of Apolo’s personal charisma and their journeys together during the 1920s as if they had happened the previous day.

The influence of Apolo’s memory on contemporary affairs in the church was addressed briefly in my first book on migration and Christian identity. As the founding father, he was referenced to influence the decisions made in the church. It had taken me some time to realise that his persistent intrusion into the development of the church decades after his death was significant for the corporate identity of the church. It took further apparitions of Apolo – as a source of insight into enquiries on indigenisation, literacy and orality and the like – for me to realise that he deserved greater attention as a figure who illuminated patterns of social change. His diaries and the records of the Ugandans, Congolese and British missionaries who knew him, along with colonial archives and parish registers, showed in detail the social and religious change wrought by Christian converts like Apolo Kivebulaya in eastern Africa.

Apolo Kivebulaya complicates the familiar narrative of the chiefly dominance of Protestant Christianity in Uganda in several ways. He was a commoner who found conversion compelling. His biography is placed in a long span of Great Lakes social and political history beyond the colonial elites. It widens the regional framework beyond Uganda to Congo, showing the impact of two colonial systems on his life. It focuses on the period between the first conversions amidst political upheaval (1877-1894) and the influential East African Revival (c.1933 onwards). It re-evaluates ‘black evangelists’ as ‘missionaries’ that is, translocal agents of a transnational Christiacommunity. It shows how Apolo Kivebulaya introduced novel technologies and new codes of behaviour, including a new masculinity, and articulated them through local idioms, traditional expectations of well-being and social situations.

This book presents the biography of Kivebulaya as a form of social history that places religious encounter at the centre of societal change. The use of biography as a method of discovering African agency in Christianity has been promoted since 1995 by the electronic, open access, collaborative, Dictionary of African Christian Biography, its journal and the recent African Christian Biography edited by Dana Robert (Cluster, 2018). Thousands of stories of men and women admired by their communities have been collected, and methods of oral history disseminated. The Mission of Apolo Kivebulaya contributes to and expands the DACB approach by examining wider social processes that influence and are influenced by African missionaries and pastors. It shows why some individuals retain a special place of affection in Christian communities after their deaths.

Finally, for anyone focussed on disease whilst living through COVID-19 restrictions, parts of chapter 2 & 7 address issues of faith and healing.

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Emma Wild-Wood

About Emma Wild-Wood

Dr Emma Wild-Wood completed her PhD in the Centre for the Study of World Christianity at the University of Edinburgh under Dr Jack Thompson. She taught in Bunia in DR Congo and in Uganda for a number of years. Before coming back to Edinburgh, Emma was the Director of the Cambridge Centre for Christianity Worldwide and Lecturer in World Christianities in the Faculty of Divinity of the University of Cambridge.

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