The Mission of Apolo Kivebulaya

We thank Emma Wild-Wood for contributing this blog piece. Dr Wild-Wood explores the first time she was introduced to Apolo Kivebulaya and how her new publication examines wider social processes that influence and are influenced by African missionaries and pastors.

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.

It took me some time to realise that Apolo Kivebulaya provided a way to understand the socio-religious change taking place throughout the Great Lakes region in the early colonial period. A number of volumes in James Currey’s ‘Eastern Africa Series’ series have addressed aspects of the influence of religious encounters on society. Heike Behrend’s Resurrecting Cannibals (2011) and Jason Bruner’s Living Salvation (in Rochester Studies in African History and the Diaspora series, 2017) investigate the ways in which ordinary people in Uganda have engaged with religious practices to make meaning in their lives. Derek Peterson’s Ethnic Patriotism and the East African Revival (CUP) brought the devout religious commitment of Revivalists into the political arena. The diaries of Apolo Kivebulaya have provided a rich source of material on the activities and perspectives of one clergyman and his associates. Combining personal records with the accounts of the Ugandans, Congolese and British missionaries who knew him, and colonial archives and parish registers, it has been possible to examine in detail the social and religious change wrought at a local level by Christian converts committed to a transnational vision of Christianity in eastern Africa.

The Mission of Apolo Kivebulaya
James Currey, April 2020

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. I place his biography in a long span of Great Lakes social and political history beyond the activities of colonial elites. The book 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 Christian community. It shows how Apolo Kivebulaya introduced novel technologies and new codes of behaviour, including a new form of masculinity, and articulated them through local idioms, traditional expectations of well-being and social situations.

The influence of Apolo Kivebulaya’s memory on contemporary affairs in the church was addressed briefly in my first book on migration and Christian identity (Brill, 2008). As the founding father, he was significant for the corporate identity of the Church and was regularly referenced to influence the decisions made by it? 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 illuminated patterns of social change. This book presents the biography of Kivebulaya as a form of social history that places religious encounter at the centre of societal change. The Mission of Apolo Kivebulaya examines 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 focused on disease whilst living through COVID-19 restrictions, parts of chapters 2 & 7 address issues of faith and healing.


This guest post was written by Emma Wild-Wood, Senior Lecturer of African Christianity and African Indigenous Religions and Co-director of the Centre for the Study of World Christianity at the University of Edinburgh.

The Mission of Apolo Kivebulaya
By Emma Wild-Wood
9781847012463, Hardback, £42.25 or $74.75


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