The Mission of Apolo Kivebulaya, Emma Wild-Wood

The short version: this is an excellent book which situates Apolo Kivebulaya (c. 1864-1933) decisively within his East African context. You will get Kivebulaya’s story here, but this is more of a ‘study’ than a straightforward biography. The value of spending so much time on how we understand Kivebulaya, rather than just on the man himself, is that this book provides an accessible entry point into a whole range of conversations about history, culture, missions, and colonialism. Wild-Wood is a clear and thoughtful guide. If you can handle a bit of academic writing this is highly recommended.

“The thesis of this study is that Kivebulaya worked hard not to integrate Christianity into indigenous religion or past customary practices.” (p. 276)

Apolo Kivebulaya (c. 1864-1933), is a central figure in the history of Christianity in the region around what is now Uganda. He is highly regarded by a variety of groups in this area but also within the Anglican Church Missionary Society (CMS), who he at times “out-missionaried” (p. 227). However, beyond those circles he is largely ignored or even disparaged. 

Kivebulaya seems to have fallen on the wrong side of lines which were drawn after his life. Christian missions in the modern period have a complicated and often dubious relationship with colonial power. While celebrated in their day, the missionaries of this period and the churches which grew up around them now tend to be understood as an imposition on African cultures. The goal is to find and form more authentically African churches.

Of course, genuinely African Christianity is an entirely valid aim. But Wild-Wood’s recovery of Apolo Kivebulaya raises questions about how this authenticity should be measured. In the current academic climate, African movements and people tend to be measured on a scale where progress is marked by the achievement of greater degrees of independence and distinctiveness from European missionaries. Kivebulaya does not score very well on such a scale. 

His name is a good way to begin to take stock of why Kivebulaya is a complicated figure for post-colonial understandings of Christian missions.[1] ‘Apolo’ was given to him as a baptismal name after Apollos (the associate of St. Paul in the New Testament) and Apolo Kagwa (a Protestant leader of Kivebulaya’s generation). But he seems to have taken the name ‘Kivebulaya’ of his own accord. Kivebulaya means something like “the one who comes from Europe” (p. 124). We can begin to see why he can be tough to swallow in a post- or de-colonizing atmosphere. Kivebulaya positioned himself in significant ways on the side of the British empire. His view was that “whatever comes from Europe is not small” and he wanted to be associated with ‘big things’ (p. 124). Apolo Kivebulaya is a problem if the measure of success is disassociation with British colonial rule. 

The emphasis of Apolo Kivebulaya’s work was in a direction which has fallen out of favour. Current reflection on the interaction between Christianity and African cultures places the priority on inculturation. The ideal is to see that Christianity takes on forms and expressions which are adapted to local contexts. This is of course the authentically-African Christianity which was mentioned above but Kivebulaya is positioned as someone who was working to see that African society was Christianised rather than that Christianity was Africanised (p. 10). 

However, it would be unfair to leave the characterization of Kivebulaya in these terms. He adhered to the Christianity which the missionaries introduced but also found “contextual ways to translate its message” (p. 10). Perhaps the episode of his life that most inspired me was his insistence, against the wishes of CMS leadership, that the entire Bible, rather than simply the New Testament, be translated into local vernacular languages (p. 188ff). Kivebulaya was a principled and independent African agent and is more complex than any one-sided presentation can account for. Wild-Wood boldly draws out the aspects of his mission which are now raise post-colonial suspicions but the key point is that she is willing to go further than many contemporary evaluations which would be dismissive of him on these grounds.

What Wild-Wood offers here is not so much a “no” to the post-colonial project but more of a “not-so-fast.” If the paradigm for measuring what is authentically African pushes a celebrated figure like Apolo Kivebulaya to the side, your paradigm has a problem. Our understanding of the interaction between Christianity and African cultures needs to allow for Africans to have authentically African reasons to respond as they did. 

Africans like Kivebulaya who take on hues of colonial collaborators from our perspective need to be heard on their own terms. Wild-Wood suggests “that too much agency has been accorded to Europeans in these events” (p. 122) and this book is positioned as a recovery project. There is surely a great irony in a de-colonizing reading East African Church history which silences voices like Kivebulaya. In this book his life is confronted from within his own context and he is allowed to speak in his own terms. 

Each chapter raises issues related to our understanding of the interaction of Christianity and culture. But Wild-Wood consistently circles back to the central question of authentically-African Christianity. Clearly, Apolo Kivebulaya was not marching to the drum of inculturation which we prefer to play, but what does that mean for the validity of his mission? Wild-Wood faces this question again and again. I’ll give a few examples so you can get a flavour of the discussion and of Wild-Wood’s writing:

“This study examines Kivebulaya’s mission to ‘christianise’ the societies he worked amongst even whilst other converts in the region were beginning to Africanise their faith. He did not prioritise the ‘Africanisation’ of Christianity even when he sought contextual ways to translate its message. A generation of East African theologians brought up in the last decades of British rule have been critical of European missionaries who denigrated African culture and resisted its influence on Christianity. They have rarely pondered why earlier generations of Africans, like Kivebulaya, might have welcomed new and foreign cultural systems of meaning as responses to domestic issues.” (p. 10)

“For Africanist historians the exterior impositions of colonial rule remain forces to be robustly critiqued. A deep distaste for imperial intrusion and its accompanying assumptions of racial inequality has often made it difficult to see the collaboration of Africans with Europeans as being other than self-serving and morally deficient. However, the inability to disentangle imperial projects from African aspirations has often failed to identify African agency even when it was deliberately sought and it often reads back later colonial realities into first encounters.” (p. 34)

“…African theologians have often lamented the lack of ‘inculturation’ of Christianity and identified a first cause for this as the disregard by European missionaries of African culture. The discussion below provides evidence for an argument that runs through the book: some early Christians, like Kivebulaya, had important reasons to embrace universal forms of Christianity that placed little importance on inculturation (whilst, nevertheless, being committed to the first step in that process, vernacular translation).” (p. 86)

The great value of this book lies in the interaction of its two aims. On the one hand, we get a clear look at a compelling figure in his own context. On the other, we are drawn into a whole series of conversations of perennial value. I would only caution readers that the second of these is prioritized so that readers looking for a more straightforward biography of Kivebulaya could come away disappointed. With that said, every chapter raises issues which are critical for the ongoing interactions which are embedded in Global Christianity. 

The Mission of Apolo Kivebulaya grounds high-level, far-reaching debates in a careful look at a man who was very much of his own time. This is a wonderful book which combines dusty feet with an expansive view. Wild-Wood writes with warmth and clarity, keeping jargon to a minimum, but this is an academic work and readers new to this kind of writing will need to take their time. Emma Wild-Wood gives a thoughtful and realistic take on an important figure and the questions which his life and mission exemplify. 

You can read a quick introduction to Apolo Kivebulaya, also by Emma Wild-Wood, here.

Please consider buying this volume directly from the publisher. As an academic work it is pricey but these kinds of publishers and publications are well deserving of support.


[1] Besides this material in the book, Wild-Wood has an article devoted entirely to his names and their significance: Church History 77 (2008): 105-127.


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One thought on “The Mission of Apolo Kivebulaya, Emma Wild-Wood

  1. Pingback: Christianity and Catastrophe in South Sudan, by Jesse A. Zink – Too Small A Thing

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