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The Berlin Mission Society and Black Europeans: The cases of Klaus Kuhn, Jan Sekoto and Gerard Sekoto

Hans Friedrich Heese

The Berlin Mission Society (Berliner Missionsgesellschaft, or BMS) started mission work in South Africa in 1834 among a number of different African language/ethnic groups, including the people of mixed origin in the former British Cape Colony. The missionaries were (initially) all German speaking Christians of various parts of Germany and Europe confessing the Lutheran faith. Except for bringing the Christian message of salvation to the African people, they especially concentrated on school education as a way of advancement for the people concerned. They were also strong believers in bringing the Gospel to the people in their own language and, in this way, Berlin missionaries often were the first people to translate the Bible into indigenous languages and also to publish dictionaries and grammars.

As time passed, individuals from the indigenous groups were accepted by the missionary society as teachers and lay-preachers, the so called Nationalhelferen. Some of these “national helpers” received a small salary, others offered their services free of charge. All of them had been trained at schools run by the missionaries.

During the long period that the Berlin missionaries worked closely together with African people in South Africa (1834-1964), cultural exchanges were inevitable: Germans accepted part of the African culture; Africans adopted traits of German (or European) culture. With the stress that the mission society placed on the importance of maintaining African culture – except where customs clashed directly with Christian teachings – it so happened that one of the Berlin missionaries, Winter, joined the black Lutheran Church founded by the African Lutheran pastor, Sewuschane.

In 1875 the mission society decided to send the “Hottentot” Niklaas Koen to Germany to be educated at a high school at Ducherow in Pomerania and to study for the ministry at the “Missionshaus” in Berlin. He was sponsored by a German lady, Frau von Kröcher, who wished to contribute to the education of a worthwhile student in South Africa. The fact that he took extra classes in German, and also violin lessons, might have persuaded her to select Niklaas.
Koen completed his studies in Ducherow and Berlin and was sent back to South Africa as a missionary. But before he returned to Africa as a fully fledged missionary, he had has name changed to the German form, Klaus Kuhn. While in Germany, he became engaged to a German lady, Maria Brose. She was to follow him to Africa where they got married in 1878 at the mission station Königsberg - in the present-day Kwazulu-Natal province of South Africa.

The story of Koen was repeated shortly afterward: On hearing of a gifted young African boy, Jan Sekoto, who was interested in playing the violin - a truly European music instrument - a supporter of the BMS in Germany sent him one in 1872. Two years later it was reported that the student had decided to go to Germany to study for the ministry of Ducherow and later at the theological seminary in Berlin.

Jan Sekoto went to Germany in the company of the missionary Eiselen. For some reason or other Sekoto could not adapt to the harsh Pomeranian climate; after a year he returned to the Berlin mission station, Botschabelo, in South Africa where he became a teacher in the service of the BMS. It was, however, his son Gerard who finally ended in Europe – and stayed on to become a famous French artist.

Gerard Sekoto was born at the BMS mission station Botschabelo on 9.12.1913. When Sekoto was five years old, his father was posted by the Lutheran Church to their mission school on the farm Wonderhoek. In 1939 he moved to Sophiatown, Johannesburg and in 1945 to Eastwood near Pretoria. This period was a more stable time in the life of the artist and between 1945 and 1947 he produced some of his best work and is acknowledged as one of the most important artistic figures in the development of South African contemporary art.

In 1947 Sekoto decided to leave South Africa and travel to Paris, never to return again. France brought new inspiration and Sekoto re-worked many subjects and explored different themes, all characterized by a deep sense of humanity. He has been honoured for his works with awards from the French government and an honorary doctorate from the University of the Witwatersrand. He was also a musician of note and his lyrics expressed a longing for his African home. He died in France in March 1993 as a Frenchman.

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