Notwithstanding the distraction of his newfound fame in exploring the middle Zambezi with Oswell in the years before the 1852-53 Batswana-Boer War Livingstone remained a close confidant of Sechele.
Besides assisting in the purchase of superior weapons technology and acting as a propagandist against Boer oppression, the missionary is remembered for having converted the Mokwena to Christianity.
Sechele’s decision to be baptised was a source of great domestic controversy. Prominent among the concerns raised was the fate of the Kgosi’s four junior wives, whom he had agreed to put aside in keeping with the Christian injunction of monogamy. In addition to the bitterness of the families whose daughters were no longer recognised, Sechele’s conversion compromised his spiritual role as the initiator of regiments, rainmaker and practitioner and patron of other forms of medicine, magic and ritual associated with his high office.
As has often been the case in Sekwena politics, resistance was initiated by the women. The day after Sechele announced his intention, all the women of the morafe collectively downed their hoes, refusing to tend to their gardens.
In the face of this crisis, the men gathered at the Kgotla with the women apparently watching from outside in a weeklong attempt to try to convince Sechele to alter his decision.
The intensity of the opposition on the first day apparently surprised the Kgosi, who concluded the meeting by challenging the gathering to execute him, as they had his father Motswasele, if that was their wish. The crisis even reached beyond the morafe’s borders. The other prominent Mokwena monarch of the era, Morena Moshoeshoe of Lesotho, sent Sechele a gift of 10 cattle and two horses with a private message that, as reported by Livingstone advised:
“...that whatever he wished, whether guns, gunpowder, horses or cattle, he must apply to him and he would supply them; and tell him to allow his people to believe in what they like; but he (Sechele) must never believe (accept Christianity). ‘I am a King’ said Moshesh. ‘& I won’t put myself under the authority of another (viz. God); I have a kingdom as well as He; & people would laugh at me if I believed and put myself under the power of another. Tell Sechele that.”
The future status of the wives, along with other outstanding questions was finally settled in a two-day letsholo meeting. After all efforts to cajole and intimidate the Kgosi into rescinding his decision had failed, arrangements were made to assure that the new religion did not undermine traditional royal responsibilities. A compromise was thus reached whereby Sechele transferred some his duties over to his brother, Kgosidintsi. This was a by-then unprecedented delegation of royal responsibility.
It would have been far easier for Sechele to have followed Moshoeshoe’s advice. Becoming a Christian greatly complicated both his personal and public life. The Mokwena’s conversion can, nonetheless, be understood as a personal leap of faith that transcends secular understanding.
What can perhaps be more easily explained is his particular fondness for Old Testament stories of Judges (Baatlhodi), Samuel, and Kings (Dikgosi). Having taught himself in a matter of weeks how to read Moffat’s Bibela, Sechele found in its passages of Israel’s descent into anarchy and the subsequent unification of its tribes under Dikgosi Saule le Dafida, echoes of his own struggle. The Bafilisitia and Amaleka were foes worthy of the Boers and Amandebele.
Although Sechele admired Solomon’s judgement, David was his hero- “Modimo wa lefika ya me, ke tla ikanya mo go ona; thebe ya me, le lonaka lwa poloko ya me, kago ya me e e godileng, botshabelo jwa me; mmoloki ya, o a nkgolola mo thubakong.”
Much of the literature about Livingstone, from biographies to a popular play and Christian cartoons, has exaggerated his description of Sechele as “backslider” in his new found faith. The label occurred in the specific context of the missionary’s discovery that he had impregnated one of his ‘former’ wives, Mokgokong aKgama II, who was the mother of his eldest surviving son, Kgari.
Despite his resulting April 1849 suspension from communion by Livingstone, Sechele remained the undisputed leader of the local Christian community, which grew rapidly. He often gave sermons and otherwise led Sunday services.
Perhaps taking the Fifth Commandment to heart, he had the wall of the chapel, which he built, adorned with the names of his forefathers. The cognomens were listed according to genealogical descent along a line six yards (5.5 metres) across, which terminated with his name painted double the size of the rest.
Note on Sechele’s wives
Sechele’s original “senior wife” was Kebalepile aSegokotlo. But, she died while giving birth to Sechele’s first born daughter, Ope, before his conversion. Thereafter Selemang, daughter of Kgorwe, was placed in the deceased MmaOpe’s house, an act justified in terms of her taking her sister’s place in accordance with seyantlo. Selemang subsequently gave birth to Sechele’s eventual heir, Sebele
Following Sebele’s birth, Selemang was popularly accepted as the rightful Queen-mother (MmaKgosi). Her seniority was sanctioned by the leading Bakwena notables who apparently preferred to have a well -born Mokwena, rather than a Mongwato royal, Mokgokong, as the mother of Sechele’s heir.