Part of the COAC project

Paulo Koloboi a life of colonial violence, missionary schooling and fragments

1. Abstract

Koloboi was a boy of the Kamba people in East Africa born around 1882. In 1891, when he was about nine years old, his father died in the Hehe-German war. His mother remarried and, in 1895, Koloboi was living on the Leipzig Mission Station of Ikutha, in British East Africa. He worked as a servant of the missionaries and attended their school. In 1898, he was baptised with two other boys. The missionaries held high hopes that Koloboi, who received the baptismal name Paulo, might be an evangelist to his people. The printed sources are fragmented as to his fate, suggesting that he distanced himself from the mission. Yet, later sources indicate that he remained connected to German missionaries, even after they were forced to leave East Africa due to the First World War. Koloboi’s story is one full of silences.

2. Timeline

3. Paulo Koloboi’s story

Source 1: From war half-orphan to baptismal candidate

DLM 20 1898 p 403

In 1898, a photo of three boys was published in the Evangelische Lutherisches Missionsblatt.1 The photo pictures Ndzāu, Koloboi (also called Koroboi) and Kawalo. The publication of the image highlighted the upcoming baptism of two of the three boys, with a note explaining that the image had been taken some time ago, when the boys were younger. 

The photo depicts three boys standing in front of palm trees. They are dressed in nothing other than a white cloth tied around their waists, falling to below their knees to ensure that no genitals are exposed, with the white contrasting with their dark bodies. According to the Deutsche Kolonial-Lexikon, an encyclopedia dedicated to comprehensively describing the German Empire that was only published in 1920, after the empire had crumbled, the Wakamba did not wear clothes, or, if any, then a piece of cotton and a piece of leather.2 Thus, the clothing of the boys reflected both German secular and religious expectations.

Along with Dzyanda, not pictured, Ndzāu and Koloboi were the first three baptismal candidates of the Leipzig mission to the Wakamba people (current term Kamba) of East Africa. According to the missionaries, Dzyanda was not a Mkamba (a term for a person of the Wakamba people) but, rather, an orphaned child who had made his way to the coast in 1895 in order to make some money. However, on his return journey he was robbed of all his possessions. In this state, he arrived on the doorstep of Brother (Br.) Günther Säuberlich, who took Dzyanda into service as his servant under the condition that Dzyanda attend school. Dzyanda did so, however, was reportedly wild and unruly and threatened to shoot another missionary, Br. Tremel. Säubrelich eventually discharged Dzyanda from his service and expelled him from school; however, Dyzanda was subsequently taken on by Br. Johannes Hofmann to be his servant and was deemed suitable for baptismal classes in 1898, when he was around seventeen years old.3

Ndzāu was a boy between thirteen and fifteen years old. He was described as a somewhat quiet character and a rogue, both in the good and bad sense of the term. He also had been a servant of Br. Tremel and of Br. Hofmann, had worked as the mission cook, and had also gone to school, but was described as not as diligent as Koloboi.3

Koloboi was the most highly regarded of the three. He was also between thirteen and fifteen years old, had arrived at the mission in October 1895, and had spent the longest of all three on the station. He was described as a real Mkamba. His grandfather had often attended the mission church services, had subsequently been very critical of the mission and followed local religious practices. Koloboi’s father was killed in August 1891, in one of the largest to-date raids on a camp of the German-East African Schutztruppe by the Wahehe (known as the Hehe-German war).4 It is unclear exactly what Koloboi’s father’s position was, or on which side of the conflict he stood. Subsequently, his mother wed a younger brother of his deceased father.5

As an indirect victim of German colonial wars, Koloboi found refuge on the mission station. He was the servant first of Br. Tremel, and subsequently of Br. Hofmann. During his time as a servant for the mission, he was a diligent pupil, learning to read and write. He was described as a ‘most dignified boy’ whom the missionaries hoped would become a founding member of a new Christian community.3

Source 2: School and baptism

Wakamba-Mission school, in the middle missionary Hofmann and wife, photo taken around 1889

The next time we meet Koloboi was at his baptism. He was one of the first people to be baptised by the Leizpig Mission after almost a decade of mission work in East Africa. The mission society had already been established in 1832, however, it was only from 1891 that the Leipzig Mission established mission stations in East Africa, including German East Africa and British East Africa. German East Africa had come under control of the Germans in 1885.

The first mission station the Leipzig Mission dedicated to the Wakamba people (known as ‘Kamba’) was established in 1891 and included the main station of Ikutha, which was located on territory under English administration and leased by the missionaries for a period of ninety-nine years.6 This area is in present-day Kenya. The station of Mulango, established in 1899 by missionary Säuberlich, was in the Kitwii area. A further mission dedicated to the Wakamba people was located in Bavoo, a European settlement an hour from Jimba.

To reach the main Wakamba mission station Ikutha, missionaries took a train from Mazeras, a railroad station located two hours away from the mission station Jimba, which itself was located six hours north-west of the coastal city of Mombasa. From Mazeras the Uganda Railroad travelled 300 kilometers into the interior to the Kibwezi train station. From there missionaries, with their local luggage carriers, walked two-days north-eastwards to the mission station Ikutha. Mulango was located eighteen hours by foot north-north west of Ikutha, and an hour away from Mulango, which was a British colonial administration settlement.

As with many other missionary societies of the period, the Lutheran missionaries thought that, through educating young children in mission schools, they might make inroads into converting a population to Christianity. Initially, the Wakamba parents were skeptical of mission schools and would only send their children if they received some form of payment for allowing their children to atttend school, as they saw this as a form of service to the missionaries that needed to be compensated. The missionaries refused to pay, as they considered schooling itself the reward.

From 1896, a regular school was in place at Ikutha with some sixty children on the roll. Besides the religious subjects of bible study and the catechism, the missionaries also taught reading, writing and singing. The children at these schools were also an integral aspect of the religious life of the mission station, for example, singing the opening hymn for the weekly Sunday church services and participating in an hour of Sunday school after the service.

However, just a couple of years later, in 1898, a severe famine following a drought affected the area. This lasted until 1900. The school was disrupted during this period, with one effect of the catastrophe being that over one hundred children, reportedly orphans, came under the care of the missionaries. However, many of these children subsequently died due to the effects of the famine.7 Those children who continued to attend school, of whom there were some 12-18 boys, received rice twice a week at the cost of one of the missionaries.8

Through the support from the German home base, the missionaries established ‘Kostschulen’. These schools ran on the principle that German supporters would cover the costs of individual students, a form of intercontinental sponsoring for educational development. As orphans living on the mission station, the mainly male children were disconnected from larger family networks and were, in the words of the missionaries, ‘bad influences’.7

Amongst the children connected to the mission were the three boys Ndzāu, Dzyanda and Koloboi, who were baptismal candidates for some five months before their baptism in December 1898. In the Evangelisch-Lutherisches Missionblatt, the description of their baptism was accompanied by a photograph of the Wakamba Mission School; there is no indication of the names of the children in the image.9 It is possible that Ndzāu, Dzyanda and Koloboi are in the image, given that they were closely connected to the school at this period. The missionaries deliberately kept the number of spectators at the baptismal ceremony small, with Koloboi’s grandfather being one of the few people attending. At the ceremony, the boys received Christian names to indicate their transition to Christianity. According to the missionaries, Dzyanda chose the name Elia and Koloboi chose the name Paulo, with Nozāu accepting the name suggested for him, Danieli – a name used for other converts in East Africa.10 As commonly stated in missionary publications, this event apparently inspired two fifteen-year-old boys, Rgathu and Mwengi, both servants of Br. Säuberlich, as well as Ngele, the twelve- or thirteen-year-old nursemaid of his young son, to ask for baptismal lessons.11 Thus, the first converts and candidates for baptism were ones who had a direct connection to the missionaries in terms of serving them in various positions. There is no indication that they were paid; presumably, they were fed, clothed and schooled in exchange for their labour.

Source 3: From centre to periphery

Detail from: Three Wakamba Pupils. In the Middle Koloboi, reproduced image of source one

In 1903, some 200 Wakamba people lived near the Ikutha mission station with there being a number of villages surrounding the mission. In that same year, a pamphlet was published by the Leipzig mission written by Hofmann, describing the mission work amongst the Wakamba. The title was part of the ‘Rays of light in the dark earth’ series that documented the work in East Africa. Sold in bulk for reasonable prices, these titles were part of a broader strategy of encouraging German-speaking people, particularly in Europe, to support the mission. Hofmann’s pamphlet had a print run of 15,000, indicating the scale of the dissemination.

The pamphlet also mentions the three first converts. Of the three boys, Paulo Koloboi was the only one to remain with the mission. The other two left the influence of the mission with one, according to the pamphlet, reverting to heathenism. Paulo Koloboi was also the only one of the three mentioned by name in the pamphlet. In the reprinted photo of him, Ndzāu and Kawalo the caption reads simply ‘Three Wakamba pupils. In the middle Koloboi’. Elia Dzyanda was not mentioned at all.12

Hofmann expressed his hope that Koloboi would be an evangelist amongst the Wakamba. However, there were signs that Koloboi was distancing himself from the mission. He had given up his position as a school assistant and was working as the mission cook. Hofmann was disparaging about Koloboi’s skills, stating that they would prefer to have someone who did not bring food spoilt by his cooking to the table. Despite being regarded as incompetent as a teaching assistant and a cook, Koloboi was still engaged by Hofmann to teach him the Kamba language. Interestingly, in this 1903 report, he is referred to as ‘Paul’ and not ‘Paulo’; however, given the paucity of other converts with Christian names at the time, and also the reference to him being a school assistant, it is most plausible that the person being referred to is indeed Paulo Koloboi.13  

In an article from 1905 printed in the Evangelisch-Lutherisches Missionsblatt, a man named ‘Paulo’ was reported to be living at Jimba and as having been involved in an altercation with another man.14 Whether this is the same ‘Paulo’ as Paulo Koloboi remains to be clarified.

In 1922, Paul Koloboi penned a letter in Kamba to missionary Heinrich Pfitzinger, who had worked at Jimba and later at Myambani, in Kenya.15. During the First World War, German missionaries had been deported from British and German colonies and Germany was subsequently forced to relinquish its colonial claim. For German missionaries, this meant that that access to mission fields was restricted until 1925. However, as Pfitzinger was an Alsatian, he was allowed to work in German East Africa, and returned there in 1923. Paul Koloboi wrote in his letter to Heinrich Pfitzinger that he was pleased to receive Pfitzinger’s letter of the previous year. He had written to Pfitzinger in 1916, but did not know if his letter had reached Pfitzinger or not. From this letter we learn that Paul was married to Anna and that they had a number of children, the first dying when he was still a toddler. Paul worked as a teacher until there were no more students for him, which is when he changed occupations and became a trader, and, in his own words, did quite well for himself. Koloboi expressed his Christian faith in the letter and his hope that Pfitzinger would return to East Africa, sending Pfitzinger and other missionaries many greetings from the Christians of Ikutha and Mulango. He signed off the letter, ‘your son and student’.16 This letter was translated from Wamba into German, with the handwritten and typed copies of the letter in the files of the Leipziger Missionswerk. The letter is marked up, suggesting that some particular aspects of the letter were of interest to the reader, but it is not recorded who the translator was, nor who marked up the letter.

There is other material in the archives of the Leipzig Mission, currently held in Halle, Germany, pertaining to the Wamba mission in which more information on Paul Koloboi might be found. This is an indication that much more research must be undertaken and that more sources must be consulted to find out what happened to this young man, who was perceived as being so full of potential for the missionaries in their desire to christianise the Wakamba, but was treated ambivalently when he did not live up to missionary expectations, yet nonetheless remained connected to the mission.

4. Provenance of the sources

The sources used here are based on printed sources available in university libraries, particularly the missionary periodical Evangelisch-Lutherisches Missionsblatt, as well as the Digital Collection of German Colonialism curated by Goethe University at Frankfurt am Main.

In a further step, material from the archive of the Leipzig Mission, which is held at the archives of the Franckeschen Stiftungen in Halle, will be examined. A finding aid is available.

5. Postcolonial (dis-)continuities

German colonial wars have had long-term effects on the peoples colonised by Germans.

6. Unanswered questions and silences

This life story is currently based on a limited number of published sources and thus there are many silences, most obviously the voice of Paulo Koloboi himself. The material used here was published by missionaries with a particular agenda to raise funds and support for the mission in East Africa. Disruptive events are described, but not the words of the people involved.

7. Collaboration and conversation: call for input

This life story would benefit from knowledge of other sources that could be used to fill out the picture as well as people who have more local knowledge of the events described here. This vignette has been created by Felicity Jensz. Please contact Felicity if you have any input. By contacting her you agree to our terms of conduct, published on our website.

8. Links to other life stories

9. Further reading

Jensz, Felicity. ‘Hope and Pity: Depictions of Children in Five Decades of the Evangelisch-Lutherisches Missionsblatt, 1860-1910’. In Menschen—Bilder—Eine Welt. Ordnungen von Vielfalt in der religiösen Publizistik um 1900, edited by Judith Becker, Christoph Nebgen and Katharina Stornig, pp. 223-245. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2018.

10. Author

Dr. Felicity Jensz is a colonial historian working at the Cluster of Excellence for Religion and Politics at the Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität Münster (University of Münster).


  1. Evangelisch-Lutherisches Missionsblatt 20 (1898): p. 403.[]
  2. Heinrich Schnee, Deutsches Kolonial-Lexikon, vol. 3 P-Z (Leipzig: Quelle & Meyer, 1920), p. 658.[]
  3. Evangelisch-Lutherisches Missionsblatt 20 (1898): p. 404.[][][]
  4. Deutsche Kolonialzeitung, 19 September 1891, p. 127; Alison Redmayne, ‘Mkwawa and the Hehe wars’, Journal of African History 9, no. 3 (1968): pp. 400-430.[]
  5. Evangelisch-Lutherisches Missionsblatt 20 (1898): p. 404.[]
  6. Evangelisch-Lutherisches Missionsblatt 20 (1898): p. 398.[]
  7. J. Hofmann, ‘Aus der Missionsarbeit unter den Wakamba’, Lichtstrahlen im dunkeln Erdteil, no. 7 (Leipzig: Verlag der Ev.-Lutherischen Mission zu Leipzig, 1903), p. 16.[][]
  8. Evangelisch-Lutherisches Missionsblatt 20 (1898): p. 402.[]
  9. This same image was published in J. Hofmann, ‘Aus der Missionsarbeit unter den Wakamba’, Lichtstrahlen im dunkeln Erdteil, no. 7 (Leipzig: Verlag der Ev.-Lutherishcen Mission zu Leipzig, 1903), p. 17.[]
  10. See also: Evangelisch-Lutherisches Missionsblatt 21 (1899): p. 202.[]
  11. Evangelisch-Lutherisches Missionsblatt 21 (1899): p. 118.[]
  12. J. Hofmann, ‘Aus der Missionsarbeit unter den Wakamba’, Lichtstrahlen im dunkeln Erdteil, no. 7 (Leipzig: Verlag der Ev.-Lutherishcen Mission zu Leipzig, 1903), pp. 14-15.[]
  13. Evangelisch-Lutherisches Missionsblatt 23 (1901): p. 87.[]
  14. Evangelisch-Lutherisches Missionsblatt 26 (1905): p. 500.[]
  15. See: Leipziger Missionswerk for his biography.[]
  16. ALMW_II_32_80, Letter from Paul Koloboi to missionary Pfitzinger (Oberkutzenhausen, Alsace, France), 24 June 1921.[]
Paulo Koloboi born
Paulo Kolobi’s father killed in a colonial war
Paulo Koloboi living with missionaries
Paulo Koloboi baptised