This film is held by the BFI (ID: 765405).


Depicts the life of the Christian church in the remote desert communities of the Bechuanaland Protectorate. Shows the work of a travelling African evengelist; journeys of several hundred miles made by the missionary of the London Missionary Society to visit community churches; maternity centre at Maun; work of the Bechuanaland Book Centre, including translation, production and distribution of Christian literature; education and training at Moeding College; worship of the Apostolic Healing Church of South Africa; life in the industrialised mining centres of South Africa, and the influence of the Church in the mining compounds e.g. the church at the DeBeer mine, Kimberley.



Reverend Robert O. Latham, photographer and narrator of The Desert Rejoices, was the author of a diverse range of missionary publications and the maker of at least one other London Missionary Society film, Raju. His books included biographies of prominent LMS figures such as David Livingstone and Gladys Aylward (Latham, 1955, 1950) and various booklets of possible educational programmes for ‘missionary occasions.’ Amongst the various options suggested to fellow missionary educators in his 1959 booklet Practical Programmes (Latham, 1959) was the ‘Film Evening’, and Latham notes that as a means of engaging with ‘the partially interested church member, or the tough youth club member’ sound films have been ‘of great value’ (ibid., 33). He goes on to suggest the manner in which such films should be shown and suggests a quiz as the ideal manner of enabling the audience to ‘remember the significant points of the film’ (ibid. The sample quiz provided is on the content of Raju). The example programme he gives indicates that film screenings should be embedded in an explicitly religious context, with the film, quiz and related discussions book-ended by devotional hymns and ‘Prayers of intercession.’ (ibid., 35).

In the introduction to the booklet Latham details the rationale and aims of ‘missionary education’, and the remarks on African missions are instructive, both in relation to The Desert Rejoices and to LMS work in Central and Southern Africa more generally. For Latham, the ‘task of today’ is to address racial and social problems in Africa. Using a geographical metaphor, Latham says that such issues are ‘new areas to pioneer and evangelise’, going on to locate the Church’s most urgent work more specifically within the newly urban and industrial communities that had developed through the migrant labour systems prevalent in colonial South and Central African mines. (This theme is common to much LMS African material, and recalls the conclusions of the influential missionary Commission of Inquiry led by J. Merle Davis in the early 1930s and published as Modern Industry and the African in 1933 [Merle Davis ed., 1933].) Missionary education ‘ought not to be pre-occupied’ with past glories, but should rather ‘place before the Church today the contemporary task of this generation…It may not be so glamorous as the old stories but it is as vital’ (Latham, op.cit., 7).

The LMS had been active in Central and South Africa since 1816 when the first station was established at Kuruman, and the area had been the location of famous missionary labours by LMS luminaries David Livingstone and Robert Moffat, the latter having evangelised the Ndebele and their redoubtable leader Mzilikazi, while the former had gained great influence over the important Tswana kgosi (ruler or chief), Kgosi Sechele (see Volz, 2001). As well as hosting Livingstone and Moffat, the country had been the scene of other notable missionary successes, including the conversion of the charismatic and canny Ngwato chief Khama III (see Landau, 1995) who would be instrumental in bringing Bechuanaland under British protection in 1885 (see Chirenje, 1978, 14-31 for an account of these events) and whose grandson, Seretse Khama, would eventually lead it to independence as Botswana in 1966. As Latham must have known, this long and illustrious history of LMS activity in the Bechuanaland Protectorate area would have made it an ideal location to demonstrate that contemporary concerns should take precedence over dramatic tales of the missionary past.



Quite in keeping with Latham’s notion that missionary films should be used for missionary study, and that missionary study must focus on the present and not replay  the past, The Desert Rejoices eschews any detailed mention of the LMS’s past role in Bechuanaland and concentrates on contemporary challenges in missionary work.

Taking its title from Isaiah (‘the desert shall rejoice, and blossom as the rose’; 35:1), the film begins with suitably biblical imagery: an African man on a donkey, arriving at a bleak desert settlement of simple thatched huts. He is the local minister, necessarily come from afar. He is greeted with great excitement and we see him conduct a service and give communion under a tree. The narration emphasises the harsh and inhospitable nature of the country (‘a hostile world’), and a comparison is made with the adversity that the Christian message encounters in such a land – despite the labours of the church, Bechuanaland is still a ‘spiritual desert.’

Not only that, it is ‘a country at war.’ The war in question is in the first instance one between ‘superstition and truth’ (ie. ‘witchdoctors’), while a second front is being fought against the growth of modern politics. Sunday morning is the time for political rallies in the town of Lobatse, and there follows a long sequence of a meeting in the centre of town. Such meetings clash with Sunday worship, and so compete for the attention of the people.

The sequence of the meeting is remarkable, and the camera pays close attention to the speakers and the audience. (The narration identifies the political group as the ‘Peoples Democratic Party’: probably Seretse Khama’s Bechuanaland Democratic Party. See Morton and Ramsay, 1987, 172-94.) Although there is thereby an implied equivalence of modern nationalist politics with the jujus of the witchdoctor, the narration here begins to depart from the expected stereotypes and narratives of post-WW2 African LMS film titles (see, for instance, Christianity and Copper or Health for Africa). As the churchgoers who did not attend the rally leave the church, the narrator actually laments that they probably heard a simply devotional service, rather than one which would have started to integrate Christian ideas into the emerging political debate (viz. ‘Christian responsibility in social and political matters’). 

Though hardly radical, this is very different from a more common LMS line, based largely on Merle Davis’s Modern Industry and the African, which presents Africans as spiritually helpless and morally confused children, urgently in need of assistance. In many LMS films, Africa is merely acted on by external forces. The Desert Rejoices, while still retaining much of the conventional LMS approach, does begin to move the argument to a position which comprehends African agency at work in many of the changes which are taking place.

Themes of this latter kind are present through much of the film, and Latham himself must be credited with an enquiring and original perspective on missionary filmmaking – the subjects he chooses to film, and the detailed and careful level of visual engagement with them are unusual within the LMS film corpus, as is the camera’s frequent focus on Africans as individuals rather than merely as crowds. 

A long sequence of the journey to the South African mines and life in the mining compounds illustrates this difference well. The conditions of mine life are addressed in some detail, the shots are filled with visual interest and the sequences have significant documentary value, but most importantly it is made apparent that the people who go to the mines are knowingly engaging with a source of temporary contract work – they are not the disorientated peasants whose world has collapsed that are found in some other LMS portrayals. The film’s final observation on the mines is that the migrant labour system is ‘fundamentally an unnatural existence, and only a different political and economic organisation can redeem it.’ Compared to the attitude found in an LMS film such as Christianity and Copper (1956), this is an extremely progressive position.

The Desert Rejoices remains though in many ways a very conservative film, and it is by no means free from stereotypically prejudiced portraits of Africa and Africans. However, it differs from many LMS pictures in its willingness to approach and portray the African subjects of missionary work as fully active agents who are directly involved in changing political, religious and economic spheres. With the exception of the missionary, there are few Europeans in the film, and the African subjects of the camera – a cast which includes political leaders, qualified and self-made religious men, town councillors, schoolchildren, and workers – are all evidently involved in processes of self-determination. The Desert Rejoices thus shows not only Bechuanaland, but the Botswana to come.

Francis Gooding (October 2009)


Works Cited

Chirenje, J. Mutero Chief Kgama and His Times c.1835-1923 (London: Rex Collings, 1978).

Congregational Council for World Mission (CCWM) Audio Visual Aids Catalogue 1968 (London: CCWM, 1968).

Landau, Paul Stuart The Realm of the Word: Language Gender and Christianity in a Southern African Kingdom (Portsmouth: Heinemann, 1995).

Latham, Robert O. One of The Undefeated (London: Edinburgh House, 1950).

Latham, Robert O. Trail Maker: The Story of David Livingstone (London: Lutterworth, 1955).

Latham, Robert O. Practical Programmes: Ideas and Suggestions for Missionary Occasions (London: London Missionary Society, 1959).

Merle Davis, J ed. Modern Industry and The African: An Enquiry in the Effect of the Copper Mines of Central Africa upon Native Society and the Work of Christian Missions made under the Auspices of the Department of Social And Industrial Research of the International Missionary Council (London: Macmillan, 1933).

Morton, Fred and Ramsay, Jeff   The Birth of Botswana: A History of the Bechuanaland Protectorate from 1910 to 1966 (Gaborone: Longman,1987).

Sundkler, Bengt  The Bantu Prophets (London: Oxford Univeristy Press,1961).

Volz, Stephen  Chief of a Heathen Town: Kgosi Sechele and the Arrival of Christianity Among the Tswana (Wisconsin: University of Winsconsin, 2001).




Technical Data

Running Time:
24 minutes
Film Gauge (Format):
16mm Film
978 ft

Production Credits

London Missionary Society
BELL, Donald
Campbell Films
Production Company
London Missionary Society