For the past four decades, Archbishop Gideon Charles Owalo of Nomiya Church bestrode his house of worship like a colossus — perhaps following in the footsteps of his father.
Nomiya was one of the African independent churches (AICs) that emerged in 1914 after Owalo’s father, Nabi Yohana, left the Catholic faith and founded the church.
Scholars say that the original church combined Luo traditions with Judaism and Unitarian Christianity, and used the Anglican Book of Common prayer.
But it also had something different. Nabi Yohana had told his Luo followers that he had received a vision from heaven which dictated that all male must be circumcised, which was contrary to Luo customs. It is a rite that all Nomiya followers follow to date with pride.
Nomiya emerged when other AICs were mushrooming in Kenya. Nabi Yohana had previously taught at the Church Missionary Society School in Nairobi and in Oginga Odinga’s autobiography Not Yet Uhuru he is said to have taught Jomo Kenyatta before he changed faiths to become a Muslim, then a Catholic.
It was in 1907 when he got his vision, and as he told his followers, went to heaven and was brought back to the earth with a message. “Nomiya” is Luo for “I was given (God’s Word)”.
The new church banned dancing, smoking and followed the Old Testament like most other independent churches that emerged after the First World War.
But the spread of Nomiya was curtailed after Yohana’s sudden death in 1921 which left it in the hands of Bishop Petro Ouma and later, Bishop Benjamin Oundo who continued to hold on to the church’s original teachings.
Owalo watched as the church spread towards Tanzania and in the Nyanza belt. By 1966, when he was 47, the church had more than 50,000 faithful and was also facing splinter challenges. It was this time that John Father Pesa’s breakaway Nomiya Luo Roho Church was started.
Pesa claimed to be Yohana’s successor and for that he was expelled in 1967 together with those who believed in healing powers and speaking in tongues.
While most of the previous church leaders had little education, Owalo was different by the time he took over the church leadership in the mid 1970s. He was one of the pioneer students at both Maseno School and Makerere University, after which he became a high school teacher of mathematics and agriculture for many years.
Some of his well-known students include Cord leader Raila Odinga whom he taught at Maranda High School, the late National Assembly deputy Speaker Joab Omino whom he taught at Maseno School and West Mugirago MP James Gesame whom he taught at Kisii School.
His other students include the late Orwa Ojode, High Court Judge Nicholas Ombija and Siaya Governor Cornel Rasanga.
It was perhaps the urge to follow in his father’s footsteps that Owalo retired from his teaching job to join the pulpit. Apparently, he was still an infant when his father died in 1921.
The church and its history has been a major ingredient in the secondary schools syllabus of both religious education and history.
Despite not having any history of ill health, his health suddenly plummeted in the recent past after losing several family members in quick succession, including his first wife, a scientist son, archeologist daughter, and then finally his first born daughter late last year. He died on February 21 at Aga Khan Hospital in Kisumu.
One of his best known sons is Nairobi-based management consultant Eliud Owalo, who was Raila’s campaign manager.
How the church holds after his death will be his legacy. But for the last four decades, he has successfully steered the church through the storms of leadership and a court case. He is survived by two widows and many children and great grandchildren. His remains will be intered at his rural home in Asembo, Rarieda constituency on March 7.