The Plight of pre-Independence African independent church congregants

Plantation slaves gathered outside their huts in Virginia. PHOTO | WORLD HISTORY ARCHIVE

Early missionaries in Kenya insisted that Christianity must be accompanied by cultural transference, forcing Africans to give up their cultural and religious traditions which were demonised and considered retrogressive, primitive, and uncivilised.

This led to confrontation and in the case of Central Kenya, female circumcision was the battleground with the conservative traditionalists refusing to give up the practice.

The matter came to a head in September 1929 when the Kikuyu rebelled against a government order to jail anyone caught practising the tradition.

In 1934 the Kikuyu Independent Schools Association (KISA) was formed and the more militant Kikuyu Karing’a Education Association (KKEA) soon thereafter.

The two supported African Independent schools and started building churches.

Those who belonged to mainstream missionary churches looked down on members of the African Independent Churches regarding them as backwards and primitive.

Ashenji (from the Swahili word Washenzi) was the disparaging term that was used to describe them.

My father, Jeremiah Kiereini Gitau, was born in 1929 at the height of the female circumcision debate. His father Gakure wa Marai was a diehard Kikuyu traditionalist who did not believe in Christianity or Western education.

Fortunately for him, his elder brother Zacharia Njoroge had received a little education through his own efforts, and he believed that education held the key to progress in the evolving dispensation in Kenya.

Zacharia Njoroge also supported the African Independent Schools and Church movement.

Although there was a Gospel Mission Society (GMS) school just across the road from their homestead, he sponsored my father to go to one of the independent schools at Kiamwangi, some eight kilometres away in 1938.

On several occasions, Gakure wa Marai would force my father to miss school so that he could look after his herd of cattle and goats.

Zacharia Njoroge had some veto powers over their father since he was the one supporting the family from his retail shop business at Nembu.

One day matters got to a head and Njoroge warned his father not to force the young man to miss school again otherwise he would discontinue his support.

His father clearly understood the import of the threat and he never again forced my father to miss school.

Thereafter my father proceeded to Kagumo African Government School in Nyeri, then to Alliance High School and eventually to Makerere University College.

My mother, Esther Njeri, was born into the family of Karani wa Muhia who lived across the road from Zacharia Njoroge. Karani wa Muhia was a staunch member of GMS and a successful farmer and businessman.]

He ensured that his family got a good education in the mission school. Although he and Zacharia Njoroge belonged to opposing churches, they were childhood friends having been circumcised together as young men.

When my father proposed to my mother, her father insisted that the wedding must be celebrated at the Kambui Mission Church where Wanyoike Kamawe was the presiding minister.

Upon learning that my father was from the Kiereini family who was well known for their leanings towards the African Independent Church, Kamawe could not stomach the idea of a mushenji getting married in his church and he told my father that, “As far as I am concerned, you are a pagan, and you cannot marry in my church.”

The minister insisted that my father would have to sit for catechism classes in his church before he could consider the request which of course would mean delaying the wedding.

Despite my father’s pleas, Kamawe was adamant and uncooperative and he left disappointed.

Fortunately, Karani wa Muhia liked my father for his remarkable achievements and of course, he was friends with Zacharia Njoroge.

I suspect that Karani had a quiet word with the minister. He advised my father to visit the minister again with a quantity of sugar, and some eggs and to be extremely cooperative.

Arriving on a bicycle at the minister’s home at 6:30 am with the gifts, my father presented his case again and the minister relented.

On the way to the church to finalise the arrangements, whenever they got to a steep hill, the minister would get off his bicycle and ask my father to push the two bicycles, as if to test his resolve!

Alas, on 4 December 1954, a perceived “mushenji” celebrated his wedding at Kambui Mission Church!

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