‘Haunted’ ground that became St Mary’s Yala

St Mary’s School Yala:  Chief Odera Okang’a donated the land used for burying the dead for the establishment of this shining institution. FILE PHOTO | NMG
St Mary’s School Yala: Chief Odera Okang’a donated the land used for burying the dead for the establishment of this shining institution. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

While the Protestant, Church Missionary Society (CMS) and the Catholic’s Holy Ghost Fathers were fighting an internecine war to gain attention of the Kabaka and thereby achieve territorial control in Uganda in the late 19th century, the Mill Hill Missionaries were quietly establishing stations in what was then eastern Uganda.

St Joseph Society for Foreign Missions, commonly known as Mill Hill Missionaries, is an order which was started in 1866 by Father Herbert Vaughan on the brow of a hill overlooking the village of Mill Hill, in the suburbs of London.

After a two-year begging spree in South and North America, Father Vaughan established St Joseph’s Foreign Missionary College as a sacrificing means for the struggling Catholic Church in England to gain divine grace for herself by service to foreign lands.

Pope Pious 1X was able to answer the appeals of American bishops in 1869 through the first group of students to come from this institution.

The first band began to meet the crying need for missionaries to American blacks and to providentially serve as the womb in which the American Church could nurture and bring forth its own missionary society.

In the Baltimore Catholic Negro community, they had a good nucleus for their first efforts, instituting day, night and modified industrial schools, an old folks home and a distant missions chapel.

With time their work expanded to Louisville, Kentucky, Charleston, South Carolina, predominantly among white communities. In 1875, a mission was established in Madras, India in what was considered the first real foreign mission.

As Mill Hill’s work expanded they provided chaplains to the Afghanistan campaign in 1879, the Borneo missions in 1881, the New Zealand missions in 1886 and in the Punjab, India, in 1887.

In the meantime, the society in America was increasingly receiving candidates who wanted to work only in the negro missions. In 1891, Charles Randolph Uncles from St Francis Xavier, Baltimore became the first Negro priest to be ordained in the United States.

When the Kenya/Uganda border was shifted westwards from Naivasha to River Soi in 1902, the Mill Hill Missionaries suddenly found themselves in what is today Western Kenya.

They established their headquarters in Kisumu town but had missions in several parts of the larger Kavirondo; that is Siaya, Kisii and the former Western Province.

The birth of St Mary’s School, Yala revolves around the figure of Monsignor Gorgonius Brandsma who came to Kenya in 1901 with a group of Mill Hill missionaries from Holland.

When Brandsma accepted the position of Prefect of Kavirondo in 1925, his first priority was to expand Catholic education, knowing that the Anglican (CMS) and other Protestant missions were ahead in provision of education in Kenya.

At that time the Catholics had only one functional higher education facility at Kabaa (later Mang’u High School) started by the Holy Ghost Fathers under Father Michael Witte.

The Protestants, on the other hand had Maseno School upgraded to a secondary school and the prestigious Alliance which was to open its door in 1926, was under way. In addition, the Protestant missions had a larger number of primary schools countrywide.

After much toiling and opposition, Brandsma succeeded in obtaining land in Yala in 1926. The land, an abandoned forest used for burying the dead, was given by the local Chief Odera Okang’a, and was believed to be haunted. Nevertheless, Brandsma went ahead to build and the school opened in 1927.

Brandsma actually wanted to start a teacher training college in order to train teachers who would also be evangelists in order to counter the dominance of the Protestant missions.

However, by now Africans had started to realise the value of formal education and already settlers in the area had started paying higher wages and benefits for those who could read and write.

It was also difficult to find suitable teachers at this time. The idea of a teacher training college faded out gradually as most pupils did not want to become teachers and instead opted to seek more lucrative employment with the railways and post office.

The Local Native Counci (LNC) was also in favour of starting a secondary school to provide proper education and even set aside Sh30,000 for this purpose. The school was upgraded to “A’ level standard in 1957.

Notable alumni include; Tom Mboya, Argwings Kodhek, Richard Onyonka, Joseph Oloo Aringo, Mukhisa Kituyi, J.O. Masime, James Waweru, KenRazy, Nicholas Okwach, among others.