During the early period of European settlement in Kenya (1895 onwards) there was an unspoken but quietly simmering competition between the Anglican and Scottish missionaries over the “development” of Africans.
The Anglicans, being the colonising authority, believed that their paternalistic approach should carry the day rather the more humanistic style of their Scottish counterparts.
There was another, more subtle, battlefront between Protestants and Catholics.
The Holy Ghost Fathers (also known as Spiritans) established a mission in Nairobi in 1899 at Muthangari, near Kabete, in what is today known as St. Austin’s Mission. By July 1913, they had purchased a five-acre piece of land at Kabaa to establish a mission station.
Situated 55kms to the East of Thika town, Kabaa can be inhospitable with frequents bouts of frost. Not attracting sufficient converts the mission at Kabaa was abandoned in 1920.
In the interim, a successful mission was running at Kilungu, southeast of Machakos where a Dutch Catholic priest, Michael Joseph Witte was in charge of the Central School for Catechists.
Father Witte was a fiercely independent individual and he liked to do things his own way without being supervised. In 1923, a policy decision was made to expand the Catechist School, but Kilungu was considered unsuitable.
Mang’u, Riruta and Kabaa were suggested as suitable sites to relocate the school. Father Witte selected Kabaa and his choice was approved. Kabaa was ideal for Witte because it was far away from his superiors and meddling civil servants, allowing him space to get things done.
Witte arrived at Kabaa in September 1924 accompanied by Father Blaise and quickly started planning the school assisted by a local catechist, Yakobo, who had been looking after the abandoned site and Bartolomeo, a Ugandan.
The first batch of 35 students were admitted on January 19, 1925 and were drawn from Bura, Msongari (St. Austin’s Nairobi), Lioki, Mang’u, Kiambu and St. Peter Claver’s, Nairobi. On January 24, 1925, all the students were required to sign a solemn pledge to complete a three-year course and thereafter to give five years’ service to Catholic Missions.
In 1930 the school was named St. Michael Catholic Mission.
Father Witte was a strict disciplinarian, but he had a democratic attitude towards punishment. Before a student was caned in front of him or by him, he would first be required to admit his mistake before a council of students. Only then was punishment administered.
Punishment was supposed to reform the student not to humiliate him. Modes of punishment included caning, watering or manuring trees and flowers.
Under no circumstances were students to be punished by means of regular manual labour. Father Witte wanted such activities to be considered an important part of the students’ holistic education.
The subjects taught at St. Michael Mission School included academic, technical and vocational disciplines. This was a major departure from what the colonial administration was advocating where the emphasis was centred on imparting only practical skills as recommended in the Phelps-Stokes Commission of 1924. No wonder Father Witte wanted to be far away from the administration.
Excellent academic performance and discipline of students soon became the hallmarks of the school. The school motto was “Jishinde Ushinde”, which means “conquer yourself so that you may conquer others”
The Catholics wanted to start a high school, but the colonial administration applied delaying tactics to frustrate the exercise.
The government at one stage even suggested that the Catholics should join Alliance High School, which, of course, the Protestants rejected outright.
Ignoring the delaying tactics of the government, Witte quietly started a secondary section in 1929 consisting of four students; Cyrillus Ojoo, Paul Njoroge, Stefan Kimani and Lukas Kibe. In 1930 all the four students passed their Junior Secondary School Examination.
Witte or the “Captain” as he was affectionately called, left for home leave in April 1934 to be transferred to Waa Mission upon his return in 1935, where it was expected he would apply his zeal to turn the fledgling mission around.
Unfortunately, his replacements at Kabaa, Alphonsus Loogman and later Paul White were unable to maintain the tempo and the school went into a state of limbo.
In 1939, Alliance High School was the first African school to sit for the Cambridge School Certificate Examination. This development encouraged the Catholics to establish the high school section at Kabaa in the same year beginning with best three students; Stephen Kioni, Philip Getao and Hilary Oduol.
The secondary section of Kabaa was transferred to Mang’u in 1940 where Stephen Kioni and Philip Getao were the first to sit the Cambridge School Certificate Examination, Hilary Oduol having dropped out to join the Railways.
Mang’u High School excelled not only in academic performance, but also in sports and other disciplines. It was the first school to start an aviation section in 1961. The school moved to its present site in 1972.
Notable alumni include: Maurice Otunga, Emilio Mwai Kibaki, Moody Awori, Tom Mboya, John Michuki, Hilary Ngw’eno, George Saitoti, Wilfred Kiboro, Evans Kidero and Cyrus Jirongo amongst others.
Was Father Joseph Michael Witte the Catholic equivalent of Edward Carey Francis of Alliance High School? Was Mang’u High School the Catholic answer to the Protestant Alliance High School?
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