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Rise of African Independent Church movement in Kenya




African Independence Pentecostal Church of Kenya faithful during a past Palm Sunday. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

Having discussed the history of the independent school last week it would be very remiss of me not to scrutinise its twin, the African Independent Church.

The missionary and colonial expedition to Africa was predicated on the presumption that the African race was primitive, uncultured and without religion as defined in the Western world.

It was therefore the divine duty of the missionaries to educate and civilise the African, with the tacit support of the colonial administration, and instil in their subjects a Western, Christian way of life.

As Africans took up education in mission centres such as Maseno and Thogoto they began to question some of the teachings of the missionaries. They saw a close similarity between the Christian God and the God they worshipped traditionally.

For example, the Christian God lived in the skies unseen while the Kikuyu worshipped a God who lived high up on Mount Kenya and nobody had ever seen him. In the Bible there were sacred sites such as mountains, rivers, forests and special people like prophets who were sent by God to his people very much like those in traditional African religion. The Bible taught that we were all equal in the eyes of God.

In matters of social life Africans could not understand why they were forbidden to drink alcohol while European Christians indulged in their homes, clubs and hotels with joyous abandon. Neither could they comprehend why they were not allowed to marry more than one wife while the Old Testament mentioned many people with numerous wives.

The intended purpose of educating Africans was to train catechists who would then teach more Africans and eventually groom a class of church leaders. As early as 1910, the independent church known as Nomiya Mission was started in Nyanza by John Owalo as a break-away church of the Church Missionary Society (CMS) which, while professing Christian beliefs, retained many Luo cultural practices.

At about the same time in America there was growing discontent within the black community with discrimination in education, the church, business and the social environment.

In 1914, Marcus Garvey formed the United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) to champion African politico-economic liberation, black control of religious, educational and cultural institutions in an audacious view that linked Africa and its diasporas.

Harry Thuku, one of Kenya’s earliest nationalists was, by 1916, keenly following the developments in America and was deeply influenced by the philosophy of Garvey as were other nationalists after World War I such as Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere, Nnmadi Azikiwe, Jomo Kenyatta and Nelson Mandela. When Thuku formed the East African Association (EAA) in 1921 these ideals were uppermost in his mind.

Nonetheless, the missionaries continued to insist that Christianity must be accompanied by cultural transference forcing the Kikuyu to give up their traditions, ultimately leading to a confrontation.

Robert Macpherson in his book The Presbyterian Church in Kenya notes that preaching against female circumcision in the church started as early as 1907, intensifying in 1914 when two Christian girls rejected the practice. From then on, the church waged a consistent campaign against female circumcision through inter-church conferences and contributions to vernacular media.

Ironically, John Arthur, head of Church of Scotland Mission (CSM) who also represented African interests in the Legislative Council (LegCo) was the chief proponent of the crusade against female circumcision, antagonising a large section of the Kikuyu community.

Arthur and other missionaries unwittingly played into the hands of the Kikuyu Central Association (KCA) which had succeeded the EAA, giving upcoming nationalists like Kenyatta a golden opportunity to launch their political careers against the government. In a meeting held in March 1929, it was resolved that the practice of female circumcision was evil and had to be abandoned by all Christians failing which they would be suspended from the church.

KCA took full advantage, telling the Agikuyu that the missionaries had abolished the circumcision of girls and that anyone caught doing so would be imprisoned. This incensed the Kikuyu and they boycotted the mission churches enmasse. With the crisis deepening, the church responded in September 1929 by getting chiefs and other collaborators to sign a petition in support of the ban by appending their thumbprints since most of them were illiterate, earning the name “Kirore” (thumbprint).

In retaliation the KCA hit back with a popular song “Muthirigu” a dance song which was performed in the now deserted mission churches and schools in Central Kenya, mocking the missionaries, their adherents and the government claiming there were plans to finish Kenyatta. This dance was subsequently banned by the authorities.

Having fallen out with the church and the colonial government Dr Arthur was forced to resign both as head of the CSM and as the African representative in LegCo in 1930. The Kikuyu Independent Schools Association (KISA) was formed in 1934 and the more militant Kikuyu Karing’a Education Association (KKEA) soon thereafter. The word “Karing’a” means “pure”. The two associations supported African independent schools and started building churches. KISA and KKEA invited Bishop Daniel Alexander of the South Africa branch of the African Orthodox Church (AOC) to provide religious instruction to their members. AOC had linkages with UNIA in America. Spending 16 months in Central Kenya Bishop Alexander trained and ordained four young men; two from Nyeri and Kiambu, as priests, who went on to establish the Orthodox Church in Kenya and two from Embu and Murang’a, as deacons, who established the African Independent Pentecostal Church of Africa (AIPCA).

All independent schools and churches were closed in 1952 on suspicion that they were harbouring Mau Mau rebels. It was not until after independence in 1963 that President Jomo Kenyatta allowed them to open. The purpose for which the independent schools and churches were formed having largely been achieved, they became a pale shadow of the past and today they are often in the news wrangling over leadership.

Perhaps if the missionaries and the colonial government had approached the issue of female circumcision from a purely medical point of view, the confrontation might have resulted in an entirely different outcome.