Whose Church? Ethnicity, Identity, and the Politics of Belonging in the Adventist Church in Kenya — Part 2

Written by: 
Published:
November 13, 2019

Editor’s Note: In this six-part series for Spectrum, journalist Godfrey Sang explores the current tensions in the Adventist church in Kenya through the lenses of ethnicity, identity, and politics.

Read Part 1 here.

Circumstances of conflict

On April 10, 1988, the Sunday Standard, a national newspaper in Kenya ran a story entitled “Massive corruption alleged in church.” The unnamed writer stated that the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Kenya was ”threatened by corruption, tribalism and nepotism…”[1] This was in apparent reference to, among other things, the employment by the EAU of certain members of the same family, which they identified as “nepotism.” The church’s policy then, as now, allowed for the employment of spouses of missionaries within the same institution depending on their qualifications. Ever since the time of foreign missionaries, husband and wife teams often served together in the same institution depending on their area of work.  Other than making good economic sense in terms of housing and other benefits, the church, which highly regards family, would not want to separate them on account of employment. Without explaining this point to the public, it was easy (perhaps convenient) to claim that a husband and wife employed in the same institution was an act nepotism.

The following week, April 18, 1988, the East African Standard (sister paper of the Sunday Standard), ran the story titled “SDA church suspends top officials.”[2] Staff writer Sammy Masara reporting, said that lay leaders of the church had recommended the suspension of one of the senior officers after a seven-hour meeting held at the Maxwell Church. Although he was doing his journalistic duties as an employee of the East African Standard, being a practicing Seventh-day Adventist and a Maxwell insider, Masara’s position robbed him of any objectivity over the matter. Under journalistic ethics and code of conduct, he should have recused himself in writing it, or at least explained the situation from one who understood the church well. But it appears his activism against the church got the better of him.

The articles, needless to say, caused significant anxiety in the church particularly because big names were involved.[3] The Eastern Africa Division president Bekele Heye flew in from Harare, Zimbabwe (where the Division offices were based) to look into the matter. Other grievances mentioned by Masara included an intended transfer of the Africa Herald Publishing house from Gendia in Kendu Bay to Limuru near Nairobi and also the intention to relocate the head offices of the EAU to Maxwell. The publishing house was not transferred after all but the EAU, which was the legal custodian of the Maxwell property, moved to the Maxwell campus in 1989.

The fight for the Central Kenya Conference

The issues Masara raised did not rest there. The two articles in the newspaper mentioned, and others, set the tone for a series of conflicts that were to visit the Central Kenya Conference over the years. Covering much of Central Kenya and the city of Nairobi, the members of the churches in the Central Kenya Field, particularly those in the urban areas, were financially stronger than their rural counterparts. Scores of Adventists had moved to urban areas to take advantage of the opportunities created by the expanding economy in Kenya. The bulk of the membership at the Adventist church at this time still heavily favored the Kisii. Migrant Kisii workers moving to Nairobi and its environs, incubated new congregations there and the church kept growing. Naturally, some felt that the leadership of the Conference did not reflect their numerical presence and began to demand a greater say in the Central Kenya Field.

The aiming for ethnic balance in the leadership, the Central Kenya Field appointed J.M.O. Mochache, a Kisii, to become the Secretary/Treasurer in 1985. The Central Kenya Field continued to expand in numbers and resources and by 1989 it was organized into the Central Kenya Conference under Pr. Elijah Njagi as the Executive Director. Mochache remained the Secretary/Treasurer. Other Kisii who came into the organization at this time included Geoffrey M. Asanyo a wealthy businessman based in Nakuru who became the lay-representative of the Nakuru Station.[4]

At this time, the leadership of the East Africa Union remained without a substantive Kisii in the ranks. Pr. J. N. Kyale, a Kamba from Eastern Kenya, took over the EAU after Pr. F. K. Wangai, a Kikuyu, left. The Secretary, Shadrack O. Omulo, was a Luo while the Treasurer was James Washington, an African American. Two Kisiis sat in the EAU Executive Committee, Pr. W. Buruchara and Pr. Peter Chief Mairura.

In 1993, Pr. F. M. Njagi took over from Pr. E. E. Njagi at the CKC, both of them Kikuyu. Pr. Francis N. Njau, also a Kikuyu, took over as the Secretary, while the Treasurer became R. O. Mambo. Asanyo and Mochache left. In 1996, Njau left and was replaced by P. M. Muasya a Kamba. Asanyo returned.

The church, ethnicity, and national politics

In April 2000, Secretary of the General Conference Matthew Bediako, flew to Nairobi and went to the University of Eastern Africa, Baraton, to find out what was happening there. Bediako summoned all the faculty and staff to a room and put two files before them. One was a thick file with protruding papers and another was a much smaller one. He stated that the thick file was holding letters of complaint to the General Conference emanating from just one institution, Baraton, while the thinner file held letters of complaint from the rest of the world.[5] Bediako sought to find out what it was about Baraton, or for that matter Kenya, that generated so much contention in the worldwide church.

With such rapid growth came enormous challenges for the Adventist church in Kenya. Without adequate or clear conflict resolution mechanisms, many took to writing anonymous letters to the General Conference, bypassing, perhaps out of ignorance, other structures of the church that might have better addressed the situation. But that in itself was a reflection of the voices that were begging to be heard. Fairly mundane issues began to cause deep resentment among members, particularly if those disagreeing were from different ethnicities. Ethnicity, as has been pointed out by numerous scholars, is the fault-line that easily breaks apart relations of whatever kind including spiritual relationships.[6] Fear of domination and competition for scarce resources will often inform conversations around ethnicity.

Now, naturally, it should not matter what ethnic group or nationality one came from as long as they were called to service in the Lord’s Vineyard. However, in Kenya’s highly fractious national politics which often pits one ethnic formation against another, church members who fall in either group have often transported the partisan sentiments into the church. Ethnically polarized electioneering with a strong emphasis on the “otherness” of opponents can, and often does, raise hostilities that supersede common denominational affiliation. During election periods, members of urban congregations who draw membership from diverse ethnicities and political formations, would often scarcely veil their political anxieties. Members of the same faith but supporting different political formations, would exhibit the same level of anxiety towards each other as they would towards opponents outside the church. This phenomenon was famously noted during the Rwandan Genocide[7] and also in Kenya’s post-election violence in which members of the same faith, across most denominations, fought against one another.

It must also be noted that if those members will not openly fight, they will most likely be silent or be indifferent when their “opponent” suffers violence. Douglas Otwoma, a Kisii Adventist who settled in Kapsabet in Nandi county, wondered where his fellow church members were when his house was burnt down during the post-election violence of 2007-8.[8] While his house was partially burnt, his neighbors and fellow Adventists Paul Motanya, Boniface Gekonge, and Dominic Mong’are were not so lucky. Their houses were burnt down to the ground.[9] The question remains: would their Nandi Adventist colleagues have done more to prevent the disaster? And while we may not find the answers now, Otwoma and his friends probably don’t remember the work of their enemies, but more, the silence of their friends.

The Adventist church and the political process in Kenya

Traditionally, the Adventist church in Kenya has avoided political issues, maintaining a quiet though not always calm, neutrality. While most of the major Protestant denominations have added their voice to national political issues, many taking sides within the political divide, the voice of the Adventist church is scarcely heard. For this, the Adventist church has been criticized and praised in near equal measure. The church remained quiet during the agitation for Independence, and even during the agitation for multi-partyism. The complexities of politics and ethnicity, especially in Kenya, has always made the church’s position particularly difficult (making it an uncalm neutrality). While it will not openly discourage members from participating in the political process, emphasis is always made that no politics or political talk will be entertained in the church or in the name of the church. While the Adventist church has not stood in the way of its members seeking political positions, it was always clear that in any of their dealings, they would not drag the name of the church into disrepute through their actions.

Since way before Independence, the Adventist church in Kenya has produced exemplary national political leaders. In 1935, Pr. Paul Mboya left the ministry to join the public service as an appointee of the Governor of Kenya, serving in the Administration and later as the Secretary of the South Nyanza Local Native Council. He became the first Adventist public servant thus appointed, and did so with the blessings of the church. He would use his position to advance the cause of Adventism and greatly boosted the profile of the church during his tenure. Greatly admired by both Africans and Europeans alike, Mboya travelled to England in 1946 at the invitation of the British government to attend the VE Day celebrations. He also sat at the Legislative Council as an appointee of the Governor of Kenya (the first Adventist to do so) and also attended the coronation of Queen Elizabeth in 1953 representing the people of South Nyanza.

When the elective political process was extended to Africans in 1957, a number of Adventists were elected to powerful positions mainly in the local Government. In 1963, at the elections to usher in Independence, Samuel Onyango Ayodo, an Adventist, was elected Member of Parliament for Kasipul-Kabondo. Ayodo, a former student at Kamagambo Adventist School, was appointed to the Cabinet as Minister for Local Government. He became the first Adventist to serve in the Kenya Government. Other Adventists elected at this time included James Nyamweya the son of pioneer Kisii Adventist Pr. Paul Nyamweya. He became the Member of Parliament for Nyaribari and would later be appointed Minister of State for External Affairs in the Jomo Kenyatta government.  He was the second Adventist cabinet minister after Ayodo. Another Adventist who made it to Cabinet was Joseph Odero-Jowi (MP for Lambwe). He also became a Minister for Economic Planning and Development in 1969 following the assassination of Tom Mboya. Within five years of Independence, Kenya had produced three Adventist cabinet ministers and numerous members of Parliament.

In July 1984, another Adventist, Simeon Nyachae, would be appointed to the powerful position of Chief Secretary in the Moi government. Since Independence, the working week in Kenya extended to Saturday, and this badly discouraged Adventists in most positions of employment both in the public and private sector. It was Nyachae, under whom all the public servants worked, who would reduce the work week to five days, giving many Adventists much needed relief. He went on to run for elective office, becoming the MP for Nyaribari seat that had been held by James Nyamweya. And like him, Nyachae would serve as a Cabinet minister. He also became the chairman of ruling Kanu party’s Kisii branch until 1999 when he was dramatically ousted by businessman Geoffrey Asanyo who had once served as the Lay Rep for the CKC.

Enter Geoffrey Asanyo

For a while now, the one person who has shaped conversation around the happenings in the Adventist church in Kenya, would undoubtedly be one Geoffrey Asanyo formerly of Nakuru. Geoffrey Makana Asanyo was born in Ikuruma village in Isecha, Kitutu Chache in Kisii county. He was born into the Pentecostal Assemblies of God (PAG) church and attended the congregation at Itibo near his home in Kitutu Chache. When he moved to Nakuru, he was part of an assemblage that came to be known as YK92 (Youth for Kanu ’92) which was a group of well-financed young people sent out to mobilize the youth vote for the ruling party Kanu led by President Daniel araap Moi. Asanyo began attending the Nakuru West SDA church during the time of Pr. David Mbwaro, becoming active in its affairs. It is not clear when exactly he was baptized or how he became a member of the church but suffice it to say that he was quite active in the affairs of the church, and was eventually appointed to serve as the Lay Rep for the Nakuru Station. Years later he would campaign for the split of the CKC to establish a new conference.

In 2014, the Central Rift Valley Conference was organized from the CKC covering the churches in the greater Nakuru, Bomet, Kericho, Nyandarua, Laikipia, Samburu, and Baringo counties. Asanyo played a large part in that.

In 2002 when the powerful Kanu party lost the elections and President Moi handed over power, the networks of patronage deeply entrenched in his regime came to an abrupt end. This also marked the end of the power politics of many including Asanyo.[10] When he moved to Nairobi, he settled in the already volatile Nairobi Central. Being the single largest contributing church financially, and also by voting delegates, Nairobi Central became the hotbed of the goings-on at the CKC.

Leadership and transition in the CKC

By the year 2000, Pr. Njagi had given way to Pr. Musyoka Paul Muasya, while the secretary was now Pr. Kigundu Ndwiga and the Treasurer was Kepha Pondi. In the elections of 2002, Pr. John Macharia Gichuiri took over as the Executive Director while the Secretary elected was Alfred Gitonga Marundu. Jones Masimba was elected Treasurer. This was the first time a Kisii was holding a powerful position in the CKC since the time of Mochache. In 2005, Pr. Peter Ndeto took over from Gichuiri as President while Pr. Geoffrey K. Wanyoike, a Kikuyu, took over from Marundu as Secretary.[11] Masimba retained his seat.

In 2010, a new team led by Pr. Franklin Wariba took over. He became president while Pr. Jean-Pierre Maywa a Kipsigis, took over as Secretary. Masimba remained Treasurer, now in his eighth year. However, after only about a year, murmurs about financial impropriety dogged the organization and the internal and external pressure to control resources in the Conference was quite apparent.

When he took over, Pr. Maywa raised some serious issues about the management of affairs at the CKC but he suffered an ouster when his character was called to question over certain matters. Maywa, who was subsequently suspended as a pastor, protested his innocence all the way to the General Conference and was eventually exonerated and reinstated after three years in the cold. Maywa had fallen victim of the deepening pressure to control the CKC. He was, however, transferred to become a district pastor in the Western Kenya Conference.

In 2014, John Kiragu Ngunyi took over from Wariba while Alfred Marundu made a comeback as Secretary after the ouster of Maywa. Masimba remained.[12]

 

Read Part 1 here.

Read Part 3 here.

Read Part 4 here.

Read Part 5 here.

Read Part 6 here.

 

Notes & References:

[1] Standard on Sunday, April 10, 1988, East African Standard Ltd, Nairobi p. 2

[2] East African Standard, April 18, 1988, Nairobi, p. 2

[3] In an earlier version of this document released on August 25, 2019, I mentioned the names of Pr. FK Wangai, Mrs. Eunice N. Wangai, and Dr. Paul Wangai. I have since realized that they were wrongfully mentioned in the two newspaper references above which I relied upon for that write-up. I would like to take the earliest opportunity to apologize to them for the mention.

[4] Adventist Yearbook 1990, Review & Herald, p. 62

[5] Sang, Godfrey K, Ngenye, Lois W., Baraton @40: The story of a Great University, Gapman Publications Ltd., Nairobi p. 113-4

[6] Koigi wa Wamwere (2002) in his book Negative Ethnicity: From Bias to Genocide (Seven Stories Press) identifies what he terms as Negative Ethnicity to explains the roots of ethnic tensions across Africa. He describes how, for most Africans, ethnic identity is ambiguous and obscured and argues that the colonial legacy of hate, chronic poverty, a broken education system, corruption, dictatorial leaders, including the exploitation of Africa by the West are the causes of Negative Ethnicity.

[7] The complicity of the Adventists in the 1994 Rwanda Genocide represented one of the darkest periods in the church in Africa. In 2003, Pr. Elizaphan Ntakirutimana the former head of Adventist Church in Western Rwanda was sentenced to 10 years in prison for his part in the genocide. His son, Dr. Gérard Ntakirutimana who worked at the church's hospital, received 25 years.  

[8] Interview with Mzee Douglas Otwoma of Kapsabet on August 11, 2014

[9] Sang & Kili op cit.

[10] https://www.businessdailyafrica.com/news/Jirongo-named-in-list-of-six-behind-collapse-of-Dubai-Bank/539546-3211044-wmnkfjz/index.html

[11] Adventist Yearbooks 2005-2015, Review & Herald.

[12] Ibid.

 

Godfrey K. Sang is a historical researcher and writer with an interest in Adventist history. He is the co-author of the book On the Wings of a Sparrow: How the Seventh-day Adventist church came to Western Kenya. The views expressed here are his own. godfreysang@gmail.com

Photo Credits: Pop & Zebra on Unsplash / Wikimedia Commons / SpectrumMagazine.org

 

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