Whose Church? Ethnicity, Identity, and the Politics of Belonging in the Adventist Church in Kenya — Part 3

Written by: 
Published:
November 15, 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 and Part 2 here.

The Central Kenya Conference Elections of 2015

The elections of 2015 can easily be considered the true genesis of the current crisis facing the Central Kenya Conference. The elections were slated for September 6 and 7, 2015, and by this time, all the delegates had been selected by all the member churches and each name submitted to the conference ahead of the vote which was to take place at Karura Adventist School just outside Nairobi. Churches had to meet the threshold to raise a delegate (400 lay members qualified to raise one delegate). This of course favored Nairobi Central Church which sent in the most delegates. Prior to the elections, active lobbying for various positions took place in the various constituencies of the CKC. Masimba was defending his seat despite murmurs in the church circles about his conduct in office and allegations of financial impropriety during his tenure at the CKC. Earlier, he had tried out for the EKUC elections as Treasurer but lost to Nehemiah Maiyo, a Nandi. He now returned to his CKC position. During the polling, Masimba lost his seat to Steven Kioko a Kamba, in a bitterly contested poll that threatened to turn chaotic at the Karura Adventist School in the outskirts of Nairobi.

At the heart of concerns for those against Masimba, was the long-awaited multi-million-dollar Nairobi Adventist Hospital which had been designed by Prof. Jerry Magutu (a practicing architect and lecturer at the University of Nairobi) and Eng. Albert Nyaundi (a practicing engineer and a politician) both of them members of Nairobi Central. Dr. Charles Maranga, a university don and a member of New Life Church, was the chair of the hospital project. Asanyo was also said to have had an interest in the same project as a contractor.

It was not lost to many that the project was largely a Kisii affair but that was not really a problem if they could deliver. Appeals for financial assistance for the Hospital project reached members across all CKC churches and they raised millions. Problems with the construction caused delays leading to unprecedented cost overruns estimated to be in excess of KSh. 120 million ($1.2 million). When this happened, members felt that they had lost their money unfairly. Nobody wanted to take responsibility for that, and so the outcome of the vote was largely an indictment on the performance of Masimba.

A flawed democracy?

Soon, more dissenting voices were heard. The departmental leaders who had lost bitterly complained about their unprecedented ouster. Masimba also bitterly complained about the outcome. At the center of their argument was what they termed as unfair selection of delegates which, according to them, excluded the numerically significant Kisii community in Nairobi. They questioned the mode of selection of delegates arguing that the Nairobi Station had remained the same over the years while other out-stations were being created ostensibly to counter-balance the influence of the Kisii who were dominant in the Nairobi and Kajiado Stations.

There are 14 stations that form the CKC and while the bulk of the resources are in the Nairobi and Kajiado stations, they only have the same voting power as the rest of the stations, most of which are in the Mt. Kenya region and the upper and lower Eastern regions. These regions have a lower density of Adventists. This voting method was designed to ensure equity between the stronger and the weaker sections of the Conference, so that the weaker sections of the Conference would not feel left out. Besides, the creation of new stations is not necessarily driven by numbers there, but by the mission work going on there. Those who lost argued vehemently that the creation of the additional stations was only designed to defeat their (Kisii community’s) voting power.

While the bulk of the membership of the Nairobi and Kajiado stations is, undoubtedly, drawn from the Kisii community, it must also be stated that most of them shy away from controversial positions in church leadership and quietly go about their business, happy, if not proud, to just be ordinary members of the church which they have labored so hard to build.

The Kisii and the spread of Adventism

It is probably a good idea at this point to appreciate the relationship that the Kisii have with Adventism. Simply put, the Kisii love the Adventist church. Over the years, it has become an integral part of their identity and which explains why it would not be easy to separate them from it. It has been demonstrated repeatedly that anywhere they go in the world, the local Adventist church is the first place they will look out for. If there is no church, they will quickly find the easiest way to start up one. There is no greater joy for a Kisii Adventist than to see a congregation established in an unentered area and that their commendable effort has spread the denomination to many corners of Kenya and even beyond.

Using intricate kinship networks, they were able to spread out to new areas raising vibrant diasporic communities. And they brought their church along. Those who went to India in the 1980s and 90s as students left behind vivacious Adventist congregations when they returned. Many who moved to America founded Kenya-style Adventist congregations reintroducing the faith to the land of its origins. Population pressure back at home saw them migrate to many parts of Kenya and abroad (particularly in the United States where they now form the single largest migrant community from Kenya). You will be certain that there is a Kisii Adventist in North Dakota where Evanson, the first missionary to the Kisii, was born.

The Adventist church in Kajiado

As stated, the spread of Adventism in Kenya can partly be traced to the migratory patterns of the Kisii. Kajiado county is an area predominantly inhabited by the Maasai but its contiguity to Nairobi offered an easy access to city workers and migrant laborers escaping high rents. The main towns in Kajiado are Ongata Rongai, Ngong town, Kitengela, Kajiado town, and Isinya. The closest of these towns are an average of 10-15 miles from the Nairobi CBD, and many Kenyans flocked there from the late 1980s and bought land, quite affordable back then, and constructed their homes. The Kisii were not left behind. And they brought their church along.

The Adventist church in Kajiado has its roots in several Kisii families in Ongata Rongai among them the Kerandis, Bwogoras, Nyambanes, Ogegas, Nyabogas, Oengas, and others. Some of the non-Kisii pioneers include Gichuki Muchiri, Peter Munene, John Ekole, John Kirimi, among others. The focal point of growth was Ongata Rongai, the town of Kajiado closest to Nairobi CBD just 10 miles away and only a mile from the border with Nairobi. In 1989, the first church was founded off Gataka Road. It was named Ongata Rongai Main and due to its distance from other established Adventist churches, it remained largely without affiliation until it was eventually adopted by Kibera church in Nairobi.[1]

In 1992, Ongata Rongai Main was organized into a church of its own from Kibera. It soon birthed Kiserian (1997), Nkoroi (1997), Rongai East (2000), Rongai Central (2003), Laiser Hill (2003), Gataka (2011), Kandisi (2008), Rimpa (2007), Ole Kasasi (2005), Sunshine Merisho, Oloika Mwangaza, Kirikau (2016), Kandisi, Rangau, Berea and many more. Current Sabbath schools include Sholinke, Prince Emmanuel Kitokota, Kandisi Central, Oloisirikon, Lempuya, and Tuala. Others include Kware, Kiserian South, Kiserian Dam, and Kisaju. It is probably a matter of time before they are fully fledged churches. 

In the Ngong side of Kajiado the earlier churches are Ngong Hills Central, Kibiku, Kerarapon, Oloolua, Bulbul, and Mt. Olives (incorporated from New Life church). Ngong Central has several Sabbath schools including Gichagi, Vet Sabbath School, and another in Maasai country. The church in Kitengela is also quite vibrant as the Kajiado town and Isinya churches. These form the bulk of Kajiado Station membership. Kajiado Station is based in Isinya.

Further evangelism among the Maasai by various groups from New Life and Karengata churches saw the establishment of various churches deep in Maasai country. Karengata for instance has an active evangelism area in Torosei near the border with Tanzania. From their evangelism efforts, which began in 2008, now stands the Torosei Central Church, Magatai, Osero Oshal, and Ole Sheki. These are probably the only congregations with a Maasai majority membership but suffice it to say, it was the Kisii who pushed for their development. It is therefore easy to see why in the fight for the CKC, Kajiado is very important.

The fallout from the elections of 2015

During the elections of 2015, it was the specific interest in the Treasurer’s position by the Asanyo-Masara-Maranga group, both in the CKC and the EKUC, that raised lots of misgivings. While there are usually no term limits, most delegates felt that Masimba had been there long enough (serving 13 years, he was the longest serving Treasurer since the CKC was founded in 1933). It was now the turn of another person to take over. In any case, most of the voting was done through “horse-trading” where one region agrees to support the candidate fronted by another, in exchange for support for their own.

The Asanyo-Masara-Maranga group then moved to court and challenged the outcome of the elections through their advocate, Mose Nyambega. Appearing in the High Court, Nyambega was able to obtain orders stopping the new officials from assuming office pending the determination of their suit. The newly elected officials were now unable to take up their office until the case was heard and determined.

In her judgment, Justice Roselyn Aburili threw out the case and lifted the orders stating that they had failed to show how they had been prejudiced by the elections. She stated, “I find convenience tilts in favor of church officials as the applicants made an ambiguous claim yet internal dispute resolution mechanisms that guide church elections are provided for in the Church Manual and working documents. This court finds no merit in the case and therefore the application is dismissed."[2]

The church had hired the services of Japheth Rachuonyo of Rachuonyo & Rachuonyo Advocates as their lead counsel.

Bringing down the house

Following the continued growth of the Adventist church in Kenya, the East Central Africa Division (ECD) voted in 2012 to have the East Africa Union split to create the East Kenya Union Conference (EKUC) and the West Kenya Union Conference (WKUC). Based in Nairobi and Kisumu respectively, they split the assets of the now defunct EAU equally and on September 2015, they held elections to fill in the positions. It was at this point that Marundu left the CKC and moved to the EKUC when he was elected Secretary. Pr. Samuel Makori was elected the president, beating fellow Kisii Pr. Jonathan Maangi who had been the inaugural president of the EKUC. Nehemiah Maiyo became the Treasurer, beating Masimba.

The WKUC had Pr. Ken Maena elected as President while Pr. Japheth Ochorokodi and David Sande were elected Secretary and Treasurer respectively. But in the split of the conferences in Kenya, the South Kenya Conference and Nyamira Conferences which cover the Kisii and Nyamira counties, were voted to be part of the East Kenya Union in Nairobi despite being geographically within West Kenya. Nyanchwa is just 100 km from Kisumu while Nairobi is three times that distance.

As usual, several others who tried their hand in the EKUC elections lost and they coalesced around the Asanyo-Masara-Maranga alliance. Like the CKC debacle, they claimed the Union elections had been flawed. The two Unions were formed as a result of the “split” of the Seventh-day East Africa Union Society which was the legal entity of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Kenya and registered under the Registrar of Societies. As the mother body of the church, it remained intact but to maintain its legal status, it too needed elections for new office bearers in accordance with its own Constitution and the Laws of Kenya. The last elections of 2006 had brought in Musyoka Paul Muasya as the President while Pr. Sam Makori had replaced Pr. Joel Nyarangi as Secretary. The Treasurer was Kepha Pondi.

Back in 1972, the East Africa Union Mission formed the Seventh-day Adventist East Africa Union Limited to be the custodian of all the church properties and assets in Kenya. It was registered as a Limited Company to replace the World Wide Advent Missions Limited incorporated in the United Kingdom and which had been the legal custodian of all the church properties in the colonial period. With over 5,000 individual churches and properties across Kenya, the titles to the properties are held in trust by this organization. Over time, these properties have appreciated significantly and are now estimated to be in the billions of dollars.

Through their advocate, Mose Nyambega, the Asanyo-Masara-Maranga alliance wrote to the Registrar of Societies stating that the EAUM delegates were planning to hold a meeting on September 20, 2016 in Nairobi and sought to know if they were in office legally.

It was a major victory for Asanyo and his team when, on November 17, 2016, the Registrar agreed with them and stated that the Seventh-day Adventist East Africa Union Society office bearers were in office in contravention of its own Constitution. Issues such as delayed filing of returns and the division of property between the two Unions were cited by the Registrar as being part of the problem.

The verdict caused considerable anxiety in Adventist ranks particularly when an advert appeared in a local daily using the official church’s logo and giving notice that a new team was now holding the affairs of the Adventist church in Kenya until proper elections were held. It seemed by all intents and purposes that their action represented a hostile takeover. They did not publish their names in the advert, and instead included only mobile telephone numbers. By this time, most Adventists following the matter were getting edgy, wondering what would happen to their beloved church.

The Union Elections

The Registrar called for elections to be held on December 17, 2016, and new delegates from all the constituent bodies of the church. The elections were held at Karura Adventist School and were personally supervised by the Registrar. In the tense meeting, Asanyo, Masara, and Maranga were kicked out for not being bona fide delegates. Asanyo later claimed that the delegates were selected on the basis of their loyalty to the church which he claimed was unfair. Needless to say, the candidates supported by his team lost and all those previous office holders returned.

In the new constitutional arrangements following the creation of the EKUC and WKUC, it was agreed that the President of the WKUC would also serve as the President of the SDAEAU Society while the Secretary of the EKUC would be the Vice President. The Treasurer of EKUC is the Treasurer of the Society. Conversely, the President of the EKUC would also serve as the President of the EAU Company Limited while the Secretary of the WKUC would be the Deputy. The Treasurer of the WKUC would also serve as the Treasurer of the EAUCL. Pr. Ken Maena became the inaugural President of the SDAEAU Society while the Secretary of the EKUC, Pr. Marundu, became the Vice President. Pr. Sam Makori became the President of the EAU Company Limited.

But the heart of the trouble was the division of property by the two new unions. It became necessary that the WKUC dispose of some of the properties in Nairobi (which was now the territory of the EKUC) so as to construct the new head offices in Kisumu in Western Kenya. After securing a plot off the Kisumu-Kakamega highway, construction began for a multi-story office facility. Adventists from both sides of the new divide, and from all communities, happily contributed to the construction. Now, bids were invited for the sale of the properties on behalf of the WKUC.

The Asanyo group placed their bid but it was rejected for being way below market. Another bid for Sh. 200 million ($2 million) was placed and this turned out to be the best, and was consequently accepted. The bidder placed a 25% deposit but before the bidder could be awarded the land, the Asanyo group got wind of it and swiftly moved to the Kenya National Land Commission[3] and placed a caveat on the property, bitterly complaining that the process had been fraudulent. The highest bidder, also an Adventist, had put in a 25 percent deposit but he had to obtain his refund from the church. The land remains unsold.

 

Read Part 1 here.

Read Part 2 here.

Read Part 4 here.

Read Part 5 here.

Read Part 6 here.

 

Notes & References:

 

[1] Interview with Isaac Oenga on September 1, 2019

[2] https://www.standardmedia.co.ke/article/2000178014/court-dismisses-case-on-sda-church-polls-outcome

[3] The Kenya National Land is a Constitutional commission established under Article 67(2) of the Constitution of Kenya to handle matters of land in Kenya.

 

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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