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Whose Church? Ethnicity, Identity, and the Politics of Belonging in the Adventist Church in Kenya — Part 5


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, Part 2 here, Part 3 here, and Part 4 here.

The Nairobi Cosmopolitan Conference suffers setbacks

During the inaugural Sabbath program held at the Technical University of Kenya (TUK), the Nairobi Cosmopolitan Conference produced programs which bore the logo of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. On April 17, 2019, the CKC wrote to the Registrar of Companies demanding to know why the new outfit was using its officially registered logos. On July 2, the Registrar of Companies wrote to the NCC stating that they were not to use the Adventist Church’s logos but above that, they were also barred from conducting religious activities as they were not registered under the Registrar of Societies but under the Registrar of Companies. They could not therefore collect tithes and offerings or represent themselves to the members of the public as Seventh-day Adventists.[1] This was a massive blow to the new outfit which could no longer declare themselves to be an alternative conference within the Adventist church.

Meanwhile, the NCC called for a meeting in Nairobi and claimed that representatives of the South Kenya Conference, the Nyamira Conference, and the South East Kenya Field were present in solidarity. This caused outrage in the church administrative units back in Kisii and Nyamira. On May 3, 2019, the Nyamira Conference wrote a letter to the EKUC distancing itself from the NCC. They stated that they had not sent any representative or participant to the NCC meeting to transact any business on its behalf.[2] The South East Kenya Field also met and wrote a letter distancing itself from the NCC and stating that they had not sent anyone to the Nairobi Cosmopolitan Conference to represent them as a Field or as the Abagusii community in any given capacity. They condemned the NCC and their actions as “off-shootism.”[3]

On July 8, Justice Mativo threw out the case against Pr. Maywa stating that they should have consulted more internally before resorting to the courts. In the 46-page ruling, the judge also stated that the same consultative process would no longer be open to them as it was time-barred.[4] This was the second successive blow for the Asanyo-Masara-Maranga alliance, and now the disciplinary action that was to follow from their actions could proceed. The Nairobi Central Church Board met and recommended disciplinary action.

Undermining the disciplinary action

The members due to face disciplinary action decided to undermine the process by refusing to take part in the Church Business Meeting that had been called to discuss their conduct. On July 20, there was drama when some members who were due to be discussed at the Church Business Meeting barred the church clerk from reading out their names. Geoffrey Asanyo stormed the pulpit and assaulted the pastor. He was restrained by quick action by one of the elders. Their removal was stalled. Photos of the altercation were circulated on social media which were, of course, designed to hurt the church to the maximum. Seeing the matter was getting out of hand, the Conference acted.

The following Sabbath, August 3, 2019, CKC President Pr. John Kiragu, went to Nairobi Central and read out the names that had been recommended by the Board to be separated from the Nairobi Central Church. He read out the following names: Sammy Masara, Enock Kinara, Humphrey Nguma, Wilfred Ndolo, Geoffrey Asanyo, Henry Osinde, Gerald Kireki, Zipporah Mokua, Ebby Mokaya, Jerry Magutu, Jones Agwata, Kepha Osoro, Geoffrey Namasage, Eric Magutu, and Friday Kinara.[5]

He stated seven grounds for their removal, which included denial of the faith, physical violence, and persistent refusal to recognize properly constituted church authority. He also cited them for being part of the formation of the NCC. He said that such a move, according to the Church Manual, would “result in the fostering of a divisive spirit, the fragmenting of the witness of the church, and thus hindering of the church’s discharge of its obligation to the Lord and the world.”[6]

There was commotion in the church as the Conference President read out the names. The Church Manual gives the next higher office the right to invoke the provision of calling out errant members who refuse to have the process carried out.

On August 6, 2019, the CKC Executive Committee met and upheld the decision of the NCSDAC Board to remove and separate the said individuals from the church. Behind the scenes, the now removed members moved fast to have the church shut down. On August 7, 2019, the CKC President Pr. Kiragu and Associate Pastor Peter Nyaga met the Government’s security team in Westlands in Nairobi as it emerged that the Government intended to have the church closed down.[7] A bewildered Pr. Kiragu immediately wrote to the Deputy County Commissioner Mwai Gicheru seeking to find out why the Government would consider such a move. He explained that Campmeeting was about to start and that members had invested time, energy, and financial resources in the program (the Campmeeting budget was in excess of $20,000). He requested that if the Government had decided to act in that manner, then at least they should explain their reasons to them. He stated that in any event, “our understanding of the law is that a person’s right of worship cannot be abridged by the threat by other parties to break the law.”[8]

On Sabbath, August 10, worshippers arrived to find the church in a lock-down and police officers in riot gear standing outside. Despite having sent the letter to the Security team, the Government had kept silent and had not even acknowledged receiving the letter. The media covered the closure and when the County Commissioner was contacted, she said that she had ordered the closure of the church “until all the parties to the conflict had resolved their differences.”

The move caught everyone by surprise. The separatist group, it appeared, were much more powerful than had been estimated. Distraught members of Nairobi Central trooped in to a nearby girl’s school for the Campmeeting program to proceed. It was humiliating.

After the lockdown, Pr. Kiragu called a press conference on Monday August 12, and condemned the action of the police and the Government in closing down the church. He stated that there was no court order or legal notice barring the church members from worshipping there and exercising their freedom of worship as enshrined in the Constitution of Kenya. He said, “…the church takes exception to this unlawful act by State agencies who ordinarily are supposed to be the stewards and custodians of the law.” He added that the dispute had been with “third parties” (the NCC). He emphasized, “The church is deeply concerned with the suspicious access to State security machinery by the aggressors which they use to curtail freedom of worship. We will seek appropriate intervention to ensure our religious liberties are respected and protected.” The apparent reference was the suspicion that the NCC was working closely with powerful Internal Security Minister Dr. Fred Matiang’i.[9] Pr. Kiragu added, “As of now, they (members of the Nairobi Cosmopolitan Conference) are not members of the SDA faith and no amount of intimidation will coerce the church into negotiating with strangers.”[10]

In a quick rejoinder, the officials of the Nairobi Cosmopolitan Conference accused the CKC of dragging their organization “to the ongoing leadership crisis at the Nairobi Central SDA Church…” They went on to accuse the church leadership of “outright theft” of church resources and the running down of church schools, colleges, and health facilities. They also accused them of creating employment for relatives of church leaders without regard to qualifications. They stated that all their attempts from the 1990s to have the leadership ”address the entrenched impunity” had fallen on deaf ears. They stated that their removal from the NCSDAC register was a “nullity” and averred that they remained Adventists in good and regular standing, insisting that the NCC was not an alternative denomination.[11]

But their punchline was the claim that there was “negative ethnicity” in the church where the Kisii who they claimed “constituted 65 percent” of the Adventist population and “contributing 70 percent” of the resources, were excluded from various church management structures. They further claimed that a few families in a community that is “less than 10 percent” of the church dominated prime leadership positions at all levels starting from the local conference, union, division, and “up to the General Conference.”[12]

Whose church?

The assertion by the NCC that the Adventist church has marginalized the Kisii betrays the ethnic prism through which they viewed the church. Nobody knows how many Kisii are Adventist for sure, and though it is not in dispute that they are many, it has never been the duty of the Adventist church to determine or define its membership by ethnicity. People of all tribes are invited to its fellowship without any hindrance. The assertions by the NCC reduced what would otherwise have been a genuine quest to address issues in the church to ethnic nationalism coupled with a desire to control resources perceived to be associated with a particular ethnic group. Like any organization, the Adventist church has its own challenges including doctrinal and non-doctrinal issues, but many Adventists understand that there are laid-down mechanisms and procedures in the church to resolve them.

To most Adventists in Kenya, the creation of the NCC was diversionary, incredulously distracting, and fell short of addressing the real issues facing the church. Many Kisii people in fact felt affronted when the NCC reduced the disputes in the church to an ethnic contest. Indeed, few gave it any serious attention. But the NCC continues to actively woo Kisii majority congregations to “decamp” from the CKC and move to its fold. So far, they have succeeded with Mountain View Church, whose membership voted to leave the CKC for the NCC. The NCC was on hand on August 31, 2019 to receive them formally. On that day, there was drama when Pr. Ngunyi, the CKC president, tried to stop their meeting, but it went ahead. They also received in another church in Meru named Makandi. A number of other congregations are also set to decamp to their side.

Debunking the myths

The claims by the NCC of marginalization of the Kisii falls flat on the actual facts on the ground. Out of the 80 pastors employed at the Nairobi and Kajiado stations, the two largest stations of the CKC, the highest represented are Kikuyu with 29 pastors (36 percent) while the Kisii come second with 22 pastors (28 percent) of the total. These were the two highest communities represented in the Nairobi and Kajiado stations as the chart below suggests. This hardly represents the positions of marginalization that the NCC accuses the CKC of propagating against the Kisii. The flip side of the argument is that the Kikuyu pastors are higher in proportion to Kikuyu members of the church. This argument is diversionary because, if indeed the Luo form the second largest constituency, then with Luo pastors forming only six percent of the total numbers, it is a far cry from those of the Kisii. And they have not complained about it.

The CRVC has 110 pastors on its payroll. These are spread over six different ethnic groups and again the figures show that the Kisii have maintained dominance even in spite of numerically being lower than the native ethnic groups. The CRVC, which territorially covers the Bomet, Kericho, Nakuru, Nyandarua, and Samburu counties, and parts of Baringo, Laikipia, and Narok counties, have the Kisii forming 31 percent of the pastorate as opposed to 32 percent from the majority Kalenjin population.

Narratives of marginalization are therefore difficult to advance in circumstances where the facts negate the rhetoric. Another strong argument of the NCC is the distribution of office workers in the CKC. The office workers at the CKC both elected and appointed are 33 in total. By ethnic extraction, 10 are Kikuyu, representing 30 percent, while the Kisii and Kamba are jointly second at 18 percent (six persons each). There are five Meru, four Luo, one Giriama, and one Luhya. This again, as the chart below suggests, hardly represents positions of marginalization. Perhaps other communities could have pointed out the inequalities. The same picture is represented in the appointments of the Nairobi Adventist Hospital and this does not represent any form of marginalization.

It is very clear that Kisiis are represented in organizational ranks right up to the General Conference. There are in fact four Kisiis in the ECD Executive Committee, and in the General Conference Executive Committee two of the three representatives from EKUC are Kisii.

Chart 1: Pastors of the CKC Nairobi and Kajiado stations by ethnic extraction. Source: CKC

At a Press Conference, the NCC stated that Kisii pastors often got sent to remote areas of the CKC where “they must have their sermons translated.”[13] Further statistics of the postings of the pastors hardly paint this picture.

Chart 2: CKC Pastors by ethnic extraction. The CKC has 269 pastors in its employment as of 2019.

Kisii pastors are not any more placed in rusticated congregations than their non-Kisii counterparts. If the original missionaries had the same mindset, they would not have come to Africa. During the same conference, Elder Kinara sensationally stated that the CKC had sponsored 110 Kikuyu students to study Theology at Bugema University in Uganda. Even practical sense negates these kinds of allegations. Such sponsorships would only be possible against anticipated vacancies to be filled. 110 scholarships in Theology only means creating an additional 110 church districts (anything between 300 to 400 new churches) in the next four years all in one conference. While we hope that the church will grow that fast, in a practical sense the growth is not that fast. In any case, it would be much easier to invest in the growth first, then address the pastoral needs later. Besides, there are many pastors that are yet to be employed.

Chart 3: CKC office workers by Ethnic Extraction. Source: CKC 2019.

An ethnic hegemony?

The assertions by the members of the NCC that the CKC is ethnically skewed against the Kisii seems designed to achieve a particular end: a political one. But this assertion has had certain unintended consequences. Those against the NCC have stated that it is yet evidence that the Kisii only want to extend their hegemony over other communities without any respect for the local people. They also have the facts to state their point. The two Kisii conferences, the South Kenya Conference (SKC) first organized in 1953 and the Nyamira Conference (NC) organized from the SKC in 1995, and now the South Kenya Field, have almost consistently had the top leaders drawn from the Kisii community since their formation. Territorially, the South Kenya Conference also covers the Trans-Mara and Narok areas populated by the Maasai, Kipsigis, and Kuria. These communities are scarcely represented in the Conference leadership, either in the office or as field pastors. Currently, all the 30 field pastors of the SKC including the 10 Bible instructors and another 10 contract workers are exclusively Kisii.[14] Of the ten pastors in office, nine are Kisii and only one is Maasai. In fact, since 1969, only once did a non-Kisii, Pr. Joseph Parmanyari, a Maasai, head the South Kenya Conference and only for one year (2015).[15] All the remaining years, save those before Independence, the Conference has been run by the Kisii.

Those fighting the NCC now claim that it cannot surely have the moral high ground to claim marginalization of the Kisii when in fact other communities have been marginalized in their own territory and have said nothing. Would this be the nucleation of an ethnic hegemony? This perhaps informs the spirited resistance to the NCC as far as ethnicity is concerned. Besides, the claim of corruption in the CKC leaves more questions as indeed, some of the NCC principals were at some point in charge of the CKC. Did the corruption only happen after they left?

In nearly all their arguments, it is clear that ethnicity is the elephant in the room and this forms the bulk of the concerns of the NCC.

Chart 4: CRVC pastors by ethnic extraction. Source: CRVC 2019.

Chart 5: SKF pastors by ethnic extraction. Source: SKF 2019.

Perhaps it would be better to understand the problem of ethnicity and the social context of Adventism in Kenya which will probably help explain the current situation.


Read Part 1 here.

Read Part 2 here.

Read Part 3 here.

Read Part 4 here.

Read Part 6 here.


Notes & References:

[1] Letter to the Nairobi Cosmopolitan Conference Limited from the Business Registration Service dated July 2, 2019.

[2] Letter from the Nyamira Conference dated May 3, 2019 addressed to the EKUC and signed by William Ongaga the Executive Secretary of the NC.

[3] Letter from South East Kenya Field dated May 3, 2019, addressed to the EKUC and signed Margaret Ndubi the Treasurer of the SEKF.

[4] Judicial Review No. 19 of 2019, July 8, 2019; High Court of Kenya in Nairobi, Justice John M. Mativo presiding.

[5] Letter dated August 6, 2019, addressed to the Pastors / Elders at Nairobi Central signed by Pr. John Kiragu Ngunyi.

[6] Ibid. quoting from the Church Manual p. 59

[7] Letter dated August 8, 2019, to the Deputy County Commander Westlands Nairobi by Pr. Kiragu Ngunyi.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Dr Matiang’i is a practicing Adventist.

[10] Press statement by the Central Kenya Conference president, August 12, 2019.

[11] Press statement by the Nairobi Cosmopolitan Conference dated August 14, 2019.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Statistics from the South Kenya Conference, 2019.

[15] Adventist Yearbook 2015.


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.

Photo Credits: Pop & Zebra on Unsplash / Wikimedia Commons /


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