Kikuyu - Christianity

See also The characterisation of Christian missionaries in the early novels of Ngugi wa Thiong'o, by Frederick Hale, and The Origin of Orthodoxy in East Africa, by H.E. Makarios Tillyrides. Both are external internet sites and open in new browser windows.
In this page:
1929-1963: Independent Schools and African Christianity
Modern Kikuyu Christianity


Not all the ways of the white man were bad. Even his religion was not essentially bad. Some good, some truth shone through it. But the religion, the faith, needed washing, cleaning away all the dirt, leaving only the eternal.

Ngugi wa Thiong'o, in "The River Between"

There is no Roman Catholic priest and a European - both are the same!

Kikuyu proverb

I confess that my choices for the two opening citations are provocative as well as paradoxical, given that the vast majority of Kikuyu nowadays consider themselves to be Christian, but it does epitomise one very bitter side of Kikuyu history, one which is deeply tainted with the whole colonial experience as well as with Mau Mau and the conflict over circumcision, and is an experience whose effects are still only seeping through the new Kikuyu society that has been created over the twentieth century.

Christianity was first introduced to the Kikuyu during the last years of the nineteenth century at the start of the British period of colonization, when the interior was opened up to missionary activity by the new railway from Mombasa to Nairobi, which was eventually stretch all the way to Kampala in Uganda.
   Yet progress was initially slow, especially as there were so many similarities between Christianity and traditional beliefs, and few people saw any need to convert. Few, that is, until the British began evicting the Kikuyu from their land to herd them into the overcrowded 'native reserves'. Somewhat perversely, it was in this oppressive atmosphere that the Kikuyu first started converting in any numbers. Not so much through faith, as though economic necessity.

Kikuyu schoolchildren As well as cooping up the Kikuyu in the reserves, the British looked to them as the primary source of labour in the colony's burgeoning administration.
   In short, they needed clerks, office workers, adjuncts, police, and so on. Being known as hard workers, the Kikuyu were the ideal candidates, especially as their traditional forms of existence - agriculture and herding - had been made impossible for many by the expropriation of their lands and the native reserve system.
   The catch was that people would not be employed without a Western-style education, and this was provided only by schools set-up and run by Christian missionaries. Once it became clear that the British were there to stay, school enrolment increased enormously, and saw a flurry of new schools, churches and mission posts being established in the 1920s and 1930s. The primary fruit of these missionary endeavours was thus an educational system that encompassed the majority of Kikuyu children. To this day, the Kikuyu have the highest percentage of children in schools, something like over 95%.

1929-1963: Independent Schools and African Christianity

The serious first conflict with colonial Christianity arose in 1929, when the protestant Church Missionary Society (CMS), together with the Presbyterian Church of Scotland, clashed with the Kikuyu over female circumcision.
   The CMS missionaries believed that Christianity should not just be concerned with conversion, but with 'cultural transference'. In practice, this meant that aspects of traditional culture which the missionaries had deemed as being backward, primitive or otherwise unwholesome had to be abolished. The conflict with the Kikuyu arose over the issue of female circumcision, which the CMS - with the consent of the colonial regime -had determined to eradicate.
   Their methods, however, were less than subtle: converts to Christianity were told that they could not become Christian if they did not sign (or thumb-print) a declaration denouncing circumcision. Although many agreed, many others saw this as direct assault on their traditions, and Kikuyu in large numbers began boycotting the mission schools and churches. Nonetheless, having become Christian, they wanted their own churches and schools, and thus the 1920s and 1930s saw the establishment of a number of independent churches and schools across Kikuyu land which were entirely free of government or missionary control.
   There were two groups of break-away schools: the Kikuyu Independent School Association (KISA), and the Kikuyu Karinga Education Association (KKEA). The word Karinga means 'orthodox' or 'pure', and the members of this group wanted to maintain their cultural traditions, identity and beliefs, at the same time as wanting Christianity in its purest form. Both associations were widely supported among the Kikuyu, and were opposed by the established missions who tried to pressure the government to close them, but to no avail.
   Between 1935 and 1937 the KISA and KKEA were drawn closer in their efforts, as the wave of protests against the racist nature of the colony crested.

At roughly the same time, blacks in the United States were creating their own churches, too. Of these, the African Orthodox Church (AOC) was important for Kenya, as it was closely related to the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA).
   In 1924, the AOC opened its first church in South Africa, led by former Anglican cleric William Daniel Alexander, who was eventually to become the African Orthodox Church's first bishop in Africa.
   The local organisations of KISA and KKEA quickly heard of Alexander, and raised funds for him to come to Kenya for sixteen months to provide religious instruction to members of both organisations with the aim of establishing an indigenous church based on legitimate origin.
   Based in Murang'a, Alexander baptised and provided religious training to four young men who had been proposed by both the Independent and the Karinga associations. Two of the men, from Kiambu and Nyeri, were ordained priests, and were to become the first priests of the African Orthodox Church in Kenya.
   The Orthodox Church among the Kikuyu was one of the two main centres of orthodoxy in East Africa, the other being Uganda. Unlike the evangelical and Anglican churches, the Orthodox Church was not connected with the colonists in any way, nor did it come about through missionary activity. They also had no problem with circumcision, and as a result the church flourished, especially in the 1930s.
   By then, the political struggle for independence from the British was gaining momentum, and although the Second World War temporary put a damper on activism, by October 1952 - when the state of emergency was declared in response to the emergence of the Mau Mau - both the KKEA and the KISA were charged with subversion and their schools were closed. The government offered to reopen the schools, but only under the direct supervision of the government or the missions. A few KISA schools did reopen, but the Karinga schools remained defiantly shut.

Modern Kikuyu Christianity

I shan't even begin to try listing the hundreds of independent churches that now exist among the Kikuyu, though I'm happy to quote from someone who did make a start - my girlfriend Maria Helena Barreira. The following names were written down from road signs over the first 70km out of Naivasha on the road to Nyahururu:

Local people do need to have faith that things are going to be better because life is hard, that's why they are so religious, becoming Christians their own way.
   They can chose to join many different churches. The most popular are not the Catholic or Anglican or Protestant churches - although the Catholic ones are the best built and usually larger, as well as Islamic mosques and Indian temples - but the Gospel ones.
   Gospel is the main reason they become Christians beyond practical reasons like being the local church that built the local school and small hospital, because, as the eighteen year-old Solomon said: "To be Christian is very difficult".
   The most elucidative are The Frontal Gospel Church, Full Gospel Churches or Redeemed Gospel Church Inc., but if one is not a good singer, they can join one of the following spiritual places:

The attractive:
- Maximum Power Evangelist Ministry
- Sound Global Ministry
- Oasis of Living Waters
- Deliverance Worship Centre
- The Oasis of Love Centre
- Church of Good Will
- Bethel Shepperd Church
- Armstrong Bible Centre
- The Great Prayer Conference

Or the continental, nationalist and regionalist ones like:
- Africa Inland Church
- Kenya Assemblies of God
- P.C.E.A. Nairobi
- Karasi A.T.P.C.A. Church
- Ontulili Bethel Church
- Christopher Church Thiba
- Inter Christian Faith Church Jacaranda

Or the mysterious:
- I.C.C.D. Faith Church
- C.P.K. Church
- P.C.M.A. Church
- P.C.E.A. Immanuel Church

Or the ones that state their beliefs:
- Orthodox Church
- Holy Family Catholic Church
- Free Pentecostal Fellowship Church (F.P.F.K)
- St. Peters Anglican Church
- Faith Evangelistic Church
- Methodist Church in Kenya
- Apostolic Faith Church
- New Baptist Star Church
- Seventh Day Adventist Church
- Universal Church of the Kingdom of God
- Jeovah's Witnesses Kingdom Hall and Assembly

Or perhaps, for the non-conformist:
- Al Falah Islamic Centre

As was written on the exterior side wall of one of these places: "...and these signs shall follow them that believe."


Traditional Music & Cultures of Kenya
Copyright Jens Finke, 2000-2003

also by Jens Finke
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