Africa in focus

The Day My Father Fell Out with Missionaries in Kenya

Mwangi S. Kimenyi

Sixty-six years ago today, a group of Africans from rural central Kenya wrote a pointed letter to missionaries operating in that area. The main message of the letter, which I came across just a few weeks ago, was that the missionaries had failed in advancing the interests of Africans in delivering education and thus they should leave the place immediately and for good.  Among the signatories of that letter was my late father, Francis Kimenyi.  As it turned out, the missionaries were not about to be chased away by a group of Africans and they stood their ground to remain in this particular area. But my father and his colleagues did not back down either.

Some years ago, and long after my father had passed away, a man from my village in Kenya told me that whenever he thinks of my father (who was a teacher), he vividly remembers the day he slapped a missionary.  Apparently, on this particular day, my father had gotten into a heated argument with the missionary who may have used some words that my father could not stomach. Next, the missionary was lying on the floor after a hard slap.

Although this incident happened several years before I was born, I found the story unbelievable. For one, during colonial days, it would have been extremely imprudent for an African to slap a missionary. The penalty was almost certain imprisonment.  Second, all through the years, I knew my father as a very polite, religious and calm person who rarely so as much as raised his voice in anger.  (Of course as a teacher, he was as disciplinarian who expected the best behavior from students, infractions of which often came with appropriate punishment as was the order of the day.) Third, my father had a physical disability and needed the support of a cane. He simply did not have the capacity to go about pushing people around.  Finally, I could not reconcile the idea of my father slapping a missionary because he was  himself a product of missionary education, having been among the early Africans to qualify as a teacher after undergoing training offered by missionaries in another part of Kenya.

This picture of my father standing with his cane, probably sneering down at a missionary lying on a dusty floor, has for the most part seemed more comical than real.  All along, my inclination has been to question the credibility of the story. I knew that my father was at the forefront of a group of Africans that were agitating for educational opportunities, but it did not occur to me that he would take his fight so far as to slap a missionary.  What could have made my father so angry?

Prioritizing the Gospel over Education for Progress

And just a few weeks ago, as I was researching access and the quality of education in Africa, I came across a letter addressed to the Field Director, African Inland Mission (A.I.M), the missionary group active in Githumu, my family’s home district of Kenya.  The signatories were local church elders and also those involved in education, including my father, who was then a member of the District School Committee.  This letter made me appreciate why my father was so angry as to physically confront a missionary.   The tone of the letter reveals that it was written by frustrated local African leaders who felt that the missionaries were not interested in advancing their children’s access to quality education.  It is then I understood the monumental significance of the slap inflicted on the poor missionary by my father: If it did not happen then, I and many of my generation from my village and indeed the larger region would probably have never had the opportunity to proceed with schooling beyond the elementary level. As unfortunate as that incident was, it is symbolic of the struggle for the advancement of education for Africans.

The spirit of the hand written letter was that the missionaries were not interested in educating African children.  Their mission was to teach the gospel and that is what they were sent there to do.  In the letter, my father and his colleagues observed:

[We] are thankful to A.I.M. (Africa Inland Mission) for the long period of more than 40 years under your leadership in Church and Educational matters, although your leadership has been a failure in many ways.

Moreover, you have told us very often in our meetings in which we have been together with you, that you were not sent by your home Council for African education but for the Gospel only; and that you need not bother much about African progress, besides the Gospel.  Furthermore, that if home Council [sic.] realizes that you are teaching African education [sic.] they may call you back home.

Because of these things you have already told us, when we compare your work with other missionaries in Kenya, we quite agree that you did not come here for the African progress [sic.].

If we take as an example the African Christianity under A.I.M. has declined a great deal [sic.], and only a few members of the Church are left, as “Leadership is everything.” On the Educational side, the schools under this Mission seems [sic.] to us to be the poorest in the Colony.

For example, very many schools have been opened and after a short time lost, through lack of teachers and Supervision. After all these years we have been with you, we have thought and understood that we shall never get anywhere under this mission [sic.] leadership. We Agikiyu[1] [the local ethnic group] have a saying equivalent to the English saying that “Leadership is everything.”

Now, the Church members of Githumu District ask you very anxiously to leave Githumu District for good.

We have considered deeply about [sic.] all these matters for a long time, and we have made up our minds not to work with you any longer.

As I now have gathered, the slapping incident was an attempt to implement the contents of the letter.  Having failed to expel missionaries who were not interested in advancing the education of their children, and with limited political power, it seems that my father and his colleagues had to rely on an alternative, but suboptimal, strategy.

The Birth of African Christian Church and Schools (ACC&S)

Unable to dislodge the missionaries from the region, and determined to secure better opportunities for their children, my father and his team exited from the missionary establishment and formed a new organization known as African Christian Church and Schools (ACC&S) and my father was the first Secretary General of the organization. The driving factor was that, while the gospel was important, without access to quality education, Africans would never be free and could not achieve the progress that they hoped for.  In addition to establishing churches, the organization prioritized establishing schools in every village. Progressively, schools under the leadership of ACC&S spread all over the region covering the entire district in central Kenya and later to other parts of the country.  By the 1960s and 1970s, the impact of the organization was quite evident: a rising group of medical doctors, lawyers, university professors and deans, teachers, etc.  Wherever the ACC&S established churches and schools, progress was apparent and distinguishable from other regions.

Many years after the slapping incident, I enrolled in one of the ACC&S schools for my primary education.  In retrospect, I wonder what would have happened to me and many others had the likes of my father not taken a firm stand for the sake of advancing the education of their children.  The probability that I would be writing this article would probably be fairly remote. 

It is not my intention to minimize the role of missionaries. In fact, years later A.I.M. changed its stance on the provision of education to Africans and competed with ACC&S, which turned out to be good for the local communities. The missionaries were also involved in the provision of health care and I was actually born in a dispensary operated by the A.I.M.  Nevertheless, the pressure from my father and his colleagues did have a lasting impact on education of Africans in Kenya.

I would be the last one to condone any form of violence, least of all one directed at a missionary.  Just like other Kenyans who were organizing to dislodge the colonialists, I see the action taken by my father as necessary and one that has had extremely high returns in terms of development.  

[1] Agikuyu are members of the ethnic group in Central Kenya