Mission in Kenya

 

Towards the end of C19, US Friend Willis Hotchkiss went to the American Friends Board of Foreign Missions (AFBFM) to propose a mission in Kenya. It would be an ‘industrial mission’, combining evangelism with income development and vocational training. He was sure that a successful mission had to do more than evangelise.

 AFBFM could not help, so he returned to his old college, the Friends Bible Institute, in Cleveland, Ohio. There his vision inspired student Arthur Chilson, and soon they were busy gathering support. In  1902 they and a third missionary, Edgar Hole, were ready to go to Kenya to set up the Friends African Industrial Mission.

 Kenya was then under British rule, so after they had travelled on the new railway from Mombasa to Kisumu, on Lake Victoria in the far west, they went to see the British District Commissioner. He helped them identify a 1000-acre plot at Kaimosi, still a key focus for Kenyan Friends today, and an ideal location for the mission. At 5500 feet, the climate was comfortable, and the land was fertile and well forested, with ample water. The Luhya peoples they hoped to reach were close by, but Kaimosi itself was almost uninhabited.

They recruited a team to work with them, and soon the mission took shape. They built houses and roads, and a sawmill, with a dam to power it. Soon they began a school and a clinic. Hotchkiss didn’t stay long, but other missionaries came from the US to join Chilson and Hole, including their wives, and by 1904 there were four missionary couples – the Chilsons, the Holes, doctor Elisha Blackburn and his wife, and Emory and Deborah Rees.

For several years there were only 10 or so converts, mostly mission employees, though the industrial side grew. But these early converts, such as Yohano Amagune, soon became missionaries themselves. Amugune returned to his home at Chavakali, and set up a church and school there. Quakerism began to take root.

By 1920 there were about 1000 Kenyan Friends, and four satellite mission stations – Vihiga, Lirhanda, Lugulu and Malava. Round each mission there were several local churches/meetings, grouped into monthly meetings, under Kaimosi’s guidance. Most local meetings had their own schools, and there were clinics at Kaimosi and Lugulu. There were US missionaries at each station, but much missionary work was being undertaken by Kenyan Friends.

Many new Friends were female, drawn in part by the greater equality of treatment they experienced. Daudi Lung’aho, another early missionary, often told the story of how they broke the ancient taboo against women eating eggs and chicken. These were reputed to make women infertile, but when the new Friends began eating them, it was soon clear that the taboo was mistaken. Eating eggs and chicken was sometimes a sign of commitment to the Quaker faith, he would say!

The mission was very Bible focused, but the Bibles were in English. In the 1920s, Emory Rees and Joel Litu, one of Yohano Amugune’s early students, began translating the New Testament into Luragoli, which was widely spoken and understood. Joel went on to work with another US missionary, Jefferson Ford, on translating the Old Testament too.

By 1929 there were about 7500 Friends. The overall number changed little during the 1930s - there were new members, but also about as many leavers. A revivalist ‘Holy Spirit’ movement had taken hold, and baptism and public confession were more and more common. Kenyan Friends began to try to restrain these practices, especially when taken to extremes, but as a result many left the Friends Church. At the same time, Quakerism began to spread to countries nearby - Uganda, Burundi and Tanzania.

After WWII it made more and more sense for Kenyan Friends to run their own affairs.  East Africa Yearly Meeting (EAYM) was set up in 1946, with Joel Litu as its first clerk. Numbers continued to grow, reaching about 19000 in 1949. Some US missionaries stayed on until independence in 1963, when mission assets were all transferred to EAYM.  The schools then became government schools, with Quaker sponsors.

International links were not severed however – funds continued to come from abroad to complement funds raised in Kenya, especially for the hospitals, and many foreigners came as teachers, medical staff, agriculturalists and so on.

Today there are two to three hundred thousand Kenyan Quakers, and EAYM has morphed into nearly 20 yearly meetings, though all come together under the umbrella of Friends Church Kenya. Some mission work is ongoing, notably in the Turkana/Samburu districts in northern Kenya. Friends United Mission, the successor to AFBFM, has an Africa office in Kisumu, and links and shared projects continue.

Further Reading and Credits

Further Reading

  • Ane Marie Bak Rasmussen, A History of the Quaker Movement in Africa, British Academic Press, London, 1995.

Image of the Old Mission House at Kaimosi reproduced by kind permission of the copyright holder Roger Sturge