The church they built in despise Mau Mau in Kenya
(This story appeared in Sunday Standard in Nairobi on July 19,2006)
By John Kamau
When the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Geoffrey Fisher, flew all the way from Europe to commission a single church in central Kenya in May 1955 it was supposed to be part of a political statement against the Mau Mau freedom fighters.
Two years earlier he had presided the coronation of the young Queen Elizabeth II just as the Mau Mau war started to gather momentum in Kenya. With the Church of England at the forefront to confront the Mau Mau freedom fighters Dr Fisher flew to Kenya to lay foundation of a shrine that was to be in memory of those loyalists “in emergency areas” who had died – and were to die – while supporting the colonial government.
As a result the Church of the Martyrs in modern day Muranga town, then Fort Hall, was born. Today it stands as the only attempt done by the colonialists to mock the Mau Mau – an attempt that has been left to fade away in post independent Kenya lest it evokes bitter memories.
The untold story is that the Church almost stalled in the middle and the committee selected to build the shrine started taking any kind of donation to complete it. As a result, and official government documents show, bottles of whisky and brandy, and cigarettes were given to the committee as part of the fundraising effort for a shrine that was to cost an estimated £10,000.
Built at the height of the State of Emergency the notable slow response was because the Kikuyu countryside had been cleared of thousands of able-bodied men who had been wheeled to detention camps.
Indeed, by early 1956, the committee complained about the slow response after raising a paltry £1000 in several months of which £670 had been raised in Britain.
Something had to be done or the project came a cropper.
The problem was so severe that it was discussed at the Church Missionary Society’s (CMS) headquarters in London at a meeting attended by then assistant archbishop of Mombasa in charge of Fort Hall (now Murang’a), Rev Obadiah Kariuki – who once worked as a domestic worker for Rev Harry Cannon Leakey before he was recruited for theological training.
(Leakey is best remembered as the man who started the CMS mission in Kabete and as the father to the Leakey’s of Kenya)
While it was hoped that the church would take 18 months to complete the committee found itself in a quandary. Money was not flowing and a decision was made: “money must be used to make money”, concluded one of the meetings held in July 1956.
A colony wide appeal was also announced and donations started to flow including a donation from Princess Margaret, whose office wrote to say that she did not want press coverage over her contribution.
Outside Fort Hall Club (now Murang’a Country Club), lay a huge pile of empty whisky, sherry, gin and brandy bottles which revelers had donated to sell to Africans in the villages.
But it is a letter from the Fort Hall District Commissioner to well wishers that told the political story of this project: “The church fills a need here in Fort Hall and the surrounding districts and commemorates brave men and women who died in the emergency….do not think we are asking too much and too often. The memory of what this church commemorates stretches into the past, its influence will reach far into the future if you make this possible”.
One of the curious donations was that of 2,500 cigarettes donated by the Kenya Tobaco Company for the church fete and 2,000 cigarettes from east African Tobacco. In a letter dated June 7, 1956 the Kenya Tobacco company asked the church committee to receive the cigarettes “to be delivered by one of our staff next week”
They were to be auctioned, together with other donations at a large fete held on July 6, 1956. So crucial was this auction that for the first time State of Emergency regulations were relaxed in Murang’a District. The DC, J Prinney wrote to the District Officers in Kandara, Kangema, Kiharu and Kigumo Divisions asking them to permit Africans in the reserves to leave. “No passes will be required to travel within the district on this date,” said the secret letter in part.
The committee also sought the services of Anthony Lavers to write a propaganda piece to aid the fundraising. In one of the pieces published in the East African Standard he exalted the virtues of the loyalists and why they deserved such a memorial.
“These chiefs and other government servants knew how Kenya had prospered under the British rule…the majority of loyalists were simple humble men who knew the difference between right and wrong “, he wrote.
“It is a building that should have a special place in the hearts of all Kenya’s people for it commemorates some of the finest citizens of all races this young country has ever produced”, said the piece.
When it opened in October 1958, the Governor Sir Evelyn Baring flew to Murang’a to witness the occasion conducted by the Archbishop of Mombasa, Rev L.J. Beecher. Interestingly the ceremony was attended by a multitude of children and women. Most of the men were still in detention.
But today, the Church is, and for political reasons, deliberately forgotten as the only shrine in the Kenya in honour of Home Guards, a coterie of armed youth wingers recruited to suppress the Mau Mau freedom fighters.
What was to be a national shrine has yet to find any mention in the county’s history since the home guards remain the most vilified group for their work as collaborators.
While the Mau Mau leadership has always fought to have a shrine in honour of the freedom fighters – one forgotten shrine stands still for the loyalists.