The life and times of Bishop Joseph Otieno Wasonga

Rt Rev Dr Joseph Otieno Wasonga, former bishop of ACK Maseno West Diocese hands over to his successor Bishop John Mark Haung Godia at the Siaya Institute of Science and Technology on September 1, 2019. [Jeckonia Otieno, Standard]

In 1973, aged 19, retired Bishop Joseph Otieno Wasonga committed his life to the church, he has never looked back.

Perhaps that was the decision that would define his journey in Christian ministry that would span 40 years as an ordained priest of the Anglican Church of Kenya.

He served for 28 years as the bishop of Maseno West ACK Diocese. His tenure ended on September 1 this year with the consecration and enthronement of Bishop John Mark Haung Godia.

As a boy whose father was arrested and detained by the colonial government, Wasonga harboured bitterness.

“I was born three months after my father was detained without trial and he was released when I was five and a half years and I had developed resentment towards white people and even thought of how I was going to hit back,” he recalls.

The feeling stayed with him for 19 years until he got saved. Wasonga says he realised the value of forgiveness and letting go. He confesses that political systems can make people break the law.

Born in 1954, retired Bishop Wasonga grew up in Gem and served as an untrained teacher at Wagai Primary School in 1977 before he was employed by the Teachers Service Commission.

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Back in church, he was identified to teach catechism by a church leader, yet he had not been baptised.

“When I told him so, he reasoned that I had been baptised by the Holy Spirit and he would baptise me the following Sunday so I started teaching catechism,” he recalls.

But this would not last long since a year later he joined St Paul’s Theological College (now St Paul’s University) Limuru, to study Divinity and acquired a diploma from Makerere University. Then he studied or a licentiate in Theology until 1979. In December the same year, he was ordained as a deacon and posted to Rae Parish of Maseno South ACK Diocese.

Wasonga recounts, “I was only 25 and was going to face elderly people in the parish. I developed a mechanism to survive; I put my energy in building children’s ministry.”

He would go to schools and preach to children and they put in a good word for him to their parents which made his work of setting up holistic ministry easy. Wasonga chose to teach life skills and Christian values as well as promoting adult education through adult Bible study.

Economic empowerment became a pillar of his ministry and it was during his tenure as vicar in Rae that ox-power technology was advanced and development of furrow irrigation which eventually attracted the government leading to the setting up of the Ahero Irrigation Scheme.

“We worked with Mothers Union to shell rice and after a few years, we set up a rice milling plant at Katito and this was a development from the stone technology; we would infuse Bible studies in all the work we did,” he says.

During the same period, he engaged faithfully in tree planting, pineapple growing and brick-making. He says part of his reforestation drive is evident in Onyuongo Hill. Wasonga decided to build a church around the youth and he recalls having to grow a beard just to appear elderly.

In 1983, he married Mama Jenipher who was an evangelist and the couple was blessed with two children. He recalls, “In those days no priest dreamed of owning a car and so we had two bikes. My wife would ride one carrying one child and I would carry the other baby as we went to evangelise.”

They went to the US to study and on coming back, they adopted a child. With time they were supporting more children. The couple have registered Bishop Wasonga Foundation to help take care of the children.

Bishop Wasonga says he blended pastoral and administration by getting the right people for the job.

“I realised I could not do everything by myself, so I decided to invest in getting the best to get the job done and it is for this reason that I have had clergy who are not only priests but also professionals in their right,” he states.

On the election of bishops, Wasonga believes that it can be done differently and with better results. “If only people would see the office of the bishop as an opportunity to serve and not be served, then we would not see some of the scenarios that come up with the election of the bishop,” he cautions.

He also faults the system whereby Search Committee interviews nominated candidates. Wasonga adds, “I urge that all those nominated should be allowed to go to the ballot but stringent measures should be put in place to hear and conclusively determine all issues raised against the nominee for the office.”

The retired bishop also questions the decision by a Province to send eight delegates for the election of a diocesan bishop.

Wasonga argues that when the idea was mooted, it was thought that a bishop would be a provincial bishop who can work in any diocese through a process called translation where a bishop can be moved to work in a diocese different from that in which he was elected.

“When the proposal was brought before the Provincial Synod, it was rejected with the argument that troublesome bishops might end in peaceful dioceses and wreak havoc,” says the bishop.

In his retirement, Wasonga also relinquishes the post of the Provincial Dean which will go to the most senior bishop by consecration. In the past, he has served as chair of Provincial Board of Finance, Christian Health Association of Kenya, Mission for Essential Drugs and Supplies and Anglican Development Services Nyanza.

On his shot at the Archbishop’s seat, Wasonga says he was nominated thrice; the first time he was relatively young while the second and third attempts he was going for PhD studies.

“And you will realise that for me it was not a life or death matter because my heart was never in it, so I let God’s will prevail but it never troubled me that I never got chosen in any of them,” says Wasonga.

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Bishop Joseph Otieno WasongaAnglican Church of KenyaJohn Mark Haung Godia