Elijah Masinde: Man who inspired a revolt against the white rulers

Masinde founded Dini Ya Msambwa, which was described as a force as powerful as a hydrogen bomb.
More than half a century later, not a single tree has been planted in his honour. There is no plaque in his village, neon light in Kapenguria or Kitale or a street named after him. In an unmarked grave near Lake Baringo his remains lie, forgotten, just like the cause he died for, forgotten like an insignificant footnote of history.

His life was short but eventful. Every time he spoke, even when he was angry, which was often, Lucas Pkiech’s golden tooth glittered. This and his mastery of public speaking drew crowds to Lukas Pkiech like a magnet and trouble was forever his companion.

When Pkiech converted to Christianity in 1948, the missionaries in Kapenguria were overjoyed. They encouraged him to learn to read and were delighted when the 17-year-old man agreed to go for industrial training at a government school in Kabete. They thought he would ultimately become tailor and blacksmith but they were wrong.

And for some time, everything worked according to the missionaries’ plans. Then Pkiech met a religious zealot, Elijah Masinde, the mesmerizing international soccer player whose mighty kick, so went the myth, could send the ball to the heavens. Masinde believed he had a higher calling in preaching and liberating his people. But this calling had to wait.

Pkiech was born in 1915 in Kapenguria and had only been in a conventional school for two years when he was sent to government school in Kabete. On his return in 1946 after four years, the Roman Catholic convert was content to till his land and look after his animals.

Atomic war

At the time Kapenguria comprised of a few dukas and a homes for colonial government officials where in the words of David Reed of Institute of Current World Affairs, “in the event of an atomic war, Kapenguria might acquire some importance as a refuge centre because no one would waste an atom bomb on it.” It was just a sleepy outpost of the empire.

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However, his Damascus moment came in 1946, when he visited Bukusuland, and had encounter with Masinde, the charismatic founder of Dini Ya Musambwa. He abandoned the Roman Catholic faith and converted into the new religion.

Upon his return to Kapenguria, Pkiech started recruiting followers whom he promised eternal life, freedom from European Control, immunity from gunfire and capture and increased fertility for old men and no sterility for women. The livestock of those who refused to heed his word, he prophesied would die mysteriously. 

According to a report published by the Institute of Current World Affairs, Pkiech’s path to martyrdom and history books started on April 30, 1950. That evening, a missionary witnessed ‘entranced’ Dini Ya Msambwa followers under the leadership of Pkiech dancing.

Earlier in 1948, Pkiech had been arrested for holding a Dini Ya Msambwa ceremony. He was convicted of being a follower of an unlawful society and sentenced to 30 months in jail. However, he escaped after one year and had been on the run since then.

That night, the missionary told the colonial government, in the course of their prayers, the followers were chanting that the European were the enemy. He reported that when he attempted to greet one of the adherents he was informed that there would be no more handshakes.

According to the missionary, Pkiech had even claimed that he was the son of God who had been killed by the government and had risen. When the news reached a new District Commissioner, Alan Stevens, he decided to act immediately to stem the negative impact of Dini Ya Msambwa in his region.

“With four Europeans, Simpson and 40 armed Africans set out to arrest Pkiech, who had been moving westwards to a village called Kolloa, not far from Lake Baringo  together with his followers.”

At one point, a chief was directed to write a letter to be given to Pkiech telling his men to surrender but he was surrounded by about 300 men who were armed with spears.

The policemen laid a fusillade into the Suk but the warriors overwhelmed the police line. Many of the police officers broke and ran. Others fought hand to hand with the Pokot. Some African policemen were using bayonets. Simpson himself shot and wounded two Pokot with his shotgun,” Reeds writes.

According to a government report, when the affray had ended, Stevens the DO, Assistant Superintendent of Police, George Taylor; Assistant Inspector of Police, Robert Cameron and  an unnamed African policeman were dead.

The self proclaimed prophet, Pkiech too had been mowed down by the ferocious fire of the white man. Apparently, the immunity he had promised his followers against bullets, which were supposed to bounce off the bodies of Dini Ya Msambwa followers had not worked after all.

In total, the battle of Kolloa claimed 33 men and made history as perhaps the only conflict where a senior colonial administrator was killed in line of duty.  

The entire Pokot community was penalised for the sins of Dini Ya Msambwa and had to pay a collective fine of a 22,000 Sterling pounds Levy Force, which was supposed to be paid annually.

A government commission later absolved Dini Ya Msambwa from blanket condemnation, observing that, “of the 30 odd spears picked up later on the battlefield, one third were still sheathed. Perhaps whipped up in a religious frenzy, they had no notion of what they were doing, let alone a plan.”

According to Reed, investigations of the killing showed that most of the people had never seen a white man and that the adherents of Dini Ya Msambwa were going to their holy shrine in Mt Elgon. After the massacre, some of Pkiech’s followers still expected him to rise up from the dead after three days while others thought that he was still living among them and would continue nourishing them spiritually disguised as a snake.

About six months earlier, Pkiech’s mentor, Masinde had also made history when a group of his followers stormed Malakisi Police Post in attempt to release three of their colleagues who had been detained there.

Hydrogen bomb

Dini Ya Msambwa, which Masinde founded was described by Reed as, “a force as powerful as a hydrogen bomb” which had been motivated by what could have been a sorcerer’s apprentice in the form of the colonial administrator, the settler and the missionary.”  

However, when one European police officer ordered them to disperse he was hit on the head and fell down. A woman then jumped over his prostrate body as the crowd cheered. In the ensuing police shooting, 11 people were killed.

The government then hunted down Masinde, who was not even among the protesters and caught up with him in a cave in Mt Elgon where he had been living with 200 followers. He was deported to Lamu.

In the eyes of the colonial government, Masinde, who had previously been quoted telling his followers to make guns so that they could drive out the oppressors was guilty.

Masinde had parted ways with the missionaries and the government when, at 25, he was denied a chance to marry a second wife. He denounced Christianity and started questioning the morality and authority of the Europeans over Africans.

Earlier, when he was arrested for refusing to sign a bond of Sh500 binding him to keep peace, he was sent to the Mathari Hospital.

When he was released from custody, Masinde played pivotal role in the pre-independence campaigns and hobnobbed with the high and mighty in Kanu. 

On January 7 1962, for instance, he addressed a political rally in Kitale organised by KANU and attended by Jomo Kenyatta, where he referred to Jomo as “God’s servant”.

However, a few days later, 70 chiefs and elders met with Bungoma District Commissioner R F Winser to discuss Dini ya Msambwa, which they denounced as wicked and dangerous to development.

When Masinde was arrested on October 30 1962 and charged with holding a public meeting without a licence and behaving in a manner likely to cause a breach of peace, he defiantly  declared, “I am  tired of police threats, twice I have been threatened with guns, therefore I prefer to be put in prison; most of the time since 1945 I was in prison.”

This is where he was going to spend the next 15 years until he was was released in 1978, after, Jomo, the man he had described as God’s servant, died.

Masinde and Pkiech are long dead but Dini Ya Msambwa lives on, although on the periphery of history. The two are true heroes of Kenya’s liberation struggle.

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