Thin line between fanatics and believers in Njenga’s church

When former Mungiki leader Maina Njenga emerged from a baptismal pool at the Jesus Is Alive Ministries and declared himself born-again in December 2009, the gesture was met with cynicism.

He vowed to spread the gospel and transform the millions of youth he hitherto commanded in the dreaded sect. This mission, however, seems not to have convinced his critics that he is not using the pulpit to disguise his dark side.

But while the outside world seemingly continues to doubt him and his evangelical mission, a visit to his Hope International Ministries during a Sunday service illustrates a completely different picture.

Here, the soft-spoken Njenga commands a fanatical following and few would match his charisma. His followers deeply revere the man they regard as their chosen spiritual leader. Venerating titles such as mtumishi (servant), pastor, mutongoria (leader) and chairman freely flow when they refer to him. And he lives up to this billing by literally leading his followers in all aspects of worship.

Activities in the church, which is located deep in the affluent Thome Estate off Ruaraka in Nairobi, breathe life into what is typically a sleepy suburb.

As the worshippers stream in, nothing is left to chance as mean-eyed security men and female ushers man the main gate and painstakingly frisk anyone who enters. For security or other reasons, strangers have to identify themselves at the gate.

Weird sight
Once inside, one is instantly treated to a weird sight. Dozens of hats and caps dangle on the fence and we learn this is the place where the male faithful leave their headwear as they enter the church.

About 1,000 worshippers flood the church’s vast compound. While young men form the core of the congregation, a substantial number of women and old men can also be spotted.
Most of the young men are cleanly shaven while a few spot dreadlocks and turbans. In between the worshippers are a number of cars and boda bodas used by those who are lucky enough to avoid the long trek to the church.

Accessing the interior of the church, which is made of a mammoth blue tent with white stripes, is nonetheless a tricky affair as the hall is jammed. So packed is the church that some young men follow proceedings while hanging onto the metal rails that support the tent.

On this particular Sunday, we learn that Njenga has been in his office from 7.30am meeting individuals before taking to the pulpit. Sandwiched in between hawk-eyed bodyguards, he finally emerges at 11am to a rapturous applause, with most worshippers scrambling to be near him, if not to touch him.

Self-effacing nature
In his characteristic self-effacing nature, he casually acknowledges the salutes as he walks into the church where he takes a seat directly in front of the pulpit.

“We are lucky to have our own Moses who can talk to God on behalf of his people,” Reverend Rose Atieno, a pastor who is already on the mic, notes in reference to Njenga. This is received with piercing applause from the congregation.

Several testimonies follow in English, Kiswahili, and Kikuyu, but it is only after three female singers take to the stage that the temperatures rocket. As the music hits the crescendo, Maina joins them on stage to animated acclaims.

Amid the dance, he pulls out a white handkerchief from his pocket and waves it in the air. Within seconds, the entire church is painted white as worshippers pull out similar handkerchiefs and wave them while dancing. The hankies, we are told, are meant to signify peace.

Before Maina can take to the pulpit, some Sunday school kids pop up with a song and their female teacher seems itchy not to leave the stage without dismissing reports that the church is solely for the masculine.

“Sio ati hakuna wamama, Ni kunyenyekea tunanyenyekea tunapea wapendwa viti lakini vita ikitokea tupo. (Not that there are no women. We have humbled ourselves and left the seats for our brethren, but if there is war, we are there),” she notes before swiftly exiting the altar and handing over the microphone to Njenga.

“I want to assure you that the work of the devil is going to stop,” the ex-Mungiki chief, who is not renowned for his oratory skills, notes in his introductory remark before emotionally wandering into the violent drama that had rocked the church the previous Sunday.

About 15 minutes later, he switches back to the sermon and starts by memorising Psalms 23:1, which reads: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want”. Njenga then reads from Isaiah 9:2-7 and ensues with the sermon. “The Lord has remembered, let us move in unison with him,” he notes in what is the main message from his preaching.

He concludes the sermon by reciting from Psalms 121:1-2 that reads “I lift up my eyes to the mountains, where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth”.

Njenga then goes deep in prayer interceding on behalf of his followers, who he equally urge to pray for him. He goes down on his knees, urging his followers to kneel down too and seek repentance while praying for an end to the setbacks facing their church.

He later leads the faithful in the famous worship song Ni Wewe tu Bwana, with the white hankies re-emerging at this point. This is just before the offerings session starts.

The showstopper finally unfolds when Njenga is escorted out of the church into the office block with majority of the congregation; particularly the young men, hot in tow. Once on the second floor balcony, Njenga takes a bottle of anointing oil and starts sprinkling it on the followers who have by now jammed the entire compound below him.

Maina Njenga at his Hope International Ministries church in Nairobi. [PICTURE: COLLINS KWEYU/STANDARD]

The ecstatic youths dramatically scramble for every single drop as a reserved Njenga moves along the balcony performing the ritual. Every drop is met with respite as the faithful obsessively smear the oil onto their faces and heads using their handkerchiefs before satisfactorily walking away.

“Ndirenda o gatata kamwe tu, nikaiganu (I want just a drop, it will be enough)” one young man exclaims as he scrambles for the oil. Some of those who miss out can be seen plucking leaves of a tree onto which some stray drops landed and rubbing them on their faces. Njenga then briefly enters his office before joining his followers for more prayers.