Johannes Rebmann.

He is credited with spreading Christianity to Kenya’s interior at the tail end of the 19th century.

Johannes Rebmann, a German missionary, came to spread the gospel hale and hearty in 1849, only to leave for his native Stuttgart 29 years later, blind, sick and with one foot in the grave.

Rebmann was following the footsteps of colleague Johannes Ludwig Krapf in Mombasa, a largely Muslim region and quite incongruent to their mission in Rabai.

They faced many challenges: drought, language barriers, limited local knowledge and effects of slave trade which fanned fear of foreigners. But they persisted in the face of deeply-entrenched traditional religions, with Rebmann exploring the interior all the way from Kenya to Malawi. 

He wrote in his diary of the exposure to harsh elements that “in the middle of a large desert which is full of wild animals, like rhinos, buffalos and elephants, we slept under prickly hedges, safe and calm under God’s gracious custody.”

A linguistic and explorer, Rebmann, the third of eight children in a farming family, not only helped translate the Bible to indigenous languages, but his forays into Kenya’s interior for the Church Missionary Society opened the hinterland to Catholics, Protestants, Lutherans, Adventists and the Methodists.

Steven Paas notes in his 2018 bio, Johannes Rebmann: A Servant of God in Africa before the Rise of Western Colonialism, that he was nicknamed ‘Reverend’ in elementary school as his ambition was to be a “preacher and canvasser of the gospel.”

Indeed, when he arrived in Kenya, he wrote back home that “I have a duty in East Africa that will not allow me to visit my dear town where I was born, not now and, as far as I can see, also not in the next years.”

Rebmann walked from hut to hut searching for converts after opening his new mission as Kisilutini, of which he noted: “Hardly ever a mission will have been started in such a weakness (malaria) ... but that’s how it should be, that we do not praise our own power ...”

Rebmann spread the gospel, reported about snow-capped Mt Kenya and Kilimanjaro, leading to more explorers being sent over, all without a break or holiday. In 1875, a fellow missionary came to persuade him to return to Germany, but he retorted: “We came to Africa without a thought or wish to make geographical discoveries. Our big target was the extension of God’s kingdom.”

Blindness and sickness saw him eventually return to a brief marital life and shortly, death from pneumonia at 56 in October 1876.

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