The bells at the St Thomas ACK Church, Kilifi. [Photo: Courtesy]

You would hardly combine the words extensive training with bell ringing, but that is exactly what a church in Kilifi has to do to keep its ancient bells tolling.

In our school days, bell ringing was simple; schools had either a handheld bell the nominated bell ringer swang, or an old, wheel rim positioned in a vehicle that was rang by being hit. Pretty basic. A few had more advanced versions where all a bell ringer had to do was press switch. Not so the bells of Kilifi’s St Thomas ACK Church, where bell ringers have to be specially trained to ring the six bells, the latest bell ringers having just got back from a two-week training programme in the UK.

Lennox Mwarandu, John Malala, Betty Ngetsa and Deborah Mulobi went for the training programme on bell handling in June 2015, partaking in one of the oldest and most specialised traditions of the Anglican church. “They were the first individuals to receive extensive training since 1994, when the last group toured the UK,” said David Shaha, tower captain at the St Thomas ACK, Kilifi. Mr Shaha was in the last group that flew to the UK more than two decades ago.

No knowledge

In 1993, a group led by Paul Smith had visited the church and they were dismayed that the six bells at the high tower had been abandoned due to lack of renovation and people with the knowledge on how to operate them.

The church in Kilifi is unique; no other church in East Africa has bells like these; that can be rang in a full circle, continuously ringing for between 45 to 90 minutes depending on the numbers set. “They carried out renovations and were looking for people who would be interested to learn how to operate them. I was among a group of people who were practising for choir and I showed interest,” says Shaha, who has since taught hundreds of interested individuals how to ring and handle the bells.

The construction of the St Thomas was conceived by Colonial District Commissioner Paul Kelly. The administrator, together with Christians from Kilifi, decided to build the church. The bells were donated by different churches in England under the stewardship of the World Church Bell ringers before they were shipped to Kenya. The tower can hold eight bells. It was opened in 1960 by Bishop Bitcher. A group of elders were taken to the UK for training on how to operate the bells.

Handlers

In between the elders and the group that was trained in 1994, the bells fell silent as the first apprentices passed on. “The uniqueness of the bells has attracted visitors from across the world. Groups from bell-ringing societies come around, sometimes as part of an on-going competition. Mnarani Club always organises for their visitors to come over and they (visitors) are awed by the bells, which can be rung for longer periods especially when we are celebrating special occasions,” says Shaha, adding that a big group from Europe has already booked a visit in the busy September to December period.

Not all Anglican churches have towers and the nearest churches with such a unique feature are located in Zimbabwe. Others are in South Africa. According to the The Ringing World, a weekly journal for church bell ringers across the globe that has been running since 1911, the four from Kilifi visited 37 churches across England with the highlight being the Canterbury visit. “We visited Canterbury Cathedral, the mother church of the worldwide Anglican Communion. We were all excited but nervous to ring the 12 bells there,” Mr Malala is quoted as saying.

He explained that unlike their church, which has only six bells, there are over ten churches in the UK with 14 bells.