When religious beliefs and teachings led to crime

By Joseph Karimi

Kenya: Kenyans are fervently religious. So much that serious crimes, including theft and murder, have been committed in the name of God or other deities.

There have been claims of attacks by ghosts, devil worship and witchcraft, which have brought to the fore the various beliefs and events that have shaped our history. One particular incident that I covered as a reporter back in the 1960s demonstrates how some Kenyans have interpreted some religious teachings with catastrophic results.

 It was early September 1967 when I got a tip about a possible murder committed in the name of God. I was then the Mount Kenya region correspondent for a local daily.

The scene was around Muitwonahige close to Kagunduini trading centre, a kilometre or so from Tetu Catholic Mission on the Nyeri-Kamakwa-Kiriti road.       

Four brothers suspected to have been privy to the murder had been arrested and locked up. They were released shortly after police investigations ensued.

 I took my Yashica-D camera and headed for Kagunduini, where I was directed to the home of Rev Thomas Elijah Gikonyo. Rev Gikonyo welcomed me after a brief introduction.    

Although we were not familiar with each other, I knew Rev. Gikonyo in Nyeri town, as a prominent trade unionist, a brilliant and intelligent man who spoke emphatically on various issues.

He knew why I visited. The police had just released him and three of his brothers following the death of one of his brothers’ wives under mysterious circumstances.

Controlled by the devil

Rev. Gikonyo narrated the events leading to the death of the woman he said “had been claimed by the devil”.    

His other brothers were Mishek Mwangi, Peter Wathitu and John Kimathi, and they all faced the probe over the death of Mrs Lydia Wanjiku. She had died at Rev. Gikonyo’s homestead.

Gikonyo told me his sister-in-law, was rolled by the ‘devil’ for a distance of about 200 yards down a sharp slope. “We tried to catch up with him (devil) but he was too swift.”

Her husband, Michek Mwangi, further alleged: “After reaching the bottom of the valley, she lay at the foot of a big fig tree, I tried to lift her but she was too heavy. The ‘devil’ was standing by her side. So, I ran and called my brothers.”

I looked at them in consternation.   They appeared convinced that this is what had happened.

Gikonyo said that within minutes, he discovered that the woman’s husband had also turned into a devil. “I wanted to cast the devil away from Mr Mwangi, but the invisible monster insisted that he wanted to kill him too.”

Was this a yarn they were spinning to shield someone from guilt?

Gikonyo said that within seconds, the woman collapsed. Mwangi claimed he did not remember how he felt during the period when he was a ‘devil’.    

When police had concluded their investigations, the four were re-arrested and charged on 6 July 1969, with the murder of Mrs Lydia W Mwangi between August 21 and 28, in 1967, in Unjiru Village, Tetu Location of Nyeri district.

Constable J Chawanji who was attached to Kiunga Police Station told the preliminary enquiry that accompanied by Sub-Chief Stanley Kabia, they visited the home of Gikonyo on August 22, 1967.

On entering the house, they found a woman lying on her back on a sofa. She was leaning on Gikonyo’s thigh. The reverend placed his hands on her head. Kimathi held a glass of milk and the other two brothers sat next to them.

Evil spirits

Chawanji observed the woman’s eyes and mouth and concluded she was dead. However Gikonyo insisted she was not dead but only “possessed by an evil spirit.”

She had bruises on her forehead, arms and legs.Chawanji told Gikonyo to take the woman to hospital if she was sick but he insisted she only needed evil spirits exorcised.

Constable Chawanji told the court that Gikonyo showed him a licence which permitted him to expel evil spirits from people. On August 28, Chamwanji found the woman’s body and the four were arrested.

 The body of Lydia was exhumed and taken to Nairobi for a postmortem examination.

Pathologist Dr Ayres Ribeiro said the injuries he found on the body were consistent with severe beatings applied on the back and the chest with a blunt weapon, which he concluded could have caused the death of the deceased.

There were bruises on the legs, arms, loins and chest, both internally and externally. There were four fractures on the skull that caused severe brain haemorrhage. The windpipe had been squeezed...another life lost in the name of religion.

They were eventually committed to trial. The High Court, however, acquitted them for lack of sufficient evidence.

Gikonyo died some years later of suspected malaria while he was spreading the word of God in Nyanza region.

Gikonyo was a son of a prominent P.C.E.A. Church elder Philip Nganatha. According to JM Kariuki’s Mau Mau Detainee, Gikonyo was an active personality in the Trade Union organisation and a keen nationalist.

Set free

Rev Gikonyo had undertaken a four-year evangelist course in Uganda. He had converted his brothers to his religious faith as well as many other people in Tetu, Thegenge and Muhoya locations and had a large following in Nyeri town.     

 While the State was represented by State Counsel A F Kisebu. Nyeri Third Class Magistrate Mr R Ruthere heard the inquest and committed them for murder trial.

The High Court after hearing the case subsequently acquitted the four brothers due to lack of sufficient evidence.

There were celebrations outside the Nyeri High Court after the four were set free .