On the morning of June 9, 1969, the Rev John Gatu, now a retired moderator of the Presbyterian Church of East Africa (PCEA), received a rather unusual call from the Ichaweri home of founding President Mzee Jomo Kenyatta.
The caller on the other end of the line informed him that the President wanted to see him but did not divulge details.
Moments later, the moderator at the time the Rev Crispus Kiongo, called Gatu on the telephone, informing him that he too had been summoned to the home in Gatundu. A day earlier, Gatu had made a powerful sermon against voter bribery in the upcoming General Election, a planned gratuity for Cabinet ministers and a host of other national matters. He was worried that he could have annoyed the President.
When the two men of the cloth arrived in Ichaweri, they found the President flanked by Mbiyu Koinange, then the Minister of State in the Office of the President.
“To our great surprise and horror, the visit had nothing to do with my sermon,” Gatu writes in his newly-published memoir, Fan Into Flame. “It was summons in disguise. We were expected to take a Gikuyu oath, which was being administered to “all Gikuyu of goodwill”, ostensibly to solidify the unity of the tribe.”
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Orchestrated by Kenyatta’s inner circle, the ceremonies were meant to mobilise Gema communities against Jaramogi Oginga Odinga’s Kenya People’s Union ahead of upcoming elections whose date was, however, yet to be set.
Stunned, the two men listened silently as Kenyatta explained that some of the oath’s repulsive requirements would be set aside because of their faith if they so wished. For instance, they would be allowed to swap blood for milk. Their requests for the full text of the oath would be denied, the President only telling them that it was secret.
There was no mistaking, however, that the message came with a veiled threat: Turning down the order would be seen as betrayal by a church that had strong roots and great influence across his Central Kenya political base.
“Of all the things and of all the places, this was the last thing we expected to come from the lips of one we had come to love so dearly, our President,” Gatu recalls. The two men then silently left, informing the President that they would communicate their decision at a later date.
The short meeting marked the beginning of a nightmare that would last several months and in which Gatu’s wife and children would be kidnapped by State agents and forced to take the oath.
In the book, Gatu for the first time reveals stunning details on the infamous mass oath ceremonies in Gatundu, including reports that scores of people were illegally detained at Kenyatta’s home in Ichaweri and forced to undergo the gross ritual.
The book paints the picture of a mobilisation process that spread turmoil in Kenyatta’s Mt Kenya bedrock with reports of extortion, kidnappings and cold-blooded killings of those who defied.
Details would emerge that those forced to take the oath were asked to vow that they would never allow the presidency to leave the ‘House of Mumbi”.
The killing of Thomas Joseph Mboya, a man whose appeal spread across communities, happened at the height of the oathing ceremonies, further widening divisions between the Kikuyu and the Luo.
Gatu reveals the genesis of the deep-rooted divisions between the two communities that are still playing out as the 2017 election approaches, this time pitting Oginga Odinga’s son CORD leader Raila Odinga and Jomo Kenyatta’s son, President Uhuru Kenyatta.
Gatu recalls that after the shooting, there was widespread suspicion that the assassination was instigated by the State, sparking bitterness and anger against Kikuyus. During Mboya’s requiem mass, a woman allegedly threw a shoe at Kenyatta.
“In addition, the President’s car was stoned. His security detail responded, resulting in many casualties and fatalities, most of them from the Luo community. This marked the beginning of a deep-rooted bitterness against the Gikuyu by the Luo community,” Gatu writes.
President Kenyatta’s succession was also at play with his bosom friends keen on ensuring that Daniel arap Moi, then the vice president, would not succeed Mzee.
Gitu writes that after consulting other church leaders, it was decided that they would not take the oath as it served no purpose in a newly independent Kenya. The churchmen promptly delivered a letter to Kenyatta explaining their position.
Then, all hell broke loose.
One day, after escorting Gatu to the airport to catch a flight to Beirut, Lebanon, his wife Rahabu and their children were waylaid by a crowd and forced to take the oath. State agents increasingly targeted PCEA clergy, leaving church leaders to conclude they were being punished for defying Kenyatta.
“Rahabu waited until I returned from Lebanon to tell me about her ordeal. Until the time she passed on, nearly 40 years later, she never spoke about the oathing incident again. She must have been totally traumatised.”
Thousands of people continued flocking Gatundu to take the oath, the State marshalling huge resources for the rather unorthodox method of rallying Central Kenya residents to Kenyatta’s side. State agents orchestrated kidnappings and torture.
Gatu recalls one disturbing case in which a Reverend Stephen Mwangi Cauri and his wife were forced to take Chai, euphemism for the oath.
“He revealed that his wife was first seized by the President’s escort police at Kiambu where she worked as a nurse. She was then taken to Kwamaiko near Kambui where he was picked just as he wound up a church function,” Gatu writes. “They were first driven to Ruiru, then to Gatundu where they were forced to take the Chai.”
The government, in the meantime, continued to deny that the ceremonies were taking place, with Koinange issuing a ministerial statement in Parliament in which he said the allegations were false.
On July 22, 1969, the PCEA clergy wrote to the President, telling him among other things that the ceremonies were isolating Kikuyus from other communities.
“Gikuyu as a tribe cannot keep from other tribes. This will result in the remaining tribes forming their block against the Kikuyu and aggravating the current harangues against the tribe,” they wrote. Still, the President would not listen.
When the ceremonies persisted, forcing women to flee their homes and children to drop from school, they wrote yet another letter in which they explained the oathing had caused serious damage to the social fabric in Central Kenya.
“There is more evidence of people being held hostage at Your Excellency’s home at Gatundu in your absence. There are many other centres where similar instances have been reported, where people have been beaten up, thrown out of buildings, naked, to suffer the cold of the night after beatings that have driven them unconscious,” they told the President in a letter dated September 15, 1969.
They told Kenyatta that children whose parents had not taken the oath had been thrown out of school, teachers seized from schools, and men of the cloth kidnapped and forced to take Chai.
“There is evidence of a number of people who have died as a result of the shock received after passing through the experience.”
Details of the full text of the oath remained scanty. However, the church established that residents were being asked to denounce family planning, a measure probably designed to increase the community’s population and vote. The community was also being urged to circumcise its daughters.
Gatu writes: “One thing was clear, there was a lot being said about defending the flag ‘against the uncircumcised’, in this case the Luo, and the solidarity of the Gikuyu tribe to combat any physical attack against them, which was being implied as imminent.”
Echoes of these sentiments eerily remain today, with Kikuyu politicians using the circumcision claim to campaign against Raila.
There was also evidence that blood played a key role in the ceremonies.
For instance, one man identified as Samuel Gathinji Mwai was kidnapped from his home together with his wife on the night of September 15, 1969. He died two days later from injuries inflicted by the oathing gang.
His wife would later tell The East African Standard: “We were told we must take the oath and defend the flag from leaving the House of Mumbi. (The man) then asked us to drink blood from a spoon...”
The church would later organise massive prayer rallies in which pastors led their congregations in denouncing the oath. Signs that the government was softening its stand came when Eliud Mathu, then the State House Comptroller, raised his hand in support of the denunciation during a prayer rally attended by about 25,000 people in Kikuyu.
On September 16, Moi issued a statement in which he asked police to probe claims of widespread brutality. Still, Kenyatta was furious, summoning the clergy to explain why they were holding rallies and tainting the government’s image.
“For Kenyatta, the rallies were a show of strength, the church versus the State” Gatu writes. The clergy, however, prepared well for the meeting and put together photos of victims of torture and other evidence.
After a long meeting in which Kenyatta was visibly furious, he appeared to soften his stand and said: “To talk openly is to love each other...” he said, much to the surprise of the gathered clergymen. “You are free to come and see me any time you feel there is need but let us not do our nation building through the press.”
The oathing period was coming to an end. It effects, however, continue to be felt today.