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Exiles united by faith in the 'promised land' of Kiambaa

By - Joe Ombuor | October 22nd 2012
A carpentry shop where men are actively involved as per the belief of their religion.  [PHOTO: JOE OMBUOR].

By Joe Ombuor

Kiambaa is a shopping centre off the Nairobi–Nakuru highway. Gikuyu language is widely spoken here, but occasionally, an outlandish language hits your ear.

It is neither Kiswahili, English nor any of Kenya’s better known ethnic dialects. The strange tongue could be anything from Shona to Ndebele, Chichewa, Bemba, Lozi, Lunza, Zulu and other tongues in Southern Africa.

Kiambaa, where rusty iron sheets and tin tablets dominate the roofing pattern, is home to Zambians, Malawians, Mozambicans, Zimbabweans and South Africans living harmoniously with their Kenyan hosts. They speak Kikuyu, Kiswahili and blend easily with the natives.

Foreign folks

So accepted are these foreign folks that during the unprecedented 2007/2008 election implosion, they went about their chores peacefully when other “foreigners” were hunted down with dreadful consequences.

Almost without exception, they are members of the Gospel of God Church that traces its origins to Zimbabwe.

Membership of the church today includes Kenyans identifiable with their clean-shaven heads and bushy beards for men. Women on the other hand have to dress and cover their heads in white gear.

Known commonly as ‘Masowe disciples’ after founder leader Johane Masowe, Gospel of God Church adherents irrespective of their nationalities or ethnic background avoid working for other people according to the dictates of their faith that requires followers to engage in own businesses to make a living and contribute to welfare of the group.

Wherever they are, ‘Masowe disciples’ have workshops or other work outfits where they engage in gainful occupation that includes carpentry, weaving and other trades. Women are generally in knitting.

Insolent atmosphere

Moffat Nguabi, 83, an elder of the Church who migrated to Kenya from Zimbabwe in 1977 says ‘Masowe’ who hated seeing his people “work for white man like slaves” championed the practice

“He encouraged us to have our own businesses other than serve as slaves for the white man, arguing that it was better to remain dignified with a small or modest income other than labour in an abusive and insolent atmosphere,” says Nguabi.

At Kiambaa, adherents work at furniture workshops in the yet to be completed Kiambaa market complex. Others trade at shops they have. Both young and old males sweat it out to make furniture of all kinds and other handicraft items.

Weaving is a domain of the elderly. Baskets and flower stands are weaved from bamboo derived from the Kenya Forest Research Institute (KEFRI) at Muguga nearby. Women are out of sight at the workshops where work is perceived to be too heavy for them.

“We believe that women should do light chores such as cooking and embroidery,” says Ishmael Mkwonyo, a native of Zambia who specialises in making baskets and flower stands from Bamboo.

Saturdays or ‘Sabbath’ as the day is reverently referred to is set aside for communion and prayers. Sundays are rest days when followers are free to socialise with folks from other faiths.

On a visit to Kiambaa, I am surprised to learn that more than 500 Masowe disciples originating from Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi and other Southern African countries live around the shopping centre alone.

Mistaken notion

Mwonyo says apart from the shopping centre where many of them live in rental premises, their people with financial thump have acquired plots and built homes nearby. “We have not abandoned the tongues of our roots, but we have learnt Kikuyu that we speak eloquently.

 That has enhanced our acceptance by our hosts,” he says. “Outside Kiambaa, our people are to be found in considerable numbers at Kinoo and Githurai,” he adds.

“Most of us were in Zambia before we moved northwards to Tanzania and eventually, to Kenya, hence the mistaken notion by our Kenyan brethren that we are all Zambians.

Nguabi, who worked closely with founder Masowe until his death in 1973 in Zambia, says their founder believed Kenya was the Promised Land and the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, the centre of Africa.

“After travels through Zimbabwe amid arrests and intimidation by the white authorities he crossed with his followers into South Africa, having left an imprint in Matabele land where he set up base in Bulawayo.

“South African white authorities were more tolerant to his teachings and after long treks across the apartheid territory in the 1940s, he and his followers settled in the Korsten district near the Coastal city of Port Elisabeth in 1947.

It was here that the spirit of self-reliance that has become a hallmark for the faith started with the weaving of baskets that became a trademark of sorts for the faith.

Important symbol

“Ten years later, Masowe who abhorred oppression decided to move northwards with his followers who included native South Africans. Reason? Signs of independence were showing north of the Zambezi.

 He settled first in Zambia around Lusaka and the Copper belt. His northernmost reach after stints in Dar es Salaam and Arusha in Tanzania was Nairobi, site of the perceived Promised Land.

Nguabi, a stockily built octogenarian with a well-kept white beard, pauses and after a gulp of saliva, continues: “But before his death, Masowe instructed his followers to carry the gospel worldwide. Believers today number well over a million.

The Church that holds prayers on the Sabbath advocates polygamy. Nguabi boasts of three wives, “the same number as Masowe had”.

He says the holy sisters who are an important symbol of the church are expected to remain celibate and serve God throughout life.

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