Taita church over a century old packs a keg of history

By Pascal Mwandambo

The Rev Wray Memorial Museum in Taita Taveta County built in 1883 as a church. [Photo: Pascal Mwandambo/Standard]

It has withstood the vagaries of weather, the scorching sun, torrential rains and the swirling winds for the last 130 years.

To a casual observer, this somewhat forlorn building looks like just an old fashioned structures which is in dire need of repair or better still, demolition, to create room for a modern structure.

Standing triumphantly on the picturesque Sagalla Hill in Voi constituency, this unique building has defied the fury of the elements to remain where it stands today.

Welcome to Rev Wray Memorial Museum, the oldest church in Taita-Taveta County, which is the cradle of Christianity in the region, a beacon of faith and culture.

Cultural monument

The museum bespeaks longevity as it is a cultural monument that testifies to the long, painstaking road that the Christian faith has passed through since the turn of the 20th century.

The museum committee chairman Mr Apollo Nzano says the facility is both a cultural and historical resource that must be preserved for future generations and research.

“The museum will provide invaluable information for posterity as pertains to the advent of Christianity in Taita-Taveta County,” says Nzano. He notes that it is a major indicator of the cultural transformation that the Taita community has undergone through the last century.

The museum official emphasised the fact that the Taita-Taveta County government, once put in place, should enact local legislation that will not only ensure that such cultural and historical monuments are preserved but also provide funds towards that end.

“Issues touching on culture have been addressed in the new Constitution. It’s now upon the Government and corporate entities to use their corporate social responsibility programmes to ensure that that cultural monuments are protected and jealously guarded,” says Nzano.

He reveals that plans are underway to launch a major cultural centre near the museum in December, which, among other things, will serve as a tourist attraction.

“I am glad that this museum has been preserved for all these years. To us the young generation, it sounds quite incredible,” says the curator Mr Liverson Mwanyumba.

But he is more optimistic that once the proposed cultural centre takes off, the facility shall generate more income from both tourists and local visitors.

Among the items preserved in this museum include the list of those who were baptized by Rev Wray 128 years ago as well as the baptismal basin, which Rev Wray used.

Other Taita cultural items preserved in the museum include a traditional stool, a bow and a quiver full of arrows of Mzee Mwang’ondi Nzano, the father to the late Mombasa ACK bishop Crispus Dolton Nzano. The late bishop Nzano’s grave is just a few metres from the museum.

Historical artefacts

Alongside these are a Taita traditional wooden bowl (fuwa), a plate made from a dry gourd (kioro), a grindstone (lwala), beer drinking horn, (lwembe) and a hunter’s leather bag (kikuchu).

“We have strived to ensure that no unauthorised persons gains access to the invaluable items preserved in the museum. You see, not everybody understands the true value of these historical artefacts,” says a museum committee member Mr Elisha Mwarimbo.

Sagalla Ward councillor Mr George Mwandoto Soghe echoed the sentiments made by Nzano.

“The Taita–Taveta County government has an obligation to come up with relevant laws to safeguard and preserve the museum for future generations as well as the numerous other shrines found all over Taita-Taveta County including caves, rocky cliffs, natural forests and the likes,” says Soghe.

The civic leader lamented that the hitherto rich Taita culture had been severely eroded by western values, a trend he said must be reversed.

“What has amused me most is the impeccable manner in which the century-old records have been preserved. They are so neat, one cannot believe they have been lying in there for more than a hundred years,” says Khatija Aziz, a regular visitor to the museum and a participant of the museum’s annual walks which have been going on for the last six years.

The Rev Wray Memorial Museum was initially known as the St Marks Church- Sagalla and was put up in 1883.

The place on which it stands today was named “Mwingoni” after a tree called “Mwingo” under which the locals communed with their ancestors of yore, giving sacrifices and pouring libations to their fore fathers.

Rev Wray stayed and worked with the local community for three decades before he went back to England.

Bible translation

On the other hand Rev Wray is remembered for pioneering the translation of the Holy Bible to Kitaita as well as initiating the translation of the gospel according to St Mark to Kisagalla.

 He also authored the English-Sagalla dictionary, which is available in the museum.

Wray is also credited with the introduction of formal education in Taita-Taveta but he also encountered passive resistance from the locals since some of them are said to have demanded payments before they could attend classes.

“The work of these pioneer missionaries was not in vain as most grandfathers and mothers of prominent Taita Christians passed through these early missionaries” says Taita-Taveta ACK Bishop Mr Samson Mwaluda.