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Kenya’s oldest school stands tall 164 years later

By By Amos Kareithi | June 3rd 2012

By Amos Kareithi

The simple looking rectangular buildings, with their faded whitewash once held great expectations to the two pioneers who hoped to utilise it as a stepping stone to civilise a people they perceived to be barbaric and ungodly.

The pioneers’ optimism is manifest through the materials used to erect the buildings. Mud mixed with stones and limestone liberally applied to plaster the walls plus lots of prayers seem to have done the trick.

The mud and stonewalls have stuck together through thick and thin, outliving the constructors; the beautiful architecture still remains standing, more than a century and a half later.

Built in 1848, the classrooms have withstood rough times for 164 years, rarely making any demands of the occupants, except an occasional coat of paint or a new roof. Evidently, the makuti thatch originally made from the resilient coconut leaves as a cover for the buildings has succumbed to the elements, and so too has some of the timber.

Introducing Christianity The local community has however grown wiser, replacing the makuti with heavy gauge iron sheets. But despite having a longer life, the sheets have also been replaced on a number of occasions after being reduced to a sieve by the weather.

Despite these cosmetic changes the classrooms that make Kenya’s oldest formal school has continued to impart knowledge: nurturing young brains for the betterment of society.

It is ironic that this cradle of western civilisation that was once a crucible of knowledge in East Africa, boasting of expertise from Europe, Asia and Africa, is named after a local lad, immortalising his name.

Rather than be named after the founders, Ludwig Krapf and Johannes Rebmann, the institution that was established in 1848 in Rabai, in Kaloleni, is named after Isaac Nyundo who hailed from there.

It was started by these pioneer missionaries who pitched camp in Rabai in the hope of introducing Christianity so as to convert Africans to the new religion and inculcate western values through formal education.

The mission was started at a time when Britain was the undisputed naval power whose troops patrolled along the Indian Ocean, attacking slave vessels and freeing the captives.

The new mission benefited a great deal from the operations carried out by the British naval troops who attacked vessels carrying slaves and freed them. This fountain of knowledge owes its existence to Krapf who crawled out of a boat and stealthily stalked a group of women who had gone to draw water from Mwakinde Spring in 1844.

At the time, no other white man had been cited in the area. When Krapf was finally detected, having walked for seven kilometres where he had left his boat anchored at the Tudor creek, there was pandemonium in the village.

The women screamed as men armed themselves ready to attack the pale faced intruder they mistook for the devil. Reason prevailed and the ghost-like man was apprehended and taken to the chief, Jindwa Mwambawa.

It was at this point that the chief sought to determine whether the visitor meant good or evil to his people. Using his son as a specimen, Jindwa drew a white line and ordered the youngster to cross three times.

“When the son crossed and nothing happened, Jindwa believed that his potent medicine had neutralised the white ghost’s evil spell. Krapf too had to cross the line three times,” explains curator George Mrenje.

When the battle of the super natural powers was over, Krapf won temporary relief, although some elders would later scheme to eliminate him for they took his presence in their holy shrine, Kaya, as a sacrilege.

Later on, having convinced his hosts that he meant no ill and that his gun was more superior to their bows and arrows that had failed them in keeping the Wagalla and Maasai attackers at bay, Krapf won their confidence.

“He explained that he wanted to establish a place where he could worship his God and later spread his religion. The elders looked at him skeptically, but nevertheless showed him a piece of land for his mission,” Mrenje says.

In 1846, Krapf was shown a 99-acre piece of land by 12 elders after he entertained them with traditional liquor and a bull slaughtered. He was authorised to establish his mission a distance from their holy shrine.

This is how the cradle for the Anglican Church in East Africa was born. Krapf was later joined by Rebmann in 1846 and together they constructed the first church. This was shortly followed up with an educational centre that started imparting basic technical skills as well as reading and writing to the locals.

However, Krapf’s magic in winning the elders was not replicated when it came to preaching, as he did not win any converts, as the Rabai people seemed too entrenched in their religion to give Christianity a chance.

Perhaps the people’s reluctance to convert to Christianity gave the two pioneer missionaries ample time to roam further into the hinterland, where they “discovered” Mt Kenya and Kilimanjaro.

It was not until 1860 that the mission got the first converts – an old man who was on his deathbed, Jana Abegunga, and his son Nyondo. The dying man was inevitably baptised Abraham while his son automatically became Isaac.

Reap from the exploits

Having been born before the whites arrived, Nyondo’s year of birth could only be estimated to have been in the 1840s, although his association with the church brought him close to Rebmann and forever changed his life. He served Rebmann with dedication, especially after the missionary lost his sight owing to a tropical disease.

Church records indicate that in 1872 Nyondo took Rebmann to Germany after the missionary lost his sight. He returned home four years later and was promptly employed by the Church Missionary Society of England as an African Catechist.

As Nyondo grew spiritually, his bond with the Church tightened; he was poised to reap from the exploits of the British naval troops who were combating slavery. The Rabai mission also benefitted for all the rescued slaves captured in the Indian Ocean were handed over to the mission – a development that boosted the number of Christian converts.

This is because the slaves were easier to convert than the Rabai people. Nyondo was attracted to one of the slaves, Polly who had been rescued from Bombay. Their liaison marked the start of a friendship that blossomed to marriage, for the couple was ultimately joined in holy matrimony as man and wife in 1865.

Polly was one of the six slaves who had been sold in India but were rescued and brought to Rabai in 1862. Later Rabai became a beehive of activity as freed slaves found a home in the area, leading to an establishment of a settlement exclusively for the former slaves in the area.

In 1889, a total of 2000 slaves were issued, with freedom papers duly signed by the Sultan of Zanzibar. The papers were issued by William Jones an African, and Archbishop Bins who were at the time in charge of the station.

The papers were to prevent the bearer being recaptured by slave traders or their former master, who had in the past been pursuing any rescued slaves relentlessly. Some of the freed slaves were transferred to other parts, like Mombasa’s Frere Town and Kwale, while in Rabai, they were accommodated in a special section today referred to as Adzomba.

Bestowed  honour

“When Nyondo died in 1881, the school was renamed after him. He was bestowed the honour as he was the second convert to be baptised by the missionaries,” Mrenje adds.

He was also one of the handful of Africans whose remains were interred at the Rabai mission’s cemetery, just next to old Church that was reserved to those who had offered exemplary service to the Church.

At the walls of the Rabai Museum, Nyondo occupies a treasured place, where his black and white picture is prominently displayed. He cuts an impressive image of a polished gentleman in the undated photograph where he is immortalised wearing what looks like a three-piece suit, besides his wife Polly who is equally attired in a sophisticated dress. 

The school bearing his name too has remained impressive for although only two of the classes constructed in the 1840s are still standing, his legacy of imparting knowledge still persists.

A building that also served as the mission’s printing press has also remained intact, secluded at the corner of the school compound. Isaac Nyondo Primary School holds the record as one of the biggest rural based public schools in Coastal region, with a remarkable enrolment of 1,100 pupils.

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