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When Christianity came face-to-face with traditions

By - Amos Kareithi | June 2nd 2013

By Amos Kareithi

There were a thousand reasons to start a revolution. In fact, one had been boiling and building up for more than a decade, but it took just one spark to light up the struggle and galvanise an entire region into ungovernable wrath, which fuelled the liberation struggle.

Although tension had been building from the day agents of the Imperial British East Africa Company magnanimously offered Kenya protection on behalf of the queen of England in 1895, things took a turn for the worse in 1929.

By that time, Africans had bitterly learnt to live with oppression, taxation without representation as well as being forced to offer cheap labour.

However, as Charles Hornsby writes in Kenya, A history Since Independence, a major controversy erupted in 1929 when the mainstream churches came up with a demand that all their followers in Mt Kenya stop practising female circumcision.

This was at a time when the rite of passage was a matter of life and death for women, as Ngugi wa Thiong’o expounded in his classic novel, The River Between.


Among the Kikuyu, it was unheard of for an uninitiated girl to graduate into a woman, a wife or a mother.

Dr John Arthur, the head of the Church Mission Society (CMS), which became the present-day Presbyterian Church of East Africa, touched off the revolution.

He led the church in crusading against female circumcision, antagonising a large section of the Kikuyu community.

The bulk of the community still favoured the traditional way of life, where they worshipped their God, Murungu or Mwene Nyaga, while facing Mt Kenya.

Arthur and the other missionaries unwittingly played into the hands of Kikuyu Central Association (KCA) founded by Harry Thuku.

The impetus created by the female circumcision row provided a golden opportunity for an upcoming leader, Jomo Kenyatta, who needed a platform to launch his career.

KCA used female circumcision as a rallying point for stirring up dissent against the government.

The crisis degenerated into a major problem that saw Arthur, then a staunch defender of African rights, vilified by both the natives and the colonial government. He was accused of insensitivity because female circumcision, his critics argued, was not even mentioned in the Bible.

“The crisis resulted in the breaking away of the Kikuyu, Embu and Meru churches from the CMS. They formed independent Christian churches and strengthened independent schools, which were an increasingly radical influence in Central Province,” Hornsby writes.

However, Robert Macpherson in his book, The Presbyterian Church in Kenya, gives a deeper perspective into the issue of female circumcision. He says there had been a sustained campaign for 25 years, and that the church, at times, fed its followers propaganda to discredit the rite.

Macpherson observes that preaching against the tradition had started as early as 1907, and it had intensified by 1914, when two girls among the lot indoctrinated by the church rejected the practice.

To avert a showdown, the church persuaded the girls to submit to the circumcisers, although the operation was carried out in the sterile wards of Kikuyu Hospital.

“From 1919, there was consistent record of propaganda against female circumcision through inter-church conferences including contributions to vernacular press,” Macpherson writes.

During a meeting held in March 1929, it was resolved that the custom was evil and had to be abandoned by all Christians. The conference further resolved that any Christian who underwent the ritual would be suspended from church.

The resolutions were later published by KCA’s publication Muigwithania (Reconciler), which was edited by the party’s secretary, Kenyatta. This stirred up the community, and was followed by another incident in June 1929, when a student at Kambui Boarding School was seized and forcibly circumcised.

Outraged church leaders pursued the matter and instigated the arrest of the circumcisers, who were charged before a Kiambu court.

The magistrate ruled that the girl had consented to the operation. However, the circumcisers were found to have exceeded their mandate by cutting the girl too deeply and exceeded the yardstick permitted by the Kiambu Native Council by-laws. For this, they were fined Sh30.

There were shock waves in the church after the ruling. Christians interpreted it to mean that the forces of evil had won.

It is against this background that Arthur fired a letter to The East African Standard on August 10, 1929, highlighting the plight of women, whose liberty was seen to be under attack from conservative wings of society.

KCA president Joseph Kang’ethe responded to the letter on August 14, by issuing a circular to all the 74 chiefs in Kikuyuland.

In his circular, he claimed that the missionaries had abolished the circumcision of girls, which was unacceptable.

“This new law has made us very sad for it says the circumcision of girls is done away with and in future anyone who circumcises a girl will be imprisoned. It is a very great sorrow that all the Agikuyu are thus prohibited circumcision by Dr JW Arthur,” the circular read.

As the crisis deepened, the church met on September 6, and drafted a petition, which was later circulated among 32 traditional chiefs for signatures. Since the chiefs were all irritate, they had to affix their thumbprints.

This earned the church’s crusade to ban female circumcision the name Kirore a corruption of the Kiswahili word, kidole (finger), which was a common reference to using the thumbprint to ‘sign’ documents.

KCA hit back with a new popular song, Muthirigu. This song became a medium of propaganda as, among other things, the singers alleged that there were plans to finish Kenyatta just as had been done with Thuku, who at the time had been dispatched to London to present the party’s petition.

There were claims that the Kiambu district commissioner had been bribed with uncircumcised Kikuyu girls, to ensure all the girls of the community remained uninitiated so that they would be married by whites, thus eradicating the Agikuyu.


As a result, Macpherson writes, the church and school attendance in Riruta, Ruthimitu, and Kikuyu dropped by half and Arthur, who had stirred the hornets’ nest, had to resign from heading the CMS.

Faced with stinging criticism and having fallen out of favour with colonial authorities and church leaders, Arthur was also forced to resign as the Legislative Council member representing Africans.

The church, too, bore scars of the battle as some Christians joined independent churches, which later gave birth to the African Independent Pentecostal Church of Africa (AIPCA) as we know it today.

So popular was the church that its hymns, which were composed after aligning the group’s teachings and theology with the Old Testament, were later used in 1940s and 1950s as anthems for the liberation struggle, especially after the government banned political parties.

The disillusioned Christians also advocated for Kikuyu Karing’a, schools, which followed a different curriculum from other institutions, and were later merged with independent schools to form a parallel education system.

At one time, in the 1940s, all 12 age groups in Central Province and Embu contributed Sh12,000 each and accomplished a rare feat when they established an independent teachers’ college.

Later, Kenyatta was recruited to guide the college as its principal, taking over from the founder, Peter Mbiyu Koinange. The college was later demolished and the church banned by the colonial authorities after the State of Emergency was declared.

The independent church was registered in the 1960s after Kenya got independence but its schools, which had been allocated to mainstream churches, were never returned.

Some 84 years since the Presbyterian Church unsuccessfully tried to ban female circumcision, the rite has since been eradicated in many parts of Central Kenya.

The AIPCA church has been like a log, which is used as a vessel to cross a treacherous stretch of river, only to be discarded afterwards. But against all odds, the independent church has survived, although it is a pale shadow of its former self.

The writer can be reached on [email protected]

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