By Tom Odhiambo
It seems that in many countries today, the church and State are not as close as they were a few centuries ago. Unless one is talking about a theocracy, as in Iran, Yemen, Sudan or the Vatican, for example; many states describe themselves as secular.
In many countries, the church is involved in government largely for ceremonial reasons. Church leaders may be asked to say a prayer during State functions, or they may be advisors to government. But even where the church is separate from the State, as in Kenya, the men (and women) of God still have some influence on politics and governance.
The church needs not be publicly involved in governance but its leaders often exercise the so-called “soft power” on a country’s leadership. Church leaders may offer spiritual guidance to leaders. They may be directly or indirectly involved with state institutions. Or they may be members of a council of wise men and women advising the government on an issue or two, etc. These are some of the roles that Reverend John Gatu has played in Kenya since the colonial times, as he reveals in his memoirs, Fan into Flame: An Autobiography (Moran Publishers, 2016).
This is a book about the politics of the church and the church in politics in Kenya, from the colonial era to date. John Gatu lets the reader know from the onset that he is a product of different influences: “I am the product of a dual heritage. This is because, although my birth and early upbringing are rooted in the Gikuyu tradition and culture, they are greatly influenced by the Christian teachings and practices that were introduced in Eastern Africa in the early 20th Century.”
This is a man who was born on the third of March, 1925, to parents who were already living a life heavily influenced by European modernity – they were Christians, of the Gospel Missionary Society (GMS) type; the father had some formal schooling; they lived within the “money” economy, which forced many Africans to acquire skills that would make them work for the Europeans, or earn in order to pay tax to the government, etc.
It is therefore not surprising that when John Gatu finished his primary schooling in 1940 but couldn’t go to secondary school, he sought work. Since he “did not want to become a teacher”, he headed to Nairobi, where many young men of his time went. But even Nairobi didn’t offer much for such a barely literate and unskilled young African fellow. Gatu still didn’t have a job after a month. He got lucky though when he heard that the army was recruiting Africans – for the World War II. He was “recruited into the Signal Corps as a Wireless Operator” on February 2, 1941. In the Army, Gatu worked in Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia and then back to Kenya.
When he retired from the Army, Gatu worked as the Secretary of the Ex-Servicemen Cooperative Society in Komothai, Kiambu and then Kigumo Farmers’ Cooperative Society. He later worked for the Ajeet Singh and Brar Advocates for a year before he joined the Colonial Film Unit. When the unit was discontinued in 1948, he “took up a job as a civilian wireless operator with the Royal Air Force at the Eastleigh Airbase.” As a side job, Gatu joined Henry Muoria in running a Gikuyu bi-weekly newspaper, Mumenyereri (The Guardian).
So, this man, with several skills in different professions didn’t find it difficult to apply for a clerical job at Kambui Mission Station at the end of 1949. This is what he says about the job, which would later set him on a cause and a course to head the Presbyterian Church of East Africa (PCEA): “I took up the job on February 1, 1950. This had nothing to do with my Christian faith or wish to serve the church. It was purely for the salary and my personal desire to work and live near my family. My job mostly involved copy typing and preparing documents related to teachers, ministers and evangelists salaries. My work entailed preparing the payroll for various teachers, whose monthly salaries ranged from one cent to a hundred shillings.”
Apart from the clerical work, Gatu started teaching Sunday school classes. This is the background that led him to join what he calls “what passed for a Divinity School at Limuru” in September 1951. From then on, Gatu set his foot firmly in the PCEA and rose through the ranks to head it. What really makes this autobiography worth reading is the way in which Gatu weaves his personal story with the histories of his community, the Gikuyu, the early Christian missionaries and the Church in Kenya, from the colonial times into the 21st century.
Gatu appears as a man of strong will. He speaks frankly about his spirited fight for the Church in Africa to be self-reliant, a call that made him a lot of enemies. This is the man who stood up to the Kenyatta regime during the ethnic oathing of 1969 by some individuals in and out of government who, ostensibly, sought to bind the GEMA people to support the government and keep power in Central Kenya. When members of the PCEA, predominantly Gikuyu, were forced to take the oath, against their Church’s teachings, Gatu and his fellow clergy were forced to protest and petition the President to order a stop to it. This stance didn’t endear Gatu to many people then in power and others who felt that he and the church had betrayed their “community”. This principled stance may not have forced the government to stop the nefarious activities of the GEMA leadership, but it highlighted the role that a good Church should play when politicians play politics that could destroy a nation.
Fan into Flame tells many stories that aren’t in circulation in the public today. For instance, the reader gets to know about Rev. Gatu’s relationship with Rev. Timothy Njoya, who at one time had been cast as a rebel by the PCEA. Gatu speaks openly about his family and the good and trying moments it has lived through. He doesn’t hide his feelings and thoughts about the various struggles in the Church, between differing philosophies and what those opposed to him bring into or subtract from the PCEA. Gatu is probably one of the few Kenyans today – especially from Central Kenya – who would speak openly about his relationship with President Moi. Gatu reminds us of Moi’s humanity when he talks of going to pray with the then head of state in the mornings for more than five years.
Gatu’s story is a tale of a humble man – one who became a soldier, a clerk, a teacher, a priest and a senior church elder – who has achieved much, and lived his life to the full. Fan into Flame is a story of a life seasoned with humility, endurance, perseverance, hope, industry, faith, prayer and belief in the benevolence of one’s God; a story whose kind is in very short supply these days. ^
The writer teaches literature at the University of Nairobi; Tom.firstname.lastname@example.org