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The Hill of Vision. The missionaries gathered here to pray for guidance at the start of their work.

Quaker Christianity in Kenya

Maragoli Hills, Western Kenya. The view toward Kisumu from the summits. Note the meetinghouse in center distance. Photos by Brian Young.

 

Arriving in 1902 on the soil of colonial Kenya, Quaker Christianity found native spiritualities on the ground. Spiritual traditions from widely divergent origins have surprisingly married harmoniously among the people of western Kenya and beyond. For over a century, the Friends church has grown by leaps and bounds, thanks to the hard work of, among many others, Festo Lisamadi; Daudi Lungaho; Joseph Ngaira; Yohana Lumwaji; Arthur Litu; Richard Martin Kibisu; Petro Wanyama; and my great‐grandmother, Dorika Bweyenda, who continued to practice her shamanic healing Umwahi along with her new found Quaker faith. Today, Kenya has the highest number of Friends found anywhere on Earth. The three founding missionaries, Willis R. Hotchkiss, Arthur B. Chilson, and Edgar T. Hole, were sent by the Cleveland, Ohio‐based Board of the Friends Africa Industrial Mission. They set up camp in the Kaimosi Forest, 24 miles north of the port town of Kisumu by Lake Victoria, the second largest fresh‐water lake in the world by surface area. After their transatlantic voyage had landed them in Mombasa, the gatekeeping British officials sent the three young men to the mosquito‐infested western region using the newly constructed railway on what writer Charles Miller referred to as “the Lunatic Express.” The Friends Africa Industrial Mission sent many other missionaries out to the mission stations in Kaimosi, other parts of western Kenya, and elsewhere.

That of God in Everyone

Quakers from different strands understand the concept of “that of God in everyone” in different ways. Wilmer Cooper says: “Some [Quakers] have held that the Light, Spirit, Seed, Measure, ‘that of God in Everyone,’ and Christ Within had a common meaning for early Friends and therefore can be used interchangeably.” Friends today who hold this Christ‐centered view are mainly affiliated with Friends United Meeting or Evangelical Friends Church International, of which the majority are found in Kenya and Latin America, as well as the Conservative Friends, concentrated in the United States, and the many Christ‐centered Friends worldwide scattered among Liberal and unaffiliated Friends meetings.

 

As both a fourth‐generation Kenyan Quaker and an initiated Maragoli shaman, I have been fascinated by the history of the meeting of these two cultures, that amazingly, as if providentially, blended without one erasing the other.

The Maragoli Context

The Maragoli are a Bantu‐speaking people who have been practicing settled agriculture in the Maragoli Hills of western Kenya, situated on the equator a few miles north of the Kavirondo Gulf of Lake Victoria. The Maragoli people believe they have lived in their present location for centuries, after having originally come from Misri, Egypt, by following the Nile upstream.

The Maragoli are also known as the Mulembe people, the Maragoli word for “peace.” Their pacifist inclinations were well known, not only throughout Kenya but widely throughout East Africa, even before the arrival of Quaker missionaries in 1902. As both a fourth‐generation Kenyan Quaker and an initiated Maragoli shaman, I have been fascinated by the history of the meeting of these two cultures—my own Maragoli culture and that of the peace‐loving American Friends—that amazingly, as if providentially, blended without one erasing the other. Much of the responsibility for this blending may lie with the extraordinary character of the early Quaker convert Dorika Bweyenda, my great‐grandmother and my initiator into the Maragoli shamanic tradition.

Dorika was about 29 years old when the missionaries came. Her husband of perhaps 12 years, Mmboga, was the village shaman then, having been trained and initiated by his father, the renowned shaman Votega. Mmboga and Dorika were among the first convinced Quakers in the mission. Long unable to conceive a child, Dorika, at last, became pregnant on the eve of the First World War. Three months into her pregnancy, Mmboga was conscripted by the occupying British into the King’s African Rifles. Notwithstanding his Maragoli and Quaker pacifist principles, Mmboga, with many other young Maragoli men, was drafted to fight in a war about which he knew nothing. He and the other Maragoli never returned home, and to this day, nothing is known about their fate. Had they been British lads killed in action, the Crown would never have allowed their records to be lost, but such was the colonizers’ attitude toward the peoples they had subjugated; they were not seen as fully human.

When Dorika gave birth to her son, my grandfather, in 1914, she named him Ngeresa, “English,” after the British occupiers who had kidnapped her husband. Everyone agreed that naming her son after the people who had robbed her of her husband—and the child’s father—was an act of unbelievable forgiveness. That is why village elders proposed that she be made the next shaman. She was initiated by Votega.

Dorika lived to be about 110 years old; I was born when she was 92. One day I asked her why she had named my grandfather “Ngeresa.” She looked me straight in the eye and answered, “As a shaman, I know that no one can crush a person. I gave your grandfather that name to remind myself of that. They took away [my husband’s] body, but his spirit still lives right here, where we are. His spirit lives in me, and”—she pointed directly at me—“his spirit lives in you.”

The Hill of Vision. The missionaries gathered here to pray for guidance at the start of their work.

 

While [my great‐grandmother] agreed that there is that of God in everyone, she also knew, from Maragoli shamanic tradition, that there is also that of God in everything, living and nonliving.

Maragoli Reverence for Creation

The Maragoli people’s current literacy is superimposed on a traditional oral culture that has, for centuries, been passing on our history, culture, and values by word of mouth, through deliberate and cherished strategies. One of these strategies is our rites of passage, different for each gender, which introduce young Maragoli boys and girls into the responsibilities of adulthood. These take several days, in which elders teach the new initiates what had been passed down to them during their own initiation. A second strategy is the sharing of dreams during the bonfire circle, which occurs nightly except when it is raining. Dreams are recognized as an important part of life, and the sharing of them is an important part of the life of the community, which to this day largely lacks the distractions of television. In this circle, we share our hopes for the future and the dreams experienced during the previous night. Everyone around the circle is welcome to give an interpretation of another’s dreams, though only the person holding the talking stick is permitted to speak. The discipline of the talking stick, which represents nature, teaches every Maragoli to be a good listener. We believe that our dreams are important because God, and the gods, and our ancestors speak to us through dreams, and we believe that no dream is without significance: there are no trivial dreams. People we know, our animals, plants, birds, insects, water, fire, air, wind, rainbow, rain, and lightning can all be communicating with us through our dreams.

When the Maragoli say that our ancestors speak with us through dreams, we do not confine the meaning of “ancestors” merely to blood human relatives of former generations. Rather, we mean that our ancestors include God, our Creator (whom we call Nyasaye), our own bodies, plants, soil, rivers, lakes, mountains, animals, creeping things, the sun, the moon, air, fire, wind, rain, our brothers and sisters, our parents and grandparents, and so on. It is made clear to us that all these are our ancestors because without them we could not exist. We are because these ancestors are; and because these ancestors are, therefore we are. We are taught to be thankful and to honor, respect, protect, and care for all of these ancestors, because by being thankful for their lives, we are valuing, honoring, and being thankful for our own lives.

We are taught to honor and respect the animals that give us food by slaughtering them quickly, minimizing suffering. When we Maragoli have to slaughter a chicken, a goat, or a cow for food, we have to, first of all, face them with humility and tell the animal that we honor and respect them for the fact that they are giving their lives for the sustenance of our lives. The same reverence is called for when we harvest vegetables and fruits: kale and tomato that we harvest from the garden give up their lives so that we can have life. While I completely understand why some people are vegetarians for reasons of health, I am always surprised when I hear people say that they are vegetarians because vegetables have no blood. To the Maragoli mind, vegetables have as much life as animals and their own kind of life‐blood, which is their sap. They are therefore respected and honored in the same way animals are thanked, not only for relieving our hunger but also for giving us life. For this reason, whenever I am at a place where food is served and people start eating before giving thanks for the meal, as I have often witnessed in the United States, I stop them and insist on saying a prayer of thanksgiving to honor the food, the soil, the sunlight, the water, the God who gave them, and the people that planted, harvested, transported, cooked, and served the food.

Among the Maragoli, boys are circumcised just before they leave the initiation forest. The girls’ initiation involves no genital surgery. There are many reasons for the removal of the boy’s foreskin, but I will emphasize one: the most important reason for circumcision is to give boys a sense of the pain that the ancestors suffer when we neglect, disrespect, and mistreat them. It teaches us empathy and compassion. We are prepared for this intense pain several days in advance and advised not to cry, even though in my day, the knife used was deliberately left blunt to make the experience painful. Should any of the boys cry because of the extreme pain, all the boys in the circle, who may number up to 200, converge around him to assure him that it is understandable for him to cry, but he is not going through the pain alone, but rather “with all of us together.” A Western mind might dismiss this as child abuse and unnecessary traumatizing of the innocent, but for us, it is an act that bestows honor, and we see the pain as a small price to pay for gaining the authority of a community elder at that young age. In fact, immediately upon the removal of the foreskin, we look the circumcising elder straight in the eyes and thank him for gifting us with the honor.

As the circumcision is always done near a river, our blood flows into the river. Even the blood that pours on the dry land eventually percolates into the water system and then into the plants and animals that drink the water. At this point, our elders tell us that our blood is carried by the water in the river downstream to Lake Victoria, where some of the water will evaporate into the sky and be dispersed throughout the cosmos, while the remainder, released into the Nile River, will begin its long journey into Misri, Egypt, and the Mediterranean Sea, and thence to all the oceans of the world. Our life‐blood has been shared with the whole universe through our circumcision. It is as if we boys have now had our first sexual intercourse, a very painful one, with all creation as our partner.

When the missionaries started preaching, they said that they followed a teacher named Jesus Christ who walks in the Light, lives the Light, shares the Light, and in fact is the Light. After listening to this, Dorika said to herself, “This sounds like our own shamanism.” She and her husband adopted Quakerism; his father, Votega, did not. But Dorika taught me that she knew something else important that the missionaries were not saying. While she agreed that there is that of God in everyone, she also knew, from Maragoli shamanic tradition, that there is also that of God in everything, living and nonliving. With her adoption of Quakerism and Christianity, Dorika Bweyenda let Jesus Christ bless the Maragoli with the way of peace and universal forgiveness, but at the same time, she led her people into a Christian Quakerism enriched by the reverent panentheism of her inherited shamanic tradition.

Quakers elsewhere can learn from Quakers in Kenya what it means to be loyal, to be generous, to be cheerful, and to make the best of a bad situation. As the numbers of Quakers in the West decrease, in Africa the number rises. This should be a cause for celebration and encouragement among Western Friends.

 

Quakers elsewhere can learn from Quakers in Kenya what it means to be loyal, to be generous, to be cheerful, and to make the best of a bad situation. As the numbers of Quakers in the West decrease, in Africa the number rises.

In spite of the peril to all life presented by the environmental crisis of our time, and the human ignorance, greed, and selfishness that have brought it about, it is possible that God is using the crisis for God’s own redemptive purposes. This would not exonerate those responsible for the war and waste that have wrought toxic conditions on Earth, such as the destabilization of ecosystems with runaway species extinctions, desertification of arable land, and the acidification of oceans.

I plead for a “panentheist” view of God and creation, particularly at this time when the very Earth is imperiled by environmental catastrophe. I trace this growing threat to negligent stewardship and a dominant culture that excuses war and waste and glorifies selfish behavior. Quakers and other people of the dominant world religions have important lessons to learn from native peoples’ faith traditions. They must fulfill their destiny to show the world both the bankruptcy of this ethic of selfishness and the all‐inclusiveness of the divine love that humanity is called to express⁠, not just to our human neighbors but also to every created being and thing.

Stanley Chagala Ngesa, a fourth-generation Kenyan Quaker raised in the Maragoli Hills of Western Kenya in the traditions of both Christian Quakerism and the traditional spirituality of his people, is currently a postgraduate student of Quaker studies at Earlham School of Religion in Richmond, Ind. He holds an MDiv degree from San Francisco Theological Seminary and has worked as a chaplain at Marin General Hospital in Greenbrae, Calif.

Posted in: Features, Friends in Africa

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8 thoughts on “Quaker Christianity in Kenya

  1. David Hege says:

    City & State
    grantville, Ga.
    Praising God! What a beautiful post!

  2. Dorlan Bales says:

    City & State
    Wichita, Kansas
    Dear friend Stanley Chagala Ngesa,

    I am both educated and moved by your Quaker Christianity in Kenya. Thank you so much for your ministry as a bridge‐builder between African Friends and other Quakers around the world. Your writing is a beautiful testimony to the presence of our God of love in all things, the source of healing in our broken selves and world.

    Blessed by the opportunity to know you at the Stoking the Fire conference this year in Richmond, I look forward to growing our relationship in the days ahead.

  3. Karen Taborn says:

    City & State
    New York, NY
    What a beautiful article and what a beautiful people the Maragoli people seem to be. Our meeting, Morningside Quaker Meeting just had its Fall retreat in which we focused on the environment, our relationship to the animals and plants of the earth and healing. We in the West are somewhat familiar with how Native Americans see the natural world and its various beings as living, spiritual beings and related to humans and some members of our meeting borrowed from those traditions which were expressed in a ritual we practiced during our retreat. I think if we had known of Maragoli spiritual beliefs and traditions we would have expressed those during our retreat as well. I feel there is much that Westerners stand to learn from the Marogoli and similarly minded/spirited peoples. If Mr. Stanley Chagala Ngesa should find himself in New York City I sincerely hope that he will visit us at Morningside Quaker Meeting. His presence would be most welcomed.

  4. Harvey Gillman says:

    City & State
    U.K.
    Thank you for this really fascinating article. I cherish the panentheist understanding of reality, finding it much richer than the world denying culture of some forms of European Christianity. The one thing that saddens me about what I have read about Kenyan Friends is their hostility to same sex love and their support of their government’s persecution of GLBTQ people. If the light of God is in all of nature, then it is in GLBTQ people also. (I understand that this is a cultural matter, but Friends have often risen above cultural practices in the name of a God of love and peace).

  5. Sandy Farley says:

    City & State
    Redwood City, CA
    Stanley;

    Asanti sana for your beautiful blog post!

    As a small farmer, I hold with your ancestors that plants have being as much as humans and other animals. I can sense when my tomatoes are struggling or when the beans are happy climbing their poles. When plants are tired, I give them extra water and some kelp and fish food. We prune and harvest to encourage growth. We feed and protect them, just As we might feed and protect chickens, sheep, goats, pigs, and cattle.

    The world is a whole living unit. Even the rocks have being–they just move a lot slower! I have walked the slopes of volcanoes, studied geology, delighted in plate tectonics as it explained much of the planet’s history.

    The same Holy Spirit pervades it all.

    Mungu Ibariki.

  6. Helen Bayes says:

    City & State
    Vic Australia
    I am very touched by you story and your faith, Friend Stanley. Thank you for writing about this for publication.

    I also feel there is the Spirit of God in all living things, and indeed in all the natural environments themselves. I see Jesus as a great teacher of this relationship between human, nature and God. He is the greatest teacher for me. So I would call myself a Christocentric Friend, who is open to every source of truth, love and wisdom, and o I am also comfortable with Universalist Friends and the communities who use programmed worship in Friends Churches.
    Your story illustrates for me what is also true in Indigenous culture in Australia. For them, everything is filled with its own Spirit — the plants, animals, places, rivers, rocks, …and is to be respected and honoured always. I have a great respect for these people’s faith and close relationship with the land and creatures.

  7. City & State
    Sapello, NM, usa
    Oneness forever Oneness
    who sings to us in silence
    who teaches us through each other guide my steps with strength and wisdom
    may I see the lessons as I walk
    honor the purpose of all things
    help me touch wirh respect
    always speak from behind my eyes
    let me observe not judge
    may I cause no harm and leave music and beauty after my visit
    when I return to Forever
    may the circle be closed
    and the spiral be broader
    Oneness, Forever Oneness

    Outback Nation Song

  8. Arnold Alusa says:

    City & State
    Kenya
    My only hope is that the Quakers will maintain their tradition and believe, going forward.

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