The Gentle Anointing Of the Spirit

It’s not uncommon for the African independent churches we work with to be told by the Holy Spirit in a dream or a prophecy that we are about to visit. What happened recently in West Pokot was, however, rather special…

Some months ago in OAIC (Organisation of African Instituted Churches) we were asked by a civic educator to visit an indigenous religious movement in West Pokot. This is a large, mainly semi-arid district in western Kenya north of Mt. Elgon and bordering Uganda. It’s about the size of Wales. The movement goes by the name Dini ya Roho Mafuta Pole ya Afrika, meaning roughly ‘The African Religion of the Gentle Anointing of the Spirit.’ Our contact reported that after 50 years of existence they were still un­registered by the Kenya Government (a legal requirement for religious bodies) and in consequence their members had been marginalised by the local administration, by church bodies, and by NGOs. He told us that they constituted about 50% of the population of the district. Our role was to help ‘mainstream’ them into Kenyan society.

A bloody clash 01 the colonial era
I was interested immediately. Some ten years or so ago, Ken Stevens, a church­warden of my home church of St. Martin’s Epsom, told me that in 1950 his twin brother had been killed in Kenya while serving as a colonial District Officer. He had been caught up in the ‘Kolowa Affray’, a fight between members of a religious movement and the colonial administration. This was the very movement we had been invited to visit.

The colonial administration had believed them to be members of Dini ya Msambwa, which was fiercely anti-colonial and promoted a heady brew of traditional religion and political nationalism. The fighting at Kolowa was bloody and intense. According to the subsequent commission of inquiry, three Europeans and one African askari died in Ihe fighling, and on the side of the Pokot, the founder of the movement, a charismatic preacher called Lukas Pkech, was killed, together with 28 followers. Pkech was apparently leading his party on a religious pilgrimage to Mt. Elgon at the time (there were also women and children in the group). The present members of the movement claim over 2000 were killed but this figure seems exaggerated, even if the colonial report was an underestimation.

“We used to pray on hills, in caves, and hide on top of tall trees in the bush.” Our contact made it clear that we were expected to deal with two issues: the movement’s continued marginalization within modern Kenyan society and (specifically for me as a Brit) to help with roconciliation and the healing of memories. I was not clear at first how to combine the two roles.

The five days we spent in Pokot seem to have been of crucial significance to the church. Some people walked for three days to attend the meetings, which were held at different venues and numbered between one to three thousand people each. Others – in their seventies – came on foot from Uganda. We heard that during the colonial period people worshipped in caves to avoid arrest. Open public worship was not possible before 1992. As the week progressed, stories mounted of continuing mistreatment. Members have been refused employment and bursaries for school fees (the area is very poor). They have even been denied permission to participate in community workshops on HIV and AIDS (as if the HIV virus follows religious boundaries!).

We came to realise that the present plight of the members of Mafuta Pole originated in the tragic misunderstanding (for that is what I now think it was) between a stressed and nervous colonial administration and a religious group in a state of uncontrolled and perhaps uncontrollable ecstasy and waving their spears. (The Pokot carried – some still carry – spears for self-defence against wild animals as much as for war. Many of the spears abandoned after the fight at Kolowa had their spearheads still covered by their protective leather guards.) Recent Kenyan administrators and leaders of mission churches have simply continued with the same negative and politicised perceptions of their colonial predecessors. This has been reinforced by the administrative problems that arise when prophets in a movement like this or, indeed, many of the churches we work with ‘uncover’ the presence of witches in the community.

Healing memories
The healing of people’s memories was made easier by two things. First, a prophecy had been received some years ago that other races would one day come to the movement. In 2000 the HQs had even bought separate visitors’ books for the four ‘races’ of colonial Kenya: Africans, Europeans, Arabs, and Asians. Until we arrived they were all still empty. I was privileged to be the first signatory in the European book. My colleague Rev Daniel Oguso from Nyanza opened the African book. It was if they had been waiting for us. The last day at the church Hqs several rolls of film were used up taking photos of ‘the European’ – to show those back at home who would never otherwise believe a European could possibly visit Mafuta Pole.

Secondly, Ken Stevens had given me a photo of his brother taken shortly before his death. This physical object linked me with the deaths at Kolowa, and enabled me publicly to ‘accept’ (in general terms) the sins and mistakes of my ‘fathers’. The photo also reminded the church members that the deaths were not all on one side. I gave them a copy of the photo and asked them what they wanted to send back to Epsom. They decided to send a photo of survivors of the fight and subsequent imprisonments grouped with me in front of a church choir.

A church before formal theology
Before our arrival we thought that Mafuta Pole was probably an ‘Old Testament’ church – like others of our experience. Confident, that is, in God the Father, filled with gifts of the Spirit, and strongly influenced by OT law, but giving a higher status to their own founder than to Jesus. But as the week progressed, we changed our minds. First we were impressed by the direct­ness and openness of the church members. (Spiritual churches prefer to trust such signs of the authenticity of faith rather than statements like ‘I am saved’.) Then, the numerous choirs present at the public meetings sang to us their own compositions (“given by the Spirit”) – of Jesus as Saviour, as the Gate, as the Way to Heaven.

The leaders explained that their founder, Lukas Pkech, had first received the Spirit some years before the Kolowa tragedy. When the Bible eventually came – some years after the events at Kolowa – it confirmed what his followers had already been taught by the Spirit. Daniel and I felt we were in the presence of what now, in 2003, was a Christian church – but a church without any formal theology. Instead their faith is expressed in songs, lived out in daily life, is still constantly tested by persecution, and remains close to the traditional culture of the Pokot people. Unfortunately it is just this simplicity and closeness to Pokot culture that makes Mafuta Pole appear a threat to the mission churches in the district. This won’t deter us from the promise we made on the last day to see Mafuta Pole duly registered by the Government and free to practise their faith without discrimination. Already we are working with two West Pokot MPs to seek Mafuta Pole’s registration, and planning to involve the church in our own training programmes.

Even now the beauty of their songs echoes in my ears. We will return.

This story is written by John Padwick, CMS mission partner in Kenya