Cradle of education with little to show for it

St Paul’s church at Rabai which was constructed by early missionaries in 1848. It is the second oldest church in East Africa behind Zanzibar’s cathedral. Photo/LABAN WALLOGA

Kilifi has the enviable tag of being the cradle of both education and Christianity in Kenya.

More than 160 years after the first European set foot in Rabai, the sleepy township basks in the glory of his pioneering missionary work.
German born Johann Ludwig Krapf, a member of the Church Missionary Society (CMS) started Anglican Church activities at Rabai in 1844.

Later joined by Dr Johannes Rebmann they bought land from Rabai Kaya elders and after building their first church and houses, established a mission station in 1846.

The building was completed in 1848. The increase in church followers encouraged them to build the larger St Paul’s church which was opened in 1887 and still stands. 

According to Mr Willy Mutta, the curator in charge of Rabai Museums, the Anglican church, which retains its original architecture with only minor changes, is the second oldest in East Africa after Zanzibar cathedral and is credited as the venue where 2,000 slaves were issued with certificates of freedom.

In a book detailing the life and works of Dr Krapf, a joint publication of the German embassy and the National Museums of Kenya, the open-mindedness and friendliness of the Mijikenda (whom Krapf called the Wanika), made him explore their potential as intermediaries in spreading the Word.

As a consequence, Krapf and Rebmann decided to install a missionary station in Rabai. But in Krapf’s view, Rabai, rather than being a place of permanent settlement, was to serve more as a base camp, a starting point for missionary projects intended to extend to the north and later also the interior of East Africa, the book states.

Mr Mutta said the Rabai mission attracted many children because some of the freed slaves who had been brought all the way from India had specialised skills such as carpentry, masonry and knowledge of modern education.

“Rabai, in Kilifi County has a similar history with that of Frere Town in Mombasa where freed slaves were settled, but in the former the freed slaves intermarried and were assimilated into the local set up,” Mr Mutta said.

Retired Vicar General of the Anglican Church in Kenya at Mombasa, Edwin Demla is a descendant of the freed slaves. His great grandfather John Demla was in a group of freed slaves who came to be known as Bombay Africans because they were rescued in India.

They formed a group of early missionaries who had technical skills they passed on to children. Mr Demla said: “At first the local community was suspicious of Dr Krapf’s intentions, but because of his interest first in learning the local language and his closeness to the people he received a warm welcome.

“In fact he had requested a place within the forest to build a church but it was not accepted because it would interfere with their way of worship.

“But they allowed him a place outside the forest in 1846 where the first church was built and the missionary centre came into being.”

At first, Mr Demla said, the community was reluctant to send their children for education because most of them, who were busy tapping palm wine and farming, did not see the value of the white man’s education.

But Dr Krapf provided clothes and food which the children took home, a move he said attracted many of the children who took up modern education while others became Christians and helped to spread the Gospel.

Role model for locals

One of the locals who took up Christianity incurring the wrath of his family, was Isaac Nyondo. He was banished for his beliefs but after receiving an education and becoming a dependable member of the church, he married one of the Bombay Africans named Polly.

Mr Demla added, “His stature changed considerably and became a motivation for the local people who slowly but steadily embraced Christianity and education.”

Rabai, where formal education is believed to have started in 1849 with the first primary school, named after Isaac Nyondo, now has little to show for it.

According to Mr Demla this is because of a brain drain caused by the missionaries because those who received an early education and learnt some skills were taken away to start missions in other parts of the country.

Most never returned to Rabai. The spokesman of elders of the five kayas of Rabai, Mr Daniel Mwawara Garero, said they welcomed the missionaries with open arms.

“When the missionaries led by Dr Krapf came, they appreciated what we were doing and did not interfere with our way of life and that is why the community agreed to set aside land for the mission. What is sad, though, is that nearly all the land has been sold out in unclear circumstances.

“Out of the 91 acres that was given out to the church by the community, the church now has a paltry six acres,” said Mr Garero.

Tourist circuit

The National Museums of Kenya (NMK) have recently started to revitalise national monuments, one of which, according to director general Idle Farar, is the Krapf Memorial at Mkomani, Mombasa, which was recently renovated.

The NMK has already developed a tourist circuit tracing the footsteps of Dr Krapf from Mombasa to Rabai using the forests as a springboard to cultural tourism.

According to chief curator Jimbi Katana who helped to develop the package, tourists will start at Mkomani’s English Point, where Dr Krapf’s wife was buried.

“They would be taken by boat to Bandarini and disembark to take the trail on foot through one of the sacred forests, Kaya Mudzimuvya in Rabai, where Dr Kraph first met the local elders and sought permission to set up a mission,” he continued.

Kaya Mudzimuvya in Kaloleni District is one of the about 40 forests at the Coast that has benefited from funds to set up eco-tourism projects. Ten kayas have been listed after meeting guidelines from Unesco’s World heritage committee.