Archbishop Gitari’s Legacy
  • Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Even in death, the Most Rev. David Mukuba Gitari was a focus of division among his country’s political elite. Government and opposition politicians are reported to have jostled one another while attending his burial in his home district of Kirinyaga.

Gitari, the third Anglican archbishop of Kenya, died September 30 at 76. All Saints Cathedral in Nairobi overflowed October 10 as a congregation of nearly 10,000 turned out for a funeral that lasted more than three hours.

As a bishop and archbishop his trademark was using biblical narratives to condemn political corruption. He cited the Old Testament account of the murder of Naboth the vineyard owner by King Ahab’s agents (1 Kings 21) to denounce land-grabbing by powerful interests in Kenya. He also crusaded against mlolongo (or queue voting, which required voters to line up publicly behind their preferred candidate).

He was highly critical of the leadership of President Daniel arap Moi (1978-2002) and this almost cost him his life. In 1992 an armed gang broke into his house trying to kill him. With his wife, Grace, and assistant bishop, Andrew Adano, he hid in the attic until help arrived.

David Mukuba Gitari was born in 1937, the fifth child of Samuel Mukuba, a catechist, and his wife, Jessie Njuku. From Samuel he inherited a passion for evangelism and church extension. Jessie taught him to read before he reached school age. The couple pioneered planting of Anglican churches and schools in the communities in Kirinyaga.

He took the Cambridge O Level examination in November 1958 and scored a First Division with credits in every subject. Even so, access to higher education for Africans at that time was rare and he first worked as an untrained teacher. Later, having earned a first degree in Nairobi and been sent to England in 1961 for theological study, he was denied access to degree-level studies despite being highly recommended. He returned with a diploma from Tyndale College in Bristol. He married Grace Elizabeth Wanjiru Gatembo in 1966 and they had three children. In 1970 he would return to England to earn a B.D. at King’s College London, the fourth Kenyan to do so after John Mbiti, Thomas Kalume, and Henry Okullu, who served as a bishop.

In the 1960s, with his path to ordination closed for lack of financial resources, he became a student evangelist with the Pan African Fellowship of Evangelical Students. Later he became General Secretary of the Bible Society of Kenya, overseeing Bible translations into KiMeru, Kisii, and Luhya and Mark’s Gospel into Turkana. In his time more Bibles were sold in Kenya relative to population than for any other Bible society in Africa. He was ordained deacon in 1971, while still serving with the Bible society, and became a priest a year later.

In 1975 he was elected the first Bishop of Mt. Kenya East, a massive area comprising one third of Kenya, including the towns of Embu, Isiolo, Kirinyaga, Mandera, Marsabit, Meru, and Wajir, and stretching into the arid north abutting the Somali border.

He was just 38, making him the youngest of the Kenyan bishops. He was soon appointed secretary to the House of Bishops, a position he held for 14 years. Under his leadership, due in no small measure to his zeal for evangelism and church-planting, there was phenomenal church growth. Records show he baptized 150,000 and confirmed 90,000 people.

He set up Christian Community Services, a pioneering social and economic development agency that was soon emulated by other Kenyan dioceses. He founded St. Andrew’s College of Theology and Development.

In 1990 he oversaw division of Mt. Kenya East into two diocesan units, Embu and Kirinyaga, and he became bishop of the latter, based on his home county. Seven years later he became Archbishop of the Anglican Church in Kenya. By then he was well established on the world stage. He was a key member of the Lausanne Movement and World Evangelical Fellowship as well as the World Council of Churches. Within the Anglican Communion he served on the liturgical commission and the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission.

At home he championed development of a modern-language prayer book, a volume with vibrant liturgies used at the Lambeth Conference of Bishops and other inter-Anglican meetings. He once wryly admitted to me that his old mother, a firm devotee of the traditional prayer book, did not approve.

His books include Let the Bishop Speak (1989), In Season and Out of Season: Sermons to a Nation (1996), and Responsible Church Leadership (2005).

In his as yet unpublished autobiography he wrote: “I have refused to give up life or Christian faith because of any troubles I have had in the past; neither shall I allow any tribulation to make me give up my faith in God.”

John Martin, London

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