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The Pacifist Presence in Kenya

Timothy Gachanga, Tangaza College, Nairobi, Kenya  

In this paper, I will discuss how the Community Peace Museums Heritage Foundation (CPMHF) provides a venue for the expression of pacifist values among the Akorino in Kenya. The Akorino are a group of African Christians whose beliefs and practices are based on the principle of non-violence. They are among the groups of people who are considered non-mainstream, and perhaps ineffective in the national politic. This may be because they are small in number, simple and spiritual people. They normally do not join the military and the police force. During the almost eighty years of their existence, the Akorino have developed their own set of social values, material culture, and systems of protection against injustice and violence. The Akorino community is an example of how the old and the new have been integrated into the changing structures of social and economic political life of new African states.


Akorino represent a religious group that Jomo Kenyatta, the first president of Kenya, pointed out in 1938 was in its infancy, and that its future growth and activities were yet to be investigated by anthropologists. Kenyatta, who referred to them as Watu wa Mungu(People of God), had observed that the religion was functioning in various parts of Gikuyu country, but had little influence with the general population, its appeal being to such individuals as had been pronounced 'sinners' by missionaries, and to others who had been cured of diseases (Kenyatta 1938:279). 

Akorino Ceremony Nairobi

Akorino is an African indigenous church that grew strictly out of indigenous leadership. It did not split from any Western mission. Its first generation membership had come out of the various missions as well as the unchurched population that followed Gikuyu traditional religion. Different names and titles have been used to refer to Akorino. As mentioned, Kenyatta spoke of a religious sect known as Watu wa Mungu or arathi ( prophets)The colonial administrative files of 1931 refer to them as ' false prophets' . The name by which the adherents are to the present day most commonly known by outsiders first appears in February 1934 as aroti(dreamers). Other names include wagithomo, muthari muoyo etc. This suggests the changing image that the community has for them.

Akorino as a non-violence movement

The Akorino started appearing in the middle of the 1920s.  Those were very difficult years for the Gikuyu people and other communities in Kenya. By 1920, Kenya had been declared a British colony and Kenyans were forced to carry kipande, to work in white settlers' farms, to pay taxes and to adhere to foreign religious beliefs and governance structures. This made the entire community dissatisfied with the colonial regime and saw the birth of many anti-mission and anti-government movements that focused on liberating the country from their colonial masters. This was given impetus by the return of soldiers from World War One who told the people what violence meant.

Akorino, unlike other independent churches, came up as a peace movement. They reacted towards the colonial aggression by withdrawal and rejection. They preached a non-violent opposition of unjust colonial policies that discriminated against and exploited Africans. They refused to carry kipande, to be counted during censuses, to pay taxes, to take their children to missionary schools or hospitals, and to be employed in settlers' farms. They also abstained from buying colonial industrial goods from the shops, to eat or drink from plates and cups, or to travel by vehicles.

By 1927, Akorino had increased in number and could easily be noticed by colonial governments. They had also started receiving a lot of attention from the general public and could be seen moving around in groups preaching and praying for the country. The colonial government regarded them as subversive and accused them of collaborating with political movements such as the Kikuyu Central Association (KCA). Some of their sacred shrines were closed down by the government on the assumption that they were used for secret meetings of a political character.

On February 2nd 1934, three of their founders were shot dead by colonial soldiers. They had gone to the forest to pray. What followed was a period of suspicion and persecution till the close of the State of Emergency. Akorino did not see any reason to defend themselves in colonial courts. Whenever they were arraigned in court, they would sit quietly in the dock and refuse to say a word.  They believed that arrests and imprisonment were inevitable and they were ready to go to prison in order to break the vicious cycle of injustice that continued to put their people down. 

Today, Akorino are celebrating their eighth decade since their emergence. Their history of pain, collective trauma and fear is a celebration of how a minority faith group can exploit their adaptive potential to cope and overcome challenges that confront their lives. The group has much wisdom to offer to the whole of Africa in her efforts to cope with situations of great stress and upheavals.

Akorino Peace Museum  

The museum, at Thika town, began in 2000 with the aim of preserving and strengthening peace values among the Akorino. It started by documenting the history of the Akorino, collecting peace material culture, photos of Akorino leaders who have been an inspiration to others on pacifism, and their biographies. The museum also identified a number of material culture items that are still held by the community because they are perceived as sacred and are exclusively worn during ceremonies. At the same time, some of the material in the exhibition (e.g. gaarus which is a multi-purpose hall constructed on every church campus) exist in Akorino indigenous churches and the best way to exhibit them is by visiting the churches themselves and sharing experiences with the elders.  The elders advised us not to move the material cultures from the community, which concurs with Varine's observations regarding maintaining the relevance of the community museums.(1)

Stories are told about exhibits at the museum, because oral tradition goes hand in hand with the visual display. One such story is that of the gacuka, an adornment worn by married women. According to an unpublished document entitled Rugano Rwa Githomo Kia Aroti, 'The Story of the Aroti Church' (Aroti is another name for Akorino), some Akorino prophets heard the voice of God asking them to go for a prayer retreat in Mount Kenya, a sacred mountain for the Agikuyu, in 1927.  Among them was a respected prophetess who displayed a unique spiritual charisma and was therefore accepted into the leadership of the early Akorino. On their way up the mountain, as they approached River Nyamindi, tradition says that God spoke to the prophetess about traditional adornments which they had on their bodies.  God impressed on her that for a servant of God, the acceptable adornment was that of the inner person, and excessive jewellery was an indication of worldliness.  The prophetess told the group that God had instructed them to discard all their jewellery into the River Nyamindi, which they promptly did.  They had to leave all worldliness behind before they crossed River Nyamindi on their ascent to the Holy Mountain to hear the voice of God.  The removal of their cultural ornaments and adornments represented a turning away from their earlier traditional life in order to cross over into a new life in the Spirit.  Following that instruction, personal ornaments, such as necklaces, rings, bracelets, jewellery and other adornments of precious metal were forbidden among the Akorino.  Only recently have some Akorino begun to use wedding bands (Waigwa 2007). 

Other artefacts on display are the religious vestments that are used by all Akorino during services.  One of the vestments is a turban that is used to identify Akorino as peace makers. The turban is a band of cloth wrapped around the head several times into a neat headdress.  It is a sign that identifies all the Akorino people as peace makers.  Another vestment is the robe called kanju, from Kiswahilikanzu, which is used during church services.  These vestments reflect the Aaronic priesthood which required every minister at the altar to wear priestly garments.  By wearing priestly garments, all Akorino, both male and female, affirm that they are called to pray for peace for the country.   

The museum has photographs of Gaaru, and stories are told about the origin of Gaaru.  According to Waigwa (2007), the idea of a gaaruis traditionally Ameru in origin, where young warriors lived together in large buildings called gaaru.  There they underwent rigorous training on military methods and social responsibility.  The gaaru itself was an extended hut where warriors ate their meals and slept.  Within the gaaru was a kitchen space and storage facilities for the belongings of the young men.  The Akorino adopted the gaarubarrack as a church facility to be used for various activities.  It proved to be a great innovation, especially because it allowed church members to meet in an informal manner and learn from each other. Gaarus also became very useful in providing accommodation for travelling evangelists, pastors, and prophets who frequented the church community.  There were separate gaaru for males and females, with the gaaru for females doubling as a kitchen as well.  Informal services could be held in the gaaru designated for males.  During such meetings, females are allowed into them.  To this day, it is customary for each church campus to have two gaarus, for the separate use of each sex. During Mau Mau and the violent struggle for independence, gaarus were a refuge to many Akorino who were severely persecuted for joining the pacifist faith group. Others were made outcasts by their village communities. On joining the gaarus,they were provided with food, shelter and clothing by fellow pacifists.   

Another notable material culture is a white bag hung over the shoulders of Akorino elders during services, and especially during Church ceremonies (magongona).  Inside the white bag is religious literature.  The sanctity of the contents of the bag warrants its handling with honour and reverence.  Therein are documents of the doctrine and practice of the Akorino as a community of faith and worship.  

Akorino music is another component that the museum aims to preserve. The Akorino are well known for their production of spiritual hymns in the Gikuyu language.  The hymns use typical African tunes and melodies which reach deep into the African psyche, causing the hearer to draw near and listen to the message.  Their music is sung in deep and loud sounds using African drums, and other percussive instruments for accompaniment.  


I would like to conclude by underscoring the need to preserve the Akorino heritage of peace in the face of increasing violence in society. The preservation of Akorino heritage of peace and non-violence is important not only for them but also for the entire Kenyan population. If this heritage of peace and non-violence is well articulated, preserved and shared it may generate significant regional and perhaps global peace ramifications.


Kenyatta, J. (1938). Facing Mount Kenya. Kenway Publications. Nairobi, Kenya.

Murray, Jocelyn Brown. (1973). 'Kikuyu Spirit Churches' in Journal of Religion in Africa 5:3: 198 -234

Varine H. (1993). Tomorrow's Community Museums. Lecture given on 15 th October 1993 in Senate Hall of the University of Utrecht.

Waigwa, S. (2007). Pentecost Without Azuza. A Historical and Theological Analysis of the Akorino Church in Kenya. Unpublished Thesis. Baylor University , USA .

(1) The community museum, in order to be a museum at all, must have exhibits and collections of some sort. In order to achieve this, it has to discover what objects people have in their own homes, their workplaces, and to make an inventory of them so that they can be used for exhibition purposes if and when the museum needs them. There is no need  to move these objects into the museum as soon as one locates them. The community itself is the store and for this reason every household and every business has continuous link with the museum. The community is the museum (Varine 1993).