Watson, Minnie Cumming
1867 to 1949
Church of Scotland
Minnie Cumming Watson, the first woman missionary of the East Africa Scottish Mission (EASM), pioneered education work among the Kikuyu people in Kenya and established a system of Christian schools that became the model for primary education in the colony. She was actively involved in the evangelism work of the mission, and was especially instrumental in promoting the education and welfare of Kikuyu girls and women.
Minnie Cumming was born in Dundee, Scotland on June 3, 1867, the daughter of William Cumming, a ship captain, and Janet Lawson Cumming. Little is known of her early life, but people who knew her at the Kikuyu Mission report that she had long expressed a strong desire to be a missionary in Africa, and was delighted to have the opportunity to come to Kenya to become the wife of the Rev. Thomas Watson.
Thomas Watson, also from Dundee, was one of the original six missionaries sent to Kenya in 1891 by the EASM. Their assigned task was an ambitious one. The EASM was not connected with any church, but had been formed by directors of the Imperial East Africa Company with their own funds and other donations to evangelize the peoples in the territories under the administration of the company. The EASM also expected them to provide education, industrial training, and health care at the mission stations. The first mission was established at Kibwezi, about 260 miles inland from the port at Mombasa. This location proved to be an unfortunate choice. Although the young men were successful in establishing agricultural, irrigation, and other projects, health problems plagued them. After several people died and others had to be sent home, Watson, after recovering himself from smallpox, was left as the sole survivor at the station in October, 1897. A decision was made to abandon Kibwezi and re-establish the mission at Kikuyu in the Thogoto district of the central highlands. Watson traveled to Ft. Smith in the Dagoretti area a few miles west of Nairobi where he was joined by John Patterson, an agriculturalist who had returned from home leave. They moved to higher ground in Thogoto, a few kilometers further west, where they had purchased thirty acres of forest land. Land was cleared, a quarry was started and a temporary tent camp was established.
The rail head reached Kikuyu in December 1899, and Thomas Watson took the train to Mombasa to meet the ship bringing Minnie Cumming to Kenya. They were married on Dec. 18, 1899 at the Church Missionary Society (CMS) station at Freretown near Mombasa, and returned to Kikuyu by train.
The scene that greeted the newly wed Mrs. Watson on her arrival in Kikuyu was horrific. There had been heavy locust invasions in 1894-96. A devastating drought had gripped the area since 1897. Rinderpest had wiped out all of the cattle. Hundreds of people were lying all over the area dead or dying of starvation. The same ship that had brought Minnie to Mombasa also brought authority from the mission board to begin famine relief, and the Watsons began a relief camp at Thogoto on January 8, 1900. On the very next day, a smallpox epidemic broke out in the camp. By February 20, 1900, Thomas and Minnie were caring for eighty-one people with smallpox in small tent camps scattered around the mission area and were feeding another 200-300 people daily. Patterson, who set up similar camps at Dagoretti, described the situation in his testimony to the Land Commission:
About half the people died about that time, the famine was at its worst. People were dying of smallpox and drought. The Kikuyu custom was to put those individuals outside their huts who had smallpox. They were very superstitious in those days. Mr. Watson and myself built small camps where we had three or four cases of smallpox in each camp. The natives would not bring food near the place; they would only bring it within a distance of 100 yards and leave it there. The patients had to go out at night and collect it. No boy would go near the camps. The banks of the streams were strewn with dead bodies, so much so that the hyenas could not dispose of them. We tried to bury some of them, but the task was impossible so we had to give it up. For miles around, we could see only red earth on the ridges. The mission gave the people rice to eat.
The worst of the smallpox epidemic was over by May, and the drought finally broke. The Watsons continued to care for the sick and those weakened by hunger until the emergency came to a close. Minnie Watson became known affectionately as Bibi na Ngambi (Lady of the Camps) among the Kikuyu from that time forward. She then turned her attention to establishing a day school for children from the camps and an evening school for young men who worked at the mission. These were the first schools to be established for the Kikuyu people.
Then disaster struck again. Thomas Watson, weakened by his illnesses and exertions in recent years, contracted pneumonia and died on December 4, 1900, just two weeks before he and Minnie would have celebrated their first anniversary. Minnie Watson refused to abandon the work. She stayed at the Kikuyu Mission Station as the only European. Living in the small mud and wattle building that had originally been constructed as a kitchen and store for the manse that was not yet built. Minnie Watson assumed responsibility for running the mission. Under extreme hardship conditions, she continued to carry on the evangelism and teaching programs that she and Thomas had begun.
By 1900, the board of the EASM had come to the realization that they did not have the resources to continue to support the Kikuyu Mission Station on their own. Negotiations were begun to turn the mission and all assets over to the Church of Scotland. Agreement was reached in 1901, and the transfer process was begun. The Church of Scotland immediately sent Dr. D. Clement Ruffelle Scott from the Blantyre Mission in Nyasaland to run the mission. Clement Scott arrived in Kikuyu on December 21, 1901, and took the reigns from Mrs. Watson. Scott's April report to the mission board noted that she was due back wages of 2700 Indian Rupees, the equivalent of about 180 Pounds, for the year that she labored alone. Minnie Watson continued at the mission as a teacher with a growing number of day students.
In 1907, the newly renamed Church of Scotland Mission (CSM), was able to provide additional funds for education initiatives. Mrs. Watson collaborated with Dr. John Arthur and Ruffell Barlow to devise a system of tuition free boarding schools in April 1907, and the first boarding school began with seven boys who were already wards of the mission. The program was an immediate success. The numbers of students, mostly between fourteen and twenty years old, began to grow rapidly. Eventually, a cooperative partnership was developed between the mission schools and the colonial government. The educational principles brought to Kenya by Minnie Watson guided education in Kenya long after her retirement.
Mrs. Watson was described by her former students as an outstanding Christian role model, always loving, humble, and patient. They remember Minnie as being very kind, but also very strict. She insisted that students must be able to recite the previous day's lessons perfectly each day. However, she also frequently gave them sweets and small presents and was always there to talk with them when they needed her. Minnie maintained her reputation as "Lady of the Camps" by organizing camping trips for students. She also frequently took a small tent camp to the villages, where she went from house to house teaching young mothers sewing, knitting, and other domestic skills. She also taught school subjects, evangelized, and tried to convince parents to send their children to the mission schools.
Mrs. Watson was the first director of the church choir, and headed one of the evangelism teams that led meetings in twenty-four nearby villages. The CSM staff found that evening meetings were better attended, and a regular routine for spreading the Gospel was developed. As The Kikuyu Mission pamphlet described them: "Accordingly on Sunday and Thursday evenings the members of the staff, along with the boarders, are divided up into parties, and with lanterns and bugles in their hands they go off to appointed villages within a reasonable radius of the station. A fire is kindled in the centre of the village, and around this gather the villagers, to join in the hymns, and to hear the old, old story." The first Kikuyu catechist, Filipo Karanja, was baptized by Dr. Scott in 1907 from the doctor's deathbed. Slowly but surely, the people became more open to Christianity and to the influence of the mission.
The number of school pupils had risen to almost 3000 by 1920. As headmistress of the mission schools system, Minnie Watson taught the most promising students to be teachers in the morning, worked with the teacher trainees to teach the day and boarding school students in the afternoons, and the mission workers at night. She directed the school expansion and supervised the native teachers. Village schools were established in nearby communities, and out-schools were planted in places several miles from the mission, wherever friendly chiefs or plantation owners would allow a trained teacher/evangelist to be stationed. The out-schools were simple one or two room buildings. Students were taught the usual school subjects by day, and the teachers evangelized in nearby villages at night and on weekends. These out-schools were a very effective tool for spreading the Gospel, and they were instrumental in creating an explosive growth in church membership through the 1920s. Reverend Njoroge recalls that Minnie Watson visited the out-schools frequently, walking wherever possible and being carried on a litter to the more remote locations.
Education had a real fascination for young Kikuyu men. Jomo Kenyatta, the first president of Kenya, began his education at the Kikuyu Mission in one of Minnie Watson's classes. He described his attraction to the mission school in a speech delivered at the 70th Anniversary celebration of the founding of the mission.
I used to see tribal policemen coming to visit my father who was some kind of a chief. ….. They would bring a letter pinned on a stick and after the letter had been read, I would see young people arrested from their homes ….. and sent to work for European Settlers. They did not go willingly as they do nowadays. I thought, 'Well, this is strange. How is it that these people bring the paper and then say that the European said so and so from Kiambu?' After they had gone, I would look at the letter and listen to it and I would not hear it talking. Then I would ask the letter 'What did they say there in Kiambu?' And the letter would not answer me. And this created in me a desire for knowledge, and I said to myself 'I must go to Thogoto to discover this miracle, how is it that a paper can talk from one who wrote it to someone else?'
Minnie Watson insisted that girls be included in the boy's boarding school as day students. Education of Kikuyu girls immediately began to arouse fierce opposition. The Kikuyu could not see any value in educating girls, and were afraid that schooling would make the young ladies unmarriageable. The root of the issue was economic. A girl who could not be married did not bring a bride price to the family, which was almost the only way Kikuyu families had to move beyond subsistence and build family wealth. The meetings that Mrs. Watson held in the villages to encourage families to send their children to the mission schools were often disrupted by such tactics as throwing bags of ants into the gathering. Reverend Njoroge recalls that his mother ran away from home to the mission in search of education. When her father found her, he beat her severely and dragged her home. The mission superintendent and elders were able coerce her release under threat of action by the colonial administration, and Minnie Watson carefully hid her at the mission, moving her secretly from house to house until the girl's dormitory was finished. Reverend Njoroge's mother was one of the first three girls to be educated at the mission school.
Mrs. Watson also taught against the practice of female circumcision from the earliest days of the mission. She was supported in this opposition by Dr. Arthur and other hospital staff who objected to the practice on the grounds that the operation could cause difficulty in childbirth, among other problems, due to scarring from the procedure. To the Kikuyu, however, female circumcision was an essential part of their culture. It was believed that circumcision was necessary to bring a girl into full womanhood and to make the birth of normal children possible. Mrs. Watson's teaching against the practice, therefore, made it even harder to recruit female students.
The female circumcision issue bubbled under the surface of the rapid growth of church membership and school attendance during the 1920s. The Kirk Sessions at all of the CSM locations condemned the operation as being against Christian practice. Teaching against it was stepped up after the girl's boarding school was established in 1907, and began to have effect on the younger girls in the school. In 1914, two of the girls declared their intention to abandon the operation. Both the mission staff and the church elders felt that the time had not yet come to publicly reject the practice, and the girls were circumcised in the mission hospital by a tribal circumciser. The brutality of the operation caused this option to be abandoned quickly, however, and the CSM and other missions operating in the area put pressure on tribal and colonial governments to limit the extent of the operation and to forbid it without the consent of the girls and their parents. By the close of the decade, some practitioners and parents had been fined or jailed for violating the restrictions. This only inflamed the situation because the missions objected that the punishments were too light, and conservative Kikuyu accused the churches of attempting to destroy their culture.
Other forces were also coming into play that aggravated the situation. The Kikuyu Central Association (KCA) had been formed by activists who were attempting to wrest political power from the colonial administration. Resistance to further encroachment on native lands by white settlers and agitation for return of land where it had been wrongfully taken had become a major issue among the Kikuyu. The KCA cleverly brought the circumcision issue into the fray and accused the missions of opposing circumcision only to weaken the Kikuyu tribe and grab more land. In the bitter exchanges that followed, the CSM missionaries decided that it was necessary to determine whether or not church members would support church laws. In October and November 1929, the Kirk Session and then the full congregation were asked to make a public declaration that they fully supported church laws against female circumcision. The relatively high percentage of Kirk Session members and church members in the immediate mission area who agreed to the declaration had led the missionaries into the entirely wrong belief that there was wide support for condemning the operation. The immediate result was that the CSM Kikuyu Mission lost nine tenths of its membership in the first month. Many members left under severe pressure from their clans and were reluctant to return because of fear of disinheritance or inability to secure school fees and bride prices from conservative parents.
The damage to the out-schools was particularly severe. Teachers who refused to make the declaration were sacked, and those who did make it were often attacked by their neighbors. By the end of 1929, many of the out-schools had been closed, and as a whole, they had lost over 85% of their students.
By mid 1930, some the church leaders and teachers who had left the Church of Scotland had founded new independent churches and schools, some of which are still spreading the Good News that had been planted by the CSM missionaries. People began slowly returning the CSM as well, and church membership was back to 35% of the pre-crisis level by mid-year 1931. By mid decade, the controversy had subsided, and church membership resumed its rapid growth.
There is no evidence in the record that Minnie Watson had been among the most strident anti-circumcision activists who had insisted on forcing the issue in 1929. Mrs. Watson was dismayed and hurt, however, by the damage caused to the education and evangelism work that she had dedicated her life to. In spite of the controversy, the work of the CSM missionaries against female circumcision was not in vain. A survey of 365 schoolgirls at schools throughout Kikuyu territory conducted in 1972 found that 41 percent of the girls had been circumcised. Only 7 percent of the Presbyterian (successor to the CSM mission) girls were circumcised, the lowest percentage of any religious group.
Minnie Watson was one of the most cherished and respected members of the CSM community. She was chosen to lay the cornerstone of the Church of the Torch at Kikuyu in early 1929. Reaching retirement age in late 1931, she returned to Dundee, where she died February 13, 1949. Her ashes were returned to Kikuyu, and she was reunited with her husband on September 25, almost exactly fifty years after their wedding. The inscription on the headstone reads, "Aria marehire utheri wa Ngai Kikuyu" (they brought the light of God to the Kikuyu people).
Spencer I. Radnich
1. "ScotlandsPeople: The Official Government Source of Genealogical Data for Scotland," http://www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk. Statutory Births 282/01 1132 [accessed May 15, 2007].
2. Rev. Edward Njoroge, Chaplain, Old Peoples Home, Kikuyu Mission Area, interview by author, Kikuyu, Kenya, May 23, 2007. Rev. Njoroge was born in 1918, and was one of Mrs. Watson's pupils in elementary school.
3. R[obert] Macpherson, The Presbyterian Church in Kenya (Nairobi: Presbyterian Church of East Africa, 1970) 26-28 Presbyterian Church of East Africa Archives.
4. Ibid. 28.
5. Ibid. 28-9.
6. "Kenya Land Commission Report, Evidence, Vol.1" (1933) 746 National Archives of Kenya.
7. Macpherson 28-9.
8. D. C. Ruffelle Scott to W. Mac Kinnon and Co. letter, April 14, 1902, (Copy Journal 1, Box 25 A2/1) 11. Presbyterian Church of East Africa Archives.
9. Macpherson 40.
10. "The Kikuyu Mission: British East Africa," (Edinburgh: Foreign Mission Committee, Church of Scotland, 1915) 24.
11. Njoroge interview.
12. Focus Group discussion conducted by author May 31, 2007 in Thogoto, Kenya with Grace Nyakinyua Kago, retired teacher born 1912, Fred Mbugua, retired teacher born 1914, and Rev. Edward Njoroge, PCEA pastor born 1918. All were taught by Minnie Watson in the 1920s at Kikuyu Mission School. Translated from Kikuyu by Grace Kaigai, PCEA Church of the Torch.
14."Kikuyu Mission" 19-22.
15. Focus Group.
16. "Kikuyu Mission" 24-8.
17. Njoroge interview.
18. Macpherson 39.
19. Njoroge interview.
20. Jocelyn Margaret Murray, "The Kikuyu Female Circumcision Controversy, with Special Reference to the Church Missionary Society's "Sphere of Influence"' (PhD dissertation University of Los Angeles, 1974) 29.
21. Macpherson 107.
22. Murray 101-17.
23. Church of Scotland Mission, "Memorandum Prepared by the Kikuyu Mission Council on Female Circumcision," (Kikuyu, Kenya: Undated, but apparently written in late 1931, see page 49), 47-9.
24. Ibid. 49.
25. Ibid. 49-53.
26. Focus Group.
27. Murray 337-40.
28. "ScotlandsPeople" Statutory Deaths 301/00 0008 [accessed May 15. 2007].
29. Rev. R. G. M. Calderwood, "Selected Items from the Kikuyu General Report" Kikuyu News 192 (June 1950) 1085.
This biography, submitted in 2007,
was researched and written by Spencer I. Radnich,
Jr., Special Projects Coordinator for World Concern
Africa. Mr. Radnich is currently an MA Biblical
Studies student at Nairobi Evangelical Graduate
School of Theology. Dr. Mark Shaw, Head of the
Department of Church History, was the DACB liaison