Kanyua, Jerusha

1872-1974
Presbyterian
Kenya

Jerusha Kanyua

Early Life, Family and Conversion to Christianity

Jerusha Kanyua was born in early 1872 at at Karaa village, in Mwimbi Division, in the current Maara Sub-County, Tharaka Nithi County, Kenya. She was brought up in the traditional family set up, where she attained no formal education, but went through the Ameru rites of passage.[1]

In 1894, she married Paul Njiru, who was nicknamed Paulo. They relocated from Mwimbi and settled at Chuka, near Chuka General Hospital.[2] Even though their marriage was blessed with several children, unfortunately all died during childhood from what was suspected to be pneumonia, measles, or malaria.[3] This prompted her husband to remarry so as to have children. The new wife gave birth to a number of children. For unknown reasons, Paulo started to mistreat Jerusha.[4] This made Jerusha relocate to Ndagani, on the outskirts of Chuka town, and settle there.[5] Since she had no children of her own, she adopted her younger sister’s children, Alfred Mburia and Caroline, who are, to this day, regarded as her children.[6]

In 1921, the Church of Scotland Mission (SCM), a Presbyterian mission that had been operating in Kenya since 1891, made arrangements to post the first European missionary to evangelize the Chuka-Mwimbi area.[7] On 9th October 1922, Dr. A. C. Irvine arrived at Chogoria to build up the station and begin systematic medical work.[8] Earlier in 1915, the SCM had set up a mission station at Chuka with the recommendations of Rev. Dr. J. W. Arthur (nicknamed “Happy worrier”) but the station was under two Africans, Daudi Makumi and Samsoni Maingi who were among the first Presbyterian African converts in Kikuyuland.[9]

The first Presbyterian convert from Chuka was Mr. Ayub Mugo Njuki who lived at Ndagani village. He is the one who persuaded Jerusha Kanyua, her husband Paul Njeru, Justo Kanampiu, and Bertha Kangai (wife to Ayub) accept the new Christian faith. Many people were cautious about this faith as they viewed it as a direct intrusion into their culture. Ayub had been converted to Christianity by Dr. Arthur.[10] Thus by the time Dr. Irvine arrived in 1922, Christianity had began to gain roots in what is today known as Tharaka Nithi County. It needs to be noted that the Consolata Fathers (Catholic) had already come to Mwimbi and had established a mission station at Kariakomo, a few kilometers east of Chogoria in 1911.[11] Dr. Irvine settled at Chogoria in 1922 and started a SCM mission station there.[12] He then started a mission hospital at Chogoria which is today one of the biggest hospitals in Kenya.[13]

As Jerusha Kanyua was contemplating the miseries of life after having lost all her children and marriage, the word of God came to her through Dr. Irvine and Ayub Mugo.[14] She accepted Christianity, which was a great source of consolation at that time.[15] In 1923, she was baptized by Dr. Irvine, and was then offered a job at Chogoria hospital as a casual worker.[16] While working in the hospital, she began formal learning but due to her advanced age, she did not make much progress. However, she acquired many skills in caring for the sick and due to her interest in medical issues, she acquired basic skills in midwifery. Thus whenever she was at home in Ndagani, especially during weekends she would assist women when they gave birth and preach to the people, urging them to accept the Gospel of Christ.[17] She is regarded as one of the first missionaries in Ndagani village. Due to her effort a church and a school were started at Ndagani in 1937.[18]

Jerusha Kanyua: Teacher, Doctor, and Prophetess

Jerusha remained a committed Christian and faithful follower of the Presbyterian Church in East Africa (PCEA). She tirelessly evangelized Ndagani village and its environs. For example, she would walk long distances to Kibugua, Weru, Kiereni, Kangutu, and other villages within Chuka spreading Christianity.[19] Being illiterate, at first her preaching and teaching ministry mainly relied on her memory for Biblical quotations, but with time, she learned the art of reading the Bible effectively, especially after her formal learning at Chogoria hospital.[20] Alongside her ministry, Jerusha devoted most of her time to teaching the children about the Bible. She carried out this ministry both in church and in the children’s homes. She carried on this ministry with such great passion that many young people regarded to her as “Mwalimu” (a teacher).[21] On top of this, she was also leader of the Woman’s Guild, where she trained women in matters of midwifery, cookery, craft, and farming, among other things. Those who listened to her, both men and women, do acknowledge that Jerusha was a good teacher, leader, and counselor. She taught them much about family life, counseled both the married and unmarried, and prepared many women for marriage.[22] Tiras Nthiga (an elder who knew and interacted with her) says that Jerusha was a “fortress and beacon of hope” in matters of family life, Bible, and socio-economic life.[23]

Due to her commitment, the Church of Scotland Mission at Chogoria took her to Tumutumu Mission Hospital College in Nyeri to be trained for midwifery in 1944. This was the training that would make her very popular because it allowed her to offer assistance to women in rural areas especially in areas around Chuka, Embu, and Meru.[24] She had to walk for a very long distance from Ndagani to Nyeri to acquire this training. Because of the way people loved her, some young men volunteered to escort her through the thick and fearsome Mount Kenya forest to Tumutumu Hospital.[25] She trained in midwifery and was awarded a certificate on midwifery in 1946.

Upon completion of her training, she returned home and moved from village to village helping expectant women to deliver safely, especially those who lived far from Chogoria Hospital. She did this alongside preaching the Gospel. She thus converted many people to Christianity.[26] Jerusha is an example of an African woman evangelist or missionary who dedicated her time and energy to converting her fellow Africans to Christianity. Due to her commitment and professional expertise, she became very famous. People travelled from far and wide to seek her selfless attention. She was also a great mobilizer. If a woman developed complications that she could not handle, she mobilized people to make a stretcher that she would use to ferry the patient to Chogoria Hospital. Since there was no transportation, they would walk on foot and she would accompany the patient to get specialized care from the missionary doctors. She did this job did without any pay.[27] She was the first renowned midwife and caregiver who served people without reservation, a trait that made her a celebrity throughout the larger upper Eastern region (Embu, Mbeere, Chuka, Chogoria and Meru).[28] She earned a lot of admiration even from the missionary doctors, especially Dr. Irvine who was her mentor. Due to her service saving the lives of women, many people referred to her as a “Dagitari” (a Doctor).[29] In 1948, Dr. Irvine conferred on her a Diploma in Midwifery due to her exemplary performance.[30]

In 1950s, Jerusha started to prophesy. In 1951, she made several prophecies that were fulfilled later in 1960’s.[31] Among her prophesies was the one she made on Sunday, 3rd June 1951 while at PCEA Ndagani Church which has had an enormous influence on the lives of the people to date. She prophesied, “A huge mountain will spring in the village (Ndagani), big trees will sprout and grow very big, and form a wide shade. Then birds from all over the world will come and land on these trees. People from all parts of the world will also come and cool themselves under the shade of these trees.”[32]

In 1953, the colonial government built a concentration camp at Ndagani. People from all over Chuka and beyond were put in this camp. Many people thought that the prophecy of Jerusha had come had been fulfilled. She however denied this, and told them that time had not come for her prophecy to be fulfilled. She explained that her prophecy was that of success, good life, and happiness and not a prophecy of doom and oppression like that of the colonial government extracting people from their homes and putting them in a concentration camp.[33] She told them to believe and be hopeful that one day her prophesy would be fulfilled.[34] What people did not understand was that Jerusha was prophesying about education which was something she very much cherished. Throughout her ministry, Jerusha encouraged young men and women as well as children to go to school. To her, education was the only key to success that gave the power to alleviate the challenges that people faced—challenges such as illiteracy, poverty, disease, and ignorance.[35] In this regard, she composed a song which was commonly sung to emphasize the importance of education. The song went like this,

Karamu ni Itumo (a pen is a spear) Na mbuku ni Rong’o (and the book is a shield) Ita ya riu iramukagwa Cukuru (Today’s war is won by waking up and going to school) [36]

With this song she advised the young to take a pen like a spear and a book like a shield.[37] Through her efforts, several institutions began at Ndagani including a secondary school, a primary school, a village polytechnic, a cattle dip, an air strip, and a sports field.[38] When these institutions were first built, the residents started saying that the mountains of Jerusha had started forming or rather her prophesy about the huge mountain and the birds had been fulfilled.[39] It is however the coming of Chuka University at Ndagani that people associate with the fulfillment of Jerusha’s prophesy.[40] Chuka, Ndagani was the place people least expected a university to begin.[41] But in 2004, Egerton University Senate elected Professor Erastus Njoka (the current Vice Chancellor of Chuka University) to chair a technical committee that, among other things, was to explore the possibility of putting up a campus in the Eastern part of Kenya.

After several consultative meetings with education stakeholders in Eastern Province, the committee recommended to the University Senate to open a campus at Chuka due to its central location. This decision was ratified by the Egerton University Council on 17th September 2004. Egerton University Eastern Campus was established at Ndagani, Chuka on 27th September, 2004, and officially opened on 1st August, 2005. On 23rd August 2007, the Campus was elevated to a Constituent College of Egerton University and renamed Chuka University College. On 8th January 2013, the College was elevated to a full-fledged University, becoming the ninth public university in Kenya.[42] It is one of the fastest growing public universities in Kenya with a population of more than 16,000 students.[43]

With the birth of Chuka University at Ndagani and its students and staff from all over the country and beyond, people believe that Jerusha Kanyua’s prophecy of birds from all over the world coming to land on trees around Ndagani has been fulfilled. They regard Chuka University as a prophetic university.[44] At the university, Jerusha is highly respected and seen by the university’s fraternity as their matriarch.[45]

Transforming Peoples’ Lives

Jerusha transformed the lives of many people in the current Tharaka Nithi, Meru and Embu counties.[46] Although she assumed no leadership position in the PCEA Church even though she was instrumental in its beginning at Ndagani and was not well educated she put much emphasis on the holistic Gospel. This changed peoples’ lives spiritually, socially, politically, and economically.[47] She thus urged all her new converts, especially the youth and children to go to school.[48] In addition to preaching, she trained women in matters of midwifery, cookery, craft and farming among others.[49] In many instances, she taught people practical skills. For example, she became the first native to own a grade cow (Guernsey), an exotic breed introduced by the missionaries. Traditionally, if a woman owned property like cows she would be regarded as a “Kithetha” meaning she was mocking men in her community. But Jerusha ignored all this and became a livestock farmer. She also had pigs, goats, and chicken. She embraced the new farming methods introduced by the missionaries. As a result, she accumulated a lot of wealth, which is one of the reasons she was highly respected in the community. While many women depended on men for survival, Jerusha worked very hard to acquire wealth of her own thus becoming economically independent. She introduced new fruits such as mangos that she planted in her farm and in the church compound. People would come from afar to learn the new farming methods at her farm.[50]

Her love for people and her service to the community saved her from the wrath of the Mau Mau who eliminated anybody suspected to be a sympathizer with the colonial government. For example, in 1953, the Mau Mau made a decree that all schools would be burned down including the people found in the houses. The team that was sent to burn Ndagani School and Church found Jerusha in the mud and reed hut where she resided with the missionaries. When they realized that it was Jerusha inside the hut, a debate arose among the team. Finally through the intervention of the Mau Mau leader, General Moge (also known as Wakemonto or “Simba”), it was decided that it would be unfair to kill her because of the good work she was doing in the community, especially her intercessory role and her midwifery duties. They feared that if they killed her there would be nobody to intercede for them and their wives would die in child labor because Jerusha was the chief midwife in the region.[51] Interestingly, Jerusha was the only African Christian allowed to openly move about preaching, attending to the sick, wounded and expectant mothers without any confrontation from the Mau Mau fighters.[52]

Jerusha Kanyua’s Death

Jerusha became ill in late 1960s and passed on in 1974 at the age of about 102 years. In 1997, the PCEA proclaimed her a saint. The church building at Ndgani was dedicated to her and named Jerusha Kanyua Memorial Church.[53] She died as a faithful servant of Christ who had left a remarkable mark on the life of the Church of Christ, especially in Embu, Meru, and Tharaka Nithi counties.

Dickson Nkonge Kagema


Notes:

  1. Interview with C. Riungu on 2/4/2019
  2. Interview with Ezekiel Mbogo (Kanyua’s grandson) on 5/5/2019
  3. The death of children was usually interpreted as a curse from the ancestors or God. A family whose children died was viewed to be with no divine blessings. The solution was remarriage.
  4. Interview with Catherine Ciambaka on 4/4/2019
  5. At Ndagani there is a PCEA Church named after her. She was among its founders.
  6. Interview with Ezekiel Mbogo (Kanyua’s grandson) on 5/5/2019
  7. Macpherson, R. (1970). The Presbyterian Church of East Africa. Nairobi: PCEA, p.77
  8. Macpherson, R. (1970). The Presbyterian Church of East Africa. Nairobi: PCEA, p.77
  9. Kagema, D. N. (2016). “A short History of the Anglican Church in Meru (1969-2009).” Research in Humanities and Social Sciences, Vol.6, No.2, p.173
  10. Interview with Ezekiel Mbogo (grandson to Jerusha Kanyua) on 5/5/2019
  11. Kagema, D.N (2016). “A short History of the Anglican Church in Meru (1969-2009).” Research in Humanities and Social Sciences, Vol.6, No.2, p.173
  12. Kagema, D.N (2016). “A short History of the Anglican Church in Meru (1969-2009).” Research in Humanities and Social Sciences, Vol.6, No.2, p.174
  13. Interview with Ezekiel Mbogo (grandson to Jerusha Kanyua) on 5/5/2019
  14. Interview with Ezekiel Mbogo (grandson to Jerusha Kanyua) on 5/5/2019
  15. Interview with Mercy Kaari (Kanyua’s granddaughter) on 6/5/2019
  16. Interview with Ezekiel Mbogo (grandson to Jerusha Kanyua) on 5/5/2019
  17. Interview with Mercy Kaari (Kanyua’s granddaughter) on 6/5/2019
  18. Interview with Ezekiel Mbogo (grandson to Jerusha Kanyua) on 5/5/2019
  19. Interview with Mercy Kaari (Kanyua’s granddaughter) on 6/5/2019
  20. Interview with Ezekiel Mbogo (grandson to Jerusha Kanyua) on 5/5/2019
  21. Interview with Mercy Kaari (Kanyua’s granddaughter) on 6/5/2019
  22. Interview with Tiras Nthiga on 6/5/2019
  23. Interview with Tiras Nthiga on 6/5/2019
  24. Interview with Ezekiel Mbogo (grandson to Jerusha Kanyua) on 5/5/2019
  25. Interview with Mercy Kaari (Kanyua’s granddaughter) on 6/5/2019
  26. Interview with Tiras Nthiga on 6/5/2019
  27. Interview with Mercy Kaari (Kanyua’s granddaughter) on 6/5/2019
  28. Interview with Ezekiel Mbogo (grandson to Jerusha Kanyua) on 5/5/2019
  29. Interview with Tiras Nthiga on 6/5/2019
  30. Interview with Mercy Kaari (Kanyua’s granddaughter) on 6/5/2019
  31. Interview with Henry Migwi (elder) on 6/5/2019
  32. Interview with Ezekiel Mbogo (grandson to Jerusha Kanyua) on 5/5/2019
  33. Interview with Henry Migwi (elder) on 6/5/2019
  34. Interview with Mercy Kaari (Kanyua’s granddaughter) on 6/5/2019
  35. Interview with Tiras Nthiga on 6/5/2019
  36. Interview with Ezekiel Mbogo (grandson to Jerusha Kanyua) on 5/5/2019
  37. See Chuka University Students’ Information Handbook(2014).
  38. Interview with Henry Migwi (elder) on 6/5/2019
  39. Interview with Tiras Nthiga on 6/5/2019
  40. Interview with Henry Migwi (elder) on 6/5/2019
  41. Interview with Mercy Kaari (Kanyua’s granddaughter) on 6/5/2019
  42. See Chuka University Students’ Information Handbook(2014).
  43. Chuka University Newsletter (2018)
  44. Prof. Erastus Njoka, Message from the Vice Chancellor, Chuka University Newsletter, Graduation News Edition (2018), p. 8
  45. Most of the publications of Chuka University always refer to Jerusha Kanyua
  46. Interview with Henry Migwi (elder) on 6/5/2019
  47. Interview with Tiras Nthiga on 6/5/2019
  48. Interview with Tiras Nthiga on 6/5/2019
  49. Interview with Mercy Kaari (Kanyua’s granddaughter) on 6/5/2019
  50. Interview with Ezekiel Mbogo (grandson to Jerusha Kanyua) on 5/5/2019
  51. Interview with Henry Migwi (elder) on 6/5/2019
  52. Interview with Tiras Nthiga on 6/5/2019
  53. Interview with Henry Migwi

This article, received in 2019, was written by Dr. Dickson Nkonge Kagema, a Senior Lecturer in Religious Studies and Philosophy at Chuka University in Kenya and a Research Associate in Practical Theology and Missiology at Stellenbosch University, South Africa. He is a Canon in the Anglican Church of Kenya. His email is [email protected]