Otieno, Erastus

1935-2000
Pentecostal
Kenya

Erastus Otieno Ngao served as the president of the Pentecostal Evangelistic Fellowship of Africa (PEFA) in the period of transition between missionary and local leadership. As the person chosen to usher in this new era, he played the most crucial role in this changing of the guard. Whatever else he may have accomplished, his greatest achievement was to have served as a successful transition figure during this delicate and critical period in the PEFA. Otieno emerged as a pioneer African leader because he effectively took over the leadership from the foreign missionary personnel. [1]

Historical Context

The last major British colonial Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, depicted the 1960s in Africa as being characterized by the “wind of change” blowing across the continent. This was the wind of change from domination by colonial powers to independence and self-determination by the various African countries. The immediate shift had begun with Ghana’s independence in 1957, and by the time the 1970s set in, the political landscape of Africa had been altered beyond recognition.

What was true in the political arena was also generally paralleled on the Christian scene, particularly in churches. The pace of transition was fast and furious in countries like Kenya, and a few examples will suffice to illustrate this point, with emphasis on the 1960s and the early 1970s.

In the broader picture, Mr. John C. Kamau became the first African general secretary of the Christian Council of Kenya (CCK) in 1963. In the following year, 1964, Rev. John T. Mpaayei was the first African executive secretary of the Bible Society in East Africa, and continued as the general secretary of the Bible Society of Kenya (BSK) from the time of its inauguration in 1970. In 1968, Mr. (now Prof.) Elijah F. Akhahenda became the first African travelling secretary of the Kenya Student Christian Fellowship (KSCF).

When it came to the churches, the critical element of selfhood was achieved in all the major denominations during this period. In the transition process, the level and extent of power transfer differed from one group to another. From a legal constitutional point of view, however, it is clear that virtually all the major denominations were affected in a fundamental way. A glimpse of the change can be seen in this text from the Kenya Churches Handbook:

The Presbyterian Church of East Africa was formed in 1943 and its first African moderator, Charles M. Kareri, was elected in 1964. In 1955, the Anglican Church appointed Festo Olang’ and Obadiah Kariuki as assistant bishops in the Diocese of Mombasa, with both becoming diocesan bishops in 1961 in the newly autonomous Church of the Province of East Africa. All six Anglican bishops in Kenya in 1972 are Kenyans, and five of them are Africans. Bishop Olang’ was elected Archbishop in 1970…. The autonomous Methodist Church in Kenya was created in 1967, with a Kenyan, Ronald Mng’ong’o, as its first president. The year 1971 witnessed the autonomy of the Africa Inland Church, under the leadership of Rev. Wellington Mulwa. Similar steps have been taken by virtually all the other major Protestant missions and churches over the past decade. [2]

At times the attainment of the status of selfhood did not necessarily mean an immediate takeover by indigenous African leadership. What was important was the beginning of the process of transition from a foreign mission to a local church. Below is a partial list of the major churches that emerged at that time: [3]

Africa Gospel Church (AGC)                                 1961

Africa Inland Church (AIC)                                    1971

Church of God in East Africa (CGEA)                 1964

Church of the Province of Kenya (CPK)               1970

East Africa Yearly Meeting of Friends (EAYM) 1964

Lutheran Church of Kenya (LSK)                           1966

Methodist Church of Kenya (MCK)                        1967

Pentecostal Assemblies of God (PAG)                   1962

Presbyterian Church of East Africa (PCEA)         1964

Reformed Church of East Africa (RCEA)              1963

Salvation Army (SA)                                                   1970

Transition in PEFA under Erastus Otieno

When the process of transition from foreign leadership to African oversight was taking place in the Kenyan Church in the 1960s, even some latecomers to the Christian field joined the race. Such was the case with the PEFA. As a distinct entity, the PEFA itself came into being in 1962 as a merger between two missions, the Elim Missionary Assemblies (EMA) Mission, and the International Pentecostal Assemblies (IPA) Mission. The entire development showed that the missionary leaders involved were acutely aware of the times in which they were operating. It is with this in view that the relevant action was taken in order to keep up with the pace of change.

All along until 1962, churches were still under the Elim Missionary Assemblies or the International Pentecostal Assemblies. But the political winds of change that were sweeping across the continent of Africa did not spare Kenya. Soon there was agitation for independence.

The Elim Fellowship Mission and the International Pentecostal Churches of Christ Mission saw the need of relinquishing their authority and handing over power to the nationals under a new order of church leadership and administration. To do this, a PEFA constitution was drafted in 1961, and was registered with the Kenya government in 1962. [4]

Erastus Otieno Ngao was the person chosen to usher in this new era and he played the most crucial role in this changing of the guard. Strictly speaking, however, he was not the first African to be at the helm of the PEFA. That honor belongs to Rev. Frederick Mwawaza, who was the first African president of the PEFA. It was when Mwawaza left the PEFA in 1966 that Otieno was chosen to fill the vacant position, after a short and fleeting period of leadership.

Birth and Early Education

Erastus Otieno Ngao was born at Kamagambo, Sare, in southwestern Kenya, on July 7, 1935. His father was Mzee Stephen Ngao Awuor, and his mother was Mama Turphosa Ojele. He was the eldest child in the family.

Otieno started school in 1946 at Sori Primary School in his home locality. From there he proceeded to Kodero Bara Primary School, where his education continued from 1949 to 1950. He was then selected for intermediate school at Kamagambo Training School, where he studied from 1951 to 1953, and where he sat for the national Kenya African Preliminary Examinations (KAPE) in 1953. He passed these examinations and was assured of a promising future.

Teacher Training and Career

Otieno qualified for and was selected to undertake a teacher training course at Kisii Teachers College, in Kisii, in 1954-1955. When he completed this course, he was awarded a Teacher Pupil Two (P2) level certificate. This qualified him to teach especially in upper primary school classes.

He was first posted to Lwala Primary School near his home area in 1956, before he was sent to Bware Primary School. The next school he was assigned to was Nyabisawa Girls Boarding School, which belonged to the Elim Missionary Assemblies (EMA). While teaching in these schools, Otieno acquired the reputation of being very competent in training choirs, especially for competition at music events, and he was also a proficient adjudicator in music competition festivals.

Marriage and Family

In 1957, Erastus married Naomi Adhiambo. Through this union, they had three sons: Jack Otieno, Frederick Awuor, and Paul Odhiambo. Later, the couple adopted two other boys, Michael Okoth and Miltone Obote. This brought the total number of Otieno children to five, and they were brought up together as one cordial and warm family.

Spiritual Transformation and Career Change

While Otieno was teaching at Nyabisawa Girls Boarding School, some radical changes occurred in his life. The school belonged to the Elim Missionary Assemblies and had a strong Christian tradition with a pervasive spiritual atmosphere. Not only was Otieno saved and spiritually transformed through the impact of the school, he also ended up changing his career. He gave up teaching and embraced full-time Christian ministry as his calling. As it has been appropriately summarized,

He got saved after seeing the miraculous working and in-filling of the Holy Spirit. After his conversion he resigned from his teaching career. He went to North Mara in Tanzania and together with Stephen Mageri, [and] Abel Gasirabo, [he] pioneered PEFA churches there. [5]

Otieno committed himself fully to the demands of Christian ministry as his new career. God equipped him and used him to be a blessing to others. As someone with a comparatively high level of education, he was quite an asset in Christian endeavors in that he was versatile and operated with a broad perspective. His involvement in Christian work soon caught the attention of those who were in charge of further training for church workers, which prepared the ground for the next stage of his life.

Ministerial Training and Deployment

When the need arose for someone to study abroad, Otieno was given the opportunity so that he could enhance his effectiveness in Christian ministry. He was sent to the U.S.A. in 1963 to study theology and train for the Christian ministry at the Elim Bible Institute, in Lima, New York. At the end of his studies at Elim, Otieno obtained a Diploma in theology and returned to Kenya in 1966 to use this investment in service to God and to the church. He is to be commended for returning to Kenya at the end of his studies, just when many doors around him were opening for the acquisition of higher credentials.

When Otieno left for the U.S.A. in 1963, the merger of Elim Missionary Assemblies (EMA) mission and the International Pentecostal Assemblies (IPA) missions had produced PEFA the year before, in 1962. Upon his return to Kenya in 1966, he took up service in the church and soon established himself in the mainstream leadership of the PEFA. Before long, his many endowments and abilities together with his excellent training was noticed by his fellow leaders. When the need for the first general overseer of the PEFA arose, the leadership of the church thrust him into that position. He served in that capacity from 1966 until the time of his death on October 30, 2000.

Foundational Leadership for Future Growth

Once he assumed leadership responsibilities in the church, it soon became obvious that in Otieno, PEFA had found the right man to steer its affairs in the days ahead for the relatively new constituency that made up the PEFA family. Subsequent history confirmed this reality. For the thirty-four years during which the church was under his leadership, there was measurable stability, progress, development, and expansion in many directions.

As the head of the PEFA from 1966 to 2000, Otieno was intimately involved in all of its affairs from the grassroots through the regional level, to the national, and even the international levels. It was a boost to his ecclesiastical role and duties that Otieno was a powerful and effective preacher who was much sought after for preaching and teaching in churches, conferences, conventions, and rallies. Additionally, he was a facilitating speaker in many church seminars on the local, regional, and national levels in the PEFA structure. This type of participation shielded him from being an armchair leader, and instead enabled him to distinguish himself as one who was actively engaged and who readily felt the pulse of the PEFA Church in all its being and activities.

A Leader in Church and Society

Otieno had a keen interest in and participated closely in the affairs of the leading PEFA institutions of higher learning in his general area. He was the official sponsoring representative and chairman of the Board of Governors of Nyabisawa Girls Boarding School, as well as chairman of the Board of Governors for Taranganya Boys High School, and Sori Secondary School. Thus, in a number of these institutions, he did double duty, being also the official representative of the parent sponsoring body, PEFA.

Even in life generally, Otieno was perceived to be, and functioned as, a community leader. In this role, he contributed to the total well-being of those in society around him. Among the many examples that could be mentioned, one of his key contributions was that he was instrumental in the founding and sponsoring of the Marindi Multi-Purpose Technical Training Institute.

Concluding Focus and Reflection

The history and details of the expansion of the PEFA belong elsewhere. Suffice it to say that under the leadership of Erastus Otieno, the PEFA built strong foundations, made immense progress and development, and experienced unprecedented growth and expansion, especially in East Africa and the central parts of Africa. Otieno’s distinctive value and unique contribution to PEFA in particular, and to the church in Africa in general, is that he played the indispensable role of having been a successful transitional leader when foreign missions handed leadership over to the African church. In critical moments, reliable bridges are invaluable!

The case of Erastus Otieno should incite us to study and thoroughly discuss two important areas in the life of the church in Africa: first, the training of African clergy through theological studies and preparation for the Christian ministry in the U.S.A., Europe, and elsewhere; and secondly, the process of transition from missionary control to African leadership and management in the affairs of the church and in other sectors of Christianity in Africa.

It has been observed that those who go abroad for ministerial studies can be grouped into a number of convenient categories with regard to the final outcome. First, there are those who backslide and lose their Christian testimony completely, thus ending their calling in the Christian ministry altogether. Second, and closely related to the first category, are those who are diverted by the attractions that exist in foreign countries. These people take up menial jobs, drop out of their studies, and eventually end up in misery and degradation in the foreign environment.

Thirdly, in some cases, those who are sent out proceed to higher degrees in theology or other fields, and successfully advance in these areas. More often than not, whether they return to Africa or stay abroad, they branch out to other spheres and actively or quietly disavow any interest and involvement in the Christian ministry. Some of these maintain their Christian faith and testimony and contribute meaningfully and positively to the work of the church as well as to society at large. The loss of this group from the Christian ministry is mostly due to academic interests, but in terms of statistics it is, nonetheless, a loss.

In the fourth instance, there are those who, for one reason or another, extend their stay, pursue higher degrees, but ultimately return to Africa. When they arrive back home, they place themselves at the disposal of the church in their homeland, ready to be deployed by the leadership of the church. Where leadership is visionary and far-sighted, those who return are appropriately absorbed and deployed to spheres in the church where their gifts can best be utilized. However, when the leadership of the church is myopic and provincial, the returnees are often mismanaged, whether through ignorance or malice, and are assigned to tasks where their abilities are not properly employed. This tends to lead to frustration and disillusionment, with the ultimate result that both the church and the individual lose out with regard to critical contribution to the cause of Jesus Christ. Providentially, some in this category are accorded a congenial and warm reception on returning. They are then appropriately absorbed and given suitable duties, going on to serve God and the church with distinction.

Fifthly and lastly, there are those who are unique and commendable, like Erastus Otieno. They adhere strictly to their agreement with the sending church, they confine themselves to the stipulated duration of the course of study, and they return home to their respective African environment to serve in the church. Some of them sacrifice their personal ambitions, are taken for granted, and are often taken advantage of by the leadership of the church, whether missionary or indigenous. For them, what ultimately counts is to faithfully discharge the mandate of their call and training. They fit in, the leadership of the church is satisfied and happy, and God’s work goes forward. It is incumbent upon the church to wake up and to help nurture the potential of these returning workers to the highest level, for their own good, for the benefit of the church, and for the glory of God.

Watson Omulokoli


End Notes:

  1. There were two printed sources which were most useful to the author in the construction of this brief biographical sketch. One of these is Pentecostal Fire, Vol. 1, April, 2005, A Publication of the All Africa PEFA Desk, Nairobi, Kenya. The other one is the Funeral Service booklet for Rev. Erastus Otieno Ngao. The service for Nairobi was held on Thursday, November 9, 2000, at the All Nations Church, Gikomba, Nairobi. Other useful sources include interaction and communication with Rev. Otieno’s successor, Bishop Samuel Mwatha, as well as a leading PEFA clergyman, Bishop Moffat Kilioba.

  2. David B. Barrett, et al., Kenya Churches Handbook: The Development of Kenyan Christianity, 1498-1973, Kisumu, Kenya, Evangel Publishing House, 1973, 38.

  3. Ibid., 183-191, A compilation by the author.

  4. Peter Deyahs, “Brief History of PEFA,” in Pentecostal Fire, 17.

  5. Ibid.


This article, which was received in 2011, was written and researched by Rev. Prof. Rev. Prof. Watson Omulokoli, Professor of Church History, Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies, Kenyatta University, Kenya; Adjunct Professor, Akrofi-Christaller Institute, Accra, Ghana; and Chancellor, Africa International University, Nairobi, Kenya., and a recipient of the Project Luke Scholarship for 2010-2011.