Classic DACB Collection

All articles created or submitted in the first twenty years of the project, from 1995 to 2015.

Oywaya, Esau

Anglican Communion


Archdeacon Canon Esau Oywaya Odera definitely stands out as one of the unheralded giants of the church in Kenya, as elsewhere in Africa. In circles where he was well known, he had few equals among his peers. They revered and respected him as an outstanding Christian minister and leader who surmounted immeasurable obstacles to rise above his contemporaries. Starting off as a domestic worker for a Church Missionary Society (CMS) missionary at Maseno in the early 1910s, he rose to be successively the rural dean of Nairobi from 1947 to 1950, the rural dean of North Nyanza, (current Western Province), from 1951 to 1955, and finally the archdeacon of Eldoret in the Rift Valley from 1957 to 1963. From this last position he retired on medical grounds after suffering a stroke. [1]

There are a few reasons why he is not a household name on the wider front despite his solid and profound achievements in the church and society of his day. First, he functioned at his optimum level in what was actually the transition period marking the end of the missionary era and the initial years of the emerging indigenous leadership who eventually replaced him on the church scene. On the one hand, he was overshadowed by the missionaries with whom he worked in the period of their ascendancy. On the other hand, the African personnel with whom he overlapped and who eventually succeeded him were favored by the elevated status of the nascent church. Secondly, even when he worked in a wider environment, he laid great emphasis on foundational grassroots achievements. This was not the stuff of which a personality cult was made. His most outstanding role, therefore, is that of serving as the towering pillar in linking the missionary era with that of the resultant indigenous church.

Two early useful assessments of Oywaya’s stature and achievements are worth noting here. In one, after categorically stating that he had “earned high praise for his outstanding service” as chaplain in the Second World War, Elizabeth Richards goes on to comment on his remarkable Christian ministry. In her estimation, the true picture of his accomplishments “is not written about in the official documents of the great. Rather it is known in the love, respect and trust his people give him in the many churches and villages of his pastorate.” [2] Similarly, when Nairobi needed a rural dean in 1947, the head of the Anglican Church in western Kenya, then, Alfred Stanway only grudgingly released Oywaya from the region, while heaping genuine praise on him. This is well-captured in his clear sentiments on the matter when he explained: “We do however realize that Nairobi must have the best man available and I think Esau is that man…. It is only because I believe that the church is one, and that in doing what is right we will be blessed that I so readily face the prospect of losing an outstanding leader.” [3]

Early Years

Esau Oywaya Otera was born around the year 1900. He was the first born child of his parents–Odera, his father, and Olembo, his mother. After his birth, four more children were born to his parents, two boys and two girls.

When Oywaya was growing up as a child, his home area of Maseno in Bunyore, in the present Western Province of Kenya changed drastically. This took place when the Church Missionary Society (CMS) opened a mission station at Maseno in 1906. Apart from many other concerns, the main focus of the mission was the Maseno Boys Boarding School, under the direction of the Rev. John Jamieson Willis. Although the school operated on a boarding principle and targeted the sons of chiefs, it made some provision for a few boys from the local community to pursue education there as day scholars. Oywaya was among the earliest boys from the local vicinity to take advantage of this rare opportunity. Oywaya commenced his schooling at Maseno in 1908 when he was about eight years old. After attending the school in the initial years while still living at home, he moved to the mission compound in the later stages of his schooling. This move came in 1914 when he was employed by a missionary, Rev. Frederick Henry Wright, to serve in his house at Maseno as a domestic worker. His main assignment was to assist with kitchen duties, but other household chores, and even outside gardening were part of his regular tasks.

Baptism and Confirmation

By design, the school was the hub of the mission’s activities. Consequently, the pioneer Christian adherents of the CMS in its operational territory of western Kenya were students from the school. The initial progression shows that the first pupils were admitted to the catechumenate category on May 8, 1909. They were seventeen in number, and all of them were from the school. Then on January 30, 1910, a significant step was taken when fourteen of the initial group of seventeen catechumens were baptized in a landmark breakthrough of Christian initiation. Finally, history was made on May 27, 1911, when the Rt. Rev. Alfred Tucker, bishop of the Diocese of Uganda, under which western Kenya fell, visited Maseno and confirmed the first thirteen communicants of the Anglican Church in western Kenya. This was truly historic because these thirteen school boys were the first full-fledged members of the church in this region. They were the final group from the pioneer seventeen catechumens and the first fourteen admissions to baptism. In the interim period, many more had become catechumens, while at the same time many more had been baptized.

In this context Oywaya was baptized in 1916 and confirmed in 1917, making him one of the earliest of the Luyia people to be baptized and confirmed within the Anglican Church. The first Luyia to blaze the trail in these matters was Zakayo Ojuok, later renowned as the chief of Bunyore. While the rest were Luo, Zakayo was the lone one from the Luyia, of the seventeen catechumens of 1909, the fourteen baptized in 1910, and the thirteen confirmed in 1911.

Combining Work With Continued Schooling

Oywaya pursued his later schooling while serving as a domestic worker for the European missionaries at Maseno. It was also in this period that he was baptized and confirmed. He continued to work for the missionaries in their houses over a long period of time, with some records putting the terminal year of this association as 1921. Apart from learning the English language as part of his schooling, he learned much more of it in the process of interacting with the missionaries in their houses while working for them. The period between Oywaya’s completion of school at Maseno in his mid-teens, and his employment at Butere as a pupil-teacher in the boys school is not precisely accounted for. According to one possible account he left Maseno after finishing his studies there and went out in search of employment. He subsequently found a job, first in Kisumu, and later in Nairobi. While in both of these places, he served as a domestic worker while continuing his studies. Around 1921 some older Christians from his community advised him to return home and settle there. Then in 1922, he was appointed a pupil teacher in the newly founded Butere Boys Vocational School.

A Pupil-Teacher at Butere

Possessed of a brilliant and incisive mind, Esau Oywaya was such a remarkable person that from a meager academic background, he shot up to the role of a teacher. The CMS had opened up Christian work in the Luyia hinterland in 1912 with a mission station at Butere, in Marama, as the operational centre. The work there had a thriving school for girls, but a weak and fledgling one for boys. In 1922, Esau Oywaya was posted to Butere as a pupil-teacher in the Butere Boys School. This achievement was a great feat in that it set him apart as the first Munyore anywhere to teach at such an elevated level.

Ever ready to make progress, he was a real pupil-teacher in that while he was teaching, he continued to upgrade his own education. He carried this out with singular purpose during his Butere years. It was in this connection that he sat for the Elementary Examination Level C (Elementary C) in 1923. He excelled in this stage and resolved to continue bettering his education. The result was that in 1926 he sat for the Junior Secondary Examination and emerged successful. He was one of six students who were the first ones to attempt these examinations which he passed well.

Marriage and Family Life

It was while he was teaching at Butere that Oywaya married his wife Eseri. From then on, the two teamed up to lead an exemplary life as a family, while serving God wholeheartedly. This was a very tall order when one realizes that by the nature of his work Oywaya was always on the move, frequently being transferred from place to place. This situation placed heavy responsibilities on his wife, Eseri, when it came to taking care of the family in day-to-day matters.

God blessed the Oywayas with eleven children as follows: John Fred Ouya Odera, Mical Ruth Olembo [Mrs. Ruth Habwe], Barnabas Nathan Onduto, James Wycliff Mukhwana, Naomi Nandwa Ong’ayo, Willis Noel Onyango, Benjamin Amatsi, Paul Stewart [Sitwati], Joyce Bakhoya, Decimal Ikhabi Olingo, and Grace Violet Akharunda.

Teaching at Maseno

In 1926, the boys school at Butere was phased out in order to merge the current pupil population and the teachers with Maseno School. As Maseno represented the Luo and Butere the Luyia, strong emphasis was placed on incorporating senior indigenous teaching staff from the two respective communities. As a result, a Luo, Ezekiel Apindi, and a Luyia, Esau Oywaya, a transfer from Butere, featured prominently on the teaching staff of Maseno. Here once again, Oywaya distinguished himself as the pioneer at this level not only from his Banyore sub-tribe of the Luyia, but also as the first Luyia in this category.

Entrance, Training, and Beginning of Ministry

The direction of Oywaya’s life changed drastically in 1928 when he decided to leave his work as a teacher in order to pursue studies with a view to undertaking full time Christian ministry. The training took place at the CMS Divinity School at Frere Town, Mombasa, on Kenya’s coast. There were six students form western Kenya, four of them were Luo, and two of them Luyia. The Luyia were Zakayo Makonjio, from Butere, and Esau Oywaya from Bunyore. At the end of their preparatory period, they were ordained as deacons in 1929, belonging to the second group of deacons ordained from among the Luyia in the Anglican Church. The first group had been ordained in 1925 and was made up of three Luo and one lone pioneer Luyia named Jeremiah Awori. The next Luyia deacons to be ordained after a long gap were Anderea Ojiambo and Baranaba Weche in 1939. Saulo Okelo was ordained the following year in 1940.

Once he embarked on his work as a clergyman, Oywaya served in that capacity with a rare sense of dedication and commitment. In his initial assignment as a clergyman in the Maseno area, he also doubled as the chaplain of Maseno School. He distinguished himself as one who was diligent, exemplary, and guided by the highest standards of excellence. All this was evident in the 1930s, when the number of African clergy in the Anglican Church in the whole of western Kenya was small.

Embracing the East African Revival

By the 1920s, Christianity had been accepted and found its level of equilibrium in many areas of East Africa. With the church now settling down into a predictable continuing status quo, a determined group of Christians prayed and agitated for enhanced vitality and zeal in the church.

This was the state of affairs when the Anglican Church and congruent confessional communions in East Africa came under the impact of a powerful spiritual awakening called the East African Revival. The Revival had broken out in Ruanda in the late 1920’s and blossomed at Mukono in Uganda in 1936, during the preparations for the Diamond Jubilee Celebrations. Forays were formally made into Kenya during the nine days of the Revival Convention at Kabete in central Kenya between March 30 and April 7, 1937. Among the prominent personalities who embraced the Revival message then and were saved was Obadiah Kariuki, a later bishop of the Church in Kenya. Although Kabete and the year 1937 marked the introduction of the Revival to Kenya, the real breakthrough came when the Revival burst into the open at Alliance High School, in Kikuyu, central Kenya, in 1938. In September of that year, there was a tremendous spiritual awakening during the Revival Convention at the Alliance High School. More than 200 delegates were present from all over Kenya. Among the prominent individuals from western Kenya who were saved and espoused the essence of the Revival were Festo Olang’, Joash Anaminyi, and Esau Oywaya. In fact, Oywaya quickly shot up into the central leadership of the Revival.

Adherence to the message of the East African Revival, together with participation in its practices and activities energized Oywaya. Consequently, he became very proficient in his Christian ministry as he registered increased success in the varied aspects of his work.

Because of divergent perceptions of the Revival, some of Oywaya’s superiors in the church hierarchy frowned upon his activism and involvement. This was because the leadership of the church in Kenya, especially the European missionaries had not fully accepted the East African Revival. This really complicated matters as they are the ones who wielded power in the church. In the case of western Kenya, Oywaya’s home region, the greatest opponent of the Revival among the leadership was the all-powerful archdeacon, Walter Edwin Owen, the head of the Anglican Church in that region at the time.

War Service and Recognition

Owen had tried to contain Oywaya’s zeal for the Revival and his influence on others in the same direction but without much success. When the Second World War broke out in 1939 and chaplains were needed in the theatres of operation. Owen seized this opening as a fitting opportunity to distance Oywaya from western Kenya. Oywaya was therefore released by Owen to go to the war as chaplain in 1940 on mixed grounds. First, he was suited for the job. Apart from his ministerial talents, Oywaya endeared himself to those in charge of selecting chaplain because of his linguistic abilities in English, Kiswahili, Luo, Luyia, and Luganda (this latter more limited). Secondly, this was a way of removing him from the scene where he was spreading the message of the Revival, hence entrenching its impact.

Once he arrived on the war front, he applied himself with diligence to his assigned duties as chaplain. His accomplishments were recognized and widely commended. On the formal level, his contributions in his East Africa 11th Division enabled him to be awarded the title of Regimental Sergeant Major (RSM).

As in the story of Joseph and his brothers, those who had sent Oywaya to war plotted evil for him, but in retrospect, God turned it into good. He emerged from service in the war a much better Christian minister than when he had been enlisted as chaplain. Service in the war had a tremendous positive impact on Oywaya in several ways. During this period, he gained a wide perspective on life, hence emerging with a rich cosmopolitan outlook. This breadth of perspective enhanced his performance as a clergyman. When the war came to an end in 1945, Esau Oywaya resumed his clerical duties at Maseno and its immediate environs as his sphere of operation. In so doing he brought with him the wealth of experience he had amassed during his service in the war. This was especially true after he outgrew his local image and instead expanded his horizon to cover wider dimensions in his Christian ministry.

Rural Dean in Nairobi

There was significant movement towards positive re-alignment in the Anglican Church in Kenya in the period of reconstruction between 1938 and 1950. One of the central planks of this process was the drive towards the indigenization of church leadership. Under the new constitution of 1944, it was stressed that the requisite changes should be implemented immediately from the rural deanery level downwards. As a part of this push at the national level a number of key rural deans were appointed in the mid-1940s. A pertinent case in point was the appointment of the Rev. Shadrack Mliwa in Nairobi “as a rural dean and canon missioner of the diocese as an indication of the desire to hand over increasingly the government of A.C.C. to Africans.” [4]

Shadrack Mliwa took over as rural dean in Nairobi as Alfred Stanway was also moving in as rural dean in Nyanza (or the larger western region) as a replacement to Archdeacon W. E. Owen. Mliwa did not work for long in his assigned responsibilities in Nairobi before illness forced him to retire on medical grounds. This was the scenario which moved Oywaya out of Maseno again when he was fingered as Mliwa’s replacement.

Thus, just when he was beginning to resettle at Maseno, a request came from Nairobi that he was needed to replace an African rural dean, the Rev. Canon Shadrack Mliwa, who was retiring on medical grounds. Unlike the 1939-1940 situation when Archdeacon Owen readily released Oywaya for work as chaplain in the Second World War, this time, in 1946, Owen’s successor, Alfred Stanway, was reluctant to give him away. When it was obvious that he had to go, Stanway grudgingly released him with words of genuine praise. Commenting on his outstanding abilities, he wrote,

We do however realize that Nairobi must have the best man available and I think Esau is that man. In asking for an ordained man in his place I hope you will not think we are offering you nothing except an exchange. A man in his place is essential but we will still humanly speaking be the poorer. It is only because I believe that the Church is one, and that in doing what is right we will be blessed that I so readily face the prospect of losing an outstanding leader. [5]

It was under these circumstances that Oywaya went to Nairobi as rural dean from the beginning of 1947. In the following year he was made canon in the Diocese of Mombasa as he continued in Nairobi for two more years. During his tenure of service there he was also involved in working at St. Stephen’s Church. In terms of coverage, his territory of operation included the larger Rift Valley, Kitui, Machakos, and Magadi Soda areas. While serving in Nairobi, Oywaya’s distinctive role in the church was amply recognized in 1948 when he was awarded the honor of being made canon of the Diocese of Mombasa.

When the policy of re-alignment picked up fresh momentum in 1949-1950, Esau Oywaya was earmarked as one of the key Africans to be employed in its implementation country-wide. To this end, he was sent to Maseno momentarily in 1950 to prepare for the 1951 changes in the church’s structure and leadership.

First Rural Dean in the Western Province

At last, in 1951, the Luyia-dominated region of North Nyanza (the current Western Province of Kenya) was made a rural deanery as part of the ongoing process of strengthening the Anglican Church in the country. To help lay the foundation and steer the affairs of this new ecclesiastical unit, Oywaya had already been temporarily transferred from Nairobi to Maseno in the previous year. In 1951, Oywaya was formally appointed the rural dean of North Nyanza, with Butere as the headquarters of the territory under his jurisdiction. In his tenure at Butere, he maintained a forward-looking perspective in many directions. It was in this connection that he embarked on the construction of a Pro-Cathedral Church at Butere, in a step which anticipated the creation of a future diocese in the area. In 2010, the region includes the six dioceses of Maseno North, Butere, Mumias, Nambale, Bungoma, and Katakwa.

Archdeacon of Eldoret

As the onward push towards the Africanization of leadership in the Anglican Church in Kenya accelerated, two African clergymen, Festo Habakkuk Olang’ and Obadiah Kariuki were made assistant bishops in the Diocese of Mombasa in 1955, where the Rt. Rev. Leonard James Beecher had been the bishop since 1953. Two years later, in 1957, Olang’ was made suffragan bishop of Maseno, representing western Kenya, while Kariuki became the suffragan bishop of Fort Hall (or Murang’a), representing central Kenya.

In 1956, Oywaya was appointed archdeacon of Eldoret in the Rift Valley. In the course of his duties there, he travelled far and wide, traversing large sections of his assigned territory. This coverage included such areas as Turkana and Pokot. At times he would stay in these far-flung sections of his sphere of jurisdiction for extended periods of time. While he was located at Nasokol, in Turkana, in upper Rift Valley it seems that he developed complications resulting in the stroke which eventually led to his retirement on account of illness.

Retirement and Eventual Death

Esau Oywaya’s retirement from church service did not come under normal circumstances. Rather, he was forced to retire after suffering a stroke when he was at Nasokol in the upper Rift Valley section of his archdeaconry of Eldoret. In a sense, this was a fitting finale for this man of God who, like a soldier, ended his career honorably by giving his life in battle.

He then retired to his home in Maseno, Bunyore where he continued to convalesce while hoping to recover fully and resume Christian ministry. However, he had another stroke which arrested the recuperation process and hindered him from carrying out any further meaningful activity in Christian ministry. In the midst of this peaceful and quiet life he passed away on October 17, 1981.

At the end, his life represented one who, like Paul, could accurately and confidently say in his last conscious moments, the immortalized words of 2 Timothy 4:6-8:

As for me, I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing.

Watson Omulokoli

End Notes:

  1. The key written sources employed by the author were two. First, Watson Omulokoli, The Historical Development of the Anglican Church Among Abaluyia, 1905-1955, an Unpublished Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) Thesis, University of Aberdeen, Aberdeen, Scotland, 1981. Secondly, Elizabeth Richards, Fifty Years in Nyanza [western Kenya], 1906-1956: A History of the CMS and the Anglican Church in Nyanza Province, Kenya, Maseno, Kenya, Nyanza Jubilee Committee, 1956. For this write-up, the author is deeply indebted to several members of the Oywaya family, with a grandson, Mr. Steve Odera, as the chief coordinator of the information provided by the family. The main source, however, of the materials furnished from the family end is the eldest of the children, Mr. John Odera. Other family members who have proved very helpful include a daughter, Joyce Bakhoya, and yet another grandson, Mr. Don Odera. Resources from Butere were forwarded by Mrs. Fran Etemesi of the African Institute for Contemporary Mission and Research (AICMAR). Over the years, Dr. Aloo O. Mojola has proved to be a most valuable source, inspiration, and link on information on Oywaya.

  2. Elizabeth Richards, Fifty Years in Nyanza, 58.

  3. Stanway to Bewes, “Retirement of Canon Shadrack Mliwa: Rev. Oywaya,” July 26, 1946. Diocese of Maseno North (DMN) Files.

  4. Minutes of the Nyanza Ruri-decanal Council (NRC), Maseno, February 27-28, 1945.

  5. Stanway to Bewes, “Retirement of Canon Shadrack Mliwa”, July 26, 1946. **

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.