“Pioneering in Chyulu, Kenya,” Ensign, Feb. 2001, 30
Some time ago, I went to Africa to gather oral histories in my role as a professor of Church history at Brigham Young University. My visit to Chyulu, Kenya, was an unforgettable experience. The journey was difficult. The 150-mile (240-km) trip from Nairobi took about five hours, with one 12-mile (20-km) section that took about an hour and a half.
The day we arrived was Sunday, and we went to the meeting place about an hour before Church services were to begin. We were surprised to see about 20 children, between ages 5 and 12, coming to the meeting place. It was a bower, a shelter made of poles, about 15 feet by 30 feet. The sides were made from long grass interwoven between poles, and the roof was palm branches and corrugated iron. Next to the bower was a small handprinted sign that read, “L. D. S. CHYULU BRANCH.” At the entrance, a thick bushy shrub was wedged into the doorway. Without supervision, the children began sweeping the dirt floor with small tree limbs to remove any dead leaves or other debris that had blown in since the last meeting. They tidied up and arranged the rough wooden benches.
Soon families began to arrive. Music was provided by a cassette tape of hymns played on a battery-operated tape recorder. Everyone sang; the children were reverent. The adult Sunday School class met in the bower, and Primary and other classes were held in various areas outside. A 12-year-old girl taught about 30 Primary children, who eagerly participated in the lesson. It was fast and testimony day, and testimonies and prayers were in Swahili—the native language—or English, but the Spirit was strong in either language.
President Gordon B. Hinckley has said of such scenes: “The days of pioneering in the Church are still with us; they did not end with covered wagons and handcarts. … Each time that the gospel is introduced into a country, there are pioneers who participate in the opening of this work.”1 This pioneering spirit is alive and well in Africa. Since the revelation in 1978 directing that “every faithful, worthy man in the Church may receive the holy priesthood,”2 the Church in Africa has experienced phenomenal growth in both numbers3 and faith.
The Church in Kenya began to take root nearly 20 years before it was officially recognized by the government. In the 1970s many interested Kenyans attended Church meetings in the homes of Latter-day Saint expatriates. The first Kenyan converts—Elizaphan Osaka, a former minister; his wife, Ebisiba; and their two children—were baptized in 1979. In 1980 missionaries Farrell and Blanch McGhie arrived in Kenya, and a year later the Nairobi Kenya District was formed with two branches. In 1983 two brothers, Benson and Nickson Kasue, became the first full-time missionaries called from Kenya. They served in the California Los Angeles Mission and the Washington D.C. Mission, respectively.
During this time the Kenyan government declined to grant the Church official recognition and in July 1989 asked all non-native Latter-day Saint missionaries to leave the country. Despite this challenge, the Church continued to grow. At that time, Joseph Sitati, a management engineer from Nairobi, was the first Kenyan called to serve as a district president.
This pattern of growth due largely to the faith and work of local early members is typical throughout the world. As President Thomas S. Monson, then Second Counselor in the First Presidency, said: “Wherever the gospel has been taught and membership in the Church flourished, there has first been a pioneer period. Silent and vocal pioneers are raised up by the Lord to prepare the base strength for the Church organization which follows. Frequently, such strength begins with one family.”4
Julius and Sabina Kasue of Chyulu were two of Kenya’s early converts. They both came from Christian backgrounds and had studied the Bible. In 1981, while living in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital, Julius was introduced to the Church by Dennis Child, a Latter-day Saint working there. Julius frequently read the Book of Mormon and missionary pamphlets and then discussed them with Brother Child. Julius recalls, “It was when I read the Book of Mormon for the second time and then prayed about it that I felt something burning in my heart.”5 Although Julius had a witness of the truth, he waited four years before being baptized in February 1986. His wife, Sabina, was baptized the following November. Soon after their baptism, Brother and Sister Kasue left Nairobi and returned to Chyulu, the area of their birth.
Soon after the Kasues arrived in Chyulu, a branch was organized and Brother Kasue was called to serve as branch president. The Church grew rapidly under his leadership. Religious and community leaders became alarmed when converts left their churches to join the newly established Latter-day Saint congregation. Soon there was considerable opposition to the Church and its followers. As the Church had not yet been officially recognized by the Kenyan government, it was illegal for more than nine adults to attend a Latter-day Saint meeting. When some complaints were filed, President Kasue was arrested and detained for 12 hours. He suspected that his arrest was largely due to David M. Maluti, a prominent community and church leader who had strongly opposed President Kasue’s church work. However, when their disagreements became public knowledge, Mr. Maluti decided he wanted to end the disagreement. Curious about how such an intelligent and respected man as President Kasue could follow the Church, he began asking President Kasue questions about the Church. Because of Mr. Maluti’s past adversarial position, President Kasue wondered about his motives and refused to answer his questions; nevertheless, he agreed to send Mr. Maluti some literature “that would speak for itself.”
Mr. Maluti read The Articles of Faith, Book of Mormon, and Doctrine and Covenants and was impressed, but he was most inspired by the pamphlet The Prophet Joseph Smith’s Testimony. He read it at least 40 times. While studying about the Church, Mr. Maluti attended a public meeting where questions were raised about the Church. He stood up and fervently defended the Church and bore his testimony for 10 minutes. As he sat down there was immediate and enthusiastic applause. Within six months of their first meeting, President Kasue and Mr. Maluti became close friends, and Mr. Maluti was baptized and called to be the mission leader in the Chyulu branch.
President and Sister Kasue and their children, along with many others, fasted and prayed, pleading that the Church would be officially recognized in Kenya. “Sometimes in family prayer I would forget to pray for the registration of the Church in Kenya,” President Kasue remembers. “My children would remind me and say, ‘Oh Dad, you didn’t pray for the registration of the Church.’ My children had strong faith.” When the official recognition was finally received on 25 February 1991, many wept, prayed, and fasted as an expression of their gratitude.
Eight months later, when Kenya was dedicated for the preaching of the gospel, Elder James E. Faust of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles said: “We are grateful that after many long years of waiting a mission has been established for the preaching of the gospel. May the work go forward firmly and solidly.”6
President Kasue immediately obtained a copy of the registration document and took it to the assistant chief of Chyulu Village to assure the rights of the Church to operate legally. The Saints could now meet without fear, and their membership soon increased to about 40. They needed a larger place than each other’s homes to meet, but a mission had not yet been established and no meetinghouse was provided, so the members built a small bower on some of President Kasue’s land.
In July 1991 the Kenya Nairobi Mission was organized with Larry Brown as president. Soon he and Sister Brown made their first visit to Chyulu. “Although the trip was grueling, it was worth it!” said President Brown. “I remember that the sacrament meeting was held in the bower, but it was raining and the ground inside was wet. Before the priesthood holders knelt down to bless the sacrament, they threw an old sack on the mud. The next time we went, I happened to look in the sacrament trays, and there were only two small pieces of crackers. … They broke those crackers up. There were 63 people there, and I didn’t think those crackers would ever go around, but they did. It was like feeding the 5,000.”7
Many in the Chyulu area desired to join the Church, but because Chyulu was so isolated the mission leaders decided to limit the membership until sufficient local leadership was developed. Among those who came to church weekly were two men from another village. They rode their bicycles two hours each way. When they requested that they and others be allowed to be baptized, President Brown granted their request on condition that only the two men and their families be baptized. However, since African villages are often composed of large extended families, 40 jubilant converts showed up to be baptized.
Due to a lack of water in Chyulu, arranging for the baptisms was a challenge. President Brown and a missionary couple had made the long arduous journey from Nairobi to Chyulu by truck hauling baptismal clothing and a corrugated steel water storage tank to be used as the baptismal font. Once in Chyulu, local brethren spent five hours pumping and hauling water four miles (6 km) over “the rockiest of roads.” Then 10 brethren knelt in the water around the outside edge of the tank so the water was deep enough for each of the candidates to be immersed. Following the baptism, the new members bore their testimonies. They expressed deep gratitude for the gospel, especially one sister who had been attending church for 10 years. As they traveled home in the dark and the rain, they sang hymns of praise all the way.8
Eventually a branch was formed in the village of these new members, and they needed a meetinghouse. Since there was no road to the village, the members carried all of the building materials on their backs the last two kilometers up the hill to the building site.
Of the rapid growth in Chyulu and its ongoing challenges, Byron J. Gilbert, a missionary, reported that in 1992 he and his wife traveled from Nairobi to Chyulu to teach and interview eight candidates for baptism, but 75 came for the discussion. During church, they had to fill the sacrament trays three times.9 Another missionary, Linda Leavitt, who served in Chyulu for more than a year, said that many who desired to join the Church waited three months before their names could be placed on a waiting list to be taught the missionary discussions. During the three-month period, all attended church and most lived the law of tithing, kept the Word of Wisdom, and fasted.10
The fact that President Kasue and other Chyulu Church leaders have hungered to learn more has contributed to the strength of the Church here. When President Brown invited all priesthood leaders to attend leadership meetings in Nairobi, he did not expect those from Chyulu to attend because of the distance and cost. However, 11 brethren from Chyulu arrived early on the morning of the meeting. They had walked 12.5 miles (20 km) to catch a train at midnight and traveled all night. They attended the leadership meeting that day, with some of them requiring translators. That night they stayed with Church members, and the following day they traveled back to Chyulu, expressing deep gratitude for the privilege of being at the meetings.
Such has been the history of the Church in Chyulu, and the members have been greatly blessed. I witnessed the beginning of such a blessing as my July 1992 visit came to an end. As we prepared to leave, President Kasue asked if he could come with me to Nairobi. He said he needed to talk to President Brown, but he did not give indication of any concern. The following day President Brown informed me that there was a drought in the Chyulu area that was so severe that some people were near starvation. I was shocked. None of the Saints had complained about it privately or in their testimonies on Sunday nor asked for any assistance from me.
As I learned later, President Brown took action immediately. With approval from the Area Presidency, he arranged for 3,400 pounds of corn, rice, and beans to be delivered to Chyulu to relieve the suffering people. A missionary couple, Elder Ted and Sister Jaclyn McNeill, made the arduous trip. Because of the large truck and heavy load, eight sisters worked ahead of the truck rolling huge lava rocks off the road. The arrival of the life-saving food was greeted with gratitude and joy. Sister McNeill recalled: “You have never seen people so happy to receive anything. They knew this was going to save their lives.”
President Kasue visited with every family to assess their needs. Then he and Sister Kasue spent the night making porridge and taking it to the many who were too weak to get out of bed. Sister McNeill observed, “The Spirit there was so strong, it made us weep to see how President and Sister Kasue were handling things.”
To prevent starvation in the future, the Church established a project to raise drought-resistant crops on six acres of Church land in Chyulu. It was directed by priesthood leaders, including Joel K. Ransom, an agronomist from Idaho and first counselor in the Chyulu district presidency. Those who helped with the project were given land and seeds to plant their own family gardens. Although there had been no rain for nearly two years, 40 Church members and 60 not of our faith planted their crops on 21 October 1992. Then they held a special fast for rain and watched the Church film The Windows of Heaven. Less than a week after the seeds were planted, the rains came. The crops grew, and so did the faith of the people. There was a bountiful harvest of both crops and converts.
Other seeds, the seeds of the gospel planted and nurtured in Chyulu, have grown strong over the years and continue to bear fruit. For example, in the mid-1990s, when the Kenyan government declined to issue visas to foreign full-time missionaries, the young men of Chyulu helped meet the demand. In 1998, when President David Boucher was released as president of the Kenya Nairobi Mission, he noted that although the Chyulu branch made up about 15 percent of the Church membership in Kenya, they had provided more than half of Kenyan missionaries serving in Kenya.11
The following words of President Hinckley are an appropriate tribute: “Pioneers are found among … the converts who come into the Church. It usually is difficult for each of them. It invariably involves sacrifice. It may involve persecution. But these are costs which are willingly borne and the price that is paid is as real as was the price of those who crossed the plains in the great pioneering effort more than a century ago.”12