President Uhuru Kenyatta greets Reverend John Gatu at the Presbyterian Church of East Africa, Muteero Parish on November 20, 2016. Rev Gatu died at Karen Hospital in Nairobi yesterday. PHOTO| NATION
Rev Gatu: The man who liberated African church from dependence on foreign aid
In a journalist’s life, defining moments are those when one comes face-to-face with a towering personality such as was the Reverend John Gatu.
My moment came twice — first when the former Moderator of the Presbyterian Church of East Africa (PCEA) showed the editorial team of The Way magazine that I was party to the door for ambushing him for an interview. The second and last opportunity was six days later when the nonagenarian gave us a two-hour-five-minute mirth-filled interview.
It turns out to have been my first and last interview with the man of the cloth, who once donned the British soldier’s uniform, for on Thursday night, his niece and my friend, Jebet Karago, sent me a WhatsApp message announcing the passing away of a national hero.
I take the liberty to share my first — and last — memories of a churchman I only interacted with twice last August, but who has left a lasting legacy of patriotism and statesmanship that present and future generations would do well to emulate.
Rev Gatu was more than a Kenyan clergyman; the global icon hit the limelight in the wake of his famous moratorium speech that caught world headlines and gave Gatu the ‘Moratorium’ moniker. The essence of the speech that some missionaries interpreted as being told to go home has finally come to pass, with most local churches raising their resources locally, instead of holding the beggar’s bowl to their mother churches.
The Church in Africa can only grow on the strength and support of its own, and in pushing that view, Gatu was well ahead of his peers.
Gatu was to go further and institute the ‘Jitegemea’ motto of the PCEA, which is the church’s way of living self-reliance instead of depending on outside help.
However, the man who chose to wear a colobus money skin instead of a graduation gown at Princeton in the USA, was not a blind cultural ideologue. He strongly opposed female genital mutilation, which, he believed, was both meaningless and harmful to women.
A nationalist, Gatu stood firmly against the oathing ceremonies that took place in Kikuyuland in the wake of Tom Mboya’s assassination. It was not easy, standing up to then President Jomo Kenyatta. And yet the diplomat in Gatu told him that he needed to give dialogue a chance to end the senseless oathings and killings that targeted those perceived not to belong to the House of Mumbi.
However, giving dialogue a chance was one thing and being complacent in a crisis situation was quite another. So, after several failed attempts to get President Kenyatta to call off the notorious oathing ceremonies, Gatu led the PCEA in the Kikuyu, Nakuru, Chogoria, and Nairobi presbyteries to denounce oathing during the Sunday services.
Kenyatta was livid when he addressed him on phone the following Tuesday, but the cleric was firm: “Mzee, we’ve come to you many times, including finding you in Mombasa, and when we found nothing was forthcoming, we organised this pronouncement.”
It is an approach that present and future generations of clergymen could well emulate, since it eschews antagonism, only taking decisive action after all else has failed. “If you can see a politician, it’s better to speak to him in person” he said, instead of using the media to insult leaders.
It is instructive that at a time when former President Daniel arap Moi has acquired a quasi-pariah status on account of his years of misrule, Gatu maintained close ties with him to the very end for the national good.
It was quite touching to see a recent photo of Gatu and Moi in the clergyman’s living room at the time of our interview. He had paid his rika a courtesy call, we learnt.
At the time I interviewed him, Gatu was a member of the Retired Senior Clergy Fellowship, which included two Catholic bishops, who worked tirelessly behind the scenes to end the 2008 post-election violence.
It can’t be taken for granted that former President Moi was a major financer of the fellowship whose members flew to Nakuru, Eldoret, and Kitale among other violence hotspots to end the violence. “He gave us a lot of money that helped us fly to various places,” he said.
At 92 and without the love of his life, Rahab, who went ahead of him 10 years ago, Gatu has lived to a ripe old age. He lived his life to the full, receiving guests and sharing the wisdom he gathered over the decades.
As we head for the General Election, Kenyans would do well to emulate his wisdom, his patriotism and his resolute spirit, which stood for one united, tribeless Kenyan nation.