We shall overcome

One cannot fully appreciate Kenya’s normative Christianity and its particular obsession with public piety without appreciating the legacy of the East African revival.

Nyeri, Kenya, 2015. Image credit Stuart Price for Make it Kenya via Flickr PDM 1.0 Deed.

I was 13 and in my first year of boarding school when I first experienced “revival.” It was during our Challenge Weekend, organized by our high school’s student-run Christian Union (CU) fellowship. Most schools in Kenya with an active CU fellowship have a version of this at least once a year; many schools call it Weekend Challenge. Students invite external church groups to preach and minister through the weekend; it was set up like a full tent revival, with an extensive program of fellowship, concerts, prayer, and preaching, plus a keynote service to close it out at the end.

In that first year, the group that had come to our school to minister was Christco Central Church, a Nairobi evangelical congregation started in 1978. The weekend began with the usual preaching, testimonies, music, and dance, but something different happened by the second day. Students began to shout and cry out, some were shaking and falling during prayers. When the preachers made an altar call, many girls—more than I had seen before, or I would see in my four years in high school— rushed to the front to get saved, which entailed repeating the “sinner’s prayer” that generally went like this: admitting one had sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, accepting Christ’s atoning sacrifice, asking to be covered by Jesus’ blood, and a declaration that one’s life was now forever changed.

This occurred at Alliance Girls High School, established in 1948 as Kenya’s first high school for African girls. Throughout the years, the school has produced numerous distinguished alumni, including Mary Okelo, the first woman bank manager in Kenya; Nyiva Mwendwa, the first woman cabinet minister; Charity Ngilu, the first woman presidential candidate; and Lucy Kibaki, a former first lady. Another alumna, Dorcas Rigathi, currently serves as the country’s Second Lady.

In addition to its academic rigor and esteemed historical legacy, Alliance Girls High School stands out for its prominent Christian culture, which is deeply embedded in school life. Officially aligned with mainstream Protestantism, the school also embraced a strong revivalist and Pentecostal influence that was new to me because I had also been raised in the mainline Presbyterian denomination.

With its strong links to the Christian missions, the religious formation was always part of the mission of the Alliance schools (the boys’ school was started in 1926). Having grown up in the Presbyterian Church of East Africa (PCEA), I might have been forgiven for expecting that a school with historical links to the PCEA would have that liturgical style known as mutaratara that its congregations in Kenya are known for: restrained, outwardly decorous, predictable and somewhat formulaic.

But I was wrong. There were formal, more staid services on Sunday morning—compulsory for the whole school, regardless of your religious affiliation—but on Saturday nights and Sunday afternoons, there was the Christian Union (CU), a student-run fellowship, which was optional, but whose fervor, intensity and emotionality was new to me. Challenge Weekend, in particular, was a highly anticipated event in the school calendar, even by students who were not particularly devout, because of the energy, hype, and upbeat nature of the music and dance performances.

At that point, I considered myself saved already, having made the same prayer some years before while I was still in primary school. But it was clear during that first Challenge Weekend that a higher spiritual commitment was demanded of me if I was to claim to be saved in this new context; if I was to become part of this version of Christian fellowship whose intensity was wholly new to me.

And though it felt new to a 13-year-old, a bigger story was at play here. The CU fellowships were, and still are, part of a much longer legacy of Kenyan boarding schools as primary sites of religious formation in young people. They find their historical roots in the East African revival. This spiritual movement began in Rwanda and Uganda in the 1920s and swept through the entire region in the following  decades.

The influence of the East African revival on high school CU’s—and by extension, on the region’s religious culture and political imagination—is significant. One cannot fully appreciate Kenya’s normative Christianity and its particular obsession with public piety and its effect in demobilizing civic action without appreciating the legacy of the East African revival. It is very much alive today because high school CU’s are a more direct legacy of that revival than other Christian church spaces or mainstream church liturgies.

Kenya Students Christian Fellowship

The Christian Union fellowship that shaped so much of my faith orientation was, and still is, affiliated with the Kenya Students Christian Fellowship (KSCF), an organization that oversees Christian Union fellowship groups in Kenyan secondary schools. Nestled in a corner of David Osieli Road in Westlands, a suburb of Nairobi, the headquarters is very modest—a wooden building of about four rooms in the corner of the compound; it appears to be a repurposed outhouse or servants’ quarters.

Nevertheless, the modesty of this edifice belies its influence. According to the organization’s data, CUs operate in more than 4,000 secondary schools directly affiliated with KSCF; that’s more than four in ten of all secondary schools in the country. The number of schools with active Christian fellowship groups is likely to be much higher, as an unknown number of CUs operate in schools without a direct affiliation with the KSCF.

The KSCF was formed in 1958 and registered in 1959, making it one of Kenya’s oldest registered societies. The organization oversees the formation of CUs, coordinates Bible study materials for the fellowships, and holds camps and conventions that bring together CU students from all over the country. Typically, CUs. are registered and run just like any other extra-curricular activity in the school system, like drama club or the Boy Scouts. But in a normatively Christian society like Kenya, and particularly in the boarding school environment, CUs tend to be embedded in boarding school life in a way that frequently makes them first among equals of school clubs, and that also makes the Kenyan high school a primary site of Christian formation in young people.

“Christian Union clubs were started for, and by teachers in secondary schools who had encountered the revival during their school days,” Duncan Baraka, the national field coordinator for KSCF, tells me in an interview. “They felt the need to start the fellowships for themselves, but students quickly joined the meetings and began to lead and run them.”

Significantly, in its early years, KSCF designed a standard liturgy for CU services—an interdenominational format drawing from the East African revival meetings. This means that the high school context in Kenya is uniquely interdenominational for Christian worship in a country where the lines of ethnic fragmentation sometimes run parallel to denominational ones. When these teenagers grow up and participate in political life, the lines of ethnic or political fragmentation become more salient. Still, the high school CU might be the first—or only—interdenominational worship format they might ever experience.

You might think that exposure to this form of Christian unity would translate into young people reaching adulthood with a greater sense of civic purpose and unity, but that isn’t the case. The East African Revival and its high school CU offshoots created a paradoxical situation where there was real potential for social upheaval through giving previously powerless people new agency and status based on their spirituality. But at the same time, it narrowed their ambit on what was worthy of their time and attention, and this was primarily matters of personal holiness, resulting in a simultaneous retreat or ambivalence on challenging the structures of society or on direct political action. This arguably remains its most significant political legacy.

The roots of the East African revival movement

The East African Revival’s origins are often attributed to an encounter between Joe Church, a young white missionary doctor, and Simyoni Nsibambi, an African believer in Kampala, Uganda. Church had been active in the Cambridge University Inter-Collegiate Christian Union and also regularly attended the Keswick conventions—an annual gathering of evangelical Christians in the UK that emphasized the telling of “testimonies” (public declarations of what the Lord had done in one’s life)—as well as “commitment”, which meant dedication to faithful, even zealous Christian living that went over and above nominal conversion.

In 1928, Church arrived in Gahini, Rwanda, during a severe famine. Gahini was an Anglican mission overseen by Uganda’s Anglican Church Missionary Society. His initial year there involved tirelessly addressing the suffering caused by the famine. Exhausted and needing recuperation, Church traveled to Kampala in 1929, where he met Simyoni Nsibambi after a service at the Kampala Cathedral. Nsibambi, having previously heard Church speak about surrendering all to Jesus at a Bible study in Kampala, expressed dissatisfaction with the spiritual state of the Ugandan church. He believed that Africans were torn between modern life and traditional culture, which dampened their evangelistic fervor and compromised their faith.

Church and Nsibambi were thus both looking for something fresh, and they went away to spend several hours deep reading the Bible together. The result was a spiritual awakening for both. Joe Church returned to Gahini transformed and refreshed, while Nsibambi embraced a full-time evangelist role. Nsibambi, in a notable rejection of modern life, sold his motorbike, stopped wearing shoes, and engaged in street preaching. He would ask everyone if they were saved; some thought he had gone mad. Nsibambi and his group of dedicated believers frequently traveled between Kampala and Gahini, and soon fellowship meetings among hospital staff in Gahini experienced a “breakthrough.” Public confessions of sins led to congregants having visions, falling into trances, weeping, shaking, and exhibiting other manifestations bordering on hysteria. Hymn singing sessions extended throughout the night. This “outpouring of the Spirit” soon spread across the rest of Rwanda and Uganda, Burundi, eastern Congo, Kenya and South Sudan; Nsibambi is sometimes called the “father of the East African revival movement.”

Public confession of sin was a contentious practice that frequently disrupted established power dynamics within congregations. Testifying was subversive, and European and African clergy of established denominations faced pressure from the balokole (“born again”) to publicly repent. The revivalist tradition emphasized the gravity of sin, Christ’s atoning death, and the redeeming power of Jesus’ blood. Revivalists formed prayer and fellowship groups within the church, conducting meetings separate from formal liturgical services. This legacy continues in high school CUs, which still meet separately from the official Sunday church services at the school. The movement adopted a classic revivalist tone, focusing on sin, repentance, the cross, baptism in the Holy Spirit, sanctification, and the pursuit of holiness.

‘Radical reordering’

By emphasizing personal sin and repentance, the East African revival movement dismantled the divisions between clergy and laity, as lay individuals predominantly led it. In the colonial context, this created an opportunity for equal fellowship between missionaries and Africans, challenging the existing power dynamics within ecumenical communities. The clergy did not always welcome this radical reordering. It was a humbling experience for missionaries, and not all of them could fully accept the radical equality within the movement. In Joe Church’s writings, he reflects on the realization that European missionaries presumed they were bringing the “light of the Gospel” to Africa, only to find that that light was being turned back upon themselves, exposing their sins and need for repentance.

Notably, the fellowship communities defied racial and ethnic boundaries, promoting collaboration across differences despite the colonial system’s efforts to prevent such unity. The revival also provided marginalized individuals, such as young people, women, and the poor, an alternative pathway to attain social status, reshape communities, and access power. Joining a church mission presented an alternative route, and the revival movement further accelerated and intensified this process. In Kijabe, Kenya, the Africa Inland Mission (AIM) attracted those from lower social strata. AIM prioritized lay-led evangelism and valued piety over formal education. Unlike other missions, AIM leaders had limited theological training, focusing instead on Scripture instruction, holy living, and devotion to God. This approach empowered individuals who lacked property and leadership prospects within their clans.

The revival similarly gave young men and women the opportunity to expand the boundaries of what they could do as young people, “asserting autonomy against aged leaders who treated them as subjects”. In a traditional, gerontocratic African context where suitability for leadership followed age, it was a radical idea that young people—provided they were “on fire for Jesus”—could be trusted with leadership roles in the movement. All that mattered was one’s experience at the foot of the cross and seeking to live a holy life.

This was certainly my experience in my high school CU. It was exhilarating that despite being 18 at most, we were taken seriously, not just by our peers but also by the teachers who acted as the school’s CU patrons. The CU context was one of the few where that was the case for teenagers of my generation and social context. Everywhere you turned, the message was that teenagers are immature, fickle, hormone-crazed, and untrustworthy. Yet here, as long as you professed the faith and were committed to growing in holiness, this was a space where we were actually in charge, were convinced that God was indeed using us, and felt that what we were doing mattered.

Duncan Baraka at KSCF tells me that the organization’s focus is explicitly on influencing high school students.

It’s easier to bend a stick when it is still green, [invoking a common Kenyan saying] … These are formative years, and during their younger years, students typically live at home with their parents. But in high school, they are very often in a boarding school environment, away from their families, and are now deciding who they are and how they want to live. There are many options, and we present Christianity as a way to live.

Historically, the East African revival also provided women an alternative, even “subversive” way of organizing community and breaking the boundaries imposed on them in a colonial and patriarchal society. Women made up the majority of supporters of the revival in the Mennonite church in northern Tanzania; the balokole met in small weekly fellowship groups and large tent meetings for worship and testimonies. JB Shetler, who researched the western Serengeti in Tanzania, writes: “Of course, confession also implicated and named other people, especially men, many of whom were not happy with the public airing of sins.”

Fellowships and tent meetings became an opportunity for women to get away from the drudgery of domestic duties, meet new people and even travel across national boundaries. Shetler writes of Tanzanian women who looked back fondly at the revival days, recounting how they walked for days or hitched rides at the back of a truck to go for a meeting: “…There was no prejudice based on ‘tribe’,” the women said, “people loved each other in Christ.”

For women whose identity had been narrowed and whose knowledge had been devalued by the colonial order, church membership was a means to reimagine identity and form non-ethnic networks based on Christian identity. The revival fellowships provided new social support networks, and women in particular, were offered new roles within preaching teams and fellowship groups. It was an opportunity to break with oppressive patterns and create new ways of being.

This opening up of new possibilities for young people and women is not a trivial matter, and my experience in high school and subsequent evangelical spaces converged these two lived experiences.

On the one hand, the fellowships provide a sense of belonging, friendship and a chance to re-imagine family—crucial to surviving the lonely and isolating boarding school context. On the other hand, the insularity makes young people vulnerable to influences they may not fully understand.

The personal vs the political

With such a radical potential for social transformation, breaking racial, ethnic, denominational, and gender boundaries, why was the revival unable to uproot the most explicit, overt form of oppression: the colonial state?

It turns out that revivalists were not interested in confronting colonial oppression and ended up being accommodated into the churches and into the colonial state without seriously upsetting the political status quo. The revivalists were “both cosmopolitan and iconoclastic without being social liberals;” they resisted the call for African nationalism in the 1950s. Instead of agitating for justice or political reform, they sought honesty and personal uprightness and railed against African traditions that abetted greed, theft, adultery, and violence.⁠

The revivalists also shunned radical or militant anti-colonial activism. In Kenya, they refused to take the Mau Mau oath that would put them on the side of those taking up arms to fight against British colonialism. In Rwanda, they refused to kill or appropriate the goods of the Tutsi in the Hutu revolution of 1959. In Uganda, the balokole resisted the call of the Buganda nationalist movement, Kabaka Yekka. Their response was Yesu Yekka (Jesus Only).

The revival movement focused on personal transformation rather than political engagement, resulting in a paradox where individual lives experienced significant upheaval while broader power structures remained unaffected. The revivalists were counter-cultural, rejecting polygamy, female circumcision, and traditional spirituality. However, their counter-culture did not aim to promote African nationalism or drive radical political or economic transformations. Instead, their goal was to cultivate a “purified form of traditional community” based on honesty, thrift, holiness, and simple living as societal pillars. This approach allowed the revival to remain within existing mainline churches, preventing the formation of new radical congregations.

Additionally, the movement’s impact was not limited to specific denominations but crossed denominational boundaries, influencing various Christian missions, including Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Mennonite, and Anglican congregations. Even Catholic churches were influenced with an emerging charismatic movement that shared similarities with the East African revival. Notably, a potential crisis was averted when the Archbishop of Canterbury consecrated four revivalist leaders as the first African bishops in Kenya. This act solidified the revival as a movement within the church rather than outside of it.

The revival’s emphasis on personal holiness and a reluctance to challenge societal structures or engage in direct political action, remains its significant political legacy. This is reflected in the rise to power of Kenyan presidents Daniel arap Moi and William Ruto, considered outsiders to the political establishment. They leveraged their personal piety and Christian commitment to qualify for leadership and mobilize grassroots support, but in a way that ultimately upholds the status quo.

That narrowing of the political imagination also results in these Christian spaces channeling their energies elsewhere and into pursuing personal holiness. In practice, the primary arena where personal holiness was to be demonstrated was in chaste interpersonal relationships and sexual purity, with most of the responsibility for collectively achieving this falling on girls and women. It created this incredibly tense paradox: as a girl in this space one has new paths to power, agency, and purpose tantalizingly within reach, but at the same time, one’s thoughts, actions, appearance, desires, and even one’s very existence are under constant scrutiny and control.

Being a teenage girl and young woman in that evangelical space helped me navigate those turbulent adolescent years with a sense of purpose. On the other hand, our faith environment also fostered an enabling atmosphere for patriarchal oppression despite offering strategies to seemingly overcome it.

Further Reading