By John Muhanji
Mfangano Island is 65 km² in area and rises to 1,694 m at Mount Kwitutu. It has a population of over 26,000 people. Administratively, Mfangano is part of Mbita Constituency, Homa Bay County, Kenya.
As one of Lake Victoria’s largest islands, it lies in the boundary waters of Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda.
Most residents are descendants of the Abakunta people, who sailed across the lake from Uganda over fifteen generations ago. Mfangano Island is home to the largest population of Olusuba (or Suba) language speakers in Kenya. However, Olusuba is becoming rarer because of intermarriage between Suba men and Luo women from the mainland, as traditionally children learn their “mother tongue,” that is, their mother’s language. Other languages spoken on the island include Luo, Swahili, and English. Members of the Luo tribe are concentrated on the eastern side of the island, primarily fishermen, and subsistence farmers.
Transportation on the Island consists mainly of walking and boat travel in small wooden handmade boats that sometimes sail. There are bicycles and motorbikes now since the government cut a road that circles the island. It is reported that the first car to be driven on the island’s soil was on February 2, 2007. Since then, several automobiles have been seen, and others are now used locally for transport. There is a small air strip which is used mainly for tourists and sometimes campaigning politicians.
The government has also worked hard to ensure a consistent electricity supply within the island, using generators. This has led to growth within the region and improvement in the economic ability of the island. Fishermen can now store their fish as they wait for the markets on the mainland.
Before Quakers came to Kenya in 1902, one of the three original Quaker missionaries, Willis Hotchkiss, in 1900, traveled with the Inland Church Missionaries in early 1900, though they did not even reach Nairobi due to malaria from the mosquitoes along their route as they traveled from Mombasa. So he decided to return and try again after convincing a team of Quakers to join him to explore the East African country. They came prepared to meet the unknown to the end. Fortunately, they arrived in 1902, after the the railway line had just been completed from Mombasa to Kisumu, and they took the train safely without the difficulties of mosquitoes and lions.
In our case, we had Rose Murunga from Elgon East Yearly Meeting, who had been on the island and saw the potential of the Quaker church being opened on the ground. Looking at the island’s history, it seems communication has been a challenge for many years, but this was our time for reaching the island and planting a church. A British Friend named David Bale connected with Kenyan Friend Rose Murunga, and joined Samuel Odida of Mfangano Island, who was not a Quaker. They had established a school that serves the vulnerable orphaned children from the island. It was not attached to any church, and since people trust a church-connected school, Samuel used the name of another ministry, which he has been paying monthly for using their name. David reached out to me and requested that we plant a Quaker church on the island. This was followed by Samuel the Suba, who visited the Africa Ministries Office in Kisumu with Rose Murunga, and as we shared, he was ready to join the Quaker church and welcomed us to visit the island and plant a church. He had built a chapel on the school compound, which also serves as a church.
The three original Quaker missionaries came and found the ground ready for the church planting. They were welcomed by the Anglicans who had settled at Vihiga and who sold them the Kaimosi mission property for a start. This made their work more accessible because they had a place to operate from as they explored the Luhya land. In the same way, we have landed on the island with a place to start our Quaker mission. The Lord had already prepared the way for us to plant a Quaker church. So Paul says in Ephesians 2:10, “For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” Our Mfangano Quaker mission reflected similarly to what Paul is telling the Ephesians. God had already prepared us in advance to plant the Quaker church without many challenges except for taking responsibility.
Our journey of five people to the island started very early in the morning of May 14, from different places, and we all met at Homa Bay town. The clerk of the FUM Mission Committee, Samson Wekesa, came from Nairobi; Bware Yearly Meeting led by the General Superintendent Albert Njeria, and their mission clerk, Philip Ochieng who came from Migori; Rose Murunga arrived from Kitale; and myself, Director of the AMO from Kisumu. We converged in Homa Bay by 7:30 AM and started our journey to the island through Mbita town. The combination of the Nairobi, Bware, and Elgon East yearly meetings, along with the AMO created a team that made their first Quaker missionary journey to the island to establish the Quaker church.
It is well known that the Apostle Paul’s first missionary journey included Paul, Barnabas, and John, who traveled about sixteen miles to the coast at Seleucia Pieria port. Our Quaker team equally set off from Homa Bay to the Port of Mbita. The commissioning started when the FUM WhatsApp forum raised funds for the island mission, and when it was enough to travel, we set off to Mfangano Island. It took the team 45 minutes to drive from Homa Bay to Mbita port where we were informed that the ferry leaves at midday to Mfangano Island. Since we had left our houses early without breakfast, we took breakfast in Mbita at a hotel next to the port.
We boarded the ferry at exactly noon and after one and a half hours in the deep waters of Lake Victoria, we arrived at Sena beach on Mfangano Island. It was fascinating that when I parked the vehicle on the ferry, I drove on in a forward mode. However, when disembarking from the ferry, I had to drive the truck in reverse over stones laid in the water connecting the ferry and the island because there was no dock. It was hard, but I managed to get the vehicle on the land from the ferry. It was a relief to land on the island and be met with fishermen and people cleaning their household items in the clean waters. Samuel, our host, welcomed us very well as we disembarked from the ferry and took us to our hotel, where we would stay for the next three days. Samuel requested that we go and see his father, who lived on top of the mountain on the highest point known as Nyahera.
Our journey towards the top of the hill was exciting and sort of a roller coaster. The situation looked like we were doing a Hollywood movie cast on the mountain rocks. We managed to reach the home of Samuel’s father, who welcomed us with joy. He was the first senior member of the community we talked to about the Quaker church. He listened very keenly and appreciated that we are genuine people of God. His endorsement meant that the community would accept us on the island to establish the Quaker church. Pastor Odida, Samuel’s father on the hill, is a very respected elder in the island’s Christian community. He was one of the people who translated the New Testament English Bible to the Suba Language. They are now working on the translation of the Old Testament. We were asked many questions about the Quaker church, and I called the process the “Island Baptism” of the Quaker church by the elder who prayed for us. We received the blessings of the Mfangano Island on the top of the mountain and it was worth the effort going there before we started our work.
This is where we exhibited application of Cultural Humility and Relationships. In the book I wrote together with Prof. Eloise Hockett, Lessons from Cross-Cultural Collaboration, we stated that, “One of the core values of cultural humility is that of relationship building. Any successful work or ministry must first be built on this important value. Without honest and trusted relationships, it is difficult to begin, much less carry out or sustain effective programs or ministry.” Samuel, our host, knew very well that as a young person, he needed the blessings of the elders in the community, and his father happened to be one of them. Therefore, our planting of the Quaker church on the island was a collaboration and not the big brother syndrome. “True collaboration effectively combines the components of relationship building, being quick to listen and slow to speak, and challenging our biases and assumptions. These components together promote a co-learning mode of working with others. Therefore, a collaborative or co-learning approach considers the needs, opinions, ideas, background, culture, and experiences of the other person or groups (Lessons from Cross-Cultural Collaboration).”
We descended from the mountain after being accepted and blessed to start the church on the island. It was such a blessing that they also made hot tea and chapatis (Indian flat bread) for us, and it was delicious. This was very special as we were quite hungry after we climbed the hill! We were equally well received downhill in the evening. It was as if many people knew we had arrived and were happy to receive us with love and appreciation. Both the young people and the elderly welcomed us with joy as we had been accepted and blessed to move forward.
The Quaker Church was established on the island within two days.
On Saturday, May 15th, we held a meeting with some school leaders at the school chapel, which will serve as the Friends Church on the island. Since we had received community blessings on the mountain the previous day by Mzee Odida, we had a good reception from the leaders who responded to our sharing with much interest. Thus, the ground had already been prepared for the establishment of the Quaker church. We took time to introduce who the Quakers are and what we believe in as a church, and why we are venturing on the island after many years since our church started in Kenya. Then, we opened up for questions from the members. They asked many clarifying questions which were responded to adequately. They even asked what programs we had for the youth to help them remain committed to the church? This was very interesting because the church had many young people asking what we had to keep them committed to the Quaker church. The Saturday meeting saw the Quaker church being accepted on the island with ease, and they told us who would be the leaders of the new Quaker church on the island.
On Sunday, May 16th, the first-ever Quaker service was held on Mfangano Island. Bware’s Superintendent, Albert Njeria, preached on the subject, “Human Dissatisfaction” then he officially commissioned the leaders who had been nominated on Saturday. This new church will be under the care of Bware Yearly Meeting. It was so simple and fast that in just two days, we had planted the church. And it all began with our first visit to the mountain on Friday after we had arrived on the island. After the Sunday worship, they prepared a meal we all shared as we fellowshipped together. Later in the afternoon, we visited Phil Ochieng’s friend who stays in Dubai, but his family lives on the island. His friend asked Ochieng when they reached the island if we would visit his family and pray for their sickly child. On visiting Ochieng’s family friend and sharing who we are and why we were on the island, they asked if they could join the Quaker church and even open another church near where they are. They were delighted to associate with the church and promised to get more people on the island to join the Quaker church. If we had stayed for a week, we would have drawn many islanders to join the Quaker church.
We left the island on the morning of Monday, May 17th. We were at the port by 6:00 AM to catch the ferry that leaves at 7:00. We were treated to meeting fishermen arriving from their night vigil fishing with their catch. As they arrived that early morning, many women waited to get fish from them for sale and use with their children. It has drawn me to explore the lives of fishermen further when Jesus took Peter and his brothers from fishing to ministering to people. How can we minister to these fishermen today? What about the women vendors who come for fish from the fishermen and exchange them for sexual activities; hence the spread of HIV? What ministry can the Quaker church develop for the fishermen and women vendors to reduce the spread of HIV? As we stood there waiting for the time to board the ferry, I kept on pondering over the above questions as I saw a great opportunity here.
At 6:30 AM, we boarded the ferry, and again I was asked to drive the truck in reverse over the stones. The adventure of driving on stones started as I was directed from the rear. I managed to load the truck but with hardship. We sailed safely from Mfangano Island to Mbita mainland smoothly on the deep waters of Lake Victoria. While we were in the middle of the lake, the ferry engine stopped for five minutes. I thought we had hit a rock, but later, the engine started up again and we sailed on to the mainland. It reminded me of the story of Paul in Acts 27:27-28:5 about the shipwreck. Our Quaker mission on the Mfangano Island had some similarities to Paul’s journeys through the sea. What an experience in ministry with the islanders.