St Stephen's Cathedral's bond with the labour movement

Harassed workers and leaders sought refuge in the church

In Summary

• St Stephen’s Church, which was a place of worship for working-class Africans, became a focal point for the trade union movement 

• Notable political and labour movement leaders used the church as a base to advocate the rights of workers

Cotu secretary general Francis Atwoli with Labour CS Ukur Yattan at St Stephen's ACK in Nairobi during prayers for labour unions on April 29, 2018
Cotu secretary general Francis Atwoli with Labour CS Ukur Yattan at St Stephen's ACK in Nairobi during prayers for labour unions on April 29, 2018
Image: FILE

The Central Organisation of Trade Unions has for decades traditionally held workers’ thanksgiving prayer day at the ACK St Stephen’s Cathedral on Jogoo Road, Nairobi. 

The Cotu prayers are usually held on the last Sunday of April preceding the Labour Day celebrations.

“This is a church of history not only for the labour leaders but for our people,” Cotu secretary general Francis Atwoli said during the Cotu prayer day on April 30.

“I thank this church for always remembering us as labour leaders and as workers. Even whenever we are unable to gather here to pray collectively as workers, this church continues to pray for us.”

Interactions between the missionaries and the labour movement in Kenya began in the 1920s.

That is when prominent clergy, such as the Rev Dr Arthur of the Kikuyu Church of Scotland Mission and Archdeacon (Bishop and later Archbishop) LJ Beecher of the Church Missionary Society were nominated to represent the African interests in the Legislative and Executive Councils (LegCo).

They represented an opposition wing of the council.

The missionaries disagreed with the settlers, particularly on oppression of the Africans. 

The Most Rev LJ Beecher, previously Archbishop of the Province of East Africa, was elected the first Bishop of the greater diocese of Nairobi in 1964.

In 1930, the Passifield Memorandum was issued and, for the first time, trade unions were recognised, but subject to compulsory registration so that their activities could be monitored.

In Lord Passifield’s own words, “without sympathetic supervision and guidance, these unions would fall under the domination of disaffected persons by whom their activities may be diverted to improper and mischievous ends”.

In 1947, Kenyans then became actively involved in trade unions due to the rising violation of workers’ rights. 

These violations resulted in a major strike at the port of Mombasa, which led to the loss of jobs as well as massive property destruction. 

James Patrick, a Scottish trade unionist, was then sent to Kenya as the first British trade union adviser in 1947.

He tried his best to discourage the ‘would-be’ trade unionists from organising trade unions but instead form staff councils. 

Patrick was actively involved in framing Kenya’s restrictive and repressive trade union laws enacted in the late 1940s and early 1950s. 

He also engineered the removal of union leaders whom he found too militant and disagreeable.

Patrick was instrumental in the eventual dissolution of the powerful African Workers' Federation, which had emerged during the 1947 Mombasa General Strike. 

The colonial government and settlers prescribed trade union activities in Kenya, where militant union leaders were harassed, arrested and detained after the 1950 Nairobi General Strike. 

Consequently, a commission of inquiry established by the government led to the formation of the Kenya Federation of Labour (KFL).

From 1952, Tom Mboya, the General Secretary of KFL, spearheaded the fight for the protection of workers’ rights at the Makadara Hall (current Tom Mboya Hall). 

It was also a time when a state of emergency was declared in Kenya to contain the rising African nationalism and agitation for freedom from colonial oppression. 

The emergency lasted until December 12, 1960, when it was lifted.

“The colonial government continued to harass the workers and their leaders until they sought refuge in the nearest church, which was St Stephen’s,” Atwoli said.

“Churches all over the world have received people who are in distress.”

At that time, nearly all the politicians were detained, but Tom Mboya took on the struggle for political freedom and workers’ rights. 

His activities coincided with the relocation of St Stephen’s Church to Eastlands in 1952. 

St Stephen’s Church, which was a place of worship for working-class Africans, became a focal point for the trade union movement. 

Some of the notable political and labour movement leaders who used the church as a base for advocating the rights of workers include: Bildad Kaggia, Charles Rubia, Frederick Esau Omido, Fed Kubai, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, Joseph Mugalla, Juma Boy, Makhan Singh and Tom Mboya.

Some of them lived in Eastlands and its environs.

Present-day St Stephen's Cathedral on Jogoo Road
Present-day St Stephen's Cathedral on Jogoo Road

In 1965, a government-led initiative established a new national labour organisation, the Central Organisation of Trade Unions (Cotu), which replaced the KFL.

St Stephen’s Cathedral kept playing a critical role in the championing of freedoms in Kenya since the new leaders maintained their tradition of using the church as a springboard for their activities.

The cathedral’s strong affiliation to the labour movement has attracted visitors from government circles as well as the labour movement. 

On December 25, 1981, Charles Rubia, the Minister of Labour and Housing, visited the church, marking the first of a series of visits. 

Kimani Wanyoike, the Assistant Minister of Labour, visited the church on December 7, 1985, and Philip Masinde, the Minister of Labour and Manpower Development, visited on April 30, 1995. 

The church has also hosted officials from the labour movement, such as James Awich, the first Cotu chairman, who visited on April 25, 1982, and Fredrick Omido, MP and chairman of Cotu, who visited on April 26, 1981. 

Joseph Mugalla, the secretary general of Cotu, visited the church on several occasions. 

His earliest visit is captured in church records as April 30, 1995.

Since 2001 to date, Cotu leadership has been under secretary general Francis Atwoli.

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