BOOKS: A RARE LIFE OF SERVICE

90 years of grace: The testimony of an African missionary

White patronage at every level of success was at times a blessing and at others a curse

In Summary

• Mwalimu Richard Ondeng' who passed on a few weeks ago at his home in Siaya county was a true Christian soldier. 

• He struggled to serve his people as a Christian educated leader while not being bogged down by retrogressive elements in his own culture. 

Mwalimu Richard Ondeng’s book cover.
Mwalimu Richard Ondeng’s book cover.

Mwalimu Richard Ondeng' who passed on a few weeks ago at his home in Siaya county was, for all intents and purposes, a missionary who served in his own motherland for more than six decades. His book, Ninety Years of Grace: Reflections from my Journey,  has encapsulated in a captivating style this very worthy Christian soldier's life.

The book is not an autobiography as such. It is a breathtaking narration of episodes in a life well lived, a journey purposefully travelled and dreams fulfilled through the studious pursuit of goals that at times appeared to be impossible. His achievements were, no doubt through the grace of God.

I had known Mwalimu Ondeng' and his family for a good part of my life. During the last couple of years, we frequently met at the United Kenya Club, mostly at lunchtime, when his son Peter would be sitting at the table with him engaged in deep discussion. At one point Peter revealed to me that they were working on his father's book to mark his ninetieth birthday. 

 

Hilarious, I thought. With that gentle smile, Mwalimu would always acknowledge my presence and ask how the family was.

Eventually, it happened. Peter sent me the first draft of the book by email and asked if I could read and write a forward to it. I never did. And I now deeply regret it. It was in the thickness of politics and I could never get round to reading the manuscript. Shame on me! 

At the end of his tenure with the school board, he was asked  to choose a ‘thank-you’ gift. His response: “Build a perimeter wall around the school to protect it from land grabbers.”

We met again at the United Kenya Club when the book finally came out and Mwalimu was delighted to give me a copy autographed by him. All he wrote accompanying his signature was "Wuod jaduong': som mani." Literally translated this means: "Son of the old man: read this one."

EARLY LIFE

Mwalimu Ondeng' knew my father and mother well. They were all part of the Tukutendereza fellowship movement and were all Anglicans. So referring to my father as 'jaduong' conoted respect for my father as having been his senior in the church.

Mzee Ondeng' was always simple and dignified in his ways. The message "read this one" was simple and straightforward, not making any effort to entice one to read or promote his work.

It is only after Mzee passed on recently that my wife, who was reading the book and could not put it down, told me, "You have to read this book, you won't put it down once you start!" I never did put it down because every chapter brings out experiences and events in one man's life so intensely and extraordinarily that there is little doubt that God himself was at work in Mwalimu Ondeng' s journey through life.

Mwalimu Richard Ondeng’.
Mwalimu Richard Ondeng’.
Image: COURTESY

Born in a little village in Alego, Siaya county, Richard Onyango Ondeng'  narrates the trials and tribulations in his early life. Going to 'sector school', now known as primary school, was not a walk in the park. Proceeding to secondary school strictly applied the principle of 'the many are called but the very few are chosen.' Success tended to surreptitiously instil in one the danger of feeling exceptional or superior. White patronage at every level of success was at times a blessing and at others a curse.

 

Frantz Fanon's Black Skin White Masks is brought alive when one reads the psychological and ethical battles that Mwalimu Ondeng' fought with himself as he sought to excel in serving his people as a Christian educated leader while not being bogged down by some retrogressive elements in his own culture. 

On page 55 he writes, " My many years of ministry at the Nairobi Pentecostal Church (NPC) were not without their difficult moments. Being a leader sometimes calls for making tough decisions that have the potential to bruise relationships. Whether in a church, a work environment or a family setting, a leader who cannot stand firm on matters of principle does not deserve to be called a leader. I would also like to add that a leader does not need to have a title in order to lead."

There was once a churches organisation called the National Christian Council of Kenya. In its early days in the 60s and 70s, it used to engage Kenyans on issues of ethical leadership, democratic governance, social tolerance and true promotion of Christianity as a religion that cares for the downtrodden.

PROTECT SCHOOL LAND

In other words, in the true sense of the word, there are those who are described as 'born leaders'. Such people always take initiatives to guide people, solve group problems, serve without asking for any reward and get things going when a situation looks very gloomy.

When he worked tirelessly to create a girls' boarding school now known as Moi Girls' High School in Nairobi, Mwalimu Ondeng' exhibited the qualities of a born leader with some missionary zeal. The story is succinctly told on pages 88 to 92. At the end of more than four decades of his tenure with the school board, he was requested by his colleagues to choose what 'thank-you' gift he would like. His response: "Build a perimeter wall around the school to protect it from land grabbers." From whence cometh such leaders in Kenya today?

There was once a churches organisation called the National Christian Council of Kenya (NCCK). In its early days in the sixties and seventies, it used to engage Kenyans on issues of ethical leadership, democratic governance, social tolerance and true promotion of Christianity as a religion that cares for the downtrodden. 

Those are the days when men like Rev Dr  Andrew Hake were voices crying in the wilderness for the emerging African bourgeoisie to lead by example. Those are the days that the Rev Dr John Henry Okullu edited Target, the newsletter of NCCK, publishing prophetic articles that challenged the moral recklessness of emerging corruption in Kenya's body politic. 

Mwalimu Ondeng', Sam Kobia and others ascended into the leadership of NCCK  with the challenge of how they could inherit the big shoes of their predecessors. Their task was how to continue to build the edifice of the organisation on a moral foundation that had been so firmly laid. They did not disappoint. The NCCK of today must not betray this exemplary foundation of an organisation that so many of us still remember with nostalgia in its heyday of true servant leadership in our young republic.