The bishop of a Pentecostal church in eastern Kenya was hurt on Saturday (Nov. 23) in a clash with elders from a local tribe after a member of his church was abducted.
Three members of the bishop’s congregation were also injured during the clash in Meru, a region on the northeastern slopes of Mt. Kenya.
Bishop Daniel Laichena, head of the Full Gospel Church in Tigania East, was attacked by more than 40 elders of the Njuri Ncheke council at the local shrine where he had gone in an attempt to free the abducted man, Justus Kamai.
Kamai was kidnapped while tilling his farm and said the council had attempted to force his initiation into their group.
“They applied some ointment in my eyes as a rite of passage,” he said. “I am a staunch Christian and not ready to be forced into joining the Njuri Ncheke elders’ council.”
Bishop Laichena described how he and members of his congregation had visited the council to demand Kamai’s release, but were refused and hit over the head with clubs.
“[The elders] refused to release him and instead attacked us,” he said. “Nobody should be forced to join the elders’ council. We had only gone to enquire about and secure the release of our faithful, but had to fight back when we were attacked. The police must investigate this incident. (The men pounced on us with ‘rungus’ [clubs]. When I tried to stop them, they hit me on the head.”
The Njuri Ncheke council of elders has been a powerful authority among the Meru people of eastern Kenya for several decades, making laws and settling disputes.
Its elders have also acted as the custodians of the traditional Meru culture. Since the 1990s, the council has also played a key role in the region’s politics.
But its role as a cultural and religious authority has diminished in recent years, as Christianity grows in the region, and the people adopt more modern lifestyles, according to church leaders.
Although it had co-existed with churches for decades, the bishop told World Watch Monitor that now the council had forcibly recruited some of its members, which had strained its relationship with Pentecostal and Evangelical churches.
“The conflict has been there for some time. We have fought many times,” he said. “Even the DC [District Commissioner] sat us down and we talked about it. All their leaders were called to the meeting…. They were told they are not supposed to force anyone to join them. Things went quiet for some time, [but now] they have repeated it again.”
Rev. Moses Mati, leader of the nearby Ruiri Full Gospel Church, told World Watch Monitor in a telephone interview that Kamai had been taken by the council because his father was a respected elder and the elders wanted him to follow in his father’s footsteps.
“His father gave the group land, on which the council has built the shrine, and they thought it was very important for his son to join them as an elder,” said Rev. Mati. “[But] he cannot join them now since he is Christian.”
Mati said many of the churches don’t agree with the Njuri Ncheke on many of their practices and beliefs.
“They encourage drinking of alcohol. They also have some strange traditional oaths and rituals which we think are demonic,” he said.
“Nobody should be forced to join the elders’ council… We have tried to use dialogue to end the problem, but once we agree they should not take certain actions, they always break the agreement.”
Kamai was eventually freed, but he claimed that the elders had forced him to undergo a spiritual ritual inside the shrine.
The County Representative condemned the incident and called for prompt police action against the perpetrators. Meru’s Member of Parliament also criticised the elders, saying: “Respect has to prevail between the church and traditions but no one should be forcefully initiated into the council.”
Rev. Mati said the group’s current membership was mainly unemployed and idle youth.
As Bishop Laichena explained to World Watch Monitor: “Long ago, Njuri Ncheke used to be a council of elders, where men who have attained a certain age and respect were admitted into the council,” he said. “Now they are collecting everyone and making them elders. You will find young men as young as 18. The group had been weakened recently by the work of churches, such that it was almost ending, but now they are doing all they can to keep it alive. There are a few old men in it now after others have died, but most of the elders are now in fact young men.
“We have tried to use dialogue to end the problem, but once we agree they should not take certain actions, they always break the agreement.”
Another point of conflict, according to Bishop Laichena, has been the council’s wide support for female circumcision (Female Genital Mutilation, or FGM).