In Jehovah’s village
God is alive and well and living in rural Kenya. Daniel Sitole meets him
In one of five small thatched huts in the village of Chemororoch, Uasin Gishu County in Kenya’s Rift Valley, on a throne, clothed in red robes and clutching a sword sits Jehovah Wanyonyi, the leader of the Lost Israelites Church and God of heaven and earth. “I’m Jehovah God, the creator of all human beings and the things in this world,” he tells me. “I came into this world in human form to redeem my people, the lost Israelites.”
Wanyonyi was born in 1925 and started the sect in 1956. Four years later he realised that he was more than just a prophet. In 1960 he revealed he was the one true God of the Bible, and possessed he power of life and death, and the ability to heal all wounds. He now lives surrounded by his followers; everyone in the village is a member of his cult. He has 25 wives and 100 children. His followers believe that he is God immortal, and that the future of all creation depends on him.
Though the members are known as Israelites the sect has no formal relationship with Judaism. Many of the members, including Jehovah himself, do not know where Israel is, though they agree that it is not in Kenya. They think it may be somewhere in Africa.
The cult is organised into a strict hierarchy. Jehovah Wanyonyi, naturally, is the highest authority. Then comes the "prophet of God", second in command, whose duties include presenting followers’ problems to God. The prophet is assisted by a deputy. Two high priests, each assisted by a deputy of their own, are responsible for the offerings and gifts to God. The prophet of God and the high priests are also responsible for Jehovah’s welfare, such as food, and other needs. They are also the people who decide if Jehovah needs additional wives. The third highest rank is that of preacher, of which there are several, assisted by their deputies.
Jehovah’s godly garb is a red robe fastened at the waist with a black cloth sash and a red hat. Red is God’s colour, according to him, and it means that the end of the world is near. Jehovah sits on a red chair, engraved with the word “Jehovah” and holding what he calls “the sword of my kingdom”.
When I visit him his eighth wife, Sura Nabayi, 50, and a mother of ten, brings the sword from a bedroom. Sura knelt before Jehovah as she handed over the sword. She prayed for forgiveness and blessing from God, before she moved to sit a metre from him.
In the early '80s Wanyonyi lived in Bungoma, 100 kilometres away in Western Kenya and could claim more than 7,000 followers, mostly drawn from his own Luhya tribe. Hearing that he was God and could cure all disease, the people sold their land and livestock and gave the cash to Wanyonyi. Others donated land and livestock. Those who had nothing to give sought casual work and donated their earnings to him.
But despite his claims his followers fell victim to disease – malaria, typhoid, cholera and meningitis. Many died since Jehovah did not allow them to go to hospitals for treatment. (Their children had also been forbidden from attending schools). The people of Bungoma turned against him. They burnt his houses and chased him and his family out of the county. Those who had given him their land repossessed it; others sought help from the government to get their property back.
Wanyonyi fled with his family and a small number of followers, to the neighbouring Mount Elgon district. Here he was welcomed, given more land and livestock, and new followers joined the sect. While in Elgon, Wanyonyi foresaw that the end of the world would come in 1995, and again in 2000 and 2002. His followers were disappointed that it didn’t happen, and also noticed that he did not seem to have the special powers he claimed. The people of Mount Elgon chased Wanyonyi away. That is how Wanyonyi came to settle at his present home – Chemororoch village. According to the sect secretary, William Misiko, membership is currently at 3,600. I do not see many people around when I visit, but perhaps they are all out working.
As befits a deity Jehovah’s daily life is simple. According to his wife Sura, he wakes up at 6am, washes his face, and takes his breakfast – tea with or without a loaf of bread or millet porridge, whichever is available. Does he pray? “Pray to whom?” Sura asks, “He is the Almighty God that all the nations have been talking about. There has never been and there will be no God, other than him.”
After the breakfast he proceeds to put on his godly robes and then moves to his throne in the sitting room to wait for visitors or followers to bring him something. Though he can be seen any time, Jehovah sometimes declines to see visitors, especially journalists whom he accuses of writing lies about him.
Jehovah takes a shower once or twice a week. This is due to lack of water in the village. He does not do any work or come out of his throne room (a grass-roofed hut), except once or twice daily to take care of his divine duties in the latrine, which is about 10 metres from his hut. He goes to bed at 9pm. During the day, only one of his 25 wives remains in the homestead to take care of him, the others go out to look for casual manual jobs in local farms to earn something to feed Jehovah and the children. Saturday is the holy day for the sect, and the only day Jehovah appears to his followers in public. They sing, dance, march and praise him, as they pray that he forgives and blesses them.
Wanyonyi is poor and his children have been kicked out of secondary schools due to lack of school fees. “My mother (Sura) has no money to pay for my fees,” Jane Wanyonyi, Jehovah’s daughter, told me. Jehovah is compassionate but untroubled. “My family is poor, my children are suffering, and they sometimes sleep hungry,” he acknowledges. “I predicted all these in my book [the Bible], as signs of the last days. Let the people see them, because the day of my judgement is drawing closer. I have not come to make money, but to redeem my people, and that is why I’m poor,” he concludes.
Those followers still with him admire his consistency: “This man still says and believes in what he said in 1960,” sect member Agnes Nyongesa, tells me. “He is not an ordinary man who can just sit on a chair for 51 years, telling people the same story. Believe him or not, he is God and I will always adore him”.
After I came back from my visit I asked Pastor Joseph Tanui what he thinks of Wanyonyi. “He is a liar, lazy and a conman who has taken advantage of the ignorance of our people to exploit them. He knows that he is not God and will never be one, but the poor have no choice other than to turn to whoever promises them miracles and heaven,” he told me, without a trace of irony.