An online search for the Reverend George William Rhoads brings up multiple results associating him with the building of a road that links Machakos and Makueni counties.
The little-known American evangelist founded the Gospel Furthering Bible Church, and arguably made Mbanya in Makueni County the cradle of religion and development in the region and beyond.
Rev Rhoads arrived in Mbanya village, Makueni County, in 1903, aged 23 years, to a hostile reception.
He retreated to the more receptive neighbouring Mbooni, where he evangelised as endeared himself to the locals. That led to the birth of the Africa Inland Church (AIC) Mbooni Station.
With the assistance of local Christians, who had taken up Bible study, he helped translate the Bible into Kikamba in 1920 while still working for the African Inland Mission (AIM).
He was among the first missionaries to return to the United States after parting ways with AIM. But the reasons for his departure remain unclear.
Some reports claim he differed with the mission over the formula for sharing the money received from foreign missions.
Other reports say he differed with AIM on principle. While AIM was for strictly evangelising Africans, Mr Rhoads preferred offering a mixture of evangelism and education.
Known locally as Loosi, the cleric had become a household name in the region by the time he returned to the United States.
He introduced coffee growing, making it a major cash crop in the hilly region.
Rhoads is also credited with the opening up of a road linking Machakos Town and Kikima township in Makueni County.
Rhoads mobilised the community to undertake the task, which took several months to complete. He served as both the engineer and supervisor, according to accounts by those who took part in the project.
The more than 70km road that cuts through Kwa Mutisya wa Ngomali, Kalawani, Kikima, and Kyambalasi remains untarmacked, despite pleas by motorists and numerous pledges by local leaders.
The all-weather road, popularly known as Loosi, has opened up the agriculturally-rich area.
The missionary promoted the Gospel Furthering Fellowship, which birthed the Good News Church of Africa (GNCA), and much later, the Gospel Furthering Bible Church (GFBC) in the late 1950s when he returned from the US.
Elders from Mbanya village were among those who lined up to welcome Rhoads back. “The Rev Rhoads sought a parcel of land to set up a Bible school and a church when he returned from a long stay overseas,” says businessman Benson Nzioka, whose grandfather provided the land on which the 58-year-old GFBC stands.
In a corner of the church compound are the graves of Rhoads, his wife, son, and daughter-in-law.
It’s clear that Rhoads’ fallout with AIM was a big blow to the AIC, which suffered a backlash, especially in Central Kenya, because of its policies against polygamy and female genital cutting.
Since he was already popular in Ukambani, the missionary effortlessly drew a huge following from the region to his GFBC.
There are more than 220 GFBC churches spread mainly across Kitui, Machakos, Makueni and Tharaka-Nithi counties today, according to the head of the church, Bishop Joseph Syuma.
“Mbanya GFBC is highly regarded because it’s the pioneer church from which all the others emerged. The church’s growth is credited to the Rev Rhoads, who supported expansion by building churches and training pastors. He provided the first batch of pastors with bicycles to facilitate their movement across the vast regions they served,” Bishop Syuma says.
Rev Rhoads is also credited with promoting education in the region. All the wealthy families in Mbooni today trace their success to his principles.
The children and grandchildren of those who received him are highly-educated and hold plum jobs in government and the corporate world.
A case in point is Aron Kasyoki, whose daughter, Charity Ngilu, has served in various senior posts in the government and is now Kitui governor. Rev Kasyoki has since died.
One of the surviving people, who benefited directly from Rhoads’ teachings, is Mzee Martin Ngyema, 89.
The retired soldier served as the official chauffeur of Kenya’s colonial boss, and then, after independence in 1964, became the official chauffeur of Jomo Kenyatta, Kenya’s first president.
“We grew up being admonished by our parents to emulate the students of Rev George William Rhoads by studying hard and being disciplined, lest we end up poor and miserable in adulthood,” Mr Kyalo Mumo, Tulimani Ward representative and Makueni County Assembly Majority Leader, reminisced.
Mr Jonah Kyathe, the chief officer in the Trade and Tourism department, says the county government is planning to build a mausoleum to preserve the resting place of the pioneer of Christianity and development in the region and his family.
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