Catholic pilgrims and other Christian groups often visit a prayer centre at Kauti on the Kilungu Hills in Makueni County, especially on weekends.
Their destination is a small church made of corrugated iron sheets, with a tall metallic cross on the side.
This humble address, known as Musalavani (Kamba for the place of the cross), marks the point from which Christianity and modernity spread in Ukambani.
It is here that the first Catholic missionaries in the region settled.
The French missionaries were part of a team of Holy Ghost Fathers, who had been frustrated by a government administrator and shunned by locals when they tried to set up base at Kombe Hill in Kangundo, Machakos County.
They were determined not to let the African Inland Mission (AIM) steal the limelight in Ukambani.
In 1913, the year the missionaries eventually settled at Kabaa near Kangundo, a team led by Father P. Leconte set out on a journey to scout for suitable regions to set up outstations. They trekked for six weeks through Kibaoni in Machakos County.
Their exploration led them to Kauti in the enchanting Kilungu Hills in the Makueni County.
The descendants of the locals who hosted the evangelists installed the metallic cross and built the church 87 years later, using local materials to preserve the memory of the pioneer missionaries and to celebrate their impact on the region, which has a lot to show for embracing Christianity and formal education.
“The first Catholic missionary, Fr Leconte, camped here in 1913. In 2000, Kauti Christians erected this pillar in his memory,” reads a plaque at the base of the cross at the humble Musalavani church.
“The church has Sunday school classes, during which children from the neighbourhood learn catechism,” says Christopher Musyoki, a 60-year-old peasant farmer whose family offered the land on which the church stands.
Residents later replaced the roof and walls after volunteers donated iron sheets and wooden poles. A modern shrine for private prayers is coming up next to the church.
“Most of those who come here for prayers feel indebted to our grandparents, who welcomed the missionaries and, by so doing, helped spread Christianity throughout Ukambani, thereby developing the region,” notes a local priest, Fr Stephen Kaumbulu, who serves in the Mbuvo Parish.
He has been studying the Catholic Church’s impact in developing the region.
The warmth of the Kilungu residents and an invite from Mr Theophilus Mulwa, a local elite who was among the first locals to embrace Catholicism, saw a second batch of Holy Ghost Fathers visit Kilungu Hills seven years after the first lot.
This group, which was led by Fr Jacques Horber, took Kilungu and the larger Ukambani by storm with their evangelism.
They colluded with a local chief to cheat the authorities, which were adamant that the missionaries could not set up a church near the Mukaa AIC Church.
The colonial government was opposed to having Catholic churches near protestant ones.
Chief Malu authorised the missionaries to set up a school in Kikoko on the Kilungu Hills as soon as the assistant district commissioner in charge of the region, Mr Ardent Kitchen, left for Europe on leave.
The missionaries built the Kikoko Catholic Mission in 1920.
It comprised a church, a school that grew into a teachers training college before it was closed in unclear circumstances, and a hospital, the current Kikoko Mission Hospital.
The co-operation of the Kilungu residents provided a launching pad for the Catholic Church to flourish and counter the AIM influence in Ukambani.
When he left Kilungu for Riruta on the outskirts of Nairobi in 1936, Fr Horbes had started the Kola, Mbooni, Kaumoni, Makueni, Mbitini, Kiongwani and Kyale parishes in Makueni County.
This explains why most notable Catholics, such as Bishop Urbanus Kioko, who has since died, and the head of Machakos Catholic Diocese, Bishop Norman King’oo Wambua, among other elites Akamba elites, are the children of people with roots in the region.
The mission in Kilungu saw the proliferation of church-sponsored schools and colleges and opened up the region for development.
The most notable school associated with the mission is Precious Blood School, Kilungu, a centre of academic excellence.