'Arch-demon’ Owen, cleric who stood up for Africans

Sunday November 24 2019

An image of the Walter Edwin Owen Memorial Park in Jomo Kenyatta Sports Ground, Kisumu Town, taken on November 14, 2019. Owen served as a missionary in Africa for 40 years. PHOTO | ONDARI OGEGA | NATION MEDIA GROUP


Located on the eastern side of Jomo Kenyatta Sports Ground in Kisumu Town is the Walter Edwin Owen Memorial Park.

Its main attraction is a pillar on a platform, about seven metres tall.

The pillar was built in honour of Walter Edwin Owen, who served as a missionary in Africa for 40 years. Owen is remembered for fighting for Africans’ rights during the colonial era.

Regrettably, the monument has been badly neglected, with bushy vegetation allowed to grow around it, a perfect toilet for street children.

The pillar is also dedicated to Owen’s wife, Lilian Olive Owen, who played a major role in his activism, especially in championing African women’s cause.



There are four plaques on the base on which it is mounted, with one written in English and the other two in Dholuo and Luhya, the languages of the communities in Nyanza, then known as Kavirondo.

“He devoted his life fearlessly to the fight for justice for all and to the care of the sick and the needy,” reads the plaque.

Born on June 7, 1878 in Birmingham, UK, Owen was the fourth child of a warrant officer in the Royal Corps of Armourers.

His family moved to Belfast, Ireland, when he was a little boy, so he spent his childhood and youth there.

As a young man, he worked at the Belfast Free Library, teaching himself at night. He also attended St Barnabas Church, Belfast, with his family.

He learnt of the church’s needs for foreign missions, and often discussed the matter with friends.

After some time, he left the library and took up a full-time post in the Belfast office of the Church Missionary Society (CMS).

He toured Northern Ireland, speaking to the masses about the church’s work oversees and appealing for financial assistance.


After completing his theological studies and conducting pastoral and evangelistic work in Islington College, Owen was ordained a deacon in 1904 by the Bishop of London and sent to Africa to work under Bishop Alfred Tucker in Uganda.

He worked in Bungoma (Kenya), Bunyoro and Ngongwe (Uganda) and later in Kigoma (Tanzania), and Mbarara (Uganda) before being transferred to Toro in western Uganda in 1910. But he went there grudgingly, and only at the bishop’s urging.

He would later say of it, “If I had refused to go, I would have missed the biggest thing in my life.” For it was in Toro that he met another missionary Olive Walton, whom he married in December 1911.

In 1918, following the death of Archdeacon Walter Chadwick, Owen replaced him as archdeacon of Kavirondo on February 1.

At that time, the region was part of the Diocese of Uganda, and Owen had to reorganise the rapidly expanding church, which had Luo, Luhya and Kalenjin members.

In 1921, the boundaries were redrawn, and Kavirondo became part of the Mombasa diocese.


In his book,

Archdeacon Owen of Kavirondo, C.G Richards says it's Owen’s visit to the US in January of 1922 that emboldened him

Chapter Four titled “This Dangerous Archdeacon” tells of his one-week stay in the US to study the situation of the coloured people and discuss the problems caused by contacts between people of different races living close together.

He thereafter became actively involved in Kenyan politics, founding the Kavirondo Taxpayers’ Welfare Association in 1922 to train Africans how to run their own economic affairs.

In his efforts to educate civic and political leaders, Owen introduced ploughs, watermills, new crops and bookkeeping.

He soon began speaking out against discriminative legislation against Africans, such as forced labour and the Hut Tax, earning himself the nickname “Arch-demon” among his contemporaries.


In the foreword of CG Richard’s book, Paul Mboya, who served as secretary of the South Nyanza Local Native Council, describes Owen as “a wonderful, courageous pioneer for the good of Africans and their country”.

A member of the central legislative assembly sitting in Kisii, Mboya says “he fought for our liberty, progress and social welfare. Almost everybody knew him and he would be listened to even when he spoke on such unpopular subjects as the necessity to pay taxes promptly.”

Owen translated the New Testament and the Prayer Book into Dholuo. In 1940, he started revising the Dholuo prayer book.

In September 1945, while on leave in Limuru just after completing the revised manuscript, he suddenly fell ill.

He died on September 18, 1945. He was buried in Limuru, despite opposition from the people of Kavirondo.

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