On arrival at the Presbyterian Church of East Africa (PCEA) Chogoria Central Parish headquarters in Tharaka-Nithi County, one is welcomed by a mausoleum that dates back nearly a century.
Here are the graves of the first missionaries, with their names engraved on plaques. There is also a list of individuals who either contributed to the construction of the first church in 1923, or to the area’s development.
There is a list of five farmers who donated land in 1919 for establishment of the mission, nine farmers who pioneered coffee growing in 1935, and the missionaries who settled in Chogoria. They include Dr Clive Irvine and his wife Margaret, who mobilised the local community to build the church.
About 40 metres from the mausoleum is the old church, an architectural marvel with an imposing presence. Like other buildings dating back to the 18th and early 19th centuries, it has many arched sections.
The main entrance has a lobby, while the carved doors and windows have elaborate designs. The interior of the roof is finished with pieces of intricately carved timber that look as if they are woven. The interior walls are built with bricks, which have seen it withstand the vagaries of weather.
While the pulpit is circular and raised, resembling a witness box in a law court, there is space for a drum on the right side of the church, and a section reserved for the choir.
The new church is built in such a way that it encircles the old one.
In The History of Chogoria, published in 1994 by Handsel Press Limited, Dr John Wilkinson, who was also a missionary, says Dr Irvine arrived in Chogoria in September, 1922.
By the end of 1923, at least 30 people were attending religious classes. “The result of this teaching was seen in September 1924, when the first candidates presented themselves for baptism. Others were also baptised while more people enrolled for the classes.
And a year later, adherents were taking the holy communion,” Dr Wilkinson writes.
He continues: “Nine months after the arrival of the Irvines in Chogoria, a church building was erected and was dedicated in June 1923. It was a large, cruciform mud-and-wattle building with rounded short sides and a porch in the middle of one of its long sides. It had a thatched roof which was ridged. At the centre point of the ridge there was a hole for ventilation, which was covered over by a small roof of thatch to keep out the rain. The local people were very intrigued by the extra little roof.”
According to Dr Wilkinson, the first Christian marriage in the church was celebrated in 1927, with some marriages conducted according to African customs.
However, Dr Irvin was reportedly disappointed by the church’s first offertory, which amounted to Sh1, forcing him to devise other ways of raising church funds, including allowing congregants to donate items such as foodstuff.
“There would be piles of maize cobs, bananas and sugarcane on the floor. These items were sold after the service and the money added to the collection, increasing to four shillings,” Dr Wilkinson writes.
Today, the Rev Leonard Kithinji, who is in charge of the Chogoria Central Parish, says the iron sheet roof was installed later, probably in the 1940s, adding to the building’s durability. These days the church is used for Sunday School classes and for meetings.
Although the monument is not under the management of the National Museums of Kenya, the Rev Kithinji says the preservation of the old church follows a strict policy that ensures it remains true to its original state,
The new church, which was designed to encircle the old one, was also intended to preserve the structure.
“Any renovations are sanctioned by the presbytery so that the (building’s) history is preserved. For instance, the roof is currently leaking and we have made a request for renovation which the presbytery is considering,” he says.