Church with a mixed doctrine to bury archbishop - Daily Nation

Church with a mixed doctrine to bury archbishop

Saturday February 28 2015

Members of the Nomiya church during a past function. FILE PHOTO | TOM OTIENO

Members of the Nomiya church during a past function. FILE PHOTO | TOM OTIENO | NATION MEDIA GROUP

By ELVIS ONDIEKI
More by this Author
By EVERLINE OKEWO 
More by this Author

If you want to marry up to 20 wives, Nomiya Church is the place for you.

While other mainstream Christian churches restrict marriages to only one wife, the church founded in 1907 allows polygamy as long as the man can support all his wives.

And this is not the only novelty about this church whose headquarters is in Oboch in Siaya County, at the heartland of the Luo community, which does not circumcise its men.

Members of the church are allowed to circumcise their boys on attaining eight days of age as directed in Genesis chapter 17:9. The circumcision is done by trained practitioners called sharifs after the boys have been baptised. A non-circumcised member is prohibited from taking any leadership position.

It also allows men to inherit wives. Seventy days after a woman loses a husband, the church permits her to be inherited by her husband’s relative.

Members of Nomiya, Kenya’s first independent church, are this week mourning the loss of their archbishop, a son of its founder.

Archbishop Gideon Charles Owalo died at a Kisumu hospital on February 21, marking the end of an era in a church that has 80 dioceses and 80 bishops countrywide.

The clergyman is the father of Mr Eliud Owalo, former campaign manager for Cord leader Raila Odinga.

He has been the head of Nomiya Church for four decades.

His time at the helm saw the church make strides in preserving the philosophy of the church started at a time when Africans became critical of doctrines of denominations run by whites.

Nomiya Church is a splinter of the Catholic Church. “Nomiya” is Luo for “I was given”.

An obituary by the family says the church is spread across East Africa and has about 274,000 members.

Acting archbishop Moses Oketch told the Sunday Nation on Saturday that Nomiya has three churches in Kakamega, 12 in Nairobi, nine in Mombasa, five in Eldoret, four in Nakuru and two in Thika.

It also has six churches in Tanzania spread from Kogaja at the Kenya-Tanzania border to Mwanza.

Another one of the church’s traditions is that a woman who has given birth should refrain from sexual intercourse for 41 days.

Rev Oketch, speaking at the Owalos’ Gango home on Saturday, said the church does not allow parents to be intimate for 33 days to allow for healing of the child.

“Circumcision is a demonstrations that a member is adhering to serve God. This is the same period that a child is baptised,” Rev Oketch said.

“The church and its history has been a major ingredient in secondary schools’ syllabi of both religious education and history subjects of the Kenyan educational system over the years,” reads the obituary.

HAD VISIONS

Nomiya has earned the reputation of an African church that not only encouraged education of its members but also set up schools.

“His ideals were (however) not fully realised since the administration did not render full support to Nomiya-founded schools. Despite several efforts he made, the schools were placed under the district education boards and the church lost influence and control over the schools,” reads the obituary.

History scholar-cum-lecturer Mildred Ndeda published a book about the church in 2011, in which she says its founder Nabi Yohana Owalo had visions while working in Mombasa as a judge’s employee.

“He had several visions and revelations that convinced him of God’s calling upon his life. The most spectacular one that completely transformed him came in March 1, 1907 when he was taken to the first, second and third heaven by the spirit,” writes Dr Ndeda, who was a senior lecturer in Kenyatta University’s history department when she authored the 320-page book.

“He saw various revelations in these heavens. He noted that the first heaven, the abode of men was a remarkable place.

“All races of the world were attracted to it but the angels Raphael and Gabriel secured the gates,” Dr Ndeda notes in the work titled Nomiya Luo Church: A Gender Analysis of the Dynamics of an African Independent Church among the Luo of Siaya District in the Twentieth Century and Beyond.

“Yohana was instructed to discard all human efforts to reach God. He was provided with a long cord whose other end was held by Jesus in heaven, to take to the earth.

“Jesus himself confirmed to Owalo that he was not of the same substance as God and so Yohana was to serve God alone.

“He was further instructed to take a long sharp sword and circumcise his adherents as a sign of distinction between his adherents and other Luo,” Dr Ndeda narrates.

The historian adds that the church grew rapidly during its early days, and explains that the popularity must have been due to his tolerance to some African practices, especially polygamy.

The church founder was however intolerant of some practices like smoking, which makes Dr Ndeda conclude that he was compensating for accommodating traditional beliefs.

“The tolerance shown towards polygamy, the levirate and other traditional patterns was compensated for by the rigorous and legalistic taboos on drinking, smoking, dancing and wearing of shoes in holy places,” she writes.

TURMOIL OVER LEADERSHIP

Yohana died in 1921, fourteen years after founding the church. The time that followed witnessed turmoil over leadership, as hinted in Rev Olali’s tribute message.

“The unbelievable large number of Nomiya Church Dioceses was a creation of his tolerance and love for peace. He had the power to stop splitting of dioceses due to simple misunderstandings or open disregard of Nomiya Church Constitution,” Rev Olali writes.

The cleric adds: “He has been too tolerant of impunity. His love for peace and tolerance explained his reluctance to exercise constitutional authority to invoke discipline in the church. GCO believed that people, out of their conscience, should understand, appreciate the constitution and change their ways.”

Some of the leadership wrangles have headed to the courts.

Rev Owalo, who died at 91, took over the leadership of the church in the mid 1970s, after quitting his job as a secondary school teacher.

The obituary says that during his stint as a teacher, he taught mathematics and agriculture.

“Some of his well-known students include Cord leader Raila Odinga whom he taught at Maranda High School, the late National Assembly Deputy Speaker Joab Omino whom he taught at Maseno School and (West Mugirango MP) Dr James Gesami whom he taught at Kisii School,” it says.

“His other students include the late Orwa Ojode, High Court Judge Justice Ombija and Siaya Governor Cornel Rasanga.

Owalo will be buried on Saturday. The family’s spokesman Hezron Ogudha Owalo said the body will be moved from Aga Khan mortuary on March 6 and transported to Oboch Nomiya church and to his home for overnight stay.

“We have two burial committees. There is one here and the other one in Nairobi. A major fundraising will be done next week Tuesday at Nairobi’s 680 hotel. Machakos Senator Johnstone Muthama assisted by Homa Bay Governor Cyprian Awiti will chair the fundraising,” Mr Ogudha said.