Slightly over an hour’s drive from the Karen shopping centre in Thogoto, Kikuyu, sits the Church of the Torch. Built between 1928 and 1933 by Scottish architect Bernard P Gaymer, this 86-year-old neo-Gothic marvel of architecture was intended to be a light in a dark continent.
Laid out in a traditional cruciform shape with a triple aisle nave, transept and apse, the Church of the Torch rivals many modern buildings in grandeur and precision. Its walls consist of finely dressed masonry with recessed mortar joints beneath a Mangalore tiled roof supported by massive treated timber trusses.
Construction work under Bernard was a joint effort where Africans who had never worked with stone before quickly learnt the skill of masonry so they could give their all. The Glasgow Herald of September 9, 1933 noted;
It is difficult to know whether to appraise most of the patience and drive of the master mason or the teachableness and work of these Africans whose parents were entirely un-civilised. The result is a thing of beauty.
Some accounts say how the locals would contribute as little as 3 to 10 shillings to see the church stand. They would mine and transport the stones to the construction site from a nearby quarry.
Five years later, after spending a staggering KES 700,000, the church was complete and without a debt but interestingly without doors and windows, save for 6 unique stained glass windows.
These 6 windows in the apse particularly fascinated me. Adorned with beautiful symbolic art, they were at the centre of a great controversy back in 2004 when a section of church elders linked them to satanism.
Actually the art in the windows represented nothing more than the armoury used in spiritual warfare according to Ephesians 6:10-18.
In the book, Paul the apostle describes this armoury to be the shield of faith, the sword of the spirit, the belt of truth, the sandals of peace, the helmet of salvation and the breastplate of righteousness. That was all there was to it.
As I clicked away on my camera, braving Thogoto’s bitter, biting, unforgiving cold, it occurred to me that had a series of fateful events not been put in motion when Malaria dealt its death blow to a team of six missionaries from Scotland working in Kibwezi, the Church of the Torch might never have come into existence.
Thomas Watson (evangelist), John Linton (carpenter), John Grieg (engineer), Cornelius Rahman (storekeeper), Dr. James Stewart (ordained minister) and Dr. Robert Unwin Moffat (medical doctor) had arrived in Kibwezi in October 16 1891 to establish a mission at Kibwezi when disaster struck. Only Thomas Watson and George Wilson survived.
It was ironically this unfortunate sequence of events at Kibwezi that gave the Church of the Torch a chance to exist when in 1899 Thomas Watson had to move out of Kibwezi to set up camp at the more suitable Kikuyu.
They say death cannot be cheated and indeed Thomas Watson, it seems, was no exception. Shortly after arriving in Kikuyu, he succumbed to pneumonia in the December of 1900, barely a year after marrying Minnie Cumming at the Church Missionary Society (CMS) station in Freretown near Mombasa.
The death of her husband did not stop Minnie Cumming from continuing mission work at Thogoto, in fact, the mission grew under her leadership where she worked tirelessly until her retirement in 1931 after which she returned to Dundee. A few years later on February 13, 1949, while still living in Dundee, she also passed on.
On September 25 of the same year, her ashes were returned to Kikuyu to be buried next to her husband – nearly 50 years after their wedding. The inscription on their headstone reads, “Aria marehire utheri wa Ngai Kikuyu”, those who brought the light of God to Kikuyu.
The over a century old Scott-Watson Memorial Chapel is just adjacent to the Church of the Torch. It is named after Watson and is equally an engineering wonder in its own right.
Also laid out in neo-Gothic style, this 1909 chapel can seat 250 people. Its inner walls and ceiling panelled in tongued and grooved exotic cedar boarding, have given it its other name, “House of Cedars”. Inside its walls, Kenya’s first President, Jomo Kenyatta, was baptised.
I later learn that the entire chapel, with the exception of the cement screed floor, was fabricated in Scotland and shipped to Mombasa as a completely knocked down kit which was then transported by rail to Kikuyu and assembled on site.
On the day I visited, the chapel was in a worrying state of disrepair. The paint was peeling off the walls, the shutters were broken and many windows were missing.
At some point during my tour, I feared I may have been taking, perhaps, the last photos of a rich historical heritage that dared to flourish in the midst of so many setbacks. It was then that I learned the chapel had been gazetted as a national monument on April 11 2008 – so all may not be lost after all.
A rondavel, in the style of a traditional Kikuyu hut, with names of other PCEA churches across the country and the year they were established makes for an interesting view. It was erected in Minnie’s honour as part of the mission’s centenary celebrations.
Not far from the church is the Banguru, where the missionaries used to live. The name is a corruption of the word bungalow. I guess the locals could not pronounce the name so they called it what was easy. Years of neglect have finally left their mark on the building though.
In spite of its state, Banguru nowadays operates as a guest house with rooms that are named after their old occupants. So you are at liberty to spend a night in the John William Arthur or Thomas Watson room. Not far from the hotel is the quarry where the workers obtained building stones from. Be wary of snakes in that area though.
Take a drive one day to Kikuyu and go see this beautiful church. If you are using public means, you can grab a number 102 from Dagoretti.