By Ogova Ondego
Published October 24, 2013
A search by Google suggests the following terms: â€˜Ufungamano House Initiativeâ€™, â€˜Ufungamano House contactsâ€™, â€˜Ufungamano House locationâ€™ and â€˜Ufungamano House Nairobi Kenyaâ€™. Yet what I am searching forâ€”Ufungamano Houseâ€”in 2013 was a name that was on the lips of any television viewer, radio news listener and newspaper reader as agitation for political pluralism in Kenya was at fever pitch. Shall I now share with you an article I filed on this buildingâ€”The Christian Students Leadership Centre or Ufungamano Houseâ€”in 2001?
There is a little-known road that runs from Nairobi Serena Hotel to State House Girlsâ€™ School. From the highest point of Mamlaka Road, cutting across the upper reaches of University of Nairobi, you can look down on one of Kenyaâ€™s most controversial buildings.
There is no fight over its ownership. There is no dispute over its use. Yet the landmark red brick building that squats at the foot of Mamlaka Road excites mixed passions in many peopleâ€™s hearts.
Ufungamano House. Thatâ€™s its name. A name at once revered and reviled, a place favoured and feared, a spiritual sanctuary and a political hothouse.
Sandwiched between Mamlaka Road and State House Road, many people mistakenly consider it as a part of University of Nairobi, wedgedâ€”as it isâ€”between the staff clinic and studentsâ€™ halls of residence of the institution.
Ufungamano is a house frequented by political and religious typesâ€”just as it is feared and avoided by the same men of the cloth and masters of intrigue.
â€œIf I were a civil servant,â€ says John Gichinga, Senior Pastor of Nairobi Baptist Church, â€œI would think twice before visiting Ufungamano House.â€
But Ufungamano House has not always borne that name.
â€œIt was known as The Christian Students Leadership Centre,â€ says Pastor Gichinga. For seven years, the pastor says he had an office in the building when he was General Secretary of the Fellowship of Christian Unions (FOCUS) that brings together Christian Unions in universities in Kenya.
Fr Michael Charo Ruwa of the Catholic Secretariat is a director of the Ufungamano House board. The building is owned jointly by National Council of Churches of Kenya (NCCK) that brings together major Protestant churches and Roman Catholicâ€™s Kenya Episcopal Conference (KEC).
Fr Ruwa says Education Minister Stephen Kalonzo Musyoka was reportedly hesitant to address graduating University of Nairobi students at the venue. Apparently, he was afraid of what the public would think of his going to Ufungamano.
The minister of the ruling Kenya African National Union (KANU) party is not alone. Fr Ruwa says a Roman Catholic priest who was afraid of being associated with politics requested that a meeting he was to attend be held anywhere but at Ufungamano House.
The offended priest said people are fast forgetting that Ufungamano was built to help develop leadership among Christian students at UoN.
The building, Fr Ruwa says, is favoured as a meeting place because it has conference and accommodation facilities and is centrally located in Nairobi City.
But Ngâ€™angâ€™a Njiraini, Executive Director of Ufungamano, has no apologies if the face of this houseâ€”The Christian Students Leadership Centreâ€”has changed.
â€œIf people donâ€™t want to come here because of the constitutional review, I can only excuse them for misunderstanding us. We donâ€™t apologise for being unpopular for doing something that bears dividends for the country.â€
For 14 months Ufungamano House was not only a symbol of the resolve by religious leaders and some opposition parties to press ahead with a constitutional review process that would embrace all of Kenya, it also was their headquarters.
That Ufungamano has become a centre of agitation for political reforms, says Njiraini, can be explained by the fact that the churches that own it are at the forefront of the campaign for good governance. It is a matter of economics for them to use the premises instead of having to pay someone else to host them, he says.
â€œThe faiths-led constitutional review group did not have much money and so chose to use Ufungamano. Maybe the fact that the churches facilitated the process may have made them come here,â€ he adds.
The Ufungamano board of directors, Njiraini insists, is proud to be associated with the team as â€œit doesnâ€™t hurt the objectives for which Ufungamano was set up. God is very much interested in what is going on here as it will bring about unity and prosperity among Kenyans when the constitution-making is complete.â€
But what does he think of the fact that a house of God is becoming a den of violence?
â€œNothing good comes cheaply. If this is the price we have to pay for constitution-making, then we are happy to pay it,â€ he says.
When Njiraini talks of the price of peace, he has tasted the violence that has sometimes visited the premises he manages. On one occasion, Njiraini was slapped with the flat of a machete (panga) and two windowsâ€”each costing Sh100,000â€”were broken by hooligans who were disrupting a political meeting.
â€œIf Ufungamano has to be associated with dissidence and antagonism for facilitating something good, we are happy because we are convinced God is happy with what is going on here.â€
Njirainiâ€™s is not a view popular in some Christian circles. He explains the house only hosts meetings and provides services like room and meals without participating in what goes on.
â€œBut we have to confirm the religious or political organizations seeking to meet here are legally registered before giving them room. We cannot accommodate illegal organizations.â€
But this performance, as we found out, tallies poorly on the score card of some Christians in Kenya.
Dr Timothy Wachira, the General Secretary of FOCUS, was at UoN between 1977 and 1981. He says then, Ufungamano was synonymous with the Christian Union (CU) to the extent many students did not know it didnâ€™t belong to the CU.
â€œToday,â€ Dr Wachira says, â€œCU has to pay to use Ufungamano. The cost is prohibitive to the extent that CU uses it only when it can raise the funds. Ufungamano may not have changed but its strategy certainly has. FOCUS moved out of Ufungamano in 1994 when it became very commercial and we couldnâ€™t raise the rent.â€
Dr Wachira, however, says Ufungamano has not changed and that it is still championing justice, equality and fairnessâ€”ideals which are not necessarily â€˜politicalâ€™.
But Dr Oloo Mojola, the foirst Executive Director of Ufungamano (1977-1978), says the goal of Ufungamano was â€œto produce Christian leaders at all levels of societyâ€”economic, religious, socialâ€”and not politicians.â€
Now Executive Director of United Bible societies, Dr Mojola says the objectives of Ufungamano House â€œhave not been fulfilled. We havenâ€™t realized these objectives. Ufungamano is now known as a political centre to most people. The focus is different from what we set out to do.â€
Then, Dr Mojola says, Ufungamano was for students rather than for politicians.
â€œThis could be due to the present board of directors and NCCK which has always been political. The original vision may have been lost, applied wrongly or misinterpreted.â€
Njiraini, who joined Ufungamano in 1993, says the focus of the house is still developing leadership among Christian students at UoN.
Built in 1977 as a training centre for student leadership, Ufungamano remained a place largely frequented by the Christian fraternity. Used for fellowships, worship and overnight prayer meetings every Friday, it was rare to hear of people whipping others on the hallowed grounds of Ufungamano.
Saying whatever happens at Ufungamano is governed by its constitution, Njiraini says the house was initially owned by the Anglican Church in Kenya who gave it to NCCK and KEC.
Bonfes Adoyo, a pastor at Nairobi Pentecostal Church on Valley Road, says Ufungamano was never owned by the Anglican Church. Adoyo attended UoN and says the venue on which Ufungamano stands was formerly occupied by a house in which Bishop Stephen Neil, the cleric who was in charge of religious studies at UoN, lived.
â€œThis place had a small chaplaincy centre that belonged to the Christian studentsâ€™ council. Since students couldnâ€™t develop the place given to them by Bishop Neil, they approached NCCK for assistance,â€ he says. It was NCCK and KEC who looked for the money with which they developed the place for Christian students, hence the name, The Christian Students Leadership Centre.
Pastor John Gichinga names Bishop Neil, George Wanjau, John Gatu, George Kinoti and Dr David Barrett as having been leading members in the fundraising committee that looked for the funds that were used in developing Ufungamano House.
Ufungamano House was opened on February 25, 1977 with the primary mandate of providing ‘a place of fellowship, pastoral care, guidance and counselling to the students and academic community…within the context of the University of Nairobi to enable members of the university community be effective servants of God and society at large.’
The building accommodated post-graduate students and had offices that were rented out to Christian organisatons. A chapel was also provided for the CU. FOCUS, the organisation Gichinga headed for nine years, was based at Ufungamano where he remained for seven years till 1983.
Adoyo contends that â€œNCCK has patronized the place and used it to advance its own agenda. When I was invited to speak at Ufungamano House recently, I donâ€™t remember seeing a chapel there.â€
Njeri Waithaka, an active member of the CU at Uon between 1978 and 1981 says she is sometimes uncomfortable with the militancy the building is being associated with.
â€œWhenever there are political meetings here, it is difficult to access the building,â€ she says. â€œWe are looking for peace, but not to the extent of embracing bad governance. The new image of antagonism and confrontation associated with Ufungamano may be unwanted but if it acts as a societyâ€™s conscience to check on bad governance, then so be it.â€
She nevertheless says that â€œself-seeking confrontation is not good for Ufungamano.â€
But Fr Ruwa says no one has set out to change the identity of Ufungamano. The fact that it houses faiths-led constitutional review team is an indication of how seriously the owners of Ufungamano take good governance.
If the image of confrontation were to become an issue and even undermine the objectives for which Ufungamano was set up, he says, the directors would easily go back to the original objectives of targeting Christian students at the University of Nairobi.â€
Fr Ruwa will however not admit that the board has deviated from these objectives.
â€œIf the director of Ufungamano reports to the board that the number of people and organisationbs using the premises are declining due to the new identity of political confrontation, then we would have to leave it. But no such report has been made so we believe we are on track,â€ he says.
An NCCK official who does not wish to be named says the church looks at things wholistically and not just in the spiritual sense.
â€œAntagonism and confrontation may be caused by the governmentâ€™s intransigence.â€
Pastor Adoyo says the original objectives â€œhave fallen by the wayside as Ufungamano has left its mission and abandoned students.â€
Adoyo argues that the mission was abandoned when NCCK dropped the word â€˜Christianâ€™ in favour of â€˜churchesâ€™ in order to embrace ecumenism.
â€œWhy does NCCK let Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus into a building meant to develop leadership among Christian students? Can they let us in their places of worship? They are removing â€˜Christianâ€™ from Ufungamano the way they did with NCCK!â€
Although Pastor Adoyo says Ufungamano has not made a difference in the lives of students who went through its programmes, Pastor Gichinga disagrees and names some of the people who are currently serving in various senior leadership positions–corporate and public–in Kenya. He says their leadership skills were honed while at university: John Ngâ€™angâ€™a of Kenya Shell, David Oginde of Nairobi Pentecostal Church South, Pastor Adoyo of Nairobi Pentecostal Church Central, Rachael Angogo Kanyoro of Young Women Christian Association in Geneva, Mary Thairu of Kenyatta University, Dr Mary Muchiri of Daystar University, Anglican Bishops Nzimbi of Kitui and Mwaluda of Taita and Archbishop David Gitari, Dr Eunice Mutitu, Engineer Edward Mwasi, Philemon Mwaisaka, and Dr Rachael Masake.