By Ogova Ondego
Published October 24, 2013
A search by Google suggests the following terms: ‘Ufungamano House Initiative’, ‘Ufungamano House contacts’, ‘Ufungamano House location’ and ‘Ufungamano House Nairobi Kenya’. Yet what I am searching for—Ufungamano House—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 building—The Christian Students Leadership Centre or Ufungamano House—in 2001?
There is a little-known road that runs from Nairobi Serena Hotel to State House Girls’ School. From the highest point of Mamlaka Road, cutting across the upper reaches of University of Nairobi, you can look down on one of Kenya’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 people’s hearts.
Ufungamano House. That’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, wedged—as it is—between the staff clinic and students’ halls of residence of the institution.
Ufungamano is a house frequented by political and religious types—just as it is feared and avoided by the same men of the cloth and masters of intrigue.
“If I were a civil servant,” says John Gichinga, Senior Pastor of Nairobi Baptist Church, “I would think twice before visiting Ufungamano House.”
But Ufungamano House has not always borne that name.
“It was known as The Christian Students Leadership Centre,” 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 Catholic’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 Ng’ang’a Njiraini, Executive Director of Ufungamano, has no apologies if the face of this house—The Christian Students Leadership Centre—has changed.
“If people don’t want to come here because of the constitutional review, I can only excuse them for misunderstanding us. We don’t apologise for being unpopular for doing something that bears dividends for the country.”
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.
“The 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,” he adds.
The Ufungamano board of directors, Njiraini insists, is proud to be associated with the team as “it doesn’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.”
But what does he think of the fact that a house of God is becoming a den of violence?
“Nothing good comes cheaply. If this is the price we have to pay for constitution-making, then we are happy to pay it,” 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 windows—each costing Sh100,000—were broken by hooligans who were disrupting a political meeting.
“If 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.”
Njiraini’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.
“But 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.”
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 didn’t belong to the CU.
“Today,” Dr Wachira says, “CU 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 couldn’t raise the rent.”
Dr Wachira, however, says Ufungamano has not changed and that it is still championing justice, equality and fairness—ideals which are not necessarily ‘political’.
But Dr Oloo Mojola, the foirst Executive Director of Ufungamano (1977-1978), says the goal of Ufungamano was “to produce Christian leaders at all levels of society—economic, religious, social—and not politicians.”
Now Executive Director of United Bible societies, Dr Mojola says the objectives of Ufungamano House “have not been fulfilled. We haven’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.”
Then, Dr Mojola says, Ufungamano was for students rather than for politicians.
“This 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.”
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.
“This place had a small chaplaincy centre that belonged to the Christian students’ council. Since students couldn’t develop the place given to them by Bishop Neil, they approached NCCK for assistance,” 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 “NCCK has patronized the place and used it to advance its own agenda. When I was invited to speak at Ufungamano House recently, I don’t remember seeing a chapel there.”
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.
“Whenever there are political meetings here, it is difficult to access the building,” she says. “We 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 society’s conscience to check on bad governance, then so be it.”
She nevertheless says that “self-seeking confrontation is not good for Ufungamano.”
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.”
Fr Ruwa will however not admit that the board has deviated from these objectives.
“If 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,” 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.
“Antagonism and confrontation may be caused by the government’s intransigence.”
Pastor Adoyo says the original objectives “have fallen by the wayside as Ufungamano has left its mission and abandoned students.”
Adoyo argues that the mission was abandoned when NCCK dropped the word ‘Christian’ in favour of ‘churches’ in order to embrace ecumenism.
“Why 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 ‘Christian’ from Ufungamano the way they did with NCCK!”
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 Ng’ang’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.