Are these the real Jews?
Story by ANTHONY NYONGESA
Publication Date: 04/02/2004 http://www.nationmedia.com/dailynation/nmgcontententry.asp?category_id=31&newsid=5459
Make sure you remove your shoes when we arrive at the main entrance into Jerusalem. It is a holy place and if you ignore my advice, you will be doing it at your own peril. You will receive no blessings and probably be cursed instead, the boda boda (bicycle taxi) rider warns me as I get off.
We are approaching the compound where Elijah Masinde, the legendary Bukusu leader, self-proclaimed prophet and founder of the Dini ya Musambwa sect, hid in the early 1940s to avoid arrest by the colonial government.
The place has since been turned into a shrine by the Juda Israeli sect, whose members believe they are the real Jews. According to the sect, River Chesamisi – one of the rivers that runs down Mt Elgon on Kenya-Uganda border – is the "River Jordan" and every member must be baptised here.
"God revealed himself to Africans in 1920s and told them they were the Israelites," says Moses Wafula, the high priest and self-styled representative of the Biblical Moses.
According to Wafula, "spirits" have shown that Jesus was an African, not a Semite.
"His second coming will be in Kenya, specifically in Bungoma, which is our area," he claimed during an interview in "Jerusalem", the church's headquarters near Chesamisi High School, about 10 kilometres from Kamukuywa shopping centre.
To get to "Jerusalem" from the Bungoma-Kitale road, you can walk or hire a boda boda at Kamukuywa shopping centre since there are no public service vehicles on the Kamukuywa-Chesamisi route.
The sect is among the many independent religious groups that sprung up during the colonial days as an alternative to the mainstream churches, which had banned polygamy and female circumcision. It still encourages polygamy.
The sect's offices are built above a tunnel where Masinde and other Africans considered dangerous by the colonialists hid for some time before they were captured and jailed.
Immediately after Masinde's capture in 1944, the tunnel was sealed. But it was re-dug by the sect members in 1998 and turned into a basement where religious implements are stored. It is here that the head of the church, Binti Zion Sarah Nafula, mediates with God on behalf of her people.
"Elijah Masinde, one of the founders of this church, came here as the Messiah to spread the gospel but began engaging in evil practices before he quit to form Dini ya Musambwa (Belief in Ancestors in the Bukusu language), which was banned by the colonial government.
"Under the umbrella of the Anglican African Israel church, Masinde was one of the six members filled with the "Spirit" to speak out against the devil and the colonial masters and they would hide in the tunnel whenever the colonial officers came looking for them," explains Samuel Wanyama, Mfalme wa Israeli (King of the Israelites).
Later, Masinde and his colleagues formed Judah Israeli, only to abandon it after a short while to form Dini ya Musambwa.
Wanyama says that Masinde's deviation from God's work to form Dini ya Musambwa was a rebellion not only against his followers but also against God, and that was why he ended up being captured by the colonial forces in collaboration with African chiefs.
"Unlike in mainstream churches, where members fight for positions in the church, God anoints us through Binti Zion (Kiswahili for daughter of Zion)," says Peter Wafula, the church's Kamukuywa branch chairman.
Twice a year, the sect members, dressed in flowing robes and their heads bent in supplication, climb Mt Elgon, which is 4,321 metres high, to offer sacrifices to God.
"We sacrifice doves, lambs and bulls that have not yet started mating. That is what God instructed his people to do," offers Wafula, the high priest. They are supposed to make the offerings every month but only do so twice a year due to financial constraints, says Wafula.
Before they set off for Mt Elgon, they slaughter a lamb in "Jerusalem" and smear its blood on the religious implements that are to be carried up the mountain.
On their way to the top, they bathe in the "living waters", a warm spring on the mountain side that is believed to cure diseases and ward off bad luck in the community.
It is at this point that Binti Zion reads out the names of the followers who will make up the heavenly kingdom. Those whose names do not appear have to wait and see if they will make it to the heavenly kingdom during the next pilgrimage.
After several days on the mountain, the pilgrims head back to "Jerusalem" where they are welcomed with song and dance. After the celebrations, a bull is sacrificed at a special spot near the church building set aside just for that purpose.
"Jerusalem" is always a beehive of activity, with tourists, historians, journalists and other curious visitors thronging the compound to tour Masinde's hideout -turned - shrine.
In addition to the shrine, several huts have been built in the compound to house homeless families, widows and widowers, spouses separated from their partners, and elderly people who have no relatives to care for them.
"Before we give them accommodation, we try to establish whether or not the person is telling the truth about their having nowhere else to go," asserts Wafula.
"Since time immemorial, this has been a place of refuge, that is why Masinde and others opposed to the colonial rule travelled all the way from Maeni in Kimilili to hide here," he goes on to explain.
Unlike in other mainstream churches, the Juda Israeli sect operates on a very strict code of conduct. For example, a woman is not allowed to speak directly to a man inside the church. "If a female church member has a pressing issue to put across, she has to ask for permission to speak and that request must be made while kneeling on the floor," says Ezekiel Waswa, a church official, adding that this is meant to enhance discipline in women.
"Our church seeks to maintain African culture not just in attire but also in deed. In the traditional African setting, women respected men and knelt whenever a man was talking to them or when giving men something, say water or food," he asserts.
In another notable diversion from mainstream churches, the priest is not allowed to face the congregation while delivering his sermons, which take place on Fridays.
"It is only Jesus who will face his followers the way he did his disciples. No one in the church should face the congregation as is the case in mainstream churches. Those that do so will be held responsible for the sins of other church members on the day of judgment," asserts Wafula.
So, while delivering the sermon, the priest walks between the rows of seated members – men sit on the right side of the church while women sit on the left.
When they are not on duty, priests sit among the congregation, but never at the front or back of the church.
"Ours is a case of doing things simply, as instructed by the Bible. We are out to serve, not to be served," says Waswa, who usually leads the pilgrims' procession to Mt Elgon.
The land where the church and other houses are built was donated by local people, who were captured and beaten by white soldiers to reveal Masinde's whereabouts when he started crusading against colonial rule. Those who donated land include Yonah Mukanda, Henry Khaemba and Joel Namanguva – all now dead.
Surprisingly, although Juda Israeli is one of the oldest sects in the country, it has only a few branches in Bungoma and Trans Nzoia districts, and one in neighbouring Uganda.