There are about 300,000 Quakers in the world, and over one-third of them live in Kenya. While the amount of constituents there is growing by the day, numbers in the West (the United Kingdom and United States, in particular) have nosedived in recent years, some 25 percent from 1972 to 2002, according to the Friends World Committee for Consultation.
Kenyan Quakers are just getting started. They’ve seen their yearly meetings grow with the help of evangelism, new churches and services that appeal to a younger, more mainstream Christian crowd. Churches have brought in bands, adopted praise and worship, experimented with vestment and even started evangelizing on the radio and in the street. “We question how things were done traditionally and try to look at things from an African perspective,” says Pastor Khaemba.
The religion has a long history in Kenya. Three American Quakers first arrived on the coast of the country in 1903 before taking the train to Kisumu, a town along the shores of Lake Victoria in the West. Thanks to a good entente with the British government who gave them land and a stable political environment, the Quaker community thrived and began to spread, setting up a number of centers in Nairobi. According to a number of pastors, the reasons for its success lay in an approach that focused on economic development and education, rather than evangelism. Today, there are more Quakers in Kenya than in any other country in the world.
And even within Kenya, Quakers tend to be concentrated in the west of the country on account of the fact that the first missions were established there.
According to this paper, the mission in Kaimosi (Vihiga County) was actually established in 1902:
The Friends African Mission (FAM) of Quakers, which established a station at Kaimosi in 1902, was quite different from most of the other early missions in Kenya; it was founded and maintained by Americans. The American Friends are evangelical Quakers (they do not follow the silent worship of British or East Coast American Friends) from the mid-west ‘bible belt’, from a background of rural small farmers with strong precepts of self-sufficiency and practicality. From its establishment on 1000 acres of freehold forest land in the reserve, it had an ‘Industrial Mission’ that sought to inculcate the values and practices of the prairie homesteader among its trainees. These values were essentially anti-urban and anti-modernization, but with a strong element of racial superiority, as suggested by Willis Hotchkiss, one of the founders of the Kaimosi mission:
Generally speaking it does not take long sojourn in a town to spoil any Native …. They have added to their original sin a lot of organised sins, not crude savage sins, but cultivated civilised sins …. The general demoralisation is accelerated by the beer hall and the dance parlour …. In the heated atmosphere of these foul dens, so far removed from the open air environments of his savage games, his life is cankered to the core …. Added to all these devastating effects which have suddenly crashed into his life there is the moving picture show. Hollywood has poured a lecherous stream of filth into the world, and these child races have been quick to appreciate it. [Hotchkiss was writing in 1937].
The paper documents the manner in which Quaker missionaries (despite their abhorrent views of their congregants) were pioneers of technical education in Kenya. The anti-urban posture, coupled with their lukewarm approach to regular education, might explain the American Quakers’ limited success at conversion in the wider Lake Basin region (at least in comparison with the Catholics in Yala or the Church Mission Society in Maseno).