In Summary

  • Like Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Gatu is a champion for indigenous languages.
  • For him true education must include command of the mother tongue without ignoring the wide horizons provided by proficiency in other languages.
  • Rev Gatu celebrates his roots by composing excellent poetry in Gikuyu, collected in the publication He Gatu, Nguhe Kanua (Lend me your ear, I have something to tell you).

Rev John Gatu will remain a towering figure as a churchman whose impact was felt not only in Kenya but also on the African continent and beyond. During his tenure as head of the Presbyterian Church of East Africa (PCEA), he multi-tasked and served on continental and global boards including the All Africa Conference of Churches (AACC), the Alliance of Reformed Churches in Africa (ARCA), the World Alliance of Reformed Churches (WARC) and the World Council of Churches (WCC).

In Kenya, he will be remembered because of his confrontation with the Jomo Kenyatta government regarding the oathings of 1969. This was one of the most critical moments of truth speaking to power in the history of this country. Within the PCEA, his call to end the flow of missionary personnel and funds to Africa in the moratorium debate will remain etched in the memories of many.

Thus, besides providing leadership in the areas of church and politics, church and its funding, Rev Gatu leaves a legacy in the realm of church and culture. Both in action and his writings, he provides food for thought on the way Christianity clothed in Western culture was proclaimed to indigenous African peoples. How should such a Christianity operate in contemporary Africa?

Like Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Gatu is a champion for indigenous languages. For him true education must include command of the mother tongue without ignoring the wide horizons provided by proficiency in other languages. Rev Gatu celebrates his roots by composing excellent poetry in Gikuyu, collected in the publication He Gatu, Nguhe Kanua (Lend me your ear, I have something to tell you).

Then he proceeds to celebrate what he has received, the Christian message, while remaining truly indigenous in his book Joyfully Christian, Truly African.

There is no doubt that Gatu values the deposit of African culture. This is significant because many early Christian missionaries despised African traditions as evil, primitive and pagan.

One of the most eloquent protests to this attitude is Okot ‘p Bitek’s Song of Lawino. Gatu, too, disagrees with the wholesale condemnation of indigenous cultures. In his recent autobiography Fan into Flame, he explains why he suggested the use of local foodstuffs, maize flour and traditional brew, in celebrating the Christian eucharist in Africa, instead of the European bread and wine.

During his graduation at Princeton University, he insisted on wearing a colobus monkey skin instead of the traditional university gown.

Many will remember Gatu attired in a similar way when he appeared in public to preach or lead prayers at national functions.

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