Elphas Odwisah Wambani
Elphas Odwisah Wambani lived his life for the success of others, toiling to make known the name of Christ but living it within the cultural constraints imposed on him. He traversed churches and borders, was liked by many for his industry and tireless work for the good of all. He saw hope and unity where others saw despair. In a region stooped in superstition and witchcraft he focused his energies in redefining his people’s world view and bridging the chasm between Christianity and culture.
c.1956 to 2010
Friends Church (Quakers)
Wambani was born in 1956, the firstborn in a family of eight, to Sokhera and Robai Wambani. He later married Juliet Wambani and the couple was blessed with six children: Tom, Lucy, Jerry, Sheila, Siovi and Irene. He was Kenyan of the Luhya tribe, from Banyala clan of Abaengere kinship. He spoke fluent Kinyala, Kiswahili and English.
Wambani was born in a very poor family and his early life was characterized by struggle. For example, he had to walk many kilometers a day in order to gain a basic education. His family moved back and forth between Kenya and Uganda in search for a better living standard. In his own words “my father was irresponsible and abusive but, our family rituals and celebrations kept us together.” His mother became a Quaker, while his father remained a traditionalist for a long time. His mother learned the Quaker views and their values concerning work, the role of women, and the importance of education. Her diligence in living out these new values eventually influenced her husband to espouse those values and views as well.
Wambani was torn between two spiritual traditions, traditional cultural beliefs and practices and the growing influence of the Quaker faith in his life. Having experienced how illiteracy held his parents back, he became determined to be educated. Even at a young age he saw the power and value of education and had to endure many hardships during a time that he characterized as a painful period in his life. Wambani eventually went to live with uncles who assisted him in gaining his primary school education. He later went to secondary school and exceled despite spending half of his school time at home because he could not pay his fees. Wambani eventually became a teacher. As he pursued his education, however, he frequently went without shoes and food in order to provide for his siblings so that they could follow in his footsteps to become literate and receive an education.
Wambani resisted the temptation of a carefree life and dedicated his life to seeing others gain the precious knowledge he struggled to get by making it easier for them. He brought both the school and church closer home. He was the epitome of the adage “charity begins at home.” Unlike young men his age, he did not marry as soon as he began earning an income. Rather, he became the laughing stock of the village when he chose to remain single and save his money. At one time it was whispered among his friends that he was not even able to father a child. Though not short of admirers among the women of his village, he kept them all at an arm’s length because of his Christian values.
Wambani was very active as a youth leader in his local Friends Church of Chebuyusi Village Meeting. He was also instrumental in the planting of the Nauulu Village Meeting. There, he fought hard to see the Meeting receive a primary school in order to mitigate the long distances his needed to travel to get the much needed education and bolster the social status of the area. He organized numerous fundraising meetings to build the church which today stands as evidence to his tireless efforts to help others have a better life.
Though a teacher by profession Wambani struggled for eight years to find a ministerial vocation. He later enrolled at Kenya Highlands Bible College, mingling with and encouraging students from diverse ethnic, cultural, and social backgrounds to give reality to what he considered authentic Christian living: organizing small groups and helping others become comfortable having “taboo” discussions on subjects like HIV/AIDS, which was just breaking out at the time and could only be talked about in hushed tones because of the stigma associated with the illness.
Wambani’s teaching career awakened the desire to study how indigenous tribes would celebrate the spirit and how this could find accommodation within Quaker worship. This was a tall order given the misconceptions and misunderstanding that existed between the traditionalists and the mainstream churches at the time. Wambani sought to examine how the Banyala employed their worship in different stages of life and the role of special events like naming, circumcision, burials, makumbusho (remembrance of the dead), and okhufua (giving of gifts to the departed), while at the same time paying attention to the existing tensions within the Christian church. He sought to blend traditional ways of life with Quaker teachings and practices. Wambani noted in his dissertation that “the traditional Banyala cultural celebration of the spirit did not resonate very well with the Quaker understanding of spirituality.” The Banyala stressed the role of spirits and venerated the ancestors in the life of the community. These practices made it difficult for missionaries to reconcile the work of the Spirit and that of venerated ancestors.
Wambani embraced the philosophy of addition rather than exclusion, making space for people experiencing the Spirit in every possible way. This might have opened doors to syncretism but he helped draw an awareness to the need to explore further the cultural practices vis-à-vis western Christianity and properly define what really is an authentic African Christian experience. His ideas came at a time when the church was struggling the post-independence syndrome and was very intolerant of new ideas. He blazed a road that very few dared to walk as he challenged the church in matters of faith. This was a time when theological interpretation of cultural beliefs and practices was being advocated for by indigenous independent churches yet at the same time was being shunned by denominational churches. Wambani’s roots and first-hand understanding of traditional “special events,” as he called traditional rites and rituals, made his insights significant in unmasking the myths and misconceptions about African traditions and integrating African spirituality into the orthodox praxis of Christianity.
Though a Quaker, Wambani worked very well with other denominations in the region. He became an especially popular speaker among the African Independent Churches where he authoritatively spoke on African spirituality. A friend he met in Cambridge, Massachusetts while studying for his Doctor of Ministry degree at The Episcopal Divinity School would write that, “his [Wambani’s] presence was God’s gift to us; he spoke God’s word to us and we learned much from his deep connection with spirit and his ability to interpret that spirit in human terms. At the same time he was eager to listen to that of God in us, to learn what we would say of our experience of the truth. Divine love was surely shared through him.” This explains why, though shunned by the local Quaker church, Wambani still remained a member of the Meeting, helping the Quakers plant more churches because his actions resonated well with the Quaker belief, “that of God in every human being.”
Known for his knack for initiating community based projects, Wambani, together with others like Pasliano, Maparo, and Makokha Ford, started a local football team, the Munache Football Club. Wambani carefully crafted name as he used his ingenuity to bring together both young and old from the three locations of Musavale, Nauulu, and Chebuyusi. The team has now survived three generations of players tapping talent and fostering community, cooperation, and unity. Together with Amos Oyalo and Livingstone Oyalo, Wambani started a soccer youth tournament or esiovi (war cry), which was played every December. The tournament brought together many young people from the Bunyala, Wanga, and Bukusu communities in order to foster unity and showcase their talent. This bumpy patch of ground at Sidikho Primary school has since been graced by national football heroes like Roy Biketi and Pan Paper.
The greatest gain from the football club and tournament has been that it kept keeping the youth of the area from mischief they would have otherwise indulged in and has been a big factor in the reduction of drug related crime. The football club has been a way to help curb the spread of HIV AIDS. Finally, it became a tool to galvanize the population and create social capital and improve the social status of the people. Wambani noted that AIDS continued to cripple most of Kenya, “It is really a disaster.” His work with the football club highlights his resourcefulness for working with nearly nothing to produce something that would benefit all. Wambani endeavored to continue to bring AIDS into the focus of the community and help the church develop proper support groups that would help alleviate the suffering of the local poor who had contracted the disease and who had both been isolated by their community and given a death sentence. The resounding question Wambani brought to the forefront was, “what is our Christian response to the scourge?”
Wambani epitomizes the African spirit of embracing all. One of his friends who visited Wambani’s family after his death would wrote, “seeing the close knit community and the people’s practice of hospitality caused us to reflect on our own society.” He further noted that, “Hospitality is very different in a subsistence farming community with no car and no electricity. Visiting with each other comes naturally and time is usually no problem. In contrast, we Americans have found countless ways to insulate ourselves from each other. We are constantly in a rush. The result is that we tend to not know our neighbors or even members of our church very well. Building community and relationships is counter cultural. It takes deliberate effort and choice. It is one of the major challenges facing All Saints’ Church. I know that there are times when we legitimately can not slow down. Even so, I encourage all of us to consider making a commitment to be community here at All Saints’. It will take some time and possibly mean participating in something new. The benefit is that this community can better hold you and keep you even in the busiest times of the year.”
Wambani’s interaction with the West and inviting outsiders to witness first hand African social strata awakened the desire among many Westerners to relate better with one another. Wambani’s fired would emphasize the brokenness of relationships in the West noting that, “in a western world shredded by capitalism and individualism.” This is one great contribution the African church can give to the world: showing how men and women can live together in unity and complement each other. One of Wambani’s acquaintances also observed that, “he has also provided me an opportunity to reflect again on the spiritual culture in which we live…he noted that we tend to compartmentalize our religious lives.” There is no distinction between the spiritual and the physical worlds among the Banyala, they intertwine with one another to make one whole influencing each other uniquely.
Nan Hardison, a missionary who oversees operations at St. Philip’s, noted Wambani’s unique perspective on issues said, “we hired Elphas first as a teacher, then later made him dean of students, when he arrived at St. Philip’s, ‘the college was in the dust bin,’ Elphas had said, laughing, ‘Nobody admired it.’” Hardison credits Wambani for improving St. Philip’s academics and boosting enrollment; it is now one of the top colleges in the country.
Wambani believed that everyone had something to learn from everyone else. He, together with teachers Elizabeth Grumbach and Carolyn Garth, collaborated to start an exchange program between Moses Brown students in Massachusetts and those of Chebuyusi village in Kakamega Western Kenya. Through the program, they exchanged photos and letters in order to broaden their worldview and learn to appreciate other people’s lifestyles. The exchange program also helped some of the participants realize that there are things that people often take for granted which others can only dream about. “I think it's exciting to have a friend in Kakamega or in any different place because you can learn a lot about other places that you didn’t know about,” wrote fourth grade student Abigail L. Britt D., another fourth grade student said at a Friends’ Meeting, “I have seen Chebuyusi village school (on Google Earth) and that is where my friend Kevin goes to school. I think he isn’t having an easy life but he is having a good life.” Kevin, however, is content with life and thankful for the other privileges that life has brought his way.
The words of Holly Lyman Antolini sum it very well, "A Quaker Christian and traditionalist; both a Munyala tribesman and a Kenyan; a man of many languages – Olunyala, Kiswahili, English; a man imbued with respect for women and other people’s way of life a Quaker who taught in an Anglican seminary and befriended Jews; a man from an illiterate family who completed a doctorate; a rural Kenyan who studied in the US; a man from a culture that reviles gay and lesbian people who made profound friendships among his gay and lesbian colleagues at Episcopal Divinity School; he bridged chasms of differences many would simply have fallen into or gone to war over. In so doing, he brought people to mutual understanding despite their manifold visceral and instinctive resistances and differences. Instead buckling over the dreadful hollow of his own difficult upbringing and allowing it to fester in shame and defeat, he embraced the humility of his own humanity, his disorientation in the face of so many successive waves of the new and unfamiliar only spared him on to learn more . He chose the hollow of a quiet confidence in Light of the Spirit in every person that lies at the heart of the Quaker faith. In the hollow of his own humanity, he made a space for all the rest of us struggling human beings to realize our own potential for holiness."
It is only after Wambani exits this life that we can really appreciate his contribution to the growth of Christianity in Chebuyusi, Bunyala, Kakamega, Kenya, Africa, and the World in general.
Paul Wafula Wegulo
1. David L. Mayers, “Eulogy,” Manuscript in possession of the author (August 2010).
2. Holly Lyman Antolini, Sermon for Christmas Eve (The Rev. Holly Lyman Antolini), (Cambridge, Mass.: St. James’s Episcopal Church Cambridge, MA Resources, 2011), http://www.stjames-cambridge.org/_resources/2011/1/3/sermon-for-christmas-eve-the-rev-holly-lyman-antolini.html (accessed July 14, 2014).
6. Mayers, “Eulogy.”
7. Nan Hardison, “Article,” Soundings 29, no. 4 (April 2008).
8. SaintsALIVE, (March 1, 2010), www.allsaintschelmsford.com.
12. Hardison, “Article.”
13. Moses Brown School, Homepage (Providence, RI: Moses Brown School, 2014), http://www.mosesbrown.org/page (accessed July 14, 2014).
14. Antolini, Sermons for Christmas Eve.
15. Interviews: Bakala Wambani, Jane Wambani and Juliet Wambani
Antolini, Holly Lyman. Sermon for Christmas Eve (The Rev. Holly Lyman Antolini). Cambridge, Mass.: St. James’s Episcopal Church Cambridge, MA Resources, 2011. http://www.stjames-cambridge.org/_resources/2011/1/3/sermon-for-christmas-eve-the-rev-holly-lyman-antolini.html (accessed July 14, 2014).
Mayers, David L. “Eulogy.” Manuscript in possession of the author, August 2010.
Moses Brown School. Homepage. Providence, RI: Moses Brown School, 2014. http://www.mosesbrown.org/page (accessed July 14, 2014).
Hardison, Nan. “Article.” Soundings 29, no. 4 (April 2008).
SaintsALIVE. March 1, 2010. www.allsainstschelmsford.com.
Wambani, Elphas O. Celebration of the Spirits: Cultural and Religious Practices Among the Banyala of Kakamega District in Western Kenya. Kenya: Episcopal Divinity School, 2009.
This article, received in 2014, was written by Paul Wafula Wegulo, an MDiv student at Africa International University (formerly Nairobi Evangelical Graduate School of Theology), under the supervision of Dr. Mark Shaw, senior lecturer in the department of Historical Studies, and Mr. Babatomiwa Moses Owojiaye, Ph.D student and instructor in African Christian History at AIU.