Wilson Thiongo Gathungu

A Peacemaker in Kenya

By guest contributor Tarris Rosell with Dan Buttry

Wilson Gathungu

Wilson Gathungu on the road that divided the Kikuyu and Kalenjin communities in a rural Kenyan community torn by political violence.

Kenya has been torn with cycles of inter-tribal conflict for many years, particularly around every national election. The election of December, 2007 led to an explosion of violence spilling into 2008. Well over 1,000 people were killed, many in the Rift Valley. Conflicts occurred especially between the Kikuyus and Kalenjins. A middle-aged Kikuyu seminary student launched a peacemaking initiative in the Molo District of the Rift Valley which helped transform the region and in 2013, contributed to the first peaceful national election in decades.

Like most people in Kenya, Wilson Thiongo Gathungu and his family were relatively poor. Wilson was the youngest in a family of four boys and a girl. His mother became widowed some years before his birth when her first husband was killed in the Mau Mau Rebellion. He had been targeted for advocating nonviolent resistance in the struggle for Kenyan independence. Wilson recalls, My mother was among many women who lost their husbands and sons in the war that lasted for seven years … I learned about the horrors and the cruelty of war in narratives told in the evening around fireplaces as the meals were cooked. ()Source)

Wilson longed for more educational opportunity than what his family could afford. Instead he studied auto mechanics in Nairobi. Wilson survived because he was smart, and very good at fixing cars. Yet the desire for more education never left. Even after becoming a husband and a father of three girls whose education he supported beyond primary school, Wilson prayed for opportunity to go back to school himself.

In 2001, when Wilson was in his 40s, he visited Kenyan friends in Kansas City. He earned a GED and eventually graduated from Park University with a B.A. in Business Administration. By this time, Wilson’s wife Rahab had joined him in the United States, and they had a fourth daughter.

Wilson had begun a Masters degree at Central Baptist Theological Seminary (CBTS) in Shawnee, Kansas. His aim was to return to Kenya as a theological teacher and to finally reunite the family spread between Kenya and Kansas City. But then in late 2010, halfway through his studies, a family crisis arose. Wilson decided that he needed to return to Nairobi temporarily, at the risk of permanently losing his student visa. In with the aid of a Christian Ethics professor at Central, Wilson did make that trip back home. And, as feared, the State Department subsequently refused to reissue his visa. Wilson could not return to finish his MDiv degree.

But all was not lost. More consultation with seminary staff resulted in the Dean’s permission for Wilson to finish an M.A. in Theological Studies instead of the longer MDiv, with a full scholarship. Professors agreed to provide online instruction. The Ethics professor worked with his student on a capstone project that had started a year earlier as a Micah 6:8 course assignment. This developed into an ongoing international collaboration called the Kenya Peace Initiative, which has pursued conflict transformation, housing relief for internally displaced persons, and prevention of post-election inter-tribal violence. Wilson created an NGO called Peace, Reconciliation and Rehabilitation Initiative (PRARI), supported by various church and private donors.

Wilson focused on the Molo District which had been one of the epicenters of the 2007-2008 post-election violence. He drew together an inter-tribal planning committee from Molo and the surrounding villages and established a pattern for his peace work. The diversity of the committee was the first challenge; bringing people together across community lines to plan the project together.

Wilson Gathungu leads a conflict transformation training exercise

Wilson Gathungu leads a conflict transformation training exercise

They created a conflict transformation training program. It began with a hands-on reconciliation project. In the initial program Kikuyus and Kalenjins (and others) worked side-by-side to build a home for a displaced Kalenjin family and another for a Kikuyu family. Then a peace forest was planted at an inter-tribal school at an intersection where people had been massacred, with participants then eating together out of the same pot.

Then the peace-building and reconciliation workshop was held, sometimes involving international training partners. Wilson was the planner, organizer, cheer-leader, song-leader, and often co-facilitator in the trainings. His spirit kept drawing people together and encouraging them to risk the next step for community healing and reconciliation.

The program finished with a Sunday afternoon peace march and rally, expanding the program to the public of the area. After the initial district-wide training and rally, Wilson mobilized the participants to expand their ranks to make new village-level peace committees. These committees then planned events in their own village following the program pattern of reconciliation project, training, then public march and rally. Some of the streets had become dividing lines between the communities, but the peace marches brought people back together. The relationships and projects kept the momentum going beyond any single event.

Peace March led by Wilson Gathungu

The peace march Gathungu led with community leaders down the dividing road.

While conducting a KPI/PRARI conflict transformation workshop in 2012, Wilson was approached by the relatives of a dying widow and her three young children, soon to be orphaned. They pleaded for Wilson to take the children and care for them, since the family and community had insufficient resources. On faith alone, with unbridled compassion, Wilson agreed to do so. He made repairs to his unoccupied childhood home many hours away, and returned for the children. They were enrolled in the village school he had once attended, and donations helped provide support for school fees, basic living expenses, and a housemother at the Mustard Seed Children’s Home.

Wilson Gathungu could not return to the U.S. for his graduation from CBTS in 2013, though he had completed all his course work from Kenya. So the seminary sent the graduation to him in Kenya during a special Africa-wide peace training held in Kenya that Wilson helped organize. This was a dream come true for which he was very grateful. He was honored with an award for outstanding work in Christian Social Justice.

Life is both rewarding and difficult for Wilson. Teaching ministry and complete family reunification as envisioned are yet to be realized. Fundraising is always a challenge.

Wilson’s quest for peace and justice can be summarized in what Paul Lederach called moral imagination (The Moral Imagination, Oxford, 2010). Lederach believed that nothing is an end unto itself, and that out of something good might come something else that is even better than originally imagined. So it was for Wilson back in 2001 upon his arrival in the U.S. He went looking for old friends and greener pastures, and found unimaginable educational opportunity. A return trip to Kenya for purposes of family care and field study also resulted in the birth of PRARI with ultimate benefit to many families of Kenya.

For the first time since 1992, Kenya was mostly peaceful before, during, and after the national elections in 2013, due in part to the efforts of peacemakers like Wilson. But the nation has subsequently experienced other sorts of violence and unrest. Work remains to be done. Wilson Thiongo Gathungu is ready and able, and prayerfully persistent in the ways of peace.

About guest contributor Tarris Rossell

Tarris Rosell, PhD, DMin, is Professor of Pastoral Theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary and the Rosemary Flanigan Chair at the Center for Practical Bioethics.

Videos of Wilson Gathungu

Wilson Gathungu sings peace songs

This video includes footage of some of his peace-building training and work.

Wilson Gathungu explains the vision and beginning of PRARI

Highlights of the initial peace and reconciliation conference in the Molo District organized by Gathungu in 2011