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VOLUME 18, NO. 1-2 (MAY-JULY 2003)

The 2002 Elections The Road Travelled, The Lessons Learned


Making a difference - "it's all in the family"

In August 1985, the late Professor Hannah Kinoti wrote an article in the first issue of WAJIBU which dealt with the traditional African family. Among other things, this is what she said about the African family:

The family is the foundation of the African society. … Before the disruption of African culture the family gave the individual an identity, a sense of belonging and security. Families were the basis of the cohesion and the integrity that characterized African peoples. … The family relationship was a very special relationship. … [It] carried with it mutual obligations and responsibilities which sprung from beyond the mere call of duty or politeness. In a very deep sense it was religious.

If, in this issue of WAJIBU, we acknowledge the difference that three brothers, James Mageria, Al Hajj Yussuf Mūrigū, and Solomon Gacece1 have made to society, it is- in the first instance-to acknowledge the role their family played in the lives of these three brothers. For there is no doubt at all that the reason these three men have made, and are continuing to make, a significant contribution to the Kenyan society stems, in large part, from the fact that they come from a remarkable African family. If, in a way, this family was no longer traditional in one sense-for they had accepted the Christian religion-the fact remains that certain African values were so strongly ingrained in them that they passed them on to their children.

James Mageria, the first of the three brothers was born in 1941, the second, Al Hajj Yussuf Mūrigū in 1943 and the third, Solomon Gacece in 1946.

Mageria2 started his working life as a policeman; in his ten years in that function, he rose to the rank of superintendent. He then went into business and was the Managing Director of Express Kenya Ltd. Afterwards he set up the Daraja Trust to assist small business people. In addition to being involved in church courts for the Presbyterian Church of East Africa, Mageria has served in countless voluntary organizations. He has been in the Council of the St. John's Ambulance Society, in the Board of the Agricultural Society of Kenya and was active in the Freedom from Hunger Campaign. He was the African Director of World Vision from 1994 to 1997.

Mūrigū, the only Muslim in the family, is an administrator who has been on the board of various NGOs. He also serves as the Deputy Chairman of the Supreme Council of Kenya Muslims (SUPKEM). In addition, he is chair of the World Conference on Religion and Peace, Kenya Chapter. In the latter function, he has been organizing the religious leaders in Kenya to come together to solve urgent social problems, specifically-at the moment-the serious problems suffered by children orphaned or otherwise affected by AIDS.

Gacece3 has been an athlete and was a teacher for 18 years. He also served as an adviser to the Education Department of the Nairobi City Council. At present, he serves as the Executive Secretary, Youth and Sports Commission for Africa, of the Association of Evangelicals in Africa. He is very active in the Presbyterian Church of East Africa, having served as an elder in St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church for many years, as well as Stated Clerk for the Milimani Presbytery. In addition, he is very involved in ecumenical activities at the local level. We asked the three brothers what, in their opinion, it was in their family background which made them to be the people they are: men of integrity, of a strong sense of duty to society, and-above all-people who are deeply religious.

Wajibu: What would you say were the religious values that your parents impressed on you and which you hold dear to this day?

Mageria: One thing we were taught by our parents was religious inclusiveness. We would read the Bible every evening and then be taught about Kikuyu tradition and customs. It was surprising how similar some of the key traditions and customs were to the teachings of the Bible. For example, in the Bible there is talk of a scapegoat, "the lamb that takes away the sins of the world." Then we heard how the Kikuyu used to have the same concept. They would get a goat or a lamb with one colour, without blemish, and then blindfold it. They would open the belly button and put in seven flies-these represented the evils of the village- they would sew it up and then drag it away into the bush. That was the lamb that took away the sins of the village!

There is also the question of being born again. We found that, with the Kikuyu, if you belong to a certain family and someone wants you to become a member of their family, you're supposed to be born again. You are brought to their place, a lamb is slaughtered, and the whole family comes together. Then the intestines are used to tie the families together. From that point on, you are one family. Such stories made us see the similarities between the Bible and our old traditions. Had we not been trained in that way, to be shown that the Biblical concepts also exist in our own traditions, we would have developed hatred against the people who came and brought us a strange religion. So I feel that it was very good, this teaching by our parents about religious inclusiveness: it makes us accommodate other people. When our brother Mūrigū became a Muslim we got a little shocked, because of course we didn't expect it. But on the other hand, he's still the same: we still have him, he still has us; we still do things with each other. Even today we were together in a meeting, discussing unity between Christians and Muslims.

Another value we learned from our parents is ethnic tolerance. The idea that this or that tribe is better than the other was not part of our vocabulary. We were very blessed because our father went to Alliance High School where all tribes of Kenya were represented. If he ever thought that Kikuyus were brighter than the Maasai or the Luos or Kambas, he had to forget that notion. He found a Maasai at the top of the class and himself not at the top. He worked with the railways so we moved from station to station, from Mombasa all the way to Kisumu. The idea that we are all God's creatures, that the rain rains on all people, and that the sun rises for everyone-I value that very much.

Mūrigū: The main influence on us came through our mother. Number one with my mother was honesty, telling the truth. But at the same time, mother impressed on us that one may have to suffer for telling the truth: she would give us the example of Jesus. She also told us that as gold goes through fire for purification, we should be ready to go through fire for telling the truth. From my father I learned to have concern for others before having concern for oneself. If we told our father that we were hungry, he would go and look for food, whatever time it was; if we told him that we were sick, he would take us to the hospital. But if we told our father that his trousers were torn, he couldn't care less. I try to follow in his footsteps.

Gacece: My mother passed on to us the value of patience and the discipline of prayer. She was a very patient woman and believed absolutely in the power of prayer. An example: at the time I was born, my father was not a Christian. My mother kept praying for his conversion and her prayer was answered in 1956. My father gave up his excessive drinking and became a man of faith. His conversion made a great difference in our family. From my father I learned the values of honesty and of discipline for work. You know that keeping time is not something for which Africans are famous. My father was a great exception as far as that is concerned: he would even beat the Europeans in arriving for meetings on time. I have tried to follow in my father's footsteps as far as this is concerned. What do you see as the specific African values that your parents imparted to you?

Mageria: One of these is the idea of extended family. Again, it resonated very well with what we read in the Bible where we are taught about the God of Abraham, of Isaac and of Jacob. Why the God of three generations? Normally, the parents bring up the children. When the children grow up, they look after both the old and the new generation. The younger generation relates very well with the grandparents because the latter have more time, they have the tradition, and they are tolerant and accommodating. That is so rich. My children missed this because of relocation. But we went home frequently. In fact, we still have a monthly family meeting so that the children can meet their cousins. There are nine of us and we take turns. Also, every weekend (when they were still alive) we visited our parents so that we kept that tradition going. Among us, we don't want to depend on one another, but we value interdependence: the idea that I can't see you suffer while I watch. I have to do something and not just because you are my relative. My mother would say, "Oh that man looks very hungry; get something for him." We were taught that if you see people in need you must rush and help them. A traditional value where we grew up was that you always cooked more than you needed so that you would have something to share. We would go to the herd boys who were hungry and take food to them. When someone does you a service, you must not pay for it, it's reciprocal. When I'm going somewhere, I have to go with something; in this way one is exchanging all the time. I remember, when I was growing up, if I did something and someone paid me, I felt insulted. The service I do you is priceless; I am doing it from my heart; you cannot pay for it. Now this has been eroded: we are doing everything for money.

Mūrigū: There are many good African values that my mother passed on to us. However, we only came to learn later what these African values were. My mother did not go to school much so what she taught us are mainly African values and whatever praise I give her is chiefly for these African values. She taught us to be proud of our race. "You are African," she would say, "it's not by choice: God ordained the best for you. But do not blame the non-African: they also did not choose." She said this because at the time people were made ashamed to be African. Therefore, my brothers and I have no prejudices because of race or colour since our mother taught us that all of us were created by one God. All the same, my mother would not hesitate to talk about those African values of which she did not approve. For instance, she was very much against female genital mutilation. She herself underwent it and almost died. She would tell us how bad it was what happened to her; yet this is supposed to be a private matter.

Gacece: Three specific values stand out in my mind. One is the importance- always reinforced by the use of proverbs and parables-of maintaining peace, of not retaliating when there has been a disagreement. You know how young boys like to fight. But we were taught always to seek reconciliation, never to remain at enmity. The second value is that of respect for elders: we were told always to get out of the way when meeting an older person. This value of respect for your seniors is, to me, very important for it means that you learn to take correction. The other value, one that our father imparted to us, is the importance of family cohesion. For instance, when he came to visit us in the city he would ask, "Have you seen Mageria recently?" If I would answer: "Yes, I saw him last week," he would reply: "What? And you live in the same city?" Seeing your brother once a week was not good enough for him.

Your parents had a very strong influence on you. Can you give an example of how, as a family, you are still sensing this influence? In other words, are there specific ways in which your family is different from other families?

Mageria: There are two important values that are very helpful to me. The first is that, even if somebody is not watching me, I should not do something that I know I would regret having done if it were known. Mother would say, "When you go out, do all the things you think I would approve of; if you don't, you'll be feeling guilty. And even if you know I'll never discover what you are doing, remember that God is watching. If I'm not watching, God goes with you, so you are not free. You are only free when you do what you are ready to give an account of." When we came back home, we had the duty of recounting exactly what happened: whom we met on the way, whom we greeted; if we saw an old lady on the road, did we help her, did we say hello to her? That helps me even today. When I come home, whether my wife Beatrice wants me to or not, I give an account of my day. In my mind, I have to do things in such a way that when I go back home, I will not keep something aside which I do not want her to know. Even if she doesn't, God knows, I'm accountable to him! But because I don't see him visibly, my wife is his representative. You feel free because you have nothing to hide. This concept of transparency we learned very early as a family.

The other value has to do with male/female roles. According to tradition, men had their jobs and women theirs and never the twain shall meet. For example, men were not supposed to cook or look after kids; they were meant to be out in the bush, looking after cattle. If you were seen in the kitchen, people would laugh at you. We exploded the myth that if you do certain chores at home, that is a taboo. Because we three boys were the first in the family-the girls came later-we did everything from cooking to looking after the younger ones. I looked after Mūrigū and Gacece for a while. Since I'm the eldest, I'm pretty good at looking after babies and cooking! At home, I'm called the "chaptiologist" because I'm an expert at making chapatis! We were taught that every job is for everybody: we can do anything. We are all servants of everybody. Mūrigū: The three of us brothers benefited to the maximum from our mother's wisdom because we were the first group in our family. On account of our upbringing none of us can mistreat a woman: we respect them very much. It is the same way with honesty. I have worked in many organizations in a voluntary capacity. These organizations excelled in accountability and transparency as long as I had a say in the matter.

Gacece: Yes, I realized that our family is different when my father died in 2002. I became aware then that our family is very united. As is the custom, we came together to make the funeral arrangements. It so happened that I was scheduled to travel that day. But that was no problem: we arranged everything in one hour; after that one of my brothers took me to the airport. I was back in time for the funeral and found everything was ready. There were no disagreements, no quarrels. You know how unusual such a thing is in Kenya; in fact I know of a dead person who is still in the mortuary one year after his death because the family has not been able to agree on where he is to be buried.

We know that all of you consider humility a virtue and that you would ascribe the good you have done in your life to the grace of God. Still, all three of you know that "you have to pray as if everything depended on God" but, at the same time, "to work as if everything depended on you." In other words, you behave according to the New Testament dictum that "faith without works is dead." What would you say is the main reason why so many people who call themselves religious do not in their daily lives adhere to the values expressed in their religion? Can we blame the missionaries, the educational system, our leaders? Or should we lay the blame on ourselves? What specific African values have we lost on the road to modernization?

Mageria: The main reason is selfishness. It doesn't matter what the theory says about religion: until you consider yourself as a servant of others-wanting to give rather than to receive-then these theoretical values will not work. This is very difficult to deal with in modern life because the new culture tends to idolize the person: get straight A's, get a good job, get a bank account, get credit cards; then you won't need anybody. But our mother used to tell us that it doesn't matter how much money you have, you need everybody else.

When we would waste tea, she would say: "Sit down. Remember, this is a cup of tea. What is in it? There's sugar, there's milk, there are tealeaves, there's water. Do you know that somebody went to the river to bring water? So you needed that person. Do you know that somebody cultivated the land and planted sugar cane, then harvested it? Without that person, you would not have sugar in your tea. Look at the tealeaves. Somebody cleared the bush. Another one dug, ploughed, planted, and looked after the plants. Then there was a person to market it, and a driver, and all that. By the time you get that cup of tea on your table, count the number of people involved. And now you want to waste it?" The idea is: what have others done for you? Although you don't see people, they are there-that concept is all but forgotten today.

If people don't serve you, you are finished! When I was running Express Kenya Limited, with a fleet of over 200 vehicles, at one time an important cargo got stuck on the road. My mechanic became my boss! He would tell me, "This is what we are going to do. We are going to buy this, we are going to do that." And so on. I did exactly what he wanted me to do. Therefore, leadership is service. I might be the managing director. But in this particular instance, who is leading the other? Who is calling the shots? You are who you are because of service. You can understand why God is God the Almighty: because he serves everybody. If he switches off his sun, we will all die.

Modernity has brought positive things. But it is not either/or. I cannot do away with modern life and keep the traditions because I don't want all my things to be acquired in kind: I want a money economy. But it is both. When you take a cup of tea, don't look at the money and the tea only. Remember the farmer, remember the shopkeeper. My mother used to tell us, "If you help everybody, you'll find that you're helped." The circle goes around.

Mūrigū: I would say that it is a question of upbringing. It's because somewhere in their youth, it was omitted by whoever was bringing them up that they have to be thorough in what they do, in other words, one must learn to persevere. When I was a child, I was taught that you must do something completely. There is a passage in the Bible that says you must be either hot or cold. If you are lukewarm, I will spit you from my mouth, says the Lord. That was inculcated into me between the ages of seven and ten. So, after growing up, I have learned to do a complete job. I either do it well or not at all.

Anybody who begets children must know that he makes a big mistake if he does not bring up the child to know values. You can apportion maybe one percent of the blame for not practicing what one professes to believe to all the missionaries put together and the rest to upbringing.

Gacece: It is a fact that many believers think of their faith and their actions in terms of compartments: On Sundays you act according to a set of prescribed rituals but this has nothing to do with how you live on Monday. It is strange but people do not even seem to realize that there is something wrong when your actions are contrary to your faith. How has this come about? Perhaps the teaching of the missionaries has something to do with it. They presented God too often as a king who must be respected and the church as the king's palace where one must behave properly. Inadvertently, the idea was created that what you do outside of the sanctuary is not so important. Also, by branding certain actions as evil, such as music and dance, which-in the African tradition-must always go together, they created confusion in people's minds.

What do you see as significant contributions that your two brothers have made to society? What is it that makes you proud of them?

Mageria: Mūrigū is a people person and a strong character. He would be very quick to know when I'm going wrong and point it out nicely; I respect him for that. Even when we are in meetings, he discovers very quickly where something may go wrong and he is able to point it out without making you look small. Mūrigū will not embarrass people: he is very caring of relationships. Wherever he goes, he will be appointed leader; people warm up to him. Gacece is organized, orderly, and patient. It comes out very clearly in everything that he does. With the family, he's always the one who remembers the dates when we shall meet and to be the one to remind us; we count on him to make sure we are doing what we should do and that we are doing it on time.

Mūrigū: Where my brothers have worked, they have worked so diligently that I hear about them from others. Do you see those lights in the roundabouts? No one in Kenya would imagine that it is Mageria's idea to have traffic lights there. After all, roundabouts are not meant to have lights or traffic policemen: you just know that the driver on the inside has the right of way. But Mageria said, "Let's have lights there."

Take Gacece. When he was the adviser on education at the City Council, he did so many useful things. For one, he started something called Olympic Youth Centres; here boys were being taught to play football so well it became second nature to them. They became so good that even Pele came to see them! I admire my brothers very much and always consider both of them better than myself.

Gacece: Mageria has made great contributions both to church and society. What I would like to emphasize is his punctuality. When he was the chairman of the Board of St. George's Primary School, he made it a point always to be there prior to the arrival of the other members; he therefore emphasized that, though the work was voluntary, one must take it very seriously. His dedication to another voluntary organization, the Prisons Fellowship was recognized internationally; and he was chosen to become the Senior Vice-President International of this organization. This necessitated his move to the United States for four years. Another thing I would like to emphasize about Mageria is the role he played in the family after our parents died: being the oldest, he ably stepped into the parental role. In that way, although he was grieving himself, he helped us through this difficult period.

Like the rest of us, Mūrigū excelled in sports in his youth and made a great contribution to the promotion of volleyball in this country. In the same way as Mageria, he was much involved in voluntary organizations. He was the General Secretary of the Freedom from Hunger Council in the 70s. What I appreciate about Mūrigū is that he is always so encouraging. If I get involved in a new project, I can be sure to always have Mūrigū's support.

Looking back on your life what would you like to remember as your own specific contribution?

Mageria: What I find distinctive in myself is the ability to do many things at the same time. I can run a number of institutions at the same time easily, without much strain. I think the reason is that I don't go into much detail. When I take on something, my special talent is to identify who can do a particular job best. When I was younger and stronger I used to be on over 25 different boards. People would ask me how I did that. I would say, "What?" I didn't see what the big deal was. When I looked at it later, I realized it was quite something. But it came from having faith in other people. I trust that the person will do the job: I would just organize the matter. I would say, "What have I got, what is to be done, by whom, and by what date?" I have faith in people, especially in young people.

Mūrigū: I can assure you that I don't know; what I aspire to do is to prepare myself for the hereafter. My Maker knows my contributions; it is him I am trying to please. For the Kenya Chapter of the World Conference on Religion and Peace to make me their chairman or to become vice-chairman of the Supreme Council of Kenya Muslims, there must be reasons for it because I did not compete for these posts. I did not know that my brothers and myself are outstanding enough to be noticed by someone. This is a result of our mother's training: you don't take such a great interest in your past accomplishments. Rather you are concerned with the tasks before you: what you want to do and what you need to do; forget about what you have done. Do good and go away; do not expect thanks: you might not get it.

Gacece: I am very grateful for my work in sports and especially for my present task, that of sports evangelism. I have seen a number of the young people that I have taught in sports arrive at great heights; some of them have become stars. My greatest satisfaction has been to see young men turn from a life of drugs and crime to lives that give glory to God and serve as models to others.


  1. Mageria and Mūrigū were interviewed by Cathy Majtenyi, a member of the WAJIBU Board; Gacece was interviewed by the chief editor.
  2. Mageria was previously interviewed in one of the first issues of Wajibu. See "A Christian in business." Vol. 1, no. 3 (April-June 1986).
  3. Gacece, together with his wife Alice, was featured in the "Making a Difference Column" of an earlier issue of Wajibu. (see Volume 17, no. 1).

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