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Few Kenyans know that legendary Dini ya Msambwa leader Elijah Masinde hid in a secret bunker for three years, eluding British soldiers for much longer than Iraq’s Saddam Hussein dodged the Americans.
The executed Iraqi dictator was captured from a manhole in his Tikrit home town after only a few months.
But Masinde, head of the Church of Spirits (Dini ya Msambwa), evaded the British for three years, holed up in a bunker at Sulwe Village on the foot of Mt Elgon.
Sulwe means star and it was given to the village by locals because it is a place of hope, especially in the days of Masinde as he was sought by the colonial government for preaching rebellion.
Today the bunker remains one of the most outstanding treasures of Bungoma County, although possibly unknown to the Ministry of National Heritage and the National Museums of Kenya.
Betrayed by a chief
The county and the locals now have the task of turning this historic site into a museum that could rake in tourism cash.
The oval bunker is 4.5 metres high and about 3.5 metres wide. The furniture comprised a stool and a table. It is a heritage fit to be declared a national monument.
Unsuspecting visitors to the compound, home to the Juda Israel Church, a splinter of the Dini Ya Msambwa, would not know that the rotunda house with corrugated iron sheets was built to conceal the bunker.
Mr Moses Wafula, commander of the church, said that had he not been betrayed by a chief, the British would never have found Masinde.
“The chief was promised promotion and he showed them where our spiritual leader was hiding,” said Mr Wafula.
The man who conceived the idea of the bunker, he says, was Jonathan Mabonga, a World War II veteran who had seen combat overseas.
The Juda Israel sect recognised Masinde as their leader, even though they have gone their separate ways. The parent sect is based 20 kilometres away at Maeni Village.
The bunker is revered by sect members. Before entering it, visitors must remove their shoes and follow steps into the dark, oval bunker.
As their eyes get used to the darkness, one notices the sect’s paraphernalia — furniture draped in Masinde’s flag, a Bible and other materials. Ms Sarah Nebula explains that sect members restored the bunker 13 years ago.
While digging out the soil they found some things, which Masinde used, among them rubber bands from his bed and ash from the fireplace.
Masinde was arrested in 1948 and detained for l4 years variously at Kapenguria, Hola and Lamu. At Kapenguria, he was detained with Mzee Kenyatta, the founding president.
The reason for his detention was his and his church’s open agitation that Mzungu arudi Ulaya (white man must return to Europe). The British considered him a troublemaker.
The sect’s compound, above the bunker, also houses refugees from Mt Elgon, who fled the rebellion over land sparked by the Sabaot Land Defence Force militia.
Sect followers see it as a continuation of Masinde’s leadership and the generosity he accorded his followers.
Twenty kilometres away, at Maeni, is another heritage highpoint — the mausoleum in which Masinde’s remains were interred in 1987.
In the five-acre compound are the homes of four of his six widows and their 13 sons and 12 daughters as well as Maeni Girls Secondary school.
The mausoleum is tended by family members who are excited to talk about the legendary leader. The traditional African round hut in which Masinde died has been turned into a church.
In the compound, a 12-bedroom house built in a Z-shape is set aside for visitors. His sons explain that the foundation was started by the late Masinde Muliro, another Luhya leader and Independence and Second Liberation fighter from the same county.
Ironically, it was completed by a white man for whom Masinde prayed in an attempt to solve his personal problems.
Gladys Nanjala, the sixth wife, has fond memories of her husband. “Although his heart has gone, the spirit remains with the followers,” she says.
Two sons, Simiyu Waliaula and Sitati Simiyu said Masinde had shown local elders where he wanted to be buried.
But the elders dug his grave in the wrong place and were astonished to find the skeleton of someone nobody remembered.
They then had to uproot a tree and prepare a new grave in the place Masinde had indicated and where his mausoleum stands today.