When Josephat Kihonge was posted as the lead pastor of the African Christian Churches and Schools (ACC&S) in Garissa town, all he wanted to do was to serve the Lord and fellow mankind. With zeal and zest, he headed to Garissa ready to start his five-year mission in the remote town. Little did he know that his mission would be abridged by an attack that saw him return to Nairobi on a stretcher. He tells of his near death experience that completely changed his life to WANGARI MWANGI.
I had the pleasure of attending one of Josephat’s morning services at the ACC&S churches in Kariobangi South a few years back. His small frame is complemented by his husky voice that keeps you glued to the message he delivers when he stands on the pulpit. He has a comical way of delivering powerful sermons; one that includes a few jokes here and there interspersed with brief singing, just to make sure you get involved. I would understand why ACC&S sent him on a pastoral mission in Garissa seven years ago.
His appointment to Garissa in 2007 came immediately after he had completed his theological studies and after he had served for a few months as an assistant pastor in ACC&S Zimmerman Parish in Nairobi. At just 25, he had caught the eyes of the church leadership for his zeal and ambition and that is why they picked him to shepherd their branch in the remote town.
However, the fear of what to expect in a land that was unknown to him was more than he could bear. Growing up, he had heard of the infamous Shifta war and later the daunting stories of how the remnants of the gang terrorised Garissa residents.The incumbent pastor had also informed him that life in Garissa bordered on many extremes; food was expensive, the heat obnoxious, and that the area was predominantly dominated by Muslims making Christianity a minority on the religious front.
“After so much soul searching and consultation with my parents, I took up the position and left for Garissa in July 2007. When I landed, I confirmed that the weather in Garissa was indeed harsh and unwelcoming especially because the city life had not prepared me adequately. During the early weeks after my arrival, I would at times be challenged to defend my faith by some Muslims but I took up the challenge in good faith and with time I adjusted well,” says Josephat.
Part of his routine involved traveling back to Nairobi once in a month to check on his parents and siblings. Come November 2007, he received an invitation to attend the ordination of his Anglican friend at the All Saints Cathedral in Nairobi. The invite had also been sent out to three other pastors from different churches in Garissa and it extended to members of their congregation to attend the December 7 event. Josephat, together with 30 people from the three different churches in Garissa, planned to attend the ordination and make their way back to Garissa after the event on the same day.
It takes approximately six hours to drive through the 367 kilometres from Nairobi to Garissa. The group departed from Nairobi at 7 p.m and anticipated that they would be in Garissa a few hours after midnight. Being in the company of friends, the journey was an exciting one. However, there was a turn of events when they reached Mororo area about 10 kilometres from Garissa town.
“Our vehicle was flagged down by a group of young men carrying torches. It was very unusual because police did not operate at such hours. All the same, the driver complied and stopped the bus but after realising that the men were armed, he veered off the road to a nearby thicket and started to drive fast,” he says.
The men then shot at the tyres, forcing the driver to come to an expected halt. Everyone in the bus was ordered out and the pastors, who were still wearing their collars, were asked to kneel in a different queue. “We tried to protest and two men were killed on the spot. That is when I realised that our lives were in danger. I was kneeling at one end of the queue when one of the attackers approached me and remarked at how young I looked for a pastor. Before I could respond, I felt a sharp sting on my forehead accompanied by screams,” he recounts.
The next time he opened his eyes, he was on a stretcher in an ambulance making its way to Kenyatta National Hospital (KNH). Military officers who had heard the gunshots had come to their rescue. During the incident, two men were killed and several women escaped with minor injuries. They were not able to steal anything from the passengers as soldiers rushed to the scene when they heard the sound of gunshots.
Josephat’s head was bandaged and his hand and feet had been fastened to the stretcher to restrain his movement. “They said I had a hole on my forehead and also warned me against raising my head. They however reassured me that I would get better,” he explains.
It is believed that the attackers had aimed at his head but the bullet only hit the edge of his forehead making a hole on the right side of his skull before bouncing to the ground. Josephat says that it is only by God’s grace that it did not kill him or get lodged in his head.
When he finally arrived at KNH, he was immediately booked for a grafting surgery to block the hole and also to prevent further bleeding. They also removed bone particles that had stuck in the frontal lobe of his brain. “I had to sleep on my back for the one month that I was admitted at KNH to allow the graft wound to heal. It was tiring and uncomfortable, but my friends and family made it bearable by their constant hospital visits and words of assurance,” he says adding that after being discharged, he remained home for three months before he could sit up.
By January 2008, Josephat’s life had started to regain some normalcy. ACC&S accorded him an opportunity to serve as a youth pastor at Kariobangi South; a position he held until 2012. He was also lucky that his then girlfriend, Martha Wambui, accepted his wedding proposal despite having a scarred face.
“We had dated for a while but I feared she would leave me after the incident. Surprisingly, she declared that she had chosen to stick by me even in the face of adversity. We got married in November 2008 in a small ceremony in Thika,” says Josephat.
In July 2009, Josephat underwent a bone cement surgery to artificially cover the hole on his forehead. During the nine-hour operation, doctors at the Nyeri Provincial General Hospital placed a disk-like substance between the skin and the hole. Today, the disk forms a round mass that he comfortably rotates without experiencing pain.
With the rising cases of religious extremism and high insecurity in the Northern part of the country, I am curious to find out whether he would take up another opportunity to serve as a pastor in Garissa. In response, Josephat says that he would, but his only concern would be the extreme heat that is likely to give him headaches. Notably, he never followed up on the case since he has forgiven the young men who had attempted to cut short his life.
Published in January 2015