Reminiscing Thogoto, Kenya’s cradle of education

Enlightened minds see little or no limitation in their pursuits.

The missionary PCEA church in Thogoto, Kikuyu, where the cradle of education found its bearing and home. PHOTO/Njoroge Njuguna, The Scholar Media Africa.
The missionary PCEA church in Thogoto, Kikuyu, where the cradle of education found its bearing and home. PHOTO/Njoroge Njuguna, The Scholar Media Africa.

Thogoto, a quiet, cool and moderately populated village in the heart of the Kikuyu area, was not the original name of the village that now boasts tens of learning and other institutions distributed in a 3000-hectare patch of land.

The following is its insightful and inspiring story, as narrated by Mzee Kenneth Gitau, now 85, a pioneer teacher, leader and one of the earliest living products and sons of the cradle of education itself.

The cradle unfolds

Mzee Gitau, born in 1939 (according to his identity card), is an affable, sharp-witted and informed octogenarian who lovingly carries within himself the long history of Thogoto, the place that has molded and shaped his worldview.

He says Thogoto is the den, home and cradle of education and many other good things to many people in Kenya and beyond.

Thogoto, he says, is a name borne out of the local people’s curiosity and corruption of the name  “Scotland”.

Scotland became Thogoto to the locals, while the name ‘mission’ station became miceeni.

These names stuck and are popular, especially with the local people, whose mother tongue is the Kikuyu language.

Often, the foreign language has to be corrupted to adapt, convey or create meaning, according to the locals.

Theater of the cradle

Mzee Gitau jokes that he has walked into the compound of the PCEA Church Thogoto for a period of over sixty years and is still counting.

Looking around, he intimates that things were not always as they are now, that there was a time when wild animals roamed the then-forested Thogoto, and that it has been a long and tough journey for many who have made the cradle what it is today.

Currently, the elderly alumnus of the cradle of education institutions was not walking into the church for a service, to chair some committee meeting, or to meet the parish priest, but he drove from his home to meet and share the educational experiences of his life.

He has been going down that long memory lane, telling and re-telling how the story of the cradle of education, health, and light of the gospel has unfolded in his village from 1898 when the first missionary set foot at Thogoto.

Mzee Kenneth Gitau, a cradle of education product, a pioneer student, teacher and community leader in Thogoto, Kikuyu. PHOTO/Njoroge Njuguna, The Scholar Media Africa.
Mzee Kenneth Gitau, a cradle of education product, a pioneer student, teacher and community leader in Thogoto, Kikuyu. PHOTO/Njoroge Njuguna, The Scholar Media Africa.

The story of Thogoto, which later became the cradle of education and other noble things, is not something that was planned, as other activities or great projects are.

The cradle’s story, Mzee Gitau says, started with inspiration from God in a far-off place through an adventurous missionary who wanted to escape the fate that had befallen his team at Kibwezi among the Kamba people.

The first missionary in Thogoto, Thomas Watson, had originally settled at Kibwezi, but an outbreak of the vicious highland Malaria decimated their team, inspiring Watson’s move into the hinterlands.

He did this to escape the fate of his colleagues whose graves lie at the same station where they had set their station in preparation for their missionary work among the local Kamba people.

Young Watson ventured further inland, where God’s providence brought him to some quiet, sleepy and hospitable villages where the Kikuyu, a local Bantu people group, made their home.

Unlike those at Kibwezi, these people’s villages were surrounded by dense, tropical forests.

The place was often extremely cold, which prevented mosquitoes from surviving or breeding, unlike the warm Kibwezi.

Chief Waiyaki wa Hinga

Watson was impressed as the locals led him to the local paramount Chief, the renowned Waiyaki wa Hinga, who welcomed and hosted his team. The Chief, in what turned out to be a legacy decision, agreed to allocate over 3000 hectares of land for Watson (and his team) to establish a mission station.

It is on the same parcel of land that the pioneer missionaries set out to establish what later became the defining frontier of missions, hereby tagged the cradle of education in Kenya.

Turning point

Mzee Gitau, advanced in years but sharp in memory and speech, affirms that the gifting of the parcel of land by Chief Waiyaki son of Hinga to the despairing missionaries became the turning point for the local communities and multiplied to others as the mission work unfolded.

The missionary pillars of education, health, and gospel preaching were the catalysts that worked together to lay the foundation of informed leadership, people’s healthcare, local education systems and empowerment through scattered cottage industries.

Pioneer learners

Mzee Gitau was blessed to have his own father, Mr. Timan Gitau, together with the late fathers of the pioneer cabinet ministers, Mbiyu Koinange, Arthur Magugu, and Beth Mugo, among others, as the pioneer students as the cradle of education took in its earliest students.

These fathers of the now prominent sons and daughters in different fields of leadership, research, education, health, and missions became the first products of the missionary education efforts to nurture Kenya as a state in its incumbency.

Alliance Schools, Pioneering Ecumenism  

These early students inspired the mission leadership to establish the Alliance schools for continuity, for further education.

“The idea of the Alliance Schools,” says Mzee Gitau, “was conceived inside the initial Church of Scotland mission church, now renamed Watson memorial chapel, which still stands across the road, silent in its history and significance.”

The Watson Memorial Chapel: the genesis of education and other noble ideas as missionary work started in Thogoto. PHOTO/Njoroge Njuguna, The Scholar Media Africa.
The Watson Memorial Chapel, the genesis of education and other noble ideas as missionary work started in Thogoto. PHOTO/Njoroge Njuguna, The Scholar Media Africa.

The historic Watson Memorial Church structure also hosted the first ecumenical meeting that brought together leaders and other stakeholders from the then protestant movement in Kenya.

The gathering resolved to start and expand the Alliance schools, among other institutions, to sustain the vision of education across the nation.

“The idea of bringing together the protestant churches in Kenya to give them a voice through the National Christian council of churches was first floated at the Watson memorial chapel.

These efforts were geared toward nurturing the missionary vision in the field of spiritual development, education, health and the empowerment of all,” explains Mzee Gitau.  

Mzee Gitau compares and contrasts the familiar story of the young missionary Watson who, at 23, was determined to lead a mission team to spread the light of the gospel and change the fortunes of the local people.

He is concerned that today’s young people, lacking the right foundation and vision, are despairing too soon.

Like young Watson, he wishes they would capture God’s vision for their lives and live it to the end.

Imported Bride

“Minneh,” he recalls, “was the young but educated lady who was (imported) all the way from Scotland, to become Watson’s wife.”

It turned out that Watson passed on two years after his marriage, leaving Minneh to shoulder the leadership responsibilities of the fledgling mission station.

Graciously, she was up to overseeing the building of multiple mud-walled huts where education and other mission activities like health and gospel spreading went on uninterrupted.

These huts became a home for many small boys and girls, most of who had run away from forced circumcision, marriages and other social pressures in search of refuge and education.

She was one of the missionary teachers whose involvement with young girls and boys bore the now expansive PCEA church brigade and women’s guild movements.

Minneh's memorial hut behind the plague, commemorating her efforts in the evangelization and education of local communities. PHOTO/Njoroge Njuguna, The Scholar Media Africa.
Minneh’s memorial hut behind the plague commemorates her efforts in the evangelization and education of local communities. PHOTO/Njoroge Njuguna, The Scholar Media Africa.

All these efforts served to sustain the passion of education and missionary work at a time when fierce agitations for freedom and independence were setting in.

Jomo in the Cradle

Jomo Kenyatta, then simply known as Johnstone Kamau Ngengi, had his time at the cradle of education.

Early history of the cradle indicates that he was a young, sickly lad when he first found his way to the mission station in search of treatment for a recurring chest infection.

He was not disappointed in his efforts, for he found treatment.

Excited by the new knowledge and things he saw, he decided to remain in the mission station to pursue knowledge and a better life.

Jomo thus became a pioneer student of the Mambere or Kikuyu intermediate schools.

“It is said he was among the first seven students who made their school and home at the Mambere, a kikuyu corruption of the word ‘Babel’, the name that the foreign missionaries used when describing the incoherent noises from the students while in their dormitories,” Mzee Gitau explains.

Pioneer Schools

Mzee Gitau says the current Kikuyu High School and Musa Gitau Primary Schools carry a rich history for they were the pioneer intermediate education centers where all students attended classes and slept.

He was in the second generation of students, after that of his father and his age mates.

He also returned to these schools years later as a teacher and member of their boards of management.

These Mambere institutions have homed and produced countless young men and women who have made an impact and left a rich legacy as leaders, administrators, teachers, and researchers in different fields.

As if to cap the efforts of these initial institutions, the most recent cream of the cradle, the Presbyterian University of East Africa, PUEA, majestically stands across the road, its gate facing the former Mambere’s or Kikuyu high school, from an elevated position.

Substone Mudavadi, the father of the current Prime Cabinet Secretary in Kenya’s Government, Musalia Mudavadi, also schooled in the cradle of education on his way to becoming a Provincial Education Officer at Nyeri, where he made a substantial contribution to the development of local education.

He too became a senior figure and Minister in Kenya’s post-independence governments.

These early Church of Scotland mission’s Presbyterian Church of East Africa (PCEA) run bastions of education at Mambere, Musa Gitau, the Alliances, Thogoto Teachers College, and multiple tertiary learning centers continue to churn out ambitious young adults who gallantry carry and pass on the torch of education.

The vision and efforts of Welch, a renowned and strict supervisor of students, together with that of legendary Cary Francis, continue lighting the intellectual and spiritual paths of these young minds, near and far.

Defining Years

“The years between 1891 and 1945 were as the incubation period for the mission station,” says Mzee Gitau.

The vision of the light of the gospel and education soon started sending out local missionaries, who took the light of education to multiplied villages such as Ruthimitu, Mutuini, Rungiri, Limuru and other far-off places such as Tumutumu in Nyeri, Chogoria, in Meru, the Rift Valley and beyond.

Mzee Gitau relives these times and experiences as a golden era when foreign and local missionaries did their work zealously, expecting nothing in return.

He decries today’s dilution, the falling away and departure from the foundational ideals that turned local communities from the darkness of ignorance to the light of God and education in a short period of time.

“Today’s dilution and casual approach to education and religious issues,” warns Mzee Gitau,” does not augur well for our children or future generations.”

Church of the Torch, Thogoto, imposing and rich in History. PHOTO/Njoroge Njuguna, The Scholar Media Africa.
Church of the Torch, Thogoto, imposing and rich in History. PHOTO/Njoroge Njuguna, The Scholar Media Africa.


“The earliest products from the cradle of education, men like Musa Gitau, John Gatu, George Wanjau and C. M. Karuri among others in the PCEA and other denominations,” he asserts, “were taught and mentored by pioneer missionaries such as D. R. C. Scott, Thomas Watson, H. E. Scott and J. W. Arthur.”

These foreign teachers and missionaries ordained the first African ministers who continued to blaze the trail of mission and education, gifting our generation with the wide variety seen and felt in the cradle of education.

“Our teachers and mentors,” he observes, “define our lives and futures into the eternity.”

Retrogressive Traditions

In their time, education and religion took a strong stand against retrogressive traditions like female circumcision, excessive use and addiction to local brews, and domestic and other forms of violence, especially in agitations and the struggle for freedom and land.

Mzee Gitau fondly recalls the loving and shepherding heart of Dr. William Arthur, who was beloved to the locals to the point of being made their local representative in the legislative council (LEGCO) to represent African interests between 1907 and 1940.

He did this until the cradle of Education produced men like Dr. Eliud Mathu and Joseph Gichuru, who proceeded to take up the torch of leadership before and after Kenya’s independence.

It is important to note that pioneer missionaries at the cradle of education hailed from fields such as teaching, medicine and nursing, among others, unlike today when many go out for missions work without the necessary skills that would create a necessary impact in a short time.

Early missionaries brought a holistic effort to the pursuit of religion and education, which empowered them to attend to multiple challenges, such as the outbreak of diseases.

Board Member

Mzee Gitau remembers an instance when, as a member of the board of management at Kikuyu Hospital, the presiding Canadian missionary made a unilateral decision to close up the hospital.

He couldn’t get along with his mostly black staff like a few biased foreign workers.

Mzee Gitau’s timely decision to consult his seniors saved the situation as the Canadian’s decision was reversed and the fledgling hospital resumed operations.

This timely intervention ensured the hospital was there to receive foreign partnerships that helped in the establishment of its Eye Unit and the Orthopedic Unit, among other interventions that have made the hospital what it is today.

Through the Thogoto Cradle of Education, the Kikuyu Mission Hospital has hosted and trained nurses and other staff who have worked hard to create health.

Women in the Cradle

“The story of the cradle of education,” says Mr. Gitau, “is incomplete without the mention of countless local women who did the donkey work in the laying down of its foundations.”

Their work, inspired by Minneh, the widow of the founding missionary Watson, continues as they justly earn their place in the education, healthcare, missions, and leadership of communities and nations.

He says he was there and about as women joined hands with missionaries to counter negative propaganda that could have destroyed the mission station, especially during the agitation and independence war years.

He remembers the inspiring efforts, stories and experiences of Minneh as she traveled from house to house in the evenings, carrying lanterns, to spend long hours seeking to win converts even among the diehards in the community.

Fruits of Missionary Zeal

For all those combined efforts, the Mambere schools still stand. The idea and vision of the St Paul’s Theological Institute and, later, St. Paul’s University have also been actualized.

Thogoto Teachers Training College, the Presbyterian University of East Africa and many other lower and higher institutions of learning, near and far, now trace their origins at the cradle of all education in Kenya.

Militant Faith

Thogoto Mission Station of the PCEA Church is a testimony to the power of righteous militancy of faith, especially through young people like missionary Watson.

“Kenya,” says Mzee Gitau, “finds its bearing as a nation state because the cradle of education gifted it some valuable leaders like Jomo Kenyatta, Eliud Mathu, Timan Gitau,, Gitau Ngwiri, a pioneer educationist at the Kenyatta University and a younger brother to Mzee Gitau, Dr. Ben Karuga, a lecturer in Education, among countless others.”

Impact and Legacy

Mzee Gitau posits that he also did not just sit or idle around Mambere, but he too caught the vision of the light of the gospel and education and is still running with it, even in his old age.

A plague commemorating 100 years of missionary work in Thogoto and beyond. PHOTO/Njoroge Njuguna, The Scholar Media Africa.
A plague commemorating 100 years of missionary work in Thogoto and beyond. PHOTO/Njoroge Njuguna, The Scholar Media Africa.

He says he emerged from the cradle to become a long-serving teacher, headmaster, leader in the Kenya National Union of Teachers, an elected councilor-cum-teacher who served the then single but expansive Uthiru, Kinoo, and Thogoto regions, an elder and clerk in the PCEA church, a community mobilizer who oversaw water and electricity connectivity projects, a nursery schooling program champion who, even now, cares deeply for little children’s learning environments, among many other achievements.

“Right education, religion and leadership are a mighty influence that can mobilize local, distant and remote village for piped water, electricity and other projects when led by informed people,” he opines.  

His message to leaders and the younger generation is that all darkness comes through a lack of insight.

He says many villages would have sufficient electricity and water for domestic and other uses if all leaders properly utilized all the resources at their disposal with missionary zeal and faithfulness.

“The cradle of education,” recalls Mzee Gitau, “ensured that I spent valuable time with my father and teacher, Mr. Timan Gitau, at the Kagumo School.”

This influence saw him work hard to become a worker and civil servant who fulfilled his lofty dream of building a stone house for himself before 1963.

He says his most memorable achievements lie in his uniting the Thogoto Community to approach the rural electrification program for their connection to the power grid.

He still believes water and electricity are crucial in transforming and empowering all communities.

He has remained active in the cradle and the local PCEA church, where he inspires many.

In his old age, he finds great joy in mentoring and bridging the gaps that exist between young and old generations for knowledge and information transfer.

YOU CAN ALSO READ: How education has transformed Eldama Ravine

He is daily passing on the torch of knowledge to all who need him, just as he received it from the pioneer teachers and missionaries when Thogoto, his beloved village, existed by another name.

His Fears

According to him, the adulteration, dilution and scarcity of morality in our education, religion, and other institutions will be costly in the long run.

YOU CAN ALSO READ: Ramba’s journey: Traversing East Africa in search of education

He emphasizes that the cradle of education, institutions, and systems in all places needs valiant and faithful workers who faithfully protect, sustain and pass on the torch.

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SN. Njuguna is a holistic Development and Communication activist. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in Communication, (Development Communication and Public Relations) from St. Paul's university. His contact:



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