The impeccable dress code, excellent command of the English language and almost military gait were the attributes which left an indelible mark when I first met Richard Ondeng in the mid-1960s, at Thogoto Junior School where his eldest daughter Rhoda and I were studying. Notwithstanding his strict appearance, he was warm towards us children and was always happy to give us a pep talk.
Born on December 31, 1925 to a father who did not believe in education or the white man’s religion, Richard was an unlikely candidate for the future pivotal role he was to take up in the church later in life.
According to his autobiography 90 Years of Grace published in 2015, Richard’s first encounter with Christianity was in 1935 through his step-grandmother who had recently converted to Catholicism, which was gradually taking root in the western part of Kenya at the time.
The Church Missionary Society (CMS)- later Anglican Church of Kenya- was already firmly established from its roots at Maseno, but his father would not allow Richard or his younger brother to be associated with either group.
Richard was, however, allowed to accompany his step-grandmother to church on Saturdays for confession and on Sundays for Holy Communion. Although he did not understand the rituals and ceremonies performed there, he was nevertheless fascinated and curious to learn more about them as I suppose a young inquisitive boy would be.
After much pressure from the growing Christian community, in 1936 his father reluctantly agreed that Richard could go to school, but strictly on condition that he returned during daylight so that he could tend to the cows. He joined CMS Usingo Sector School and soon learned that he would have to attend Sunday school and go through the process of confirmation.
In 1938 he passed the Baptism test and was baptised Richard. From then on, he considered himself a Christian. However, as he proceeded to intermediate school at Ng’inya, junior secondary school in Nyang’ori, Maseno School and later to teacher training at Kagumo, he became more aware of the outside world, especially as concerned European dominance over Africans, causing him to develop a negative attitude towards the church.
At school he stood out as a good student, a star athlete and a leader among his peers. During this period, Africans who had a good education were virtually idolised by their communities and Richard admits that over time this led him to assume a certain arrogance that would many times land him into conflict.
When Richard completed his teacher training course, he joined the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada (PAOC) Nyangori Secondary School in January 1949 where he proved to be “a faithful and diligent worker.” Although he did not approve of their “loud” evangelical brand of Christianity, he felt accepted and genuinely appreciated.
Richard considered himself a true practicing Christian and even when his closest friend Owen Gumba gave his life to Christ, he refused to budge because life was working out very well in the secular world. In 1951 he was promoted to Deputy Principal of the school.
The turning point in his life came in November 1951, when Richard was diagnosed with pneumonia and pleurisy due largely to his own negligence. The condition was so serious that the missionary attending Richard, Dr Leech prophetically told him “only God can save you.” It was not until after six months of being bedridden and on the verge of death that Richard gave his life to Christ during the last day of a crusade by South African evangelist Nicholas Bengu. As the evangelist prayed over Richard his soul was suddenly flooded with joy and he felt that God had saved and healed him. After months of rehabilitation Richard gained back his weight and strength.
This event coincided with the growing influence of the East African Revival Movement whose rallying call was “Tukutendereza”. The movement emphasised the personal nature of the Christian’s relationship with Jesus Christ, without having to go through the white man or any other intermediary. Richard became one of the leading proponents of the movement following his salvation.
With hindsight, Richard saw “an invisible, guiding hand” in his journey to serving God’s chosen purpose.
In 1957, he joined what is today known as the National Christian Council of Churches (NCCK) as supervisor of member schools in North Nyanza District (later Western Province) rising to Regional Education Secretary overseeing 900 schools in Nyanza, Western and Rift Valley regions.
Taking study leave in 1963, he travelled to the United States to study for a degree. One day while in the US he and his friend Herbert Kanina walked into a restaurant in Kansas and the waiter blocked them at the door saying, “We don’t serve blacks.” Richard promptly responded, “That’s fine. We don’t eat blacks.” Lost for words, the waiter let them in.
Upon his return to Kenya in 1966, he rose to become the first black Secretary of the Christian Churches Education Association and later Deputy General Secretary of NCCK. Richard served as secretary of the Nairobi Pentecostal Church Valley Road during its formative years.
As an accomplished educationist he was an indispensable pillar of Christian education policy during the Kenyatta and Moi regimes. He served on numerous boards of educational institutions with distinction.
The life journey of Richard Ondeng is a testimony of what a truly selfless existence and service to the benefit of others should be. It demonstrates that success in the temporal world is not enough and that we must answer to the purpose of our creator in the service of others.
There is no doubt that Richard got direct passage to the pearly gates.
May his soul rest in eternal peace.