If Only the Monuments Could Speak!

The Archdeacon W.E. Owen Monument on the Jomo Kenyatta Sports Ground, Kisumu, Kenya

Kenya has a rich history from its pre-colonial, colonial, and modern periods of time. National monuments around the country are a reminder of the vast history of a country that has undergone many changes from the latter half of the 19th century until today. One such subject of history of the country through monuments is Archdeacon W.E. Owen, a prominent missionary in the western part of Kenya in the early 20th century. His impact on western Kenya was deep enough that the people of the area felt compelled to build a monument in his honor to symbolize what he meant to them.

A Spanish-American philosopher, George Santayana, spoke of history in his famous aphorism “those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.” People can avoid the pitfalls of forgetting the history of their countries specifically and of the world generally through various reminders of history. For example, people have built physical structures to honor and remember historical ideas, events, and people, helping them to keep in touch with their history. Such physical structures include monuments that serve as visible markers reminding people of their heritage.

Many monuments represent the past of countries and, often, how those countries would like their historical events to be remembered. Kenya has built monuments and used them to remember the past. Kenya has a rich history from its pre-colonial, colonial, and modern periods of time. National monuments around Kenya are a testament to the many changes Kenya has gone through from the latter half of the 19th century to today. One such monument is the Archdeacon W.E. Owen Monument in the Jomo Kenyatta Sports Ground in Kisumu. A study of this monument is very insightful. It provides the viewer with insights into Archdeacon Walter Owen, his background, his nature, his intentions in Africa, and his lasting impact in Kisumu, Kenya, and Africa at large. The monument also sheds light on the coming of Christianity to Kenya, the relationship between Christianity and colonialism, and the impact of both Christianity and colonialism in Kenya.

Monuments themselves often represent the life of a certain individual. What, then, does this monument tell us about Archdeacon E.W. Owen? Who was he? Why did the local people and the government build the monument in Archdeacon Owen's honor? It seems that the Archdeacon W.E. Owen monument is symbolic of many things. It suggests that Archdeacon Owen had a very important impact on the people he was around with in his lifetime.

The Archdeacon W.E. Owen monument on the Jomo Kenyatta Sports Grounds is a tall pillar adorned with a rectangular plaque mounted firmly onto it. The plaque reads as follows: "In memory of Walter Edwin Owen, Archdeacon of Kavirondo.” The large monument was built in the mid 20th century and commemorates the life and services of Archdeacon W.E. Owen as a missionary in Kenya and Africa. In her description of Archdeacon W.E. Owen, historian Nancy Murray writes that Owen was born in Birmingham, England, in 1879. Soon after, his father received a job as a warrant officer in Belfast, and so Owen and the family moved there.

By 1903, when he was already grown up, Owen returned to England in order to attend the Church Missionary Society (C.M.S.) Training College at Islington. After his straining and ordainment as a deacon in 1904, Owen traveled to Uganda to join the Uganda Diocese, got involved in social life there, married a missionary woman whom he worked with, and invested in some land there. In 1918, Owen was transferred to Butere, which at that time was another part of the Uganda Diocese. Owen reluctantly moved there. There, Owen served as the Archdeacon of Kavirondo, western part of Kenya. Kisumu was then part of the Kavirondo region. Nancy Murray tells us that the boundary of the Diocese of Uganda was redrawn in 1921, and Kavirondo then became a part of the Diocese of Mombasa. It was at this time, according to Murray, that Owen started becoming involved in a politics of western Kenya, in particular, and Kenya, as a whole.

Most scholars have argued that Archdeacon Owen was somebody who was not afraid to stand up for African rights and justice, specifically for his converts in western Kenya. McIntosh writes that Owen often went against colonialists, administrators, and even his fellow missionaries in the defense of the Luo. He, according to McIntosh, even created propaganda against the settlers and spent a lot of time and energy in order to show that they were exploiting Africans through the system of coerced or forced labor. He singled out the settlers and the government for exploiting people and taking advantage of them through unfair labor practices and high taxes. He became an adviser to the local Luo leaders on such issues as labor, taxation, and politics. He was one of the founder-leaders of an association of the Luo known as the Kavirondo Taxpayers Welfare Association.Association in Luoland.

Archdeacon Owen's interactions with his superiors in the Kenyan colonial system were therefore deemed hostile and offensive. In fact, according to Zwanenberg, Archdeacon Owen's defense of the local people against the colonial system earned him the unpopular sobriquet “Archdemon” among his contemporaries. Zwanenberg writes that Archdeacon Owen was known as “the only European in Kenya who dared to raise his voice to colonial policy”. Indeed, it appears that Archdeacon's Owen's work with the local populace, especially the Luo, left such a strong impression that the Luo people decided to build a monument in his honor.

Critics, on the other hand, have declared that Archdeacon Owen was "a colonial lapdog" who worked together with the colonial administration and an agent who played a key role in influencing opinions on such issues as the Indian question in favor of the government. The critics have further observed that Archdeacon Walter Owen’s true goal was not to defend the local people, but to ensure the success of the colonial system. Murray writes that critics believe that Archdeacon Owen used “his position as a missionary and propagandist to force the administration back to its proper path of balancing the needs of competing capitals and the African population in order to ensure the success of its colonial venture." According to Murray, Archdeacon Owen even claimed that “no missionary has done more than I have to defend the settler community." He was a conceited snake in the grass who was not to be trusted and was only concerned with the success of colonial and capitalistic system in Africa.

Indeed, Murray describes Archdeacon Owen as a man who wanted colonialism to last long enough for what he called "those choice spirits” to emerge. According to Murray, Archdeacon Owen and other Europeans in Kisumu were expected to act as if they are in favor of the Africans. They were told to "listen to what Africans said" and help get rid of abuses in colonialism in order to convince the Africans that the Europeans were on their side. Murray also argues that Archdeacon Owen believed that Christianity served a valuable dual function: it cemented loyalty, but at the same time it bred criticism. He believed that if reforms were put together and introduced into the colony, it would bring Africans to support him, and thus strengthen the forces of social control. Critics therefore believe that all these details reveal Archdeacon Owen’s true intentions as a missionary and show that he was actually in favor of the colonial system in Kenya.

Nevertheless, while it is extremely hard to get an accurate image of Archdeacon Owen, we think that there has to have been a reason for the local African people and the administration in Nyanza to build a monument on the Jomo Kenyatta Sports Ground in Kisumu in his homage. Archdeacon Owen could have been on the colonial side, the African side, or both, but his monument suggests that he was an important man in the history of the region. The Archdeacon W.E. Owen monument represents a man who fought for justice and freedom for the people. In short, a voice of the people.

Archdeacon Owen was a sympathetic man who was constantly fighting for the rights of Africans in the Kenya colony. He was somebody that people loved so much for his service with the sick and needy. He spent many years collecting and documenting the historical and archeological traditions of the Luo community. He was a great leader in the eyes of many members of the Luo community.

Thus, the monument tells us a lot about Archdeacon W.E. Owen. It represents the lasting impact that the missionary had on the local people of Nyanza. It represents someone who was always fighting for their rights and tried to give them a voice in the colonial system.

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Jomo Kenyatta Sports Ground, Achieng' Oneko Rd, Kisumu, Kenya ~ The Walter Edwin Owen Memorial park is located at the Jomo Kenyatta Sports Ground in Kisumu. The park runs from the side gate of the sports ground located at the roundabout at the intersection of Angawa avenue and Jomo Kenyatta highway to the side gate before the main gate.