She prefers to be understood as an icon of inspiration.
Well, the 59-year-old Dr Emily Awino Onyango has broken a record. She is the first female bishop of the Anglican Church of Kenya (ACK) in East and Central Africa. A crown bestowed on her when the church recently appointed her assistant bishop in the Diocese of Bondo.
“I want to inspire people and show them that women can bring change in the church and society,” she says.
Her mission is well spelt out in her heart and mind. She wants to end gender inequalities in the church by networking with like-minded servants to influence change.
She also seeks to mentor girls “to see themselves as people who can be successful both in the church and academics.”
She says gender-based violence (GBV) is a major issue within the church and her commitment is to engage men and boys alongside women and girls to end the problem.
Dr Onyango, also a scholar and researcher, says her studies on GBV have shown that the vice is perpetuated due to misinterpretation of scripture and inequalities between men and women.
“Most women are violated because of their understanding of the religion that they should be submissive. Men too, beat their wives because of misinterpreting the scripture,” says Dr Onyango who is married and has two children.
One of her roles in her new appointment is leading continuous trainings of the clergy in the diocese. She believes a Bible study for the clergy to demystify the misunderstandings could translate to zero teenage pregnancies, forced marriages, domestic violence and discrimination against widows in Bondo. This is because the clergy will turn into an army of gender equality advocates at the grassroots.
Ministering to the youth
She takes over leadership in the church in a new era where effects of Covid-19 have redefined the purpose of the ministry.
“Closure of schools accelerated issues like teenage pregnancies and this calls the church to have a new way of ministering to the youth,” says Dr Onyango.
She adds:”Covid-19 also led to depression. It accelerated gender based violence in families. There were several cases of suicides among young people and adults. Also drug and alcohol abuse. The church therefore has to strengthen the ministry of pastoral care and counselling, empower parents and families as well as lay leaders to be able to offer (necessary) support.”
The bishop has studied role of the church in education of girls and the findings are contextualised in her book Gender and Development: A History of Women’s Education in Kenya.
She found education and Christian faith to be tools of empowerment. Since Christian women who defied retrogressive cultures progressed in academics and they became leaders in their homes and community.
“If you read the scripture properly, you will not allow yourself to be oppressed,” she says.
Sunday School teachers
Dr Onyango was born and brought up in an Anglican family. They lived in Nairobi until she was in Class Three. Then they relocated to Kisumu where her love for the ministry was nurtured.
St Stephens Cathedral in Kisumu holds a special ground in her career. From inspiring her into the ministry, housing her when she was newly employed to serving in the cathedral as a curate.
It is at the cathedral that she enjoyed the teachings of the Sunday School teachers and admired their work.
She set her mind to build a career in the religion. A decision that was further sealed when she was in senior high school.
After her Certificate of Primary Education (CPE) at Lake Primary School in Kisumu, she proceeded to Kisumu Girl’s High School to complete East African Certificate of Education Examination (EACE).
Deployment in the diocese
Interestingly, her first assignment after graduating from St. Paul’s United Theological College (now St Paul’s University), in 1983 with a degree in Divinity, was serving as a Sunday School Co-ordinator in the Diocese of Maseno South.
Then in 1984, she was ordained a Deacon and a year later elevated to a Priest, but retained her deployment in the diocese.
Yet doubling up as a curate at St. Stephen’s Cathedral during the years she served as a deacon and a priest.
Her ordainment as a deacon was controversial since the community considered her sexually active, something they detested in women serving in the church.
She was ordained at 23, when she was single and the community felt her marital status disqualified her from the job.
“They were imagining this lady will get married and then give birth. So they were not happy,” says Dr Onyango.
Even with this rise, she was far much behind as gender discrimination in order of employment and staff welfare in the church was so obvious.
Unlike her male colleagues who were ordained immediately after graduating, Dr Onyango had to start from the lowest scale that is not even recognised in the church’s organisational structure.
She says only the ordained fellows are considered part of the ACK hence, better working terms.
“It was quite an injustice because even the salary scale is quite different. Most (of them) had diplomas (while) I had a degree,” she says.
Time came for Dr Onyango to shift from the church dais to the classroom. In 1986, she laid down priesthood to join the academia world. She started with being a tutor preparing the men and women enrolled at St John’s School of Mission for clergy work.
She worked for only four years and opted to advance her education.
This drive took her to Asian Centre of Theological Studies in Seoul, South Korea where she spent her years spanning from 1990 to 1992 studying Master in Theology in Church History.
She then returned to Kenya and rejoined St. John’s School of Mission in 1993, not as a tutor but on a higher job grade. She became the school’s principal.
Although the church tossed her back to the ministry when it transferred her to Nyakongo Parish to serve as a vicar-in-charge, after two years of leading the school, it didn’t take long before she regained her momentum in the academia.
She left the parish a year later to become St. Andrew’s School of Theology and Development, Director of Studies. Therefore elevated to vice-principal cum lecturer.
She is now a senior lecturer at St Paul’s University in the Faculty of Theology having acquired a doctorate degree in History from University of Wales, United Kingdom.
She is the incumbent chairperson of the institution’s The African Centre for Biblical Equity (TACBE)-works in areas of gender and social justice advocacy.
The society is yet to completely let loose stereotypes categorising women as inferior individuals, a fact she attributes to slow pace in inclusion of women in key leadership positions in the church.
Twenty two years ago, she became one of the pioneer two female lecturers to join her former university in the Faculty of Theology. And together, they made it a priority to have more girls take theology courses.
Over time, their deliberate efforts have yielded fruit. In 1999, her first year as a lecturer at the university, she says a class of 60 could constitute two girls.
But in 2000s, the numbers increased to 20 owing to sponsorship extended to the girls by World Council of Churches, thanks to their successful dialogue with the council.
She strives to leave a legacy in every role given to her. This is her strategy of showing the society that women are equally capable leaders in the church ministry.
Even when she retires from the ministry at 65, her mission will remain mentoring women and girls.