“The sun was beaming down in all his tropical power and splendour on that glorious morning in 1893 when we landed at the Arab town of Mombasa, on the eastern shore of the continent of Africa,” wrote Rachel Watt as she, her husband Stuart, and 4 children arrived in Kenya for the second time.[1]

Their first missionary trek into the interior of Tanzania (1885-88) had ended due to the breakdown of health, and they retreated to Australia. There Stuart invested his money in a beautiful suburban property, and they enjoyed a fruitful ministry and quiet family life. The call of East Africa, however, never left Stuart’s heart and Rachel struggled with the prospect of returning.

“It seemed so hard to think of breaking up our home, and going back to the sorrows and hardships . . .I thought of my own experience, often repeated, of being cut down with fever, and borne through stifling forests and over swamps . . . and when I reflected on the trials and difficulties of such a life for a young married woman with little children my spirit sank within me, and my heart completely failed to bear me over the innumerable obstacles.”[2]

After several distressing weeks of indecision and prayer, she began to see a way forward. “I saw,” she said, “that the Lord was able to bear me over every obstacle, and to help me in every difficulty and trial if I would only trust myself to him.”[3]

Months of uprooting and preparation followed. By the time they had sailed to the UK for supplies and back to Africa, they had welcomed another baby into the family, George, born in Rostrevor, Ireland.[4]

Not only were physical hardships on the horizon for Rachel, but also the insecurity of being freelance missionaries, depending on the proceeds of the sale of their properties. Stuart had resigned from the CMS for reasons she does not mention, so there was little financial or emotional support to depend on. In fact, they received several letters of dissuasion as they made their way to the port of Mombasa. The secretary of the CMS wrote, “I pray God to avert the catastrophe which your scheme appears to court.”[5] The Imperial British East Africa Company had also written from London, “warning [Stuart] of the great danger in attempting to commence missionary work among such savage people.”[6]

Not to be dissuaded, they continued, and Rachel’s autobiography reveals that she was at one with her husband at every step. She writes,

“As we contemplated the hidden difficulties and dangers of the distant and unknown interior to which we were about to proceed, our hearts leaned hard upon the promise that He would never leave us, never forsake us.”[7]

Few missionary stories could rival this one for adventure and risk. In her autobiography, Rachel does not give dates and names, so it is difficult to develop a clear chronology of events. Her work, however, is insightful and beneficial to the study of missions as she weaves through her story an extensive survey of the beauties and challenges of the East African culture and climate. She also reveals her fears and struggles and her strongly held perspectives on missionary work in the bush. They were not afraid to combat the encroaching colonial efforts of the British at that time, for they respected the people and displayed a high regard for their intellect, history, and culture.

But these are not the themes of Rachel’s life that capture my attention. Rather, it is her heart posture, her willingness to be all in—whatever that meant—for the Kingdom of God.

The Watts were true pioneers. Wild animals still roamed the bush in the 1890s. There were no roads, there was no written language, or literature, no schools, and no shops. “If the Missionary wants a house to live in,” Rachel wrote, “he must build it. If he needs a supply of food, he must carry it with him. His only means of transport is human porterage.”[8]

Among their first tasks as they prepared for the interior, was the gathering of supplies from England (flour, tea, biscuits, baking powder, salt, candles, soap, condensed milk, matches, pots, sewing needles, medicine chests, folding beds, tables etc.) and the purchasing of bartering supplies from the coast (fabric, beads, and grains).

After employing porters at the coast, the family set out. Rachel notes with some humour that “the sign of European children being borne … on carrying chairs was, to the natives of the Coast, a marvellous and unprecedented spectacle.”[9] The youngest was only three months old. The trails were hunting paths and animal tracks, so travel was on foot and in single file. At night they pitched their tents near water when possible.

The trail had its own dangers. Stories had circulated of missionaries and explorers who had met their death at the hands of warrior tribes or had been torn apart by wild animals. On one occasion, Stuart had gone ahead with the porters to make camp, allowing Rachel and the children to slowly make their way single file afterward. She looked up suddenly, sensing danger, and there, standing just feet away from her was a lion and lioness; she reached for her whistle which she wore always around her neck, but stood frozen, awed by the beauty of the animals and fearful of what would happen next. The animals silently turned and “lumbered” off into the brush forest.

The long route north West is the route to the Kikuyu region and then back to the Wakamba.

And so, their journey continued up the valley of the Voi and into the highlands of Taita, along the path of what is now the main railway to Nairobi (see map). Finally, after weeks of trekking, they arrived at Fort Machakos where they met John Ainsworth the British officer in charge.

But Stuart and Rachel had their sights set further inland among the kikuyu. This was not to be, in the providence of God which we shall see. So, they set out for the fifty-mile trek to Fort Smith in the Wakikuyu region. At Fort Smith, Major Francis Hall, the British Ambassador in East Africa, had taken up his post in January 1893 just a couple of months prior to the Watt’s arrival. Hall was a good man and would come to understand and appreciate the Kikuyu more than any of his peers. He became fluent in their language and in Kiswahili also.[10]

Fort Machakos, 1898 (Credit: friendsofmombasa.com)

When the Watts arrived in the spring of 1893, the sense of danger at these British outposts was intense. Just a few months prior, Hall had lost several of his men to a band of Masai warriors and Rachel recorded how that he was essentially trapped in his own fort and could not go out even for exercise without thirty or forty armed men accompanying him. She recorded also the words of Joseph Thompson, commander of the Royal Geographical Society’s expedition to Kenya, who wrote of the Wakikuyu, “no caravan has yet been able to penetrate into their country, so dense are the forests and so murderous and thievish are its inhabitants.” [11]

Fresh warnings to abandon their mission into the interior did not daunt them, however, and Stuart marched on towards Mt. Kenya with his family and the reluctant coastal porters. The first trek into Kikuyu country was very difficult due to the dense jungle as they journeyed towards the tropical regions of the Kenyan Highlands. They were forced to return, however, after a messenger in the night warned them of a definite plot to ambush the party. Stuart and Rachel had been praying for guidance and saw this as a direct answer from God. They returned to Fort Smith with the plan to leave Rachel and the children behind. Stuart would strike out again on his own in search of a suitable location for a mission station. Rachel wrote,

“The Commander of the fortress had considerable doubts lest the dangerous enterprise might have a tragic end, yet my confidence in my husband’s resourceful discretion, and above all, an absolute trust in our loving Fathers guidance, upheld and sustained me during the many days of great suspense which followed my husband’s departure.” [12]

The Kikuyu, “our blood-brother chieftain who never broke his plight troth.” (Credit: Rachel Stuart Watt)

To the astonishment of Hall and the British officials at Fort Smith, Stuart did have success. He found a friend in a local chief who insisted they become blood brothers. Stuart felt it was important to show loyalty with the chief and with his people and participated in the gruesome ceremony. Although he had found a welcome among the Wakikuyu, Stuart failed to find a suitable place for a mission station and returned to Fort Smith with the chief’s son, hoping evidently to come to some arrangement.

They spent Christmas (1893) at the rat-invested Fort Smith, which kept the children entertained. But unrest was growing among the coastal porters about the proposed trek back into the Wakikuya region. “The question remained,” Rachel wrote, “if it were right to enforce the porters against every natural feeling of self-preservation to enter the country and remain with us to build the station.” It was a time of soul searching for Stuart and Rachel and they wondered about the possibility of directing their attention to the Ukambani region. In the providence of God Major Hall requested a conversation with them and suggested that they think about heading to Ukambani, where the Wakamba people were known to be less hostile, and the hill country more open (ie. less dense jungle). This was exactly the kind of leading Stuart had been praying for. Out of deference to the coastal porters and a sense of the Lord’s leading, they decided that Ukambani should be their destination.

Kikuyu listening to the Gospel, circa 1893, (Credit: Rachel Stuart Watt).

The chief’s son was greatly disappointed to be sent back to his father with no missionary. The friendship between Watt and the Chief remained strong, despite the change of plan. Years later when building their second station, “this same chief sent several hundreds of men on a journey of nearly fifty miles, laden with bamboo poles and midribs of palm for building purposes, and all this without any gift from us.” [13]

Finally, after months of trekking they set out east again in the direction of Machakos and after four days of walking, they arrived in a region called Ngelani a few miles north of Machakos. At Ngelani, they found a suitable location to build a home. Rachel’s account best expresses her feelings:

“None but God can ever know what we endured with our little children in those long journeys, through drought and deluge, in swollen rivers and rushing streams, across marshy swamps and over interminable stretches of rough and inhospitable jungle. We had then entered the third month since leaving the Coast at Mombasa, and it was with inconceivable joy we pitched our tents on the summit of Ngelani in the scorching heat of an equatorial sun.” [14]