The Dundonian who became the “queen” of Kenya

The Dundonian who became the “queen” of Kenya

The Dundonian who became the “queen” of Kenya

Dundee woman Minnie Watson was hailed the “queen” of Christian Kenya after travelling deep into East Africa during the late 19th century.
Despite her major role in transforming the education and healthcare of the Kikuyu people, the achievements of Mrs Watson, whose work continues to influence millions of Kenyans today, remain little known in her own country.
The sea captain’s daughter left the relative comfort of her North East home in 1899 to join her fiancé, the Reverend Thomas Watson, a missionary, with the couple to wed near Mombasa shortly after she arrived on African soil.
Immediately, the two were thrown into horrific conditions as they battled to deliver care amid a small pox epidemic, devastating drought and a locust infestation.
Tragically, Mrs Watson was to be widowed two weeks before her first wedding anniversary, her husband succumbing to the merciless conditions.
Undeterred by her own loss, Mrs Watson to battle on and run the missionary herself, sleeping in a small mud and wattle hut which had been built as a kitchen and store.
As the only European at the Kikuyu Mission Station, education and healthcare were to become her top priorities.
She helped lay the foundations of the Presbyterian Church of East Africa (PCEA) which today has around 3.5 million members and runs a network of schools, hospitals and universities.
A Church of Scotland delegation this month visited Kikuyu to mark the legacy of Mrs Watson.
Rev Robert Mbugua, moderator of the Presbytery of Kikuyu, is in no doubt of the influence of the Dundonian, who helped build the first Presbyterian church in the area after having the materials shipped over from Scotland.
“Our roots are in Scotland so, because of that, this place is Scotland,” Rev Mbugua said:
Among Mrs Watson’s pupils was the future first President of Kenya, Jomo Kenyatta, who she dressed in a shirt and loin cloth when he first arrived at the school.
She was to later focus on improving health and education of girls but her work, at points, was to prove divisive, particularly given her fierce opposition to female circumcision.
There was also a belief among some that educating girls would make them a less attractive marriage prospect and  deprive families of the financial gifts associated with weddings.
Meetings held in villages about the work of the mission schools often descended in chaos, with bags of ants sometimes thrown into rooms in protest, according to one account.
Slowly, Mrs Watson and the Christian mission began to win over sections of the community and by 1920, around 3,000 pupils were being taught at its schools.
Professor David Ngugi, a church elder in Kikuyu, said: “They were very focused in spreading the Gospel and education because at that time Kenya was regarded as the Dark Continent.
“The missionaries planted several schools, improved health by setting up hospitals and fought poverty by starting agricultural industries.
“Many people in Kenya have benefited from that legacy and the impact of Minnie Watson still lives on.”
Mrs Watson retired in 1931 and returned to her native Dundee, where she died in 1949. Her ashes, however, were to return to Kikuyu. She was  interred alongside her husband in what would have been the couple’ s 50th wedding anniversary year.

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