A figurehead, a con or miracle worker? It is never easy to describe controversial Kenyan preacher Gilbert Deya. Yet he seems to have a talent in riding controversies.
This week, UK tabloid The Sun revealed that he was selling olive oil to unsuspecting members of his congregation claiming it could cure HIV and cancer. On Tuesday, he denied that claim but not before he accused the reporters of being "agents of the devil".
“That is manipulation of information. And that is why when they contacted me for the story, I said I don’t talk to evil people,” Deya, the self-declared Archbishop of Pekham in South London, told the Nation by phone.
“We do not sell olive oil because we claim it has healing powers; we sell it as part of the goods in the shop,” clarified Deya, who argued the olive oil business is separate from the church he runs.
But this is only one of those times he has been in the news for odd reasons. Born in Juja in today’s Kiambu County in 1952, the son of a sisal worker from Bondo has worn a ring of controversy ever since.
“This 'miracle worker’ still commands a sizeable congregation in the UK despite all the issues raised against him: fake preacher, [an] extradition suit by [the] Kenyan government, [a] rape case against him, his wife serving a jail sentence and several tribulations, from which many would hide away.
“Yet in all these, he still finds a way around his problems and for sure, he’s making capital of his limelight again,” Macharia Gakuru, Deya’s biographer, told the Nation on Wednesday after the olive oil claims emerged.
For a man who never received formal education beyond primary school, his story reads like a rags-to-riches tale, but with a tinge of infamy. His family was bone-poor, lived in a congested house and the children continually got infected with water-borne diseases.
Deya was the eleventh child in a family of fifteen. He believed his father, Samuel Oyanda Deya, was cursed and possessed with demons, was tuned to booze and toyed with women in the village for fun.
In the biography, Deya & the Miracle Babies, Mr Macharia, a Kenyan journalist based in London, writes that the preacher’s parents were never meant to be a couple, that his father only married his mother, Nono, because the woman prepared for him declined the arranged marriage.
Deya’s schooling was short-lived. He attended primary school only after his mother pleaded with his father to let him attend school. But then the preacher dropped out because of bullying and poverty.
His rise to preaching stardom took him to Jinja, Kampala, in Uganda, where he beat up a woman for hitting the children of his sister. He later worked there as a porter.
He married his wife, Mary Anyango, at 21. The woman was only 14. They bore five children, but the number could be unknown if you include the miracle babies Mary claimed to have brought forth. Kenyan courts jailed her for that claim. Deya survived the debacle by fighting extradition from the UK.
Deya says he “accepted Jesus Christ” in 1967. But his prosperity preaching dates back to 1976, when he started the "Salvation of Jesus Christ Church".
The membership included Hezekiah Ochuka, a soldier hanged in 1987 for plotting a failed Kenyan coup in 1982. The Kenyan government declined to register this church and it folded after the coup.
“His brand of religion is a unique combination of traditional African religions and beliefs peppered with threats of curses but tempered with exorcism and stirred with Christianity,” observed the biographer.
CHARISMA AND INTIMIDATION
His early hustles tuned him to be a man who could use charisma at one time and intimidation at another. He was a preacher, a street beggar and a shrewd businessman who could dump and recruit partners at will.
Deya claims he was influenced by American televangelist Morris Cerullo, whose dressing he liked. He rose to be an influential preacher. Deya claimed friendship with various politicians and famous people, including Daniel Moi, Kalonzo Musyoka, Raila Odinga, Reuben Ndolo, Kijana Wamalwa, Prince Phillip, King Mswati and Mwai Kibaki.
He claimed he met all these people during his work, sometimes praying for them, sometimes donating to their campaigns.
On Wednesday, Mr Macharia told the Nation: “Every politician is driven by all characteristics that Deya reflected and displayed, and Raila Odinga, and other politicians from Kenya and other parts of the world, including top pastors, could not resist.
“They dined and wined with him and he treated them well and gave them [the] publicity they needed. In fact, Deya had a quality of class and charisma similar to what Prophet David Owuor reflects today.”
This fame also brought him enemies, perceived or real. Deya has argued that he fled to the UK because Kenyan evangelical pastors threatened to assassinate him.
Then the story of miracle babies started. Mr Gerald Muthomi and his wife Catherine Kajuju had claimed their son born in 2001 had disappeared from their neighbourhood two years later, only to surface as a miracle baby by another woman in Deya’s church and who had no child before.
It continued: Some women had given birth within a short period. Stories involved such incidents as pregnancies that ultrasound scans could not see, but who were born two months later.
“This is total madness to read some of the articles published in the newspapers,” Deya whimpered in a press release after the news emerged on August 28, 2004.
“It is a case of absolute conspiracy for this couple to come forward now to claim this baby. Does this wicked Kenyan leadership now expect the public to accept [these people] as the parents of this boy?
"It is rather naïve to assume that we are stealing children from Kenya and we are selling them to Mr (Michael) and Mrs (Eddah) Odera in Nairobi,” added Deya, who signed off as "Servant of God" and argued the government had in fact issued the birth certificate after determining it was the woman’s baby.
But Deya was always on the defensive. When Catholic Archbishop Ndingi Mwana a‘Nzeki (now retired) criticised him over the miracle babies, he wrote back, reminding the then Catholic head that Catholic priests were always "impregnating" women and running away from it.
“There are so many children without fathers in the streets, and some of them may even be children of some of these Catholic priests. It is unfair when the Catholic Church launches attacks against my ministry when their faith [does] not link with my faith.”
'CURSED' PRESIDENT KIBAKI
In some of his defences, he quoted John 12:9-11, the story of how Lazarus was nearly killed after being raised from the dead by Jesus … because the purist Jewish priests feared people would start believing in Jesus. He even "cursed" President Mwai Kibaki and then Attorney-General Amos Wako.
In one of the bizarre letters he wrote to President Mwai Kibaki, Deya insisted he was a patriot with global influence.
“May I remind you, Your Excellency, [that] I managed to unite relationship (sic) between former (Vice-President) Jaramogi Oginga Odinga and His Excellency, former President Moi?” he posed in the letter full of bad English grammar.
“When there was a sanction in Kenya I went to America and spoke on television in Los Angeles and Atlanta, telling Americans how Kenya was good. I have been a figure ahead of the believes in the country of Kenya with high honour and respect.”
The government still wants him to answer charges of child trafficking.