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Comfort from ‘Beyond the Rivers of Cush’

Kenya Friends of Israel founder, Francis Gitau, at Kibbutz Be’eri, November 2023. (courtesy)

Francis Gitau, a prayerful, courteous man, is the founder of Kenya Friends of Israel (KEFI), a faith-based foundation based in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi. The organization was established close to 15 years ago, shortly after Francis returned to Nairobi after a five-year stay in Israel.

Francis first set foot in Israel in September 2003, having been invited there to work as the Africa Coordinator for the All Nations Convocation Jerusalem (ANCJ), a non-profit organization based in the city of Jerusalem.

Having earned a BSc. degree in Tourism Management from one of Kenya’s largest universities, and possessing a good command of English and French, Francis was a perfect match for the role assigned to him. It entailed mobilizing participants from English and French-speaking Africa for the ANCJ’s annual prayer convocation, a lively event that typically drew thousands of Christian faithful from more than a hundred countries worldwide. The 10-day event is still held annually at the ANCJ’s Jerusalem House of Prayer for All Nations.

Up until this point, he explains, Francis’ view of Israel had mostly been shaped by global mainstream media, and he readily confesses that he had been somewhat anxious about working and living in the country. But it turned out to be nothing like he had anticipated.

“I thought Israel was a war zone with gunships and helicopters and tanks all over,” he says, “and that shooting was happening at every corner.” But much to his surprise, there was nothing like this when he arrived in the country. “We only encountered one checkpoint on our way from the airport. I had to ask whether I was in Israel or another country,” he chuckles.

“Throughout my stay in Israel,” he continues, “I felt more secure than I did in Kenya, and I would walk around quite freely in the streets.” This marked the beginning of a journey that would permanently transform his view of Israel.

Francis spent the next five years working as a volunteer at the ANCJ’s House of Prayer, diligently raising his own support to cover his living expenses. He also took time to learn Hebrew, teaching himself using various resources at first, and later receiving instruction at an Ulpan, a type of learning institution designed for the intensive study of Hebrew.

“It was a very rewarding five years,” he says, despite periodic financial constraints. And part of the reward, he confides with a smile, came in the most unexpected of ways. In June 2006, while conducting an assigned group-briefing session at the House of Prayer, Francis caught sight of his future wife Carolyn, who was part of a Kenyan delegation that was on a week-long tour of Israel. He kept in touch with her, and they were married two years later in a beautiful wedding in Kenya. They then returned to Israel for a three-month honeymoon, while Francis wrapped up his five-year sojourn in his adopted city of Jerusalem.

Francis’ goodwill towards Israel is hard to miss and is indeed what led to the establishment of KEFI. From 2009, just a year after Francis’ return, an informally-constituted KEFI began to carry out various goodwill initiatives focused on Israel. The nascent organization was eventually registered as a charitable foundation in April 2012. By that time, Francis’ work was well-known and he had become highly-regarded as a friend of Israel. KEFI’s launch was held on 13th May 2012, at a colorful event attended by the Israeli ambassador to Kenya at the time, Gil Haskel, and hundreds of well-wishers from various parts of Kenya and beyond.

Francis’ passion and love for Israel are seemingly contagious, he says, and he has been asked numerous times why he cares so much for the nation. The question always gives him an opportunity to share his thoughts and insights, based on his experience and interaction with the people and land that are clearly so close to his heart.

In the years between his organization’s establishment and the outbreak of COVID in 2020, Francis organized monthly seminars during which he would speak on contemporary issues regarding Israel, both from a biblical and non-biblical perspective. He would encourage his listeners to continue to stand with Israel, not only through prayer but also materially. This gave rise to several initiatives that enabled participants to exercise what they were learning. After a huge fire ravaged Carmel Forest in December 2010, for instance, KEFI mobilized members to raise funds to help in the reforestation of the area. The funds were then sent to Israel. This became an annual KEFI project that still takes place during the Israeli tree festival of Tu B’shvat when the country celebrates the new year of trees by planting additional ones.

Similarly, other projects were identified by KEFI during this period, which the organization continues to support to date. A children’s fund for example supports young children in Israel in conjunction with a pro-life organization based in the country. KEFI’s Aliyah Project also supports the return of Jewish people back to the land. In addition, the organization mobilizes its members to attend the International Holocaust Remembrance Day held annually at the UN Headquarters in Nairobi. This usually provides an opportunity for KEFI to re-educate many on the need to counter anti-semitism which is currently on the rise globally.

“It is not enough to simply pray,” Francis says emphatically during our interview. “One needs to be practical as well.”

Over the years, KEFI has also endeavored to contribute to public discourse in Kenya concerning the nation of Israel, by writing and publishing articles in local Kenyan newspapers, sometimes buying space in the major dailies for this purpose. Such sponsored features can cost upwards of USD 2,000 in Kenyan newspapers, depending on the size of the feature, a cost KEFI members have readily taken up.

“When there is conflict in Israel, our dailies are sometimes prone to publishing information that lacks the correct facts. As such, we need to give Kenyans the right perspective,” he says, stating that he considers KEFI a voice for Israel.

“One time,” he narrates cheekily, “we put up a huge highway banner that said ‘Israel, the Only Democracy in the Middle East’ along Mombasa Road.”

This road is one of Kenya’s major highways, and leads from Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, the country’s main airport, to the central business district of Nairobi, its capital.

“That banner caused quite a stir”, he chuckles. “The owner of the advertising company called me and demanded that we tone down the language. We obliged after a long discussion and adjusted the words to read, ‘Israel, a Light to the Nations’.”

On the morning of Saturday Oct 7th, he recalls, Francis was in Istanbul, Turkey, when he received word of the brutal terrorist attack by Hamas. The news would abruptly change the trajectory of his work and that of his organization.

Shortly thereafter, Francis, through KEFI, instituted a daily prayer vigil, inviting members to come together and offer sustained prayer on behalf of the nation of Israel. From that day on, every day at 9pm East African time, Monday to Friday, without fail, a number of KEFI members and friends log into Zoom from their homes, and then spend at least one hour diligently reviewing current developments and praying for divine intervention in the ongoing conflict.

The daily vigil has been sustained for more than 200 days since the Hamas attack, a fervent prayer offering “from beyond the rivers of Cush” as the African continent was referred to by the Biblical prophet, Zephaniah.

In late November 2023, barely two months after the attack, KEFI was involved in the organization of a six-day solidarity visit to Israel; a compassion mission aimed at offering prayer and comfort to the affected families and others. Amongst the delegation were several senior religious leaders from Kenya and the wider East African region.

It was the very first delegation from Africa to visit Israel after the Hamas attack.

Francis Gitau (in white jacket) at the Western Wall with Kenyan Bishop James Murunga, November 2023

KEFI’s prayer vigil did not pause or skip a single session over the next six days, even while Francis was in Israel participating in the mission. The team came back almost shell-shocked by what they had seen and heard. Yet, barely four months later, Francis led yet another group on a second solidarity trip, this time a delegation comprising nineteen senior religious leaders from Kenya and West Africa.

The group returned on the morning of April 12th, 2024, just a day before Iran carried out a violent drone and missile attack against Israel. But for KEFI, Francis says emphatically when asked, this trip will not be the last. Nor will the daily prayers cease – not until the current Israel-Hamas conflict is permanently resolved and the nation of Israel is back to a state of normalcy.

“KEFI’s mandate is drawn from the words of the biblical passage in Isaiah 62:6-7 which says, ‘I have set watchmen on your walls, O Jerusalem; they shall never hold their peace day or night. You who make mention of the Lord, do not keep silent and give Him no rest till He establishes and till He makes Jerusalem a praise in the earth,’” Francis asserts.

“So, we shall stand with Israel until God establishes Jerusalem and makes it a praise in the earth, as the Scriptures say. “In the meantime,” he says, with evident passion, “we will continue with our nightly vigil for the nation and people of Israel.”

Prayer, after all, is his life-long mission.

About the Author
Paulie Mugure Mugo is a published author based in Nairobi, the capital city of the East African nation of Kenya. Paulie has authored three books, two being lightly humorous personal memoirs, while the third, “KINGS”, is a memorable look at the rulers of ancient Israel, a subject she finds endlessly captivating. Were books children, this would be Paulie’s unwittingly spoiled favorite. She recently completed a certificate course, "The History of Modern Israel", and is currently enrolled to study "The Fall and Rise of Jerusalem" at the University of Tel Aviv, through one of the institution's online platforms. She enjoys reading widely, but rarely works of fiction as, in her view, nothing can be as fascinating as the world we live in. She lives in Nairobi with her husband, four boisterous offspring, and Nala, a guard dog who clearly has no clue she is one.
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