The Freemasons Who Built Kenya

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The Freemasons have been part of Kenya’s fabric since the early 20th century. In the last three decades, they’ve fought against anti-Masonic rhetoric with PR, but the society remains a fascinating mystery that reappears every few years.

In September 2000, the Mungiki tried to burn the building above. The protestors carried 4 jerricans to Freemason Hall, an easy-to-miss compound bound by Nyerere Road, Processional Way, and Kenyatta Avenue. The protest ended the same way most protests end in the capital city, with overeager anti-riot cops swinging batons and filling the air with teargas. When asked why they were trying to torch the building, the protestors said they were “…targeting a snake which is fed on human blood from kidnapped children.”

It wasn’t the only protest of its kind, nor the last. The other such protests were organised and fuelled by religious groups. It was the culmination of a decade-long church-led hysteria which survives in some ways to date.

In the early 1990s, as Kenya grappled with its future and several major political changes happened and the economy plunged, a new enemy emerged. Stories of ritualistic crimes such as rapes and child kidnappings spread across the country, and any organization not officially a church found itself a suspect. The result of this hysteria was the Devil Worship Commission of 1994. Its work was to investigate the spread of-as the name suggests-devil worship in Kenya. But that in itself was a vague job, and its report was shelved as soon as it was submitted. Moi’s reason at the time was that it was ‘sensitive.’ Most people believed it was because he had realised implementing it would wreck everything around him.

When it was finally leaked in 1999, one could see why its nonsensical work never amounted to anything. It demonized anything the church didn’t sponsor or agree with as “gateways to devil worship.” That included Mormons, art, matatu culture, and of course the Freemasons. The Mormons were founded by a Mason, and feature several similarities in symbols and rituals with each other.

The Masons, being even more secretive than others named in the list, and thought to be more powerful and connected, quickly became the enemy of the church, and by extension the people. While it was relatively new in Kenya, it wasn’t the only anti-Masonic hysteria in history-there is actually an entire Wiki dedicated to such cases. In fact, in the early 19th Century, a similar wave in the United States after an abduction eventually led to the short-lived but wildly successful AntiMasonic Party. At it’s height, it was the third most powerful party in the USA.  But in Kenya the hysteria of the 90s was the first and most prominent.

Yet hidden beneath it is the fact that Freemasons built Nairobi, first literally, and then in its political and economic being. Although most modern Masons are speculative masons, some of the actual architects and builders of Nairobi were Masons [Link]. They designed most houses of government, and institutions such as Nairobi and Jamhuri Schools. Their other influence in Nairobi power circles is still largely unknown, partially because of the structure and rules of the brotherhood.

A few years after the protests of 2000, a politician (and former star footballer) called Joab Omino died. He had openly confessed, severally and most prominently during the investigations into Ouko’s murder, that he was a Mason. He couldn’t have chosen a worse time to die. The church initially refused to bury him, and even refused to let his funeral ceremony be held at his church, All Saints Cathedral.

The irony is that All Saints Cathedral and the Freemasons Hall-officially known as The Grand Lodge of East Africa (GLEA)-were built by the same men. It wasn’t the first Masonic lodge in Nairobi, but it is the one that has survived the longest. 

The Freemason who designed All Saints Cathedral, Sir Herbert Baker, also designed Nairobi School, Nairobi Railways, Government House (State House) and other major colonial buildings that still stand today. At the time, Baker was perhaps the among the most sought-after architects in the British empire, and his legacy still stands today in South Africa, India, and other former British colonies.


The first people to try start a Masonic Lodge in Nairobi were the men who built the railway. According to the Grand Lodge’s website [Link], they failed because they were not high enough in the ranks to be allowed to-and many of them were not white. But their successors, white men in Nairobi’s economic scene, succeeded.

The first Lodge was part of a building called The White House, owned by T.A Wood somewhere on Moi Avenue-then called Station Road (most likely on the junction with Biashara Street). Wood was a jack of all trades and a future mayor of Nairobi-It is for him that Wood Avenue is named.

The White House Lodge was burnt down as part of measures against the plague in 1905. But another one, Lodge Scotia, was quickly built, this time further downtown, on the very spot that Central Bank is today.

In Aneesa Kassam’s biography of his grandfather, Kassam Kanji Rah Varsi, he writes that “many prominent Indian businessmen from all religious denominations in Kenya were (and still are) members of the Order, which seems to function as a professional group.” His grandfather belonged to the Orient Lodge, a lodge founded in 1914 specifically for non-white Masons. In 1952, as the embers of the revolution begun igniting in parts of Central Kenya and Rift Valley, the Nairobi Lodge was founded as the first multi-racial lodge. Among its founder members was Kassam Varsi.

After independence (perhaps even before), several black elites were invited to the organization. All of them were practicing believers of a faith; the most basic requirement other than gender is that one must believe in a deity. Any deity. In any Freemason Lodge, there is a religious or philosophical book prominently displayed whenever there is a meeting. In Kenya, that book is normally the Bible. The Masons call such texts “Volume of Sacred Law.” Other than the Bible, other texts include The Holy Koran, The Siri Guru Granth Sahib, The Holy Bhagvad Gita, or The Dhammapada.

You can see the irony of the church-led hysteria here because the members of the brotherhood were staunch members of formal religions as well. Even more interesting is that in Kassam Varsi’s case, his fellow Ismaili’s begun referring to him as a nastic (non-believer) because of his “outspoken criticism” of Ismaili practices in East Africa-in one case, after the provincial council considered refusing burial rites to a member who had died while owing subscription fees. His grandson posits that Varsi’s disillusionment with religion -he even stopped attending regular prayers- was partially because he was influenced by the tenets of Freemasonry, primarily demonstrating love and tolerance, performing acts of charity, and striving for the truth.

In its report in the 1990s, the Devil Worship Commission recommended the Freemasons, and others on the list, be investigated. All of Kenya’s problems, it seemed, could be fixed if such organizations were closed down. There’s some truth to the idea that the Masons were (at least partly) to blame for Nairobi’s ills. The Masonic ideals of brotherhood (and secrecy) have hurt our fight against corruption and well, how people usually get rich and stay out of jail in Kenya. One was the case of Justice A.B Shah.

Justice Shah was an accomplished judge with a litany of integrity issues. But the case that did him was connected to the brotherhood. He had helped his fellow Mason draft a replying affidavit in a case where Shah was the judge. There was evidence of some form of payment as well. The case (Rai v. Rai) was a dispute within the wealthy Rai family, in which Virinder Goswami was a director and chair. It had already been clear since 1998 that Shah was a Mason, after he and others held a press conference in August 1998.

In the hysteria of the early 2000s, some churches took out ads in the papers against the Masons, and declared public war. In 2004, there was a public split in the PCEA’s main church St. Andrews, over symbols in the building that matched those of the Freemasons. The antiMasonic side had already removed stained glass and metal grills from the building. The church was begun by Scottish missionaries. Freemasonry in Scotland is thought to be the oldest in the world.

One author has compared the Devil Worship Commission to the Salem Trials of the 17th Century. It’s also been compared to “Iconolastic Fury”-a period in Europe marked by the destruction of religious images. The Freemasons have been a particular target because they include the rich and powerful. They were accused of praying in the dark while nude, eating human flesh and drinking human blood, and walking backwards while in the temple. The commission report advised that they ‘are usually wealthy and prominent people who drive expensive cars.’ In the hysteria of the ‘90s, this was the same way to ‘recognise’ devil worshippers.

In the decade and a half since, the Masons have launched a spirited PR campaign. They’ve allowed journalists into their lodges-which is how we know S.S Mehta-the contractor-is a Mason-and even have a public website which lists their charity works (currently the MP Shah Physiotherapy Centre and others). At the height of the ’90s hysteria, the Masons took the Commission to the Nyerere Road Lodge on a guided tour, and showed them a video tape on a Masonic function in England presided over by the Duke of Kent. Their point was that they “are not a secret society, but rather a society with secrets.”

But in a clear sign the stigma never left, there are hardly any black recognisable names in the leadership list on the site, past or present. Most of them are white, Indian or Pakistani, even in lodges not in Nairobi. A good example is the late patriarch AbdulKarim Popat, who built a sprawling business empire that left his sons billionaires. Popat’s name appears in several publicly available records as an officer of the Nairobi lodge, and a one-time Master.

Other than Job Omine, some of the very few avowed black Masons is Dr. Joseph Aluoch-who I interviewed for this story [Link] and Ambrose Rachier.


Although the Mungiki didn’t succeed in Sept 2000, someone else did burn a different Lodge. The original Masonic Lodge in King’ong’o (Nyeri) was razed down by arsonists in the mid-2000s. So the Masons built another elsewhere with the same stones, because of course they did. The organisation was formed by masons after all, and symbolism matters a lot to the organisation.

Owaahh, 2018

One story is good, 

till Another is told.

Last modified: October 4, 2022