By Fred Mbogo
Published October 22, 2013
The place of organised religion in Kenya must be questioned, if only because it affects that crucial aspect of identity formation and eventually cultural practice.
Among the many religions in Kenya, Christianity in its many forms has the greatest number of adherents, estimated to be standing at close to 85% of the 40-million strong population. Consequently, Christianity, though not being an official religion, has played and continues to play a multitude of roles in many sectors including education, health, even manufacturing and is a major contributor in Kenya’s entertainment industry. But it is in the Churches’ leaders’ actions that the influence of Christianity has been much clearer. This has tended to be inspiring but also frequently dispiriting.
Some leaders have tended to take advantage of their positions and gone on to “bless” politicians in selfish quests to gain monetary rewards, for example. Politicians have found it necessary to court the clergy as they provide another centre of power; the numbers of Church adherents are important in the imagination of potential voters. Some Church leaders have been excited by the number of followers in their Churches to the extent that they have joined elective politics.
This betrayal is not unusual as it has been reported about by historians and fiction writers alike. Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Ngugi wa Mirii, in their play, I will Marry When I want, describe Christianity as having been brought to Africa by white missionaries who had “the Bible in the left hand and the gun in the right hand.”
These missionaries came on a “civilising” mission with education, and health provision as part of the package that was meant to transform the African. This mission as has been alluded to by John Sibi-Okumu in his play, Role Play, resulted in some serious identity problems. African converts did not often know how to reconcile the new religion in their lives with the pattern that they had been pursuing prior to the coming of Christianity.
In Muthoni Likimani’s novel, They Shall be Chastised, the African Christian was and has been confused with a litany of questions swirling above him: Is drinking a little alcohol evil? Should we smoke tobacco? What should we do with our more than one wife? Why must we stop circumcising women? Must we adopt ‘Christian’ names? These were all very genuine questions which were not allowed a “grace” period so that new converts could settle in the new religion successfully. That means that there has been a persistent identity crisis which affects the way culture operates.
Lately, the mushrooming of “Prosperity Gospel” has been the norm. To some extent the new charismatic churches preaching that form of gospel are giving people hope. The idea is to have the congregants “claim” their “blessings” through belief and prayer. This necessitates loud singing and praying in almost a militaristic fashion.
The idea of miracles coming down from heaven to change the lives of people below, here on earth, has been emphasised. While some people regard these new charismatic churches as phony, they do serve that rather difficult purpose of assuaging people whose lives are steeped in an endless cycle of poverty. That might be deemed as false hope, but in the face of utter hopelessness what is the alternative?
Perhaps the true Church is the one that fights with the poor for a betterment of their lot.