Tuesday, February 09, 2021

The fire has turned to ash

When I was a child, my congregation used to worship in a social hall in Nairobi's Eastlands. Our number grew too big to use the place comfortably but there was no sense of urgency to shift bases. Our congregation owned a piece of land nearby but had procrastinated about raising funds to build a sanctuary, so the land just sat there unused while attracting the attentions of the city's land sharks. One day, and I don't know why, we were ejected from the social hall and forced to "make alternative arrangements" while the higher ups in the clergy were still dithering about making arrangements to put up a sanctuary on our plot of land.

What I remember of the new place is that it wasn't fenced and we didn't even have a watchman to guard the place overnight. My memory may be faulty; it was, after all, almost thirty years ago. Our congregation, like many others, didn't invite the attentions of the politicians, aspiring or elected. We kept to ourselves and tended to our spiritual and social needs in peace. Then Mwai Kibaki was elected as the third president of the republic and everything turned to shit.

One of the worst outcomes of the supposed end of the Kanu era was the insidious co-option of civil society, including faith-based organisations, by the Kibaki regime. In incremental steps, the Kenyan Christian church became a "partner" in Government, lending its legitimacy to the fledgling Kibaki kleptocracy. By the time of the 2005 referendum, the Church was, in Kiswahili parlance, chanda na pete with the Kibaki government - and the opposition. By the time things were going tits up in 2007, the Church in Kenya, in its various guises, had picked sides and been rend asunder in the bargain. Some of the decisions made by Church leaders revolved around their need to either protect ill-acquired real estate properties or, as became commonplace, to illegally acquire real estate in Kenya's cities and towns. Whereas my small congregation had jumped through numerous hoops to be allocated the plot we eventually built our sanctuary on, some congregations owned more than what they could legitimately claim as necessary for their faith-based activities and charitable works.

And as Kenya's politics turned to shit, so too did "motivated" schisms in congregations widen between the members and the clergy. Much of what converted congregations into political footballs revolved around land - and real estate holdings. Land, in Kenya, is the true fuel of political activity, and the church - and other religious communities - has become a self-interested political institution because of it, camouflaging its political biases in the traditional rhetoric of the church such as family values, abortion, "Kadhis' courts" and homosexuality.

During the second liberation struggle, the church was deeply compromised, playing handmaid to Kenyatta's and Moi's authoritarianisms. However, there were individual clergymen who went against the grain and spoke against their congregations' interests. Henry Okullu, Alexander Muge, David Gitari, Timothy Njoya, Ndingi Mwana'a Nzeki and John Anthony Kaizer paid heavy prices for their stances. They upheld the deeply patriarchal foundations of their congregations even as they challenged the political compromises of the 1980s and 1990s. They faced violence and intimidation for their political activities; their sermons were monitored and they were frequently placed under surveillance by state agents. Though no one was ever prosecuted for it, it is commonly believed that Bishop Muge and Father Kaizer were assassinated for their politics.

In 2021, it is difficult to state with confidence that there is a minister of faith who commands the same legitimacy as the firebrand clergymen of the 1990s. Their organisations have become so entangled with the politicians that sometimes it is difficult to separate the two. While an individual clergyman may declare that his pulpit will never be used by a politician or for political purposes, his organisation is busily "lobbying" the lands minister for favourable treatment regarding its numerous holdings - and the finance minister to boot to ensure that its vast incomes are not taxed. Many faith-based organisations rival Mammon in their avarice and material chicanery. Many members of the congregations are happy to go along; few of them are free of the corruption that has infested every sphere of modern life.

Many congregations have little in common with the communities where their sanctuaries are located. The sanctuaries are not places for the local community to find help - or solace - but for-profit shops designed to maximise returns on investment for the congregations - or, as is more likely these days, the clergy. It is why many have seven-feet high fences topped with razor wire and guarded 24/7 by armed watchmen. Sunday service is accessible only after running the gantlet of security theatre, beeping wands and all. Spiritual nourishment used to be a core function of the sanctuary back in the day but nowadays, "investment opportunities" for the members is the primary motivator for church service. We now attend church for its "networking" opportunities - other than the gauche fronting and preening that has become a must-do. Among the clergy we don't have modern-day Gitaris or Okullus or Muges. If a clergyman is murdered it is almost certain that it will be because of a "deal gone bad". Or, as is becoming commonplace, the clergyman has killed someone.

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