Sia Kambou/Stringer

Not Dancing Around the Issue

Religion and Rights in Kenya

Rumba Lingala is a popular type of African music, originating from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. As I became conscious of my Christianity, the Anglicans impressed upon me that Rumba Lingala was meant for heathens, and a good Christian was to avoid it. But my view of Rumba Lingala changed when I worked as a doctor for Daystar University. The university only admitted saved Christians, and these students were from all over Africa. There I met a number of Congolese students who would go out every Friday to dance at entertainment joints that played this music. I had a candid discussion with them and questioned why they, saved Christians, danced to worldly music. They challenged me to show them which part of the Bible outlawed traditional African music, and I could not find any such reference.

This incident opened my mind. Missionaries from Europe presented Christianity as a religion incompatible with African culture and traditions. Hence, converts felt pressure to disown everything about their traditional ways of living and adopt a new culture.

As a sexual health expert, I have slowly come to realize the importance of sex rituals among the Luo and other African communities. The Luo would, for example, insist that sex happen before the fields were planted with seed. Sex also preceded harvesting. Most other important occasions were marked by sex between couples. As I attend to couples in sexless marriages today, I realize how economic and other milestones in life are disconnected from, and in fact how they discourage, intimacy between couples. I am not surprised that we are having more divorces now within Christian families than non-Christian families. These traditional sexual norms have been demonized and left to the heathens, so good Christians are at a loss when it comes to issues of intimacy.

By presenting Christianity as against local African cultures and by sometimes punishing Christians for participating in traditional practices, church leaders have created a situation in which people live in fear and hide the practice of their traditions. This ongoing conflict between local African culture and modern religions leaves individuals in a state of psychological stress or even physical harm. In my PhD study, for example, I looked at the decision-making process for unsafe abortion in communities, and I found pastors and other Christians supporting women to perform unsafe abortions for pregnancies that the community believed to be against traditional norms, such as those arising from incest.

When Christian missionaries first came to Kenya, they made little headway in converting Africans until colonialists came along. Colonialism helped evangelize Kenya and Africa at large in two ways. First, local infrastructure improved, and missionaries could reach many parts of Kenya more quickly than before. Second, by demonstrating force and taking over leadership, colonialists had impressed that they were “superior.” Many Africans then adopted Christianity, not necessarily because of moral conviction but because it was the master’s religion. They believed that this new God contributed to the power of the colonialists over their subjects.

From the start, colonialism and evangelism were intricately intertwined, and missionaries had reason to tolerate or even encourage colonialism. The introduction of Western education, spearheaded by both colonial governments and missionaries, did much to convert Africans to Christianity.

This trend of the church missing the point when it comes to upholding justice was seen again during the last constitution-making process in Kenya. You may want to know that the Kenyan constitution has been praised the world over for having a model bill of rights. You may also want to know that mainstream church leaders—most serving their own interests—teamed up with politicians to campaign against the new constitution. This marriage of unlikely bedfellows saw churches turned into political rallies and political rallies turned into altars for worshiping a god of political oppression that was embodied in the old constitution.

More recently, observers have seen Christian leaders preach for peace during elections. Kenyans are already peace loving. They do, however, get weary of nontransparent electoral processes. When they get weary, they rise up. Church leaders do not need to preach peace to a peaceful population, but they do need to advocate for justice in elections to ensure that systems are transparent and reflect the will of the people. Merely preaching peace is now construed as acceptance of a flawed electoral system.

Then there is the problem of political corruption once politicians are elected. Church leaders have not consistently condemned corruption. Instead, politicians donate millions of shillings to churches, far more than the salaries of any church official. By accepting such donations, religious institutions sanitize the evil of corruption, leaving many Kenyans impoverished and without food, healthcare or jobs.

Given all that, can the church be trusted as a custodian of justice? Can communities turn to the church when their rights are being violated?

I appreciate the attempt by churches to own and provide health services in many communities in Kenya. Faith-based health facilities have provided essential health services in remote communities for as long as missionaries have been in Africa. These services supplement the government’s efforts in achieving universal access to healthcare. But medicine is a science, and it only works when applied as such. The moment people moralize health services and use a religious yardstick to judge which health services should and which ones should not be made available to communities, they end up denying many people their right to health.

A few examples spring to mind: When HIV & AIDS first started, the sufferers were demonized by church leaders. Condoms were demonized, too. A Catholic archbishop led the burning of a pile of condoms in Uhuru Park in Kenya. It was only when clergy started getting the disease themselves that this negative perception changed. For a long time now, a big section of the Catholic and Anglican hierarchies has refused to embrace modern family planning. I have studied how women have to hide their family planning methods from their husbands and church peers. Supporting modern family planning can lead to excommunication in some churches. Most recently, church leaders have made a concerted assault on immunization. They do not want women to receive the tetanus vaccine. They have previously also opposed polio eradication campaigns. Of course, there is also the contentious issue of abortion. Church leaders let fundamentalist groups threaten abortion providers with death in the name of protecting an ideology.

Mahatma Gandhi read the Bible many times and always quoted from it. He especially admired the Sermon on the Mount. At one time during the apartheid era when Gandhi was in South Africa, he tried to enter a church belonging to whites only. He was stopped at the entrance. They called him a heathen and threatened to call security to throw him out. He had to leave. He continued to read the Bible, however. At one point, a missionary asked him why he could not just make up his mind and become a Christian. After thinking deeply, he replied, “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” I am also reminded of Voltaire, another philosopher. This was his take on Christianity: “Of all religions, Christianity is without a doubt the one that should inspire tolerance most, although, up to now, the Christians have been the most intolerant of all men.”

I want to be like Christ, to show love and tolerance to all people, to embrace those living with HIV & AIDS and to accept the social and moral untouchables in Kenya, such as those with diverse sexual orientation, sex workers and rejected women accused of procuring abortion. For it is only when all of us enjoy rights equally that we will be at peace with our souls as Christians. I now dance to Rumba Lingala because Christianity was never meant to replace harmless cultural practices with a vacuum. There is no other music in the world that is like Rumba Lingala, and there is no culture as rich as the African culture in maintaining peace and harmony at family and community levels and guiding day to day living.

Joachim Osur is the Director of Regional Programmes and Field Offices at Amref Health Africa.

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