Religion’s Role in Kenya


Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly this week highlights the growing ties between church communities in western Kenya and Indiana. Those ties endured, indeed strengthened, following the deadly post-election violence in Kenya late last year. The ethnic clashes killed more than a thousand and displaced 600,000, and the upheaval continues to scare away tourists who are critical to the economy of what had been one of Africa’s most stable nations. Kenya received its independence from Britain in 1963, inheriting a similar parliamentary system and a strong legacy of Christianity. Neither proved an adequate bulwark against the inter-tribal tensions that have festered in the decades since self-rule began. When Kenya’s disputed election erupted in bloodshed last December, church leaders failed to lead, admits Oliver Kisaka, a Quaker minister and vice president of the National Council of Churches of Kenya, in an interview in Nairobi with Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly correspondent Fred de Sam Lazaro. According to the American Friends Service Committee, there are more Quakers in Kenya — 135,000 — than any other country in the world. Read excerpts from Kisaka’s comments:

OLIVER KISAKA (National Council of Churches of Kenya): Forty-five years for Kenya is very a short period of time for 45 tribes to have come together and meshed into one and perfected the art of democracy and common sharing of space. I think in that sense people should not be overly judgmental against any African country. They are trying to shift from systems they were used to, to a totally new approach when you are dealing with more than one culture. Democracy is not an African system. It’s a land system. It’s a good system, but it is not inherently African.

Most Kenyans are religious. The country would be about 95 to 97 percent religious, 70 to 80 percent of that being from one of the Christian traditions. Another sizable percentage, perhaps 15 to 20, being from the Islamic community, and maybe 2 to 3 percent being Hindu and others. So Kenya is generally a religious community. But how this religion works out in economics, how it works out in politics, how it works out in ethnicity, how it works out in aesthetics, how it works out in defining ethical values, how it works as a true worship, as a religion itself — those are the critical questions that we are now being called upon to engage. We have assumed we are a peaceful country. We have assumed that our religion is deep enough. The truth is that it is not deep enough.

When push came to shove, there were ministers who sided with their ethnic communities. In other words, they were not prophetic to their ethnic communities. The right thing would have been to tell the community “You cannot do this. You can’t burn other peoples’ property, even if you are aggrieved.” But they were silent.

Nobody in Kenya was not divided, doesn’t matter who — the teachers, the law society, the civil society organizations. Everybody was divided. It was a very difficult situation for the country, and we felt if someone was going to bring healing into the country someone was needed to take responsibility for their part. So we decided to go ahead and do so. We still hope the rest can actually come to that point, because anything else is really denial. We are in denial. We have treated one another as if we were not Kenyans, and there is no way we can heal one another if we are still pointing fingers across the table. We need everybody to say “I had a part to play in what this became.”

When we entered the crisis we decided, we analyzed it in three parts. We said it was a spiritual crisis, a political crisis, and a humanitarian crisis, because of the internally displaced people, and we then set up committees to respond to this: a humanitarian committee, a spiritual committee, and a political mediation committee. Each of these have been working since that time. We told the people we regret that we were divided and that our divisions were along ethnic lines. So we committed ourselves to be able to start afresh and do things differently for the sake of the country.

There has been a lot of call for healing, for renewal, and in a sense we are saying renewal for all of us. Without sounding careless, the Christian tradition is a tradition of renewal, is a tradition of redemption, is a tradition of forgiveness. The most difficult things for Christians to attempt to do is not to own up to what you are wrong about. If you are able to own up sincerely and turn around, there is forgiveness, and there is a new opportunity. So most of the ministers have dealt with this and are preaching healing, they are preaching reconciliation. They are using our experience as a lesson. They are saying we didn’t know it would get this bad. We have talked about Rwanda, but this is who we are. We cannot point fingers anymore. We must work on a new way of how we will live together. So the message is a message of reconciliation, is a message of “Let’s begin again,” a message of “We can’t pretend we were holier than others. Let’s own up, let’s face it, let’s address it.”

One of the sad things of the missionary experience, it outlawed African-ness. If African culture is seen to be anti-Christian and yet I cannot be a white, then what does it leave for me? It leaves me a big vacuum. I have forsaken my African values, I cannot quite live the Western values I lived, so where does that leave me? I think that the minister today, I as a minister must wrestle with that and help Kenyans develop new values that can allow them to be African and be Christian without feeling a sense of contradiction. Our preaching ministry cannot be business as usual for us to be able to address ethnicity. Somebody else must stand up and tell the people that although where we are today it seems that we can’t live together as tribes, that is something we can work out. I think we have the God-given capacity to address any human problems anywhere. Human beings are known for that. The first and second world wars were very bad wars, but Europe still lives together. Europe works together. They have just raised their stakes a little higher, determined how to live together. I think what it’s calling for is for Kenyans to develop a way of living together, and religion has a great path, because then it can give the right theological undergird for this kind of living together.

Religion in Kenya is not zero. It held at some point. It was pushed from the ideal, but it did not go beyond a certain point, meaning there is a deposit of it. We can easily be so negative about this situation that we paint Kenya as a country of hopeless people who don’t know where they are going. I think Kenyans are very hopeful people. I think that the problem we faced is that people were trying to say something, and nobody was hearing them.