Scorpions, Debt and Rehoboam

Posted in If I was... on November 2, 2019 by Kyama

The story is told of how a son of a great king ascended to the seat of rulership after the death of his father. At the initial meeting, the gathered nation spoke their hearts out to the new ruler, pleading a different future from the heavy burden his father had saddled them with. They cried out for relief from the previous regime’s oppressive environment. The young ruler retreated for some days to consult with wise elders seeking a way forward. The wise men suggested a compassionate response, full of empathy and justice for the groaning nation.

Having listened to the elders, the young ruler sought a second opinion. He went to the inner circle of his handlers for their thoughts. They had a radically different approach. The men the young ruler had grown up with advised him to be tough, and unrelenting if he was going to accomplish what they wanted during his tenure. They trashed the elders’ divinely inspired wisdom. So, coached by his confidantes, young ruler came back to the groaning nation with these words, “My father made your yoke heavy; I will make it even heavier. My father scourged you with whips; I will scourge you with scorpions.”


2019 Kenya is struggling under a heavy debt burden. Numerous calls have gone out to the leadership for caution against an oppressive debt regime. The words returning to the groaning nation are that if the big agenda is to be fulfilled then the public must be content with a heavier debt burden. Those opposed to the back-breaking load are, therefore, enemies of progress, often contemptuously scorned. It is not clear at this point if Kenya is too far gone to beat an about turn away from the fast-approaching onslaught of debt-induced turbulence. What is clear is that the pain of slow business will only be multiplied on the public through higher interest rates, to ostensibly stimulate economic growth in the flailing banking sector. The scourge of whips will turn to the scourge of scorpions. To paraphrase the respected, most senior banker, I also ask, what use is this growth if it does not translate into the lives of the ordinary citizen?

Debt trap

The story of the young ruler has a dramatic ending. The nation couldn’t take it any more. The people refused the young ruler’s leadership. They essentially denied the ruler a kingdom, ripping away from him what he had desired to have. His courage and audacity were met with the consequences of harsh political realities. Despite the big vision and smooth words, Jubilee has consistently met the groanings of economic duress with promises of more of the same economic activities that cause the pain. More debt, less action against systemic and individual corruption, and apathetic responses to the plight of the common man. Could it be that Jubilee is inviting upon itself Rehoboam’s fate? Is it possible that the Kibra election will be a prophecy of whether the young ruler will have a kingdom or not in 2022? Could it be that 2022 portends a multitude of rulers who will be stripped of their kingdoms for their lack of wisdom in times such as these? If I was Jubilee, I would study the story in 1 Kings 12 thoroughly and see what I can learn from it, because the issues are the same, the key characters in the story are the same, and the same frightening end might be their lot.

What on Earth is the Church here for?

Posted in African et Religio on October 15, 2019 by Kyama

“Churches have a right to expose evil, to reject and to speak openly…But not to say they join politics and such. If he wants to be a politician, join politics.” President Daniel Arap Moi cNov 1984

“The issue is courage to do their calling. Hospitals is not the call of the church. Justice is.” Dr. Wandia Njoya October 2019.

These statements prescribe what the church shouldn’t or should do in a society that remains broken and in need of urgent attention. Though separated by vastly different contexts, time, and stature of the speakers, in essence both statements by self-professed Christians [church people?] point to at least two things. The first is obviously the importance of the Christian organization in dealing with particular maladies in society. These include things like, in the words of the speakers, justice, the exposition of evil and so on. The second is the poignant frustration at this organization’s propensity to overstep its [real or imagined] mandate in pursuit of matters for which it has no business engaging in. The arguments embodied in both statements speak into our post-independence context and require some engagement. My point is that the inherent problem with these statements in today’s discourse about the church is a lack of clarity about what the church is, and what it exists to do. Such fuzziness may misdirect some, and bring confusion of intent in others. It is such confusion of intent that, quite unfortunately, places these two statements next to each other.


What is our context? I state the obvious when I say we live in a Kenya driven by greed that fuels the violent and epic-proportioned theft that we seem to have sanitized through what we glibly call corruption. It runs from the ground up, from the little bribes we “ordinary people” give to parking attendants to avoid county fees; right up to the mega-deals brokered by politicians and business people that turn up on our newspapers every day.

As one politician put it “siasa mbaya, maisha mbaya” – bad politics, bad life. The perpetual farce that is our politics remains the fertile breeding ground for these vermin that ruin our economy and destroy the very fabric of our society. We see this dysfunctionality everywhere, in education institutions, healthcare, the exposure of our vulnerable members of society, and the inadequacies of our infrastructure. I will grant that we have made much progress since say 1984, but in the same breath I will say that we should have been so much further as a nation were it not for these systemic injustices.

Few institutions, if any have the sheer raw power to challenge this status quo. Civil society, the knight in shining armour of yesteryear has struggled to sustain the pressure with the turn of Kenya’s political tide, at the turn of the century. Perhaps the diverse perspectives within this group, coupled with existential concerns of its members have sapped their energies. Or perhaps the very same issues the nation struggles with are also the substance of their localized experiences. I don’t know for sure.


The voting public is the other bloc with the power. The power of the numbers is in their hands to be exercised every few years at the election. Working together, they can outvote anyone or anything they choose to reject. If that fails, no government organ can contain a resolute public tired of the state of affairs. But alas, the public cannot at this point rely on itself to act in unison towards its best interests. Confused by constant shifts in political winds, disillusioned by ethnic visions of the future, and oppressed by the economic context, the voters seem paralysed, unable to act. They yearn for leadership which at best comes in fits and starts. The media is the other major player. It however, has been a mixed bag. Sometimes we see flashes of brilliance, rallying all who will listen as it challenges, highlights or amplifies the voices of reason and justice. Most of the time, the public is treated to the profiteering racket that is sensationalism. Thoughtful representations of our truth are few and far between.

That leaves us with the church. I speak of it in very general terms here recognizing that “the church” is a nebulous term which can mean something, someone, people, places, ideas, faith, faiths all at the same time, while at the same time meaning nothing. I will return to that in a moment. The church, whose message is to bring liberation and justice, is meant rise up and call evil for what it is. To use the now-popular phrase, the church is all we have left to “speak truth to power.”

That is where the problems begin. This thing we call the church, is riddled with scandals. Its selfish egoistic leaders continually erode the church’s credibility in the public eye. Together with the corruption scandals, the other news we find with appalling frequency in the outlets is the latest of a seemingly endless series of shenanigans of my fellow people of the cloth. Some of what we see is not only unbiblical but outright criminal. This is further compounded by the demands of audacious, legitimate but often costly expansion projects which likely take a toll many who want to participate meaningfully but can feel the squeeze of an ailing economy.

Faith Politics SignProbably even worse is the silence, or seeming silence of many church leaders in the face of such matters, and its slackness in the work of restoring justice and freedom to the people. Thankfully, the silence is broken in some few places. I have argued elsewhere that if one is diligent, careful and honest enough to look, they will find the timeless message of justice and truth courageously spoken in pulpits scattered all over the country. There is the proverbial remnant for the worried Elijahs out there.

Church leaders from various places get together more often these days than they did 40 years ago, to deliberate and speak “truth to power.” In the neo-liberal scheme of things however, the fourth estate often neglects to report these important messages, in favour of what offers more commercial value – scandal! (I have often wondered who or what is responsible for the training and formation of the younger media practitioners in that important constituency of our society. But that is beside the point.) What I am saying however is that church leaders have done something. I am also stating that they could and should do much more in not just condemning the failure of leadership in our society, but also in holding the leaders accountable and actively discouraging the vice.

church harambeeThis is where I couldn’t agree more with those who argue that the church is not doing enough to speak and rally its constituency towards justice, freedom, righteousness and moral uprightness, not just for the individual but for the society. I am also on record as being critical of a prevalent, narrow, deficient and partially heretical theology that attributes a faulty logic of salvation to the individual only. Redemption is for the individual and for society. We cannot condone the virus that makes the entire society sick while hoping that the individual therein will find full spiritual healing. That is why I applaud the efforts of those bold leaders, mostly in the mainline denominations, who have taken a position on donations by politicians in churches. The driving of a personal, partisan political agenda in a church through money is flat out wrong. This dance with mammon and political intents not what the church exists to do. The politicians’ “thirty pieces of silver” should be literally and metaphorically thrown back at them, building projects notwithstanding. Better an unfinished building, than a sick Body of Christ with an angry Jesus to boot.

We need church community leaders with the discernment and courage of St. Peter in Acts 8 to purge these repugnant attempts to appropriate the gift of God’s community for personal gain. The politicians, the whole lot of them, from the President, his deputy, their political partners by handshake and others need to heed Peter’s warning to “have no part or share in this ministry, because [their] heart[s are] not right before God.”[v.21] At the risk of losing leaders’ favor and financial support, the pastors should direct them to “repent of this wickedness and pray to the Lord in the hope that he may forgive [them] for having such a thought in [their] heart[s].”

Your-Place-in-the-Body-of-ChristSo, if the church does not exist to receive donations from politicians what does it exist to do. This is where my understanding is at odds with both Moi and Wandia. To avoid ambiguity we need to define two issues here. The first is what constitutes the church. The second is what the specific mandate of the church is. For purposes of this discussion, I will define the church as that group of people that self identify as followers of Jesus. I use that definition because it is evident the terms he uses to describe his relationship with them, calling them his “body,” or his “bride.” Conversely, this “church” acknowledges Jesus as “her” head, and as her groom. It is a flawed group, always painfully limping from the wounds of its own making. But still, strangely, for God’s own glory, this is the group Jesus left to represent him. That in itself is a testament to Jesus grace for the deserving [ie God’s people], and also a continual reminder of our perpetual need to depend on Him.

The purpose of this church, with its victories and vicissitudes, is to advance Jesus’ agenda. Discerning this agenda is not rocket science. We find multiple summaries of it throughout the Bible. The purpose of the church is to align our lives and our human experience with God’s agenda through Christ. [Ephesians 1:10] This spiritual endeavour necessarily covers our personal lives, our families, workplaces and the values and systems we see, as well as the underlying assumptions and motivations that drive the world around us. It also includes the physical, material circumstances that we find ourselves in. Where any of these varied situations are at odds with God’s agenda, then they must be brought back into dialogue and relationship with God. The term often used is that all these people, things, systems, and structures are to be “reconciled” with God and his purposes. [Col 1:20, 2 Cor 5:21]

One could argue that this is vague and non-specific. Where do we find the purpose of the church specifically indicated? Jesus gives us some pointers in his own mission, which he bequeaths the church in Luke 4:18-19. Referring to Isaiah, he said “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”[ Isaiah 61:1; Isaiah 58:6]

The spirit of the lordLet’s exegete this. The church exists to make a difference in the lives of the poor. This is not just spiritual, emotional or intellectual poverty. A casual look at the New Testament demonstrates that God’s agenda necessarily includes all the above as well as material, economic poverty. Poverty alleviation is the business of the church! Jesus is also about liberation, setting people free. His agenda is for freedom. Again this is not just from spiritual, or intellectual captivity. Those are important but this also includes those in political, ethnic, and racial oppression. Many facets of this liberation message are political. And so, contra-Moi, politics is necessarily the business of the church.

God’s agenda is healing, for the blind. God is interested in people’s health, their ocular, aural, olfactory and every other kind of wellness. It’s been laid bare for us in the good book that Jesus and those he mentored invested themselves in the spiritual and physical health of the people around them. Hospitals are therefore the business of the church!

I note here, and this is significant, that God’s agenda is not limited to the freedom, health and well-being of just the believers. God’s agenda, mediated by His community, is for all of humanity. My purpose as a Christian is to make the world a better place for everyone. Sometimes my efforts as a Christian reduce the quality of my own life, but for the sake of someone else. That notwithstanding, Christ’s message offers God’s gifts shared for all humanity.

The last part of the statement is often overlooked. The proclamation of the year of the Lord’s favour. Elsewhere you will find the term, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s Jubilee. The Year of the Lord’s favour was a biblical concept where God required his people to push a reset button in society to restore what had gone off centre in the societal systems and structures. (Far cry for what Jubilee, the party has delivered…) Land was returned, slaves were released, and the marginalized were given a second chance in the Jubilee cycle which was to last 49 years. This was a time for hope and renewal for a society which had atrophied over time. In short, Jesus teaches me that the church is also in the business of hope. This hope is supplied at great cost written in blood at Calvary. This community exists to announce and where necessary engineer a reset both giving much-needed hope for the individual and for the society they live in.

Christian cross with Jesus Christ statue over stormy clouds

My reading of the purpose of the church necessarily requires the church to actively engage in politics and economics. Mr Moi was wrong on this one. It must speak about good and evil, but must also tangibly act on the same. It must encourage, dissuade and negotiate in order to fulfil its mandate. It hasn’t always done a good job of this, and I am sure article in at least one of this week’s newspapers may eloquently prove this. But its failure in practice does not negate its mandate in theory [in theology?].

The church’s work of proclaiming the good news to the poor is a call to social work in all its forms. This proclamation of Jesus [and him crucified, and resurrected], necessarily involves work in schools, hospitals, orphanages, care for the aged, refugee work, mental healthcare and any other area involving the marginalized, and affects the well-being of the society. Such involvement will be at every level imaginable, so long as at least one member of the church is there. To suggest otherwise is to misdirect the community. It is on this count that Dr Njoya’s statement above misses the mark. While motivated by the chronic ineptitude of various church leaders, her prescription either dismisses or ignores the express purpose of the church.

Any discourse about what the church should [or shouldn’t] do will be strengthened by a proper understanding of who the church is, and what the purpose is. I have explained what the purpose of the church is and in general terms who the church is. Let me make a further distinction here. The church is a group of followers of Christ. It is a community. It is a group of people organically connected to each other by a common faith in the person of Jesus. This conversation is impoverished whenever the church is viewed primarily as an institution – an inanimate body built around a particular structure for a specific goal. Truth be told it is an institution with structures for a goal. In fact, it is a motley conglomeration of many institutions. It, however, is much more than that, it is a community, an organism more than an organization. That the church fails, for example, to speak prophetically to the Presidency is an indictment on particular institutions, but not on the community. Even here one has to specify which of the many institutions, that form the local, nationwide or worldwide church are being indicted.

Institutional failure may reflect on the institution but it does not absolve the community of its mandate to pursue its purpose in society. If the church has been silent as an institution, it must realize its own shortcomings as a community, and get back on its mission. The mission didn’t go away, its the institution that got distracted. If it stopped speaking prophetically, it must open its mouth again. On the same token, if some within its proximity require education, healthcare, or legal services, then the community must get in there and do what it can at all levels.

Oppressive government healthcare practices and policy must be confronted with sharp rebuke from church members [leaders] on the pulpit, church members in that sector of society [health practitioners] and the church members in the affected area [wananchi.] Other church members should revise, re-craft and push, by advocacy or other means, policies that address the inadequacies and issues of the sector. At the same time, church members also have a responsibility to the victims of the broken healthcare system [patients in the hospitals, nurses, doctors etc]. In addition to much fervent prayer, which we know can bring supernatural healing, the church [leaders and members] have to trust God to take further tangible steps. After all, as James pointed out, if a vulnerable person comes and the Christian community “does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?” [2:16-17] An implication often missed in the reading of this passage in James, is that somehow, with all the needs of the institution, the cost of being Christlike community rests with the community itself. With wisdom, restraint and hope [all available in varying measures], Christ invites church members the privilege of fincancially supporting the work. And the work is a lot! Where the government neglected to build a hospital, the church members should build one. Where the government is failing to maintain the hospital, the church, that is the community of Christ-followers, should step in.Bible and Medicine

In other words, the failure of the government, civil society, the media, or NGOs is not a license for the church to abdicate its spiritual and physical mandate to fulfil its purpose. On this score, I would argue instead that we need to see much more engagement. The churches, especially the charismatic ones whose expression I belong to, [we] need to do much more than they have been doing. We the church, members, leaders and all, should build those schools, take over public hospitals, support the orphans, run for political office – and do whatever the mission and purpose requires. The church is more than an institution, it is a community. Its mandate is to do all within its power, engaging all its people and resources to align everything to God’s agenda for humanity. As it is, where we are now, there is too little engagement with politics, healthcare, education, infrastructure, economics and so on. I hear Jesus saying through Luke 4, that we need to get on with it already.  The church is mandated to have its finger in every pie, and keep it there until its mandate is fulfilled, or Jesus returns – whichever comes first.

Forgiveness, Irrationality and Choice

Posted in If I was... on October 4, 2019 by Kyama

Brandt Jean statement

Image result for brandt jean

Faced with an opportunity to address the killer of his brother, Brandt Jean chose a difficult path. He voiced his forgiveness and even stated that he would not have wanted the Amber Guyger not to go to jail.

That felt wrong to me on several levels. A person of color died, unarmed in his own apartment, from bullet out of a white police officer’s gun. Forgiving one is not recommended, in a racially charged nation where many offenders are hardly brought to book. Justice needs to be served, if not for this family, for many others vicariously. Jean’s statement felt to me like it trivialized the gravity of what was at stake here.

However at another level Jean did something that sets him apart from the Pope’s words to his shooter or Mandela’s approach to peace in post-apartheid South Africa. Pope John Paul II had instruments of power. His forgiveness came at a great personal cost but his position of authority and responsibility in the world afforded him a certain status and possibly cushion from the effects of this heinous act against him. Mandela was already a famous leader by the time he left prison. He led the nation and had access to resources and status that is vastly different from Jean’s situation. While I don’t claim to be an expert in these matters, or to understand Jean’s environment from a first had perspective, it is not lost on me that nothing in Jean’s life now or in the future is set up to be spectacular or cushioned. He has nothing to gain materially from this situation. In fact, he lost his brother, his privacy, his dignity, his preferred future and so on. When Jean goes back to life, his racial background will predispose him to the same fate that befell his brother. I struggle with that in light of what he said. It doesn’t sit well with me.

Jean lives in a world where systemic injustice not only robs him of dignity but of choice. Systemic injustice exposes him to death on his person, and the possibility of grief every time he steps out. Even when he is at home or at school he has no choice about whether he will experience loss of a loved one by virtue of his race. He also has no choice about the remedy for his situation. When a person gets shot, the only choice he has for justice is to return to the same system that let him down. That is why his statement is at once both jarring and admirable to me.

Invited to address the court, for once Jean had a choice. A free choice to respond. Forgiveness became his escape pod from the matrix. He opted to voice forgiveness, renounce the impulse for revenge and free himself from Amber’s unwitting grip on his life as the killer of his beloved brother. His society’s choice (and mine) was for him to vent its pain and disappointment with the broken system and its broken people. The justice system offers an opportunity for victims to articulate their sentiments before sentencing. It is a part of the system’s way of dignifying the victims. For the rest of us this was an opportunity for Jean to accept partial justice and make legitimate demands for more. There are possibly people out there, even ones oblivious of the racial divide, who would have recommended forgiveness, in an abstract theologically philosophical way. It is a novel concept that is kind of unique to Christianity.

The ultimate choice though was Jean’s. He seemingly ignored these potential voices and demands and made his practical choice. Its irrationality is only matched by its audacity. I look at my own life and shudder at the struggle I have to forgive people, even for things they inadvertently did to me. It took an immense amount of ‘something’ to help him rise above the situation, rise above us and choose a difficult but potentially liberating path. It is that ‘something’ he called faith in Jesus that I find most intriguing because it offered him freedom that the state or society is unable to give. Granted perhaps a pastor or church person might have talked to him. But that isn’t enough. That faith must be activated in the heart to be any use in a situation like this. I have preached many sermons on forgiveness, but in the final analysis, after the sermon comes the decision. When it comes down to the wire the listener has to decide. After the decision comes the action. The decision and action are the prerogative of the individual. What did this faith do to Jean? What is this thing that for millenia mingles irrationality with audacity? Why is it that this faith inspires acts that that are both awe inspiring and repulsive? As people here would ask “kwani what did Jesus do to him?”


The Caged Monkeys and Colonial Christianity in Africa

Posted in African et Religio on September 9, 2019 by Kyama

In case you haven’t heard about the caged monkey experiment, it goes something like this. A researcher put five (or some say eight) monkeys in a cage containing a bunch of bananas hanging from a string, with a ladder leading up to the fruits. When the first monkey went for the bananas, the researcher sprayed all monkeys with freezing water for five minutes. Later, when a second monkey attempted to go for the bananas the researcher once again sprayed all monkeys with the cold water for five minutes. The researcher allegedly put the hose away and never touched it again. When a third monkey went for the bananas, the others, afraid of punishment, attacked him to prevent him from climbing that ladder.
Image result for monkey cage    The researcher then replaced one of the monkeys with a new monkey who wasn’t part of the original experiment and had never been sprayed with water. As soon as he touched the ladder to go for the bananas, the other monkeys attacked him. Whenever he tried again, they attacked him again. Thus, the new monkey learned not to go for the bananas. The researcher replaced a second monkey with another new monkey. The same punishment was meted on him by his compatriots. Eventually researcher replaced all the monkeys one at a time leaving none of the original monkeys. The new monkeys, who had never been sprayed with cold water, learned to avoid the bananas.
The researchers allegedly hypothesized that, if they were to ask the monkeys why they don’t go for the bananas, they’d answer “it’s because that’s the way it’s always been done.” This story is often quoted, especially on social media, as an indictment against religion, especially the dysfunctionality of Christianity in Africa. The problem with Christianity, the enlightened ‘quoters’ say, is that the faithful are uncritical in their belief. The observers decry the unwillingness of Africans to question the motives and ‘import’ [pun intended] of what is believed to be a religion foreign to the continent. They highlight its absurdity in a modern world that is moving away from religion in pursuit of the benefits of science.
People only believe in religion because “that is the way it was done.” With a nod to Marx, they argue that religion’s intoxicating effects have created a “cage scenario” where none of the original proponents are there to elucidate why things are the way they are. They just “beat everyone,” down to religious submission. In all honesty, many can attest to this seeming religious “control” over their private lives. In many places on the continent, all freedoms to believe are granted except the freedom to “not believe.” Now, for all the publicity this research account receives I haven’t found any proof of the actual experiment in the way it is often stated. As far as I am concerned it is a modern myth, or legend. Its point, however, is forcefully made. The argument frequently articulated especially on social media is that for Africans to think freely they must rid themselves of religion, especially of the White Christian kind.
Of what use is this religion in Africa? Debate is rife, questioning the value of this Christianity, for a continent full of woes. What has this thing done for us since it came [sic], they ask. The failures and excesses, particularly of the Pentecostals, accentuate the frustration, resentment even, against organised religion for the continent. That is if one can bring themselves to call these vociferous strands of Christianity ‘organized.’ Layered on top of this is the extractive, colonial heritage that attended the missionary years in Africa. The argument goes, that African Christianity’s provenance in Europe, with its North American cousins, renders it useless for any practical purpose on the continent. Only when a truly “melanized” Christianity is found can it be trusted as a means by which society can use to address its problems. Until then, it must be treated with the disdain and suspicion it deserves. For some reason, in the eyes of the critics, early African Initiatives in Christianity, the so called Spirit cults don’t count as African Christianity.

Image result for seraphim church
My thesis is that such an adversarial engagement with religion in Africa must also be subjected to scrutiny. We must apply the same intellectual rigour to ask ourselves why we are asking ourselves these questions. To put it differently using Ricoeur’s language, we must apply the hermeneutics of suspicion on our own suspicion! But first it is important to get the facts right.
The charge sustained by European trained African pre-independence, and early post-colonial thinkers is that Christianity is a violent, colonial, and white, affront to African progress. On violence, guilty as charged. A cursory look at history books reveals its long, tragically embarrassing savage history, in Europe, the middle East, Africa and elsewhere. It is not a pretty history by any standard. One has to admit though, that this isn’t unique to Christianity. That is to say that the charge isn’t materially different from human carnage elsewhere in the name of this or other religions. As a matter of fact, secular humanistic ideas whose devotion to science were touted to yield human progress have not fared any better. Some of the worst mass human tragedies were sanctioned by these intellectual experiments in ‘secular, scientific morality.’ Simply put, violence is a human condition. And a horrible one at that. Historically, religion and ideology are inadvertent vessels of this vice.
The other assertion is that Christianity is colonial. This assertion needs a nuanced response. Many initial missionaries to sub-Saharan Africa were white Europeans. [On this there is a really interesting piece of history from Liberia and Sierra Leone, and another from Coptic Egypt, but that is for another day.] Colonialists were also white Europeans. Those are givens. It is true that some missionaries extolled the virtue of the imperialistic priorities of colonial governments. It is also true that some White settlers and members of their governments appreciated the presence of missionaries who “bottled and exported” their religious expression for consumption in dark Africa. However, the presumption that because missionaries came from Europe they rendered the faith inherently colonial or white is problematic in many ways. The logic of ‘race equals religion’ is difficult to sustain. If Christianity is white, then what is ‘black religion’? What of Ethiopian Orthodox Christians, and Coptic Egyptians? Christian Nubians? This logic simply does not hold factually.
Aside from the first-century examples above, the temporal gap between the missionary enterprise and actual colonialism in Africa renders the argument at least partially void. On average, most missionaries began work in sub-Saharan regions, at their own cost, on average half a century before the substantive colonial invasions. Pioneer missionary work started in earnest long before Bismark’s imperial tea party in Germany. The pioneer land grabbers of different ethnicities poured in after they were given license at that 1885 Berlin conference. Colonial business people were slow on the uptake! They got in much later in the game, after the missionaries had already spotted the potential for evangelistic pursuits.

Image result for berlin conference 1885

In Kenya, we are looking at a significant gap between the advent of the missionary era in 1844, and the formal establishment of the Kenyan colonial government in 1920. This was 75 years after missionary entry and a whole 15 years after the railway, the single biggest statement of confidence in the colonial enterprise. Missionaries and colonialists didn’t come at the same time, and their priorities were materially different. Even when colonialism did take root, the relationship between the mission and the government was far from harmonious. Colonial businesses and governments frequently clashed with missionaries. To them, the missionaries seemed too obsessed with the natives. Furthermore, missionaries often quarrelled among themselves over doctrine, worship practices, and, yes, followers, black African converts. That was the reason for the famous 1913 conference on missionary comity in Kikuyu. Knowing what we know in Africa about ethnicity, it is hard to discount the ethnic dimension of disagreements among missionary agencies.
Eventually, the colonial governments began to exert control and manage the missionaries movements. This paved the way for the geo-ethnic distribution of denominational affiliations in sub-Saharan Africa. The result was a tense environment comprising delicate webs of relationships between missionary agencies, white settlers, and their governments. Just because they were all white didn’t mean they agreed. We all know very well that just because we are all black does not mean we agree with each other, or that we are happy to see one another in each others’ countries, for example. The same is true of the missionary era.
It is common knowledge among keen students of religion and politics, that the mission school was really the first incubator for revolutionary African activism. The first tier of African political leaders, almost without exception were the product of Christian missionary education. What was it about that Christian missionary experience that got them going? I venture to say that it is the subversive message of freedom, and equality enshrined in Christian teaching that sowed and/or watered the seeds of activism among these courageous freedom fighters.
Those who read words like “he who the Son sets free is free indeed,” “it is for freedom that He set you free,” “all were made in the image of God,” “in the image of God He created them,” “let justice roll down like a river,” “loose the chains of injustice – and set the captives free,” and so on, could not help but question the iniquity of colonialism. The message of the gospel is subversive in its very nature. Jesus subverted the human order of leadership, governance, economics, social norms and demonstrated that God can break through these to offer alternatives. These themes found resonance among many on the continent in the 19th and 20th centuries. Deep Christian reflection on the continent, however, dates much further back than the last couple of centuries.

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Reaching further back into the first 400 years of Christianity, African contributions to the establishment of Christian faith and the safeguarding Orthodoxy cannot be overstated. We include in this long list of contributions – the founding of society-shaping monastic movements by Anthony with the fathers/mothers in the Egyptian desert, the crafting of systematic theological reflection by Origen in Egypt, the introduction of trinitarian theology by Tertullian in Tunisia, the defence of the deity of Jesus by Athanasius, right up to Augustine’s writings which inspired valuable principles of moral philosophy upon which contemporary governance, democracy, leadership and even modern law are based.
European minds, thinkers, philosophers, secular or religious alike were shaped by this body work. Africans helped lay the foundation of all serious academic instruction in European academy for over a millennium. Ironically this heritage of critical thought contributed to a groundswell of intellectual engagement that precipitated in the enlightenment thinking. Without these germ ideas it is hard to imagine what modern thought would be. A brief overview follows of the development of key strands in this thinking.
Rene Decartes (1596-1650) interrogated the link between thought and identity. “I think I therefore am,” was his maxim. He was responsible for the Cartesian dualism that mind and matter are separate and distinct, coming together in the human. Interestingly, a Catholic himself, he offered an ontological argument for God. He tried to show that God is apart from the human, and exists because he is separate. This benevolent God, he taught, offers the possibility for humans to perceive him, and their reality. It must be remembered that this was a period of political and religious foment in Europe. The church was behaving badly and the geo-politics was nothing short of tumultuous.
It was Thomas Hobbes (1588 -1671) who articulated the value of the state in regulating human society. He theorized about the possibility of an objective science of morality. In his view religious experience of necessity must agree with reason and human experience. Some of these ideas provided the foundation for the interface between religion and state made famous in intellectual circles by the writing of John Locke (1634 – 1704). He explored ideas about democracy, the definition of church and state, and religious tolerance. These thoughts came from his religious foundation forged in the church-sponsored universities upon which intellectual learning thrived.

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Perhaps the most notable reaction to religion-oriented biases was François-Marie Arouet, better known as Voltaire (1694 -1778). Influenced by Locke’s ideas, he ventured to the margins exploring the possibility of reason outside of the church. Riding on the elite, and popular ‘enlightened’ disaffection with religious institutions he offered that the bible and even Christ could be antithetical to reason and progress in society. He roundly rejected the value of the church and Islam while maintaining a soft spot for Hinduism and Confucianism. There was virtue, he conceded, in those who gave up much for religious calling. He popularized the (somewhat factual) notion that Christianity was indeed a bloody affair.
The next salvo against religion, in a Europe increasingly enamoured with empiricism, came from Auguste Comte (1798–1857). He employed a developmental [evolutionary?] perspective of the societal quest for truth. He argued that this quest for truth occurred in 3 stages – theological [fetishism], metaphysical [abstract, unreliable grasp and use of science], and posivitism [concrete, practical, pragmatic empiricism]. Comte even proposed a religion of humanity, basically the pre-cursor to secular humanism, as an attempt to address extra-ecclesial solutions for morality in society.
The problem of religion in society refused to go away. Each in their own way, these three intellectuals shared a common commitment to unmasking ‘the lies and illusions of consciousness.’ Karl Marx (1818-1883), Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) pioneered a modern type of interpretation which looked beyond the prima-facie, or obvious meanings to search the less visible and less flattering truths. Children of their times though they were, they pioneered what Paul Ricoeur called the ‘hermeneutics of suspicion.’ A term that continues to find much use in philosophy, intellectual history, and related fields in the humanities.
This hermeneutic demanded a reading between the lines to find the omissions, and contradictions to see what is said through what is left unsaid. Such readings of life and thought of necessity required the suspension of so-called absolutes to find the hidden meanings. Michel Foucault (1926–1984) advanced in his thought this now widely accepted scepticism about absolutes. He questioned the categories of right and wrong, sane and insane, and human nature. He did not deny the categories but investigated them interrogating what was contingent, and showing the relationships between knowledge and politics, power and knowledge.
By this time religion had long shifted from its foundational role intellectual discourse to an idea on the same plane as any other idea to be relativised. Others came afterwards to build on these ideas into a fabric of intellectualism whose worldview marginalized religion. Noam Chomsky (1928), for example, a non-religious thinker questioned his own society’s ideas of western democracy, capitalism and even cast a disapproving glance at socialism. His view, reminiscent of Marxian thinking, saw organised religion as an attempt to control.
I write this extremely brief account to problematize the history of Western intellectualism and its import on African response to religion. For those who saw philosophy, and later on technology, as the solution to the need for God, religion became a dispensable idea. While the Western world shifted from an appreciation of the metaphysical, African thinking continued to essentialize religion. Spirituality remained one of the core elements of their worldview through which they process meaning and their reality. In the words of Mbiti, they remained “notoriously religious.”

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It is on this religious substratum that the unexpected growth of Christianity grew. There are very few such moments in the history of Christianity where this magnitude of increase has been witnessed. From reportedly under 10 million in 1910 to half a billion only a century later. Many of the 10 million were in the historically Christian communities of Egypt and Ethiopia. The move shifted from over 90% traditional religion to almost 50% average Christian population over Africa, with Africa South of the Sahara accounting for large proportions. Much of this growth came about in the 1960s to the 1980s, that is, decades after the missionary era.
There aren’t many ways to explain this phenomenal growth. One possibility is that the missionaries really didn’t leave but evangelized fervently remotely. This is not easy to sustain given the evidence. Another possibility would be that the colonial culture and education continued to perpetuate Christianity after the missionaries left. This is a popular theory in various forms. While partially true, the problem is that it does not account for the prolific conversions found amongst Africans through the efforts of indigenous churches, which had little or nothing to do with colonial governments, let alone Euro-American missionaries.
A third possibility is that African Christians took responsibility for evangelization, articulating their own faith in terms that their compatriots understood. This is easy to see in the historical and demographic data available today. The rise of Christianity after the end of the missionary and colonial eras bears witness to this indigenous impulse for Christianity. The most prevalent, and arguably the fastest growing Christianity is the effervescent, exuberant expression that has found its way into nearly every historic mission denomination and catalysed the formation of numerous new independent churches. This Christianity takes African spirituality seriously and aims to process life and meaning through its lenses.

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This is a Christianity with a markedly different ethos than missionary Christianity even where it shared denominations. The settler, and the white evangelist alike, did not recognize it or care for it. Yet, it survived persecution first from the missionary, then the imperialist, then its own African intellectuals. It prevailed against the odds, resiliently holding fast to the African psyche. Its resilience forces us to rethink our engagement with it.
Could it be that this faith finally found a way to dock itself to the African worldview and find sustenance in the indigenous intellectual and spiritual DNA? If so we must ask ourselves where the notion came from that conceived an Africa apart from religion, or Christianity for that matter. I submit that it is not inherently African to construct a reality without spirituality. We must interrogate the very suspicion that recently emerged about African engagement with Christianity. We must now allow for the possibility that there is more than one way to evaluate the value of religion in society. A hermeneutic of suspicion and intellectual disdain is not the only way. Appreciative, emic engagement can also yield fruitful reflection.
Back to the monkey story. The advent of ubiquitous social media platforms has made it possible for engagement with the intellectually elite “masses.” A small caucus has popularized a culture of “mob justice,” against those who venture into non-Voltairian views of Christianity in Africa. Few know why proponents of religion, and Christianity for that matter, are vilified on platforms that are premised on the value of free-thinking. I advocate for a thorough re-examination of the hermeneutic of suspicion that religion in Africa has been subjected to in the last 40 years, and most vehemently in the last decade over social media. I affirm the cumulative and collaborative effect of pooling knowledge over the centuries. However, I urge an audit of the project ascribing Western post-enlightenment priorities to a context without the enlightenment’s intellectual and political history. The arguments citing violence, and colonialism are no longer sufficient to sustain mature intellectual engagement with the role of Christianity on the continent. African classroom and public intellectuals must to get out of that cage and start finding the bananas for themselves, on their own terms.

Prayers and Patients: Religion and Medical Care in Africa

Posted in African et Religio on August 26, 2019 by Kyama


A first-time mother came to the hospital with her parents in labour and ready to deliver. As they admitted her into the ward complications arose and the doctors discovered in her a life-threatening condition. Scans uncovered the baby’s serious congenital deformity. The father of the child was missing in that action. As the next of kin present, the bewildered parents faced difficult choices to make regarding their child and grandchild. It is a mothers’ union friend of the parents who phoned the pastor seeking prayers for the precarious situation. The doctor on call overhearing the call pondered in his mind how to avoid or altogether dismiss the likely nuisance of the priest. Choosing to focus on the patient’s care, the doctor eventually asked the nurses to make the decision wisely as he and others did their work. Just before the theater, one of the nurses in charge allowed the parents only one outsider into the room before the operation, she recommended the pastor.

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Faced with the difficult task of caring for both the mother and her child, dealing with complications of the next of kin falls a distant second in terms of medical staff’s priority. Hospital teams have at their disposal medical science as their primary tools for engagement. Understandably, existential questions about mortality, fate, hope should come after the pressing medical concerns of the moment are dispensed with.
Enter the clergy. It is in moments like these that religious leaders can help the family process some of these questions. Through their calling, they have a complementary set of skills, experience and training to address the non-medical needs of both the patient and their kin. Their words of comfort and prayers, and at times much-desired advice about what the family play a unique role in the well-being of the invalid, and their community.
Therein lies the quandary. Staunch advocates of progress on one extreme insist that the need for God in situations like those above ended when science found the explanations behind diseases and their cures. “Malaria is a parasite, not an evil spirit!” (Though admittedly both parasites and evil spirits prey on their hosts in ways that are not dissimilar.) If the purpose of medicine is to cure the illness, then religion is peripheral to the discussion. It becomes a matter of personal preference whose value in modern society is at best minimal, and at worst, destructive.
Clergy from another extreme insist on Divine agency in the matters of mortality. God is the author of life, they insist. He is the Lord over science and not subject to it. They relegate the role of science to the fringes rightfully insisting that it does not have all the answers required. Sadly in this day, it is not uncommon to hear from time to time, sects in the margins which discourage, even forbid medical intervention for their ill members. More common however are outrageous, mostly unverified, claims of faith healing for some of the most complex medical conditions. What are we to make of the assertions from these extremes? The answer lies in understanding the purpose of science and of religion in society.
Science in general, and medical science, in particular, serves a function very different from religion. I take it that the purpose of medical science in society is to progressively explain reality with a view to solving material problems associated with health. Medical professionals in research and care devote themselves to the preservation of life and the improvement of its quality for convalescents. Vast advances in medical science have provided cures to many illnesses, with promises of more. On the same token, medical science has also opened up knowledge enough to demonstrate how little we know about health and the preservation of life. Much more remains to be done to address a wide range of serious illnesses that have eluded medical intervention. Much as we would like, science does not have all the answers, even in the field of medicine.
Religion has a very different function in society. Its role is to make meaning out of reality. It helps individuals living in the community to make sense of what they see, know and understand. It also helps give meaning to what people do not see, what they do not know and what is incomprehensible. Unlike science, religion goes beyond the tangible and empirical to the metaphysical in its quest. It provides terms and concepts to what people in the non-Western world believe to be a vast world that we cannot see. Also unlike science whose practitioners are a select few, the function of religion is not private, but often in the context of community, especially in the majority world. Religion involves a commitment to not just morals but to a shared perspective of reality. This society-wide quality of religion thus becomes very useful in medical ethics and care. In fact, in this area religion aids medical care in ways that can be very complementary to medicine. Here are some ways this happens.

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At a very basic level, religion provides the patient with a framework to deal with the reality of their illness. Illness, especially chronic or debilitating forms, bring the patient face to face with the prospect of death. Questions about the meaning of suffering, life, love and existential issues loom large, while the science of medicine busies itself with its quest to preserve their life. Counselling psychology is an important discipline in providing a specialized kind of care to deal with these and other issues. It is, however, is limited in its often individualized scope. Its application can also be costly in terms of resources and personnel. It is precisely in these realms that religion aims to provide a way forward. At a bare minimum religion, if a patient is so inclined, can help chart their journey towards understanding and even resolution. This journey uses landmarks known by others who also share the faith. For example, the patient and their loved ones can share together in the knowledge of a caring, all-knowing God who isn’t surprised by illness. The patient can also have a common understanding with their kin and community of what their faith says about life after death.
In this way, the community around the patient also is able to find resources to deal with the reality of illness. Without such resources, the community is hard-pressed to find hope, experience love or even endure the uncertain route to potential recovery. The family of a patient may share a faith that provides them with what psycho-social resources they need to manage the uncertainty as they anticipate the potential healing. Such hope may prevail and be effective in this purpose, independent of the patient’s own commitment to the faith. That is to say, a patient’s family can pray for healing, even if the patient themselves are not as fervent in religion or don’t believe at all. Christianity, Islam or other faiths can benefit the kin, even if the patient [or even care giver] don’t subscribe to it. Admittedly this is where some of the biggest criticisms come against religion, particularly of the fiery Charismatic kind that I subscribe to. Here the zeal of the faithful and their leaders often discredit medicine, often standing in the way of anyone who sees issues differently. While their motive isn’t sinister its effect is to bring disharmony in the very situation that needs peace. This notwithstanding, religion provides the community around the invalid with the opportunity to find meaning in difficult situations.
In those cases where the patient and their kin have to face death, religion provides a framework to deal with the loss. All religions have some way to deal with mortality and its consequences on those left behind. This is an important aspect of religion in community life. Death is an eventual reality and medical care is constantly on the frontlines of dealing with it. This is also the case when the care of an invalid is extended for periods of time with the inevitable result of death. Religion provides meaning in liminal moments such as these. Christian faith, for example, provides sacred scriptures, prayers and sermons that prepare both the patient and their family to come to terms with the transition from life to death.
The scope of some illnesses straddle the biological, psychological and social boundaries. Mental illness is one such condition, which is in itself a category for a very broad range of illnesses. Psychological and psychiatric help is indispensable in the multi-disciplinary treatment and care for these conditions. With this, as with other complex issues whose effect touches the community, the mind and the body, answers cannot be exclusively limited to one approach. Religion can provide for the patient and community useful parameters with which to navigate the conversations. Christian scriptures, for example, provide hope for even the most debilitating of conditions. Other Christian teachings also provides avenues to strengthen families fractured by the effects of mental illness.
Finally, religion provides room for the inexplicable. Whether it is sudden unexpected turns for the worse, or scientifically inexplicable healing, or the unwarranted lack of progress, religion can provide answers for all. The answers may not satisfy all, may seem irrational, bigoted, unscientific, or downright ridiculous, but they are nevertheless attempts at explaining a reality that the patient and their kin needs to come to terms with. Religion can provide hope that there lies something or someone out there who can provide a different result from science. Many find hope through words such as “God hears your prayers, and can heal you.” The instances where that such hope has borne fruit of different kinds are too numerous to dismiss. As we often say in my church, “God is on His Throne making miracles happen.” Religion can pave the way for the impossible.
It is for these reasons that religion needs to come to the table in providing care for the ill. There are those who hail progress and modernity as the elimination of the irrational, replacing it with science. Science has explained it all, they say, so we no longer need God – He is Dead. As we have established, the function of science in society has its limits. Having been a pastor for two decades, I have found that religion provides important, communally agreed-upon frameworks for answering those questions that science was never meant to, or simply does not know how to answer. In other words, God is very much alive and helping the faithful come to terms with their reality.
Medical institutions that are serious about giving holistic care to their constituents must, therefore, contend with the important role of religion. Those with medical ethics teams will be well advised to include religious practitioners as stakeholders to speak into their care giving practice. Discerning hospitals provide opportunities for the patients and their kin to access pastoral care in the course of their treatment.
The nurse allowed access for the pastor who arrived just in time to pray for the pregnant girl. The prayers were loud and disruptive as the medical team scrambled to prepare and hurry the girl to theater. “May your will be done. Amen!” the church minister said as she concluded her prayer. The parents released their child to the doctors and resigned themselves to the outcome in the waiting room, ruminating on the final words of the prayer. Whatever the outcome from the theater, that nurse might have just done the greatest service to the family.

What’s in a Namba?

Posted in If I was... on May 27, 2019 by Kyama

So what’s in that Namba

The President and the head of the Opposition launched registration of the National Integrated Identity Management System number, better known as the Huduma Namba, on April 2nd 2019. This was with much ado from various quarters. A few days this, activists sought court orders to stop the registration citing it as unconstitutional. A day before the registration, the High Court ruled that the registration should continue but cautioned that no one should be compelled to register. Since then the Deputy President and other leaders, with their families led by example, urging Kenyans to register with assurances that this was a voluntary exercise with benefits for the citizens as well as the government. rusty-numbers-1417548-639x425.jpg
The narrative was complicated by comments a week after the launch, where the Principal Secretary of Immigration was quoted as saying, “If you are not in NIIMS and you are applying for a passport, we will know very well that you are not a Kenyan.” The fear among the populace isn’t misplaced, therefore, since the government promised that they would not compel anyone. While court specifically ordered a voluntary registration process, the secretary’s comments point to a different possible reality.
Then there are those who are suspicious of the motive behind the seemingly rushed, widespread registration. If information is power then its collection and use raises legitimate questions in a world where the individual’s data can be traded and exploited for some form of gain. The breadth and depth of the information requested at the registration of the Huduma Namba plays right into these concerns. The possible use of the information for commercial purposes by undisclosed entities is in itself an infringement of the individual’s rights.
My concern however is with how I should process this as a Christian living in Kenya today. As widely quoted in the press, many expressed their anxiety wondering aloud whether this number bears any relation with the dreaded ‘mark of the Beast,’ that signals the apocalypse in Revelation 13. Discourse about the ‘end times’ does occupy a significant amount of time in Christian’s imagination around the world. Naturally we would expect this to factor into this particular activity. The President and others dismissed this as an uncalled for distraction in the process of serving the nation.
There is something about this tugs at their minds seeking a Christian way of reflecting on this. On the surface I think Christians want to know exactly what to make of the number and its apparent connection with Christian faith and the events of the last days. At a deeper level I sense a desire among the faithful to connect with the ethics and moral implication of this registration process. The question is – How am I supposed to think Christianly about this?
I have my reservations about the Huduma Namba, and yes, I am a pastor. On one plane I am just apprehensive about the logistical hustle it is, having recently lined up for hours to obtain a passport in a process that took a couple of months longer than anticipated. I will give it to them, they are doing their best, but these things affect our perceptions. Let me also say that my reticence at this point is not about the number of the Beast in Revelation 13, though I will give a thought later. That is an important discussion to have but it belongs on a different table. number-1182946-639x842.jpg
It occurs to me that there are some crucial issues that numbers of this nature bring up, that I have the duty to reflect on as a Christian. Numbers are essential in our personal lives. We can’t do without them in the mathematics which attends our everyday lives. They are indispensable, as they are enjoyable, in the Engineering that affects our activities, and which I had the privilege of studying during my campus days. Numbers are also important in religion. All Abrahamic religions attach both functional and symbolic uses of numbers in their faith. While it may be the growing practice to dismiss the symbolic use of numbers as mythical, we cannot altogether wish them away. They are woven into the very fabric of faith. The Bible is full of numbers, in fact there is even a book called Numbers!
It is significant for example that Jesus had twelve disciples. The number 12 is also the number of Jacob’s sons, and subsequently the tribes of Israel. Jesus fasted and prayed for 40 days before the start of his brief but important ministry. This is an echo of the time Moses spent in conversation with God on the mountain before he emerged with the 10 commandments. 40 is also the number of years the Israelites spent in the wilderness. Jesus fed 5000 during one day of particularly lengthy teaching sessions. He sent out 70 on mission to speak God’s word, not unlike the 70 people who God affirmed for leadership alongside Moses. 70 is also the number that Israel spent in exile. Jesus asked us to forgive 70 seven times, in a day! Christ had 3 close disciples with whom he shared everything he taught, and even shared some significant experiences like the transfiguration. Most pertinently, his death and resurrection took 3 days. We believe that God is three in one, the Holy Trinity, Fathers, Son and Holy Spirit. The numbers are important in the narrative that shapes this faith.
It is not just numbers on their own but the big deal is really in their context, and purpose. 12, 70, 3, 5000 don’t really mean anything significant in Christianity unless they are connected to the people, their circumstances and ultimately God. The book of Numbers, for instance, retells the story about the nation of Israel, and contains a, sometimes tideous, accounting for every soul in the nation. The book starts with a numbering of the soldiers and proceeds to essentially offer a detailed census report, complete with numbers and locations. Later on we can see their victories, missteps, positive and negative consequences of their decisions enroute to the Promised Land.
With such accounts as Numbers and Deuteronomy, it does seem like enumeration of a people will always find God’s approval. (After all Jesus was born during a census) But we find in 2 Sam 24 (and 1 Chron 21) David punished for taking a census of the soldiers. Is this a double standard? The book of numbers starts with a census of soldiers and contains a second enumeration in chapter 26. Why then did God punish David? It seems like exactly the same action but what is the difference? A closer look at both narratives gives us a clue to unlocking the importance of numbers. Moses counted the potential soldiers in Numbers twice, to show how a limited, finite force of former slaves with no standing army triumphed with God’s help after a miraculous escape in Chapter 1, and after a disastrous plague in chapter 26. The hero here is God! Chapters 33 to 35 offer a summary of the Divine Hand as a lesson for future generations of which we are a part. On the other hand, David numbered his fighting men, when he should have been focussing them on building a moral, God fearing community whose values lay in reliance on God, not human strength. He did not need to and in fact received advice from his trusted General not to do it. David wanted to be the hero in this one. Numbers can be used for the wrong reasons and contravene God’s code.
In general, numbers in the Bible highlight God’s practical love and concern for His People. The book of Numbers uses numbers to illustrate the different ways a group of 2 million received God’s care and love to see them through the unknown and uncertain into a new season. 5000 is the number that Jesus fed eager spiritually and physically hungry crowds with meagre resources. The focus here is not whether they were 4999 or 5001, but that a God who was feeding the minds and hearts of a multitude of people, was also concerned about their health and well being.
That number 5000 also highlights another significance of numbers. It demonstrates the magnitude of God in relation to the mortal, limited nature of the human. The boy’s 2 fishes and five loaves which Jesus used to feed the crowd, provide the striking contrast which always presents itself when bounded human resources come face to face with the enormity of human problems. The use of numbers in scripture is vast and varied, but invariably, the positive use of Biblical numbers is to demonstrate the God’s relationship over his people, and in so doing to affirm and dignify humanity in light of this relationship. Whenever numbers are shown negatively as in the case of David enumerating his soldiers, one will see there, a dehumanization of people by commodifying them for a particular use. In this case, David just wanted to know if he had what it takes to win a war, with or without God. The soldiers were no longer people, but means to an end. So numbers carry meaning. They shape who we are in the context of our faith, and add a symbolic concreteness to the stories, and metaphors upon which our relationship with God, indeed our faith thrive in.

Numbers also play a part in concretizing our identity as Kenyans. For good or ill, each citizen has several numeric identities. Like every Kenyan should, I have a birth certificate with a unique number. Then there is my identity card (ID) number, and my passport number both of which are primary markers of my specific citizenship in this country. These depend on the birth certificate number, and that isn’t enough. As a citizen my monetary obligations incurred by my citizenship contract are carried out with the aid of yet another identity number – the Personal Identity Number (PIN). This tax identity is based on the ID number. My children here will receive their full benefits as students in the republic through the recently instituted National Education Management Information System (NEMIS) number. Like the other identity numbers, this is premised on the Birth certificate, and includes parental ID number details. NSSF addresses my social security primarily for when I reture, while NHIF concerns itself with my health benefits as a national.
As I reflect on these numbers, Christian I must ask myself about their efficacy in addressing the needs of all Kenyans. The book of Numbers details the allocation of resources for a nation living in the desert under pressure from enemies and the elements. Enumeration in this day and age is in itself a resource intensive one. Each layer of identification protocols is a layer of cost centres. Kenya’s resources are limited which means that what we have must be taken care of frugally (after all we are severely indebted, and as the Book of Books says the debtor is… lets talk about that another day). Stewardship of resources is a legitimate ethical and moral question for which we must engage our faith.
Multiplying layers of protocols such as some of these numbers may be touted as efficiency but may inadvertently reveal inefficiency. One might ask, if we could not serve the Kenyan well with their ID number, or PIN number or Birth certificate number what will we do different to better serve them with yet another number, which they have to register for? Incidentally, we haven’t even talked about the cost of registering and operationalizing the new system- before the others are complete. If we still have not yet registered everyone for their ID, PIN, Birth certificate, or NEMIS number, how will we manage the number of numbers – the Huduma Namba? As the Good Book says, if you stumble in safe country, how will you manage the trickier places?
In my view, most importantly, what will this new layer of identification do for the least of these in our nation? Does the Huduma Namba, or any other number for that matter contribute to the care of or the marginalization of the least of these. We find in Acts 6 a redemptive allusion to numbers for the purposes of stewardship of resources and the care of the vulnerable. In this narrative, the unity of the early church came under threat from conflict in the care of widows. Resources seemed to be unevenly distributed to widows leaving some from one ethnic community marginalized. The leadership appointed 7 leaders for the sake of caring for these vulnerable ones in the community. This seems to have settled the matter since Luke the writer of Acts does not revisit this again.
As we engage with the question of the Huduma Namba, we must look again at our context and apply this grid to our context. If this number, or any other number, will become a prerequisite for the issuance of any necessary service for our distinguished citizens in this great nation then we must ask what will become of those without it. As is the case with any system implemented across board on a national scale, it is the marginalized, vulnerable, hidden, ill, disabled, widowed, orphaned, poor, imprisoned, and illiterate who are often left out. In keeping with Jesus’ teaching Matthew 25, Christian concern for the least of these will not let me sit still while they are dehumanized, being left out of the essential services. They must be remembered and accounted for in redemptive acts. Huduma Namba must not become the protocol that separates the weak from the stronger, marginalizing them. Our dignity as a nation requires that we consider the vulnerable among us.
Coming back to Revelation 13, there are many issues with the Beast in the narrative that aren’t easy to understand and are therefore open to many interpretations. Lets leave the intricacies of that to theologians in my neck of the woods. What all Christians agree is that the grand scheme of Revelation is the ultimate reconciliation of humanity with God through Christ. What makes the number in Rev 13 so memorable, and scary even, is the way it commodifies our humanity and in so doing dehumanizes us. In that chapter, those who are supposed to find their identity in their Creator God lose their names, their individuality in exchange for a number which restricts activities for their livelihood. Like the David’s situation in 2 Sam 24, someone other than God is trying to be the hero. That is an important issue to put at the back of our minds as we navigate this conversation about the Namba. Perhaps we shouldn’t be so dismissive or disdainful of the said pastors when they make reference to this. There may be something to it worth paying attention to. That said, informed by my faith as a Christian, and following my pastoral responsibility, I submit that these then are the issues we must grapple with in the discussion about the Huduma Namba. loc-number-2-1533209-639x485.jpg
As we engage in this conversation our reflection as Christians therefore needs to be directed at the way in which this and other programs will be used to either bring together or separate, and what they will mean for the marginalized among us. That in my view is one proper Christian response. Another is the question of stewardship. Thinking Christianly about this should make me sensitive to the abuse of data and money that may attend this process. Numbers can also be an important resource in helping us hold our leaders accountable for their mandate to direct the affairs of the people. I need to be bold in my assessment of the information that such exercises yield. Such an assessment will inform my vote and other public engagement with my government. It also should focus me inward from time to time, when these programs remind me of my ‘good neighborly’ responsibility towards my fellow Kenyan who may be vulnerable and marginalized by this or any other program which is supposed to help them.


Competence Based system delay

Posted in If I was... on December 13, 2018 by Kyama

I support the delay and perhaps the revisiting of the CBC system Kenya intends implement. While I am critical of 844 having gone through, it and taken my children through it, I am all for thorough reflection before implementation of the system.
Here is my why. old-school-s-class-room-1441405-640x480.jpg
Education systems are (should be) dictated by the future socioeconomic environment the students will live and work in. Only economically privileged societies have the luxury to experiment with other models.
Early stage, (or recovering economies), with high population, aiming for high growth rates, with economic inequalities and income disparities – thrive with education systems that attempt to level the playing field with the limited resources they have. Such systems tend to be rigorous, exam based, aim to develop basic skills and promote merit based evaluation systems (read exams). The myth is that such systems are not student based. Actually they are, they just start with the fact that the student will face an uncertain future for which they will need certain standard skills, along with their peers. These are the heavy workload, exam based systems. Such education systems favor student’s comfort later, in adulthood, not now.
Socioeconomic systems which are more equal, lower economic pressure, lower population and with no need for high economic growth rates, can now focus on present student comfort.
Nordic countries (Sweden, Netherlands, and Finland – with ‘the worlds best education system’) are in that category. After decades of exam based systems, in 1970s/80s after achieving high GDP per capita, supported by mineral (oil/gas) wealth, low populations, relatively slow growth rates they could now focus on such issues as family comfort, maternity incentives and, pertinently, student comfort. (Gdps 30-60k, almost stagnant population, economic growth below 4%, one of those countries even gave all their citizens a $5k bonus! Just for being citizens!) Such countries can afford non conventional approaches to education because they literally can afford to solve the labour issues differently. Please note that UK, US, Russia are large western economies which still keep more standard education systems. Like Brick, countries they don’t tick all those boxes.
China, India, Korea, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore are all strong yet emerging economies that maintain a form of rigorous merit based economies. They have the opposite challenges of say Finland. They are aiming for >5% growth rates, are dealing with inequalities, are aiming for non mineral based economic sustainability. They are also populous. These countries all have make or break exams at several levels.
The question we must ask ourselves is – on which lane should we be? The facts/numbers speak for themselves.amphitheather-1442064-639x426.jpg
One system says we aim for the students comfort in the future. The other system says, future is sorted, let’s make the kids have fun now, after all they are such few of them anyway, and after all we have the cash.
I can feel some of my middle class friends hyperventilating now. Why all this neoliberal vybe of commoditizing our kids as cogs for Kenya’s future? Good question. 2 quick answers.
A. We can’t afford the CBC system for all of Kenya. We have issues threatening the sustainability of our economy. Universal education is one solution. We have to find a different way of addressing ‘non standards’ competencies. Singapore, Malaysia, and (especially) south Korea have figured work arounds for this. That’s what we should be looking at.
2. I am concerned that contrary to what it claims CBC will promote economic and social inequalities. As it stands now, only private schools have, and will continue to have capacity to fully implement CBC. Our government already has among the highest proportion of budget allocations for education in Africa. It won’t hack this thing. Take it from me. Once again those with money will benefit from a good system that we can’t afford to implement.
With current system, a kid in Turkana has a better chance of competing on same level in say Math, English, Swa as a kid in Nairobi (regardless of the other non conventional competencies both have)
In CBC, a gifted artist in Turkana can’t compete with their contemporary in Nairobi. The resources required to level that playing field are simply not there.
I rest my case.
By the way, I do think that non conventional competencies (artistic, intellectual and otherwise) are critical for the future of this country. We need artists, musicians, sculptors. By the way we need philosophers, theologians as well and CBC doesn’t even begin to deal with these non conventional either…