It is a Sunday afternoon and the sun is playing hide and seek with a lazy cumulus cloud that stubbornly hovers above Uhuru Park, Nairobi. The park is teeming with a sea of humanity. For hours, they have been singing, clapping, dancing and cheering.
Now, oblivious of their own near-exhaustion, they are totally captivated by the charismatic figure, dressed in a tent-like robe, as he straddles the stage proclaiming over the booming public address system, “Kuna nuru gizani.’’ (There’s light shining in the darkness).
The crowds gathered at the park this afternoon are every politician’s dream. But this is not a political rally. It is a religious crusade.
For a number of years now, charismatic evangelical church leaders have been drawing huge crowds into churches, cinema halls and stadiums across the country. The devotion of their followers is legendary.
Not only has this phenomenon changed the face of Christianity in Kenya, it also raises interesting questions about leadership dynamics in the faith groups and the society beyond: What is it about these ‘men and women of God’ that draws such a loyal following? What do the people stand to benefit from their association with these churches? How accountable are these leaders? What impact, if any, do these leaders and the churches they lead have on society, on governance and on human rights?
Historically, the church has always been a central pillar of most majority-Christian societies. The simple reason for this is that human beings are by nature worshiping beings and they instinctively seek to connect with the spiritual.
Africans in particular tend to be especially religious. There is an often touted statistic that places Kenya at 80% Christian, though this is highly doubtful considering the high levels of corruption, crime and general social breakdown that exists side by side with these claims of allegiance to God.
It is not only in Africa where the church has been an important institution.
World history since the first century is punctuated by epochs when the church held sway in social, cultural and political affairs in most western civilizations. In the United States, the religious right remains a strong force in defining or at least influencing the social, cultural and political ethos of that country. During the dark days of slavery and segregation, the African American church provided much solace to the Black population whose devotion and loyalty matched that of charismatic Christians today.
But to what do we attribute this phenomenon in Africa today?
Some scholars attribute the growth of the phenomenon to a religious response to contemporary challenges and the continent’s struggle to respond to the economic, social and cultural forces of modernity and globalization. According to one scholar, this is a functionalist approach that examines the emergence of the movement against a backdrop of a cultural environment embattled by external global forces. “Hot Christianity becomes a solace from the harsh realities of the collapse of economies, marauding poverty, softness of the state, failed leadership and legitimacy crises.”
Kenya has not been spared by the winds of change unleashed by the dawn of globalization and modernity. With half of the population trapped in absolute poverty, the victory, healing and defeat of the devil that most of these churches and their leaders proclaim become very appealing, offering as they do a respite, however temporary, from the harsh realities of life.
Throw in some dancing and music which appeals to the youth and messages tailored to the people’s felt needs and you have the winning formula for drawing a huge following. Instead of being a strong force for spiritual, social, economic and cultural transformation, religion has sadly become what Karl Marx called the opium of society and the sigh of the oppressed.
But this is by no means the only reason why charismatic leaders draw the masses. Undeniably, many of these leaders have captivating oratorical abilities and well-oiled public relations machines. Add to this their ubiquitous appearance on both secular and Christian TV channels and their ability to mobilize huge amounts of money through tithes given by their faithful followers, and you have a winning combination.
The ostentatious lifestyles, conspicuous consumption and regular trips abroad by these church leaders, far from turning off their poor followers, make them even more attractive as they become role models of what their followers could become if only they had enough faith and continued “sowing seeds (money)” to their ministries.
The church in Kenya has become a multi-billion shilling industry guaranteeing a comfortable lifestyle for its leadership. Some of the churches have mobilized resources to build state-of-the art sanctuaries, buy stately homes in the suburbs for their leaders, and invest in various sectors of the economy.
An observation of the glaring inequality between the leaders and the followers causes a curious mind to ask, what is in it for the faithful followers? Many of them have come under the spell of the prosperity gospel which promises health, wealth and happiness in exchange for sowing seeds and following particular formulas of faith prayers. The preachers have such a huge following because they are wily peddlers of hope in a largely hopeless society.
It has also been said that charismatic Christianity is particularly attractive to Africans because of its cultural fit into the indigenous worldview. Following the rapid collapse of traditional social systems due to urbanization, many Africans have found themselves adrift and have gravitated towards the church as a new form of communal identity. It is therefore a place to belong, becoming in the city what the extended family was in the village before the mass migration town-wards in search of jobs.
Unlike most of the mainstream churches, the emergent charismatic churches and their leaders are scarcely accountable to their members for the huge amounts of resources that are placed at their disposal. Many do not have a proper register of members nor do they file returns with the registrar, or hold Annual General Meetings.
Many are not even answerable to a Court of Elders and operate as one-man or one-woman shows. This may be what once prompted the then Minister of Justice Martha Karua and later the then Attorney General Githu Muigai to announce that the government would introduce a law to regulate religious outfits, an idea that was predictably met with vehement opposition from some Christian groups, and never saw the light of day.
But clearly it is both necessary and possible to find a mechanism of protecting vulnerable citizens from exploitation without infringing upon freedom of worship. The state clearly has an interest in monitoring the movement of the huge amounts of money that are donated to these religious organizations and at the very least, demand a proper accounting in accordance with their constitutions and the law, just as it does with regard to other societies, trade unions and political parties.
While this article focuses on the emergent charismatic church in Kenya, it would be a mistake to ignore the contrast with the mainline churches and the contribution they have made to the democratization of this country.
During the height of the campaign for the reintroduction of multipartism in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s when there was virtually no democratic space left, the voices of Rev. Timothy Njoya, Maurice Cardinal Otunga, Bishop Henry Okullu, Archbishop David Gitari, Bishop Alexander Muge and Bishop Ndingi Mwana’a Nzeki refused to be silenced by the KANU hegemony.
The Catholic Church and the National Council of Churches of Kenya (NCCK) have been actively engaged in various social initiatives aimed at uplifting the lot of their congregations. NCCK, under the leadership of Rev. Samuel Kobia and later Rev. Mutava Musyimi took many unpopular stands during the struggle for the second liberation and a new constitution.
In 2005, even the charismatics seemed to find their voice in the public square when they engaged with the Bomas constitutional conference under the banner of The Kenya Church, though from the rather narrow standpoint of preventing Kadhis’ Courts from being retained in the draft new constitution which they helped defeat in the November 2005 referendum. They also unsuccessfully opposed what became the 2010 Constitution when they led the losing ‘No’ Campaign.
“Everything rises and falls with leadership,” says author John Maxwell. That may be so, but in most cases, leadership only responds to the demands of the led. So in the church as in the society, it is the people themselves who must demand accountable and visionary leadership.
As martyred El-Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero reminded us long ago, “The great need today is for Christians who are active and critical, who don’t accept situations without analyzing them inwardly and deeply. We no longer want masses of people like those who have been trifled with for so long. We want persons like fruitful fig trees, who can say yes to justice and no to injustice and can make use of the precious gift of life, regardless of the circumstances.”
Back at Uhuru Park, it is now twilight.
The man of God is escorted by a small army of bodyguards to his state-of-the-art SUV which promptly whisks him away to his mansion in the leafy suburbs for a much deserved rest.
In the meantime, the multitude of worshippers quietly disperses in different directions, making their way to their lowly dwellings in the slums, energized to face another week of trying to keep body and soul together.
They may not yet have arrived in the Promised Land, but at least they have temporarily dulled their pain and faithfully sowed their seed in exchange for the promise of a piece of that elusive light shining in the darkness.
And as darkness slowly descends upon the deserted park, one cannot help wondering whether the charismatic church leaders, with their unique ability to draw the masses, could not learn from the example of their forebears such as Martin Luther King Jr., Desmond Tutu and Oscar Romero.
If they borrowed a leaf from the book of these luminaries of faith, they might use their leadership gift to raise the social, political and cultural consciousness of their followers so that they can make certain basic demands of the polity of which they are a part and thereby force it to improve their lot.
But to do so would also mean empowering the masses to ask uncomfortable questions of their religious leaders as well, something the latter are clearly not yet ready for.