Few things mesmerize Kenyan politicians the way religious gatherings do. During the one party state, the Sunday news bulletin always kicked off with a news item of where President Daniel arap Moi attended church, going something like “Hivi leo mtukufu rais Daniel Toroitich arap Moi alijumuika na waumini wa kanisa la… blah blah blah.” You get the drift.
As the father and mother of the nation (his party KANU was known as the chama cha baba na mama anyway), it seemed imperative for Moi to cut the image of a pious man, even when his notorious secret police were detaining patriotic Kenyans without trial in his Nyayo House Torture Chambers.
Moi’s was a stark contradiction, a bible-wielding man of God who ruled with an iron fist. But then maybe all that church-going proved useful in the end when before leaving power, Moi delivered that meme-worthy speech asking for forgiveness, “Kama kuna mtu nimemkosea, naomba msamaha. Na kama kuna mtu amenikosea, mimi namsamehe.” I’m not sure if Moi was forgiven.
But we move.
Moi’s successor wasn’t so much a man cut for public spectacle. And so whenever Mwai Kibaki found himself in church, it seemed less scripted and more of a man trying to make things right with his maker after a frothy night with the boys (they always remain boys, even when they’re old men). Known for his hangouts in private members clubs where he enjoyed his drink, Kibaki wasn’t trying to look holy for anybody. And so his church escapades seemed less national-newsworthy, because he rarely usurped the altar to give political statements.
Then came Kibaki’s godson, Uhuru Kenyatta, who recently caused an online stir when he attended Easter mass in Mombasa, and tickled his wife on his way back from receiving the sacrament. Any good Catholic will tell you there’s no holier moment during mass like the occasion when a faithful receives the body of Christ – and Uhuru Kenyatta, having attended the Catholic-run St. Mary’s School where he occasionally received lashes of the cane from Catholic priests, should have known this better than anyone else. But here he was, ever so playful, giving it’s-serious-but-it’s-never-that-serious.
A man of vibes – there’s no other word that can describe Uhuru’s laissez faire manner (maybe we should say vibes and Inshallah now that we’re talking about religion and iftar) – it seemed like church used to happen to Uhuru more than he himself making the effort to perform religion. And so as president, Uhuru’s church-going, more like Kibaki’s, seemed more in line with a regular sinful Catholic going for confession than an Opus Dei fasting and praying for Kenya.
It was all vibes.
But for William Ruto and Raila Odinga, the performance of faith and beliefs is front and center. Ruto is a self-professed born again Christian, with his wife, according to him, being an even stronger believer. And so like Moi, a Sunday without Ruto in church seems like an anomaly. In fact, much as he makes a point to go to church without failure, since becoming the occupant of State House, the church has literally sought Ruto and gotten residence at Kenya’s seat of power. To say Ruto and religion are in the same WhatsApp group would be an understatement.
In Odinga’s case – and William Ruto and his folk may say this is a foregone matter because they consider Odinga a mganga and not a believer – church appearances seem to be part of the larger performance of politics, just as is his embrace of African cultural practices – like those theatrics he performs at funerals, shouting “Jowi! Jowi! Jowi!” while wielding either a spear or fly whisk. Whether a mganga or a believer or both, Odinga never bothers to explain himself because it’s all visible that his are performances of responsibilities – he’s Raila Odinga and therefore he’ll do religion and culture as rites.
But then the one unifying factor for Uhuru Kenyatta, William Ruto, Raila Odinga (and possibly Mwai Kibaki on occasion?) is that whenever it’s time to observe the holy month of Ramadan, they and their acolytes – both Muslims and non-Muslims – will seize every available opportunity to dorn Islamic religious attire as they stage 5 Star iftars either at State House or wherever else they’d fellowship with their Muslim brethren in the name of spiritual comradeship.
And so in the midst of their ongoing political tussle, both William Ruto and Raila Odinga have been attending and hosting iftars, in which political statements have been issued. On his part, Ruto used one such occasion to call on his brother, now his dear brother (possibly in the spirit of Ramadan) to please halt his call for maandamano and give talks a chance.
But seeing that the intended Ruto-Odinga talks can’t seem to be taking off, and seeing that both Ruto and Odinga are enjoying iftars every other day, it might be prudent for the two leaders to maximize on the next few days (before the end of Ramadan) for them to share an iftar, if not for burying the hatchet then at least for sending a signal that all the religiosity they perform isn’t in vain.