Wednesday, June 24, 2009
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 Kenyan Christianity, 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 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 societies. The simple reason for this is that human beings are by nature worshiping beings and they instinctively seek to connect with the spiritual. Even those who call themselves atheists are religious, for atheism, like any other religion, is a belief system; its only distinctiveness being that it believes in the non-existence of God. Africans in particular tend to be especially religious (some would say superstitious!). 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 an ethical God.
It is not only in Africa where the church has been an important institution. 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 have given an instrumentalist explanation. They 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 (although scarcely delivering them from their miserable lot), 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 PR machines. Add to this their ubiquitous appearance on both secular and Christian TV and their ability to mobilize huge amounts of money through tithes given by their faithful followers, and you have a winning combination. Their ostentatious lifestyles, conspicuous consumption, and regular trips abroad, 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 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 townwards 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 AGMs. Many are not even answerable to a court of elders and operate as one-man or woman-shows. This may be what prompted the Minister of Justice Martha Karua to announce a few months ago that the government would introduce a law to regulate religious outfits, an idea that was predictably met with vehement opposition from some Christian groups.
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 mainline churches and the contribution they have made to the democratization of this country. During the height of the campaign for the reintroduction of multipartyism in the late 1980s and early 1990s, 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 monolith. The Catholic Church and the National Council of Churches of Kenya 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. More recently, even the charismatics seemed to find their voice in the public square when they engaged with the Bomas constitutional conference under the banner of Kenya Church, though from the rather narrow standpoint of preventing Kadhi courts from being retained in the draft new constitution which they helped defeat in the November 2005 referendum.
Lately, buoyed doubtlessly by the huge crowds they address on a practically daily basis, some church leaders have decided to seek elective office with at least one of them declaring his candidature for the presidency. There are also a couple of new political parties which have declared that they have a religious agenda and openly proclaim that they shall field Christian candidates in the forthcoming General Election in order to restore righteousness in government. The implications of this on pluralistic democracy are beyond the scope of this article. Suffice it to say that these developments have sparked controversy in certain quarters, not least in the church itself and among people who think that church leaders should not engage in active politics and that there should be a strict separation between church and state.
The flamboyance with which some of these leaders have entered the political arena is a bit disturbing as is the expectation that their followers should blindly vote for them because they are Christians, without interrogating what leadership credentials they are bringing to the table or the practical solutions they propose to the multiple problems facing this country. While all Kenyans have every right to seek political office, Christians who offer themselves to lead in high office owe it to God and to the country to do better than merely mouth multiple platitudes that often come disguised as visions. Kenyans would be keen to know what practical solutions they propose to such problems as the endemic traffic jams in Nairobi; how they propose to make traveling cheaper for the poor; how to take forth land reform policy to the next level; how to reduce the glaring inequalities first in their own Jerusalem and then in the rest of Kenya; and what to do about so called, terrorism in the country.
“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. The multitudes quietly disperse 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 on the deserted Freedom Park, one cannot help wondering whether the charismatic church leaders, with their 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 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.
Friday, May 22, 2009
Garden Court Southern Sun Hotel, Milpark, Johannesburg, South Africa
Thursday, 25th October 2007
Ladies and gentlemen; fellow countrymen and women, good evening.
It is always such a delight for me to be back among friends in Johannesburg and I am immensely grateful to be able to share this evening with you.
As some of you know, this is a homecoming of sorts for me. I lived here for almost five years between 1997 and 2001, when I worked as Head of the Africa Office of the freedom of expression watchdog, ARTICLE 19. It was during the same time that many of you relocated to Johannesburg from an increasingly troubled motherland.
The period of my sojourn in South Africa was a time of great transition. I arrived here during the third year of the Mandela presidency and left two years after Thabo Mbeki stepped into his big shoes. As we were busy setting up our modest office on 87 Juta Street in Braamfontein and as I was settling into my little flat in Montgomery Park, the ANC was just getting its feet wet on the driving seat of government, after decades of being an outlawed movement trying to overthrow a racist regime in a blatantly unequal contest. Desmond Tutu and his truth commissioners were helping the country to come to terms with its horrid past, and black people were beginning to enjoy their place under the sun after four hundred years of colonial domination and apartheid rule.
Back home in Kenya, 1997 was also a year of transition. The Kanu government was still standing menacingly in the way of a new people’s constitution and intimidating anyone who thought they might have a new idea on how their motherland should be governed. I remember participating in public rallies, declared illegal, in Kamukunji in early March and at Uhuru Park on the eve of Madaraka Day, alongside thousands of other young Kenyans demanding change under the slogan, “No Reforms, No Elections!” We were beaten and tear-gassed, vilified and jailed, but we would not relent in our chorus of disapproval against the cabal of kleptocratic lootocrats who went by the name of the government of the day.
It was the year of saba saba, nane nane, tisa tisa, kumi kumi. These were all demonstrations held with ever increasing public support in Nairobi and elsewhere in the country, demanding fundamental changes in the governance of our country. They were all violently broken up by Moi’s security forces. Then, just when change appeared imminent, the politicians, who were our erstwhile comrades in arms, snatched defeat from the jaws of victory by abandoning us when Moi dangled the carrot of IPPG before them. They did not even bother to entrench in law the few concessions they claimed to have won before running off to look for votes when the election was called. Ten years later, we are still staring at the fog of the promise of a new constitution, no nearer to our goal than when we first began.
Many of us in the civil society felt betrayed by the IPPG deal cobbled up by politicians to enable them to share our chicken before it was cooked, but this is not the place to recount the long tale of lost opportunities on the road to a new constitutional dispensation in Kenya. The reason I bring up these momentous events of 1997 in both Kenya and South Africa is that they mirror our present struggles in two important respects.
First, as we all know, it is election season once again in Kenya and politicians are out on the beat promising us all a piece of the moon. It is time for the country to make important decisions that will determine the direction Kenya takes for the next five years and beyond.
Second, the South African transition from apartheid, especially the truth-telling process aimed at helping uncover and heal the wounds inflicted on the majority by the minority, still offers an object lesson for Kenya at this time. For no matter who wins the election, there is much unfinished business on our psycho-social landscape that will not go away until we have the courage to face up to our sometimes painful history. It is this aspect of our own transition that I would like us to take the next few moments to reflect on tonight.
Over the last 44 years of our independence, successive governments have studiously refused to undertake and lead a process of dealing with painful periods of our past and to bring perpetrators of gross injustices to account. Year after year, we have continued to celebrate our achievements while failing to acknowledge the very real pain and suffering unjustly visited upon our sisters and brothers by people who hitherto lived side by side with them as neighbours.
Survivors of ethnic cleansing, like children of a lesser god, continue to roam landless in our towns and countryside scavenging for food; women who have no platform to speak of the sexual violence they endured during the clashes in Molo, Burnt Forest and elsewhere, bear their pain silently, with only bitter tears shed quietly to avoid spoiling the party, as they are casually invited by the government spokesperson to juvunia kuwa waKenya; families of assassinated politicians still wait for official acknowledgment that government agents actively took part in the demise of their loved ones and the subsequent elaborate cover-up.
We have also decided that bringing to justice the perpetrators of gross economic sabotage through the massive looting of the public purse and the misappropriation of public land by a well connected few is a luxury that Kenya cannot afford.
It is natural to feel anxious about the effect that addressing the past might have on our national fabric, especially since lawlessness, looting and pillaging of public resources for private gain was at some point regarded as unofficial government policy. It is also the case that it is virtually impossible to find anyone among our political elite who is untainted by the corruption of the past. And so we continue to pretend that the past did not happen.
But the poet Maya Angelou has some comforting words for societies such as ours that hesitate to come to terms with their past. In her moving poem during the inauguration of President Bill Clinton in 1993, she reminded us that “history, despite its wrenching pain cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.”
And this is precisely what we need to do in Kenya as we contemplate the next five years. We must face our history with courage. The current government attempted to go down that road early in its life when it appointed a task force on the establishment of a truth, justice and reconciliation commission. But it seems to have developed cold feet despite the findings of the task force that the Kenyan people were overwhelmingly in favour of some form of accounting for the past.
And yet, whether the next government – whoever heads it – offers the needed leadership on this issue or continues to bid us bury our heads in the sand, this is an issue that just won’t go away. A casual look around the world, from South Africa to Liberia to Chile to Argentina, shows that people are refusing to allow history to be silenced. Succeeding generations refuse impunity and demand moral accountability for past criminal acts and a modicum of justice to ensure it. Kenya will be no different, and the longer we leave our issues unresolved, the more complicated they are likely to become. We should not forget that the perennial troubles in the Balkans can be directly traced to the battle of Kosovo fought in 1389!
Perhaps the reluctance by the establishment to ask people to account for the past, results from ignorance of why the process is necessary and what it would entail. This ignorance breeds fear and paralysis. I remember a story that appeared in the Daily Nation of 27 June 2003, reporting on submissions to the task force on the Truth Commission. It screamed, “DON’T OPEN UP OLD WOUNDS, TRUTH TEAM TOLD.” There were also mixed interpretations of what accounting for the past really meant. While one body of opinion wanted to legislate a national amnesia of forgive and forget, another wanted criminals identified, prosecuted and duly punished.
But it is still important even in the midst of this confusion to find a way forward. We must open up old wounds if they did not heal properly in the first place, in order to air them and let the puss out. For as philosopher George Santayana cautions us, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Our country is badly in need of reconciliation. But there can be no reconciliation without forgiveness and there can be no forgiveness without truth.
But many have asked, what is truth in this context? Simply put, truth entails giving a right and a forum for those who have endured suffering in silence to tell their stories and an opportunity to know and understand what exactly transpired in the old dispensation – what led to their suffering, in what context it occurred, and who was involved. As one survivor told the Truth Commission here in South Africa, “We do want to forgive, but we don’t know whom to forgive.”
Truth in the context of reconciliation expresses itself in acknowledgment of injustice committed during violent conflict or oppression. It includes full disclosure of misdeeds; publication of accounts of formerly hidden injustices and violence; and storytelling by victims in the context of therapy.
Truth telling is also important in order to establish an accurate record of a country’s past, and lift the lid of silence on particular periods or incidents that we are ashamed to face up to. In seeking the truth, victims and survivors are not driven by mere curiosity. The massacre of helpless villagers on the runway of a remote airstrip in the North-East; the torture endured at Nyayo House; the flight by night to makeshift refugee camps in the Rift Valley; the loss of a loving father to hired assassins outside a pharmacy, in Ngong or on a lonely hill in Koru. These are all now an indelible part of the identity of the survivors, and denying that these atrocities happened is denying an integral part of who these people are.
Miroslav Volf puts it poignantly in his book, Exclusion and Embrace:
“By wanting to know “what happened” they are wanting to insure that the insult of occultation is not added to the injury of oppression; they are seeking to restore and guard human dignity, protect the weak from the ruthless. The truth about what happened is here often a matter of life and death.”
Tutu brings it closer home. In his book, No Future Without Forgiveness, he explains why forgetting the past is wholly unacceptable:
“Accepting [national amnesia] would have victimized the victims of apartheid a second time round. It would have meant denying their experience, a vital part of their identity…. Our nation sought to rehabilitate and affirm the dignity and humanity of those who were cruelly silenced for so long, turned into anonymous, marginalized victims. Now through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission they would be empowered to tell their stories, allowed to remember and in this public recounting, their individuality and inalienable humanity would be acknowledged.”
In some cases, victims already substantially know what happened but they still need an official acknowledgment from the perpetrators and the state, where it was involved. As Juan Mendez points out in an article in the New York Law School Journal of Human Rights, “Knowledge that is officially sanctioned, and thereby made ‘part of the public cognitive scene’…acquires a mysterious quality that is not there when it is merely ‘truth’. Official acknowledgment at least begins to heal the wounds.”
I remember having tea recently with the daughter of a popular politician whose murder has never quite been resolved. She confessed that as a child, she grew up believing that her father must have been a very bad man since, in her innocent imagination, only bad people got killed. To such a person, official acknowledgment would go a long way to providing healing.
Truth is also important in ensuring the reform of structures that facilitated the abuses. The truth must be placed on the public record to enable society to take a long hard look at itself and ensure that the violations of the past do not recur. This is the only way that the truth will lead to transformation of society.
As Janet Cherry reminds us in a chapter in Looking Back, Reaching Forward, “Personal and individual histories of suffering or evil-doing are usually intrinsically related to systemic conditions. Provision should therefore be made for a comprehensive socio-ethical approach when dealing with the past.” We in Kenya must ask ourselves, what sort of value system would lead us to construct a building whose name means ‘Peace, Love and Unity’ with a basement designed for the worst forms of torture known to humanity?
“Forgive and forget,” is the famous mantra of the morally lazy. We must forgive and remember because the process of reconciliation depends a great deal on how we remember the past. We have just come out of celebrating Kenyatta Day and there would be no point in doing so if we bought into the conventional wisdom of sweeping our past under the rug; after all, the events of 20th October 1952 are not in themselves a cause for celebration. As John De Gruchy points out in Reconciliation, “Memories can return with a vengeance unless they are redeemed and become a way of transforming the future.”
But we should not go excavating the past for the purpose of inflicting revenge upon our fellow citizens. There is a healing way that can bring hope for the future along with our sorrow for the past. We must collectively find this way.
This more excellent way involves forgiveness. This is at the core of the reconciliation process. Many commentators are agreed that this is the most difficult part of the process. Revenge is the most natural reaction of a human being when unjustly treated.
The trouble with revenge, however, is that it enslaves both the victim and the perpetrator in a vicious cycle. What to one is a justified act of vengeance is to the other an unwarranted injustice that calls for counter-revenge. This dynamic has led to some societies being caught in a spiral of violence for generations.
Forgiveness breaks the power of the remembered past and transcends the claims of the affirmed justice and so makes the spiral of revenge grind to a halt. But it must not be cheap forgiveness that does not acknowledge the hurt visited upon the victims. True reconciliation, according to Tutu, “exposes the awfulness, the abuse, the degradation, the truth…. Spurious reconciliation can bring only spurious healing.”
And so we arrive at this threshold in our history with three choices to make regarding the injustices of the past: impunity; trials and punishment; or reconciliation.
We have already seen that impunity threatens the social fabric because it undermines justice which is the essence of organized society. Impunity prevents the full rehabilitation of victims, reconciliation and the building of genuine democracy. Impunity is the option normally favoured by members of an outgoing autocratic regime who would rather that their record while in power remained beyond scrutiny.
In Latin American countries such as Chile and Argentina, outgoing military dictators in the late 1980s passed laws granting themselves and their supporters blanket amnesty from prosecution for human rights abuses as a condition for agreeing to hand over power to democratically elected governments. But as Chilean strongman Augusto Pinochet found out in his last days, and as his family continues to find out today, you cannot silence history. Our leaders and their families would be wise to heed this lesson.
Trials and punishment of past criminals are also not a practical option. In the first place, in most cases there would not be sufficient evidence to convict those suspected of human rights violations. Some of the violations happened in the 1960s and most witnesses would be dead by now. Even after the Second World War with the evidence of Nazi atrocities still relatively fresh, less than 6,500 of the 90,000 cases brought to court resulted in convictions.
Secondly, even if sufficient evidence could be found and considering the pervasive culture of corruption that gripped our country during the time in question, bringing to trial all the culprits would overwhelm the judiciary. Many of the key perpetrators have enough money to keep their cases tied up in the courts for years. Also, criminal trials are not the best placed for seeking a comprehensive truth about the past. Many facts are kept out of court by strict rules of evidence.
It is important to avoid the two extremes of impunity and punishment, and find a ‘third way’ that deals with the past in a manner that will promote a new political culture and a shared vision for the future. That ‘third way’ should balance the requirements of truth, forgiveness, accountability and the restoration of justice leading to national healing and reconciliation.
Reconciliation can take many different forms. As a Christian, I naturally turn to the Bible for guidance. The biblical concept of Shalom (wholeness) is the image that comes closest to expressing the complex and multifaceted reality of reconciliation. There has to be wholeness resting on a balance between Truth and Mercy, Justice and Peace. In the language of Psalm 85, this is where ‘truth and mercy have met together, justice and peace have kissed.’
Wherever the social fabric has been ruptured by conflict, dictatorship or autocratic rule as happened in Kenya over the last four decades, most people agree on the need for reconciliation between victims and perpetrators of human rights violations, but they have different understandings of what reconciliation entails.
For some, it involves contrition, confession and forgiveness (i.e. mercy); others call for ‘peace in the land’ through the improvement of people’s social and economic conditions (i.e. peace); yet others call for justice through the prosecution of perpetrators and the establishment of a culture of democracy and human rights (i.e. justice); lastly there are those who say that there can be no reconciliation without public acknowledgment of crimes through a truth- telling process (i.e. truth).
Reconciliation in action, in my view, is inclusive of all aspects of Shalom: justice, peace, truth and mercy. A successful reconciliation process should integrate all these key elements.
In August 2000 while I was based here in South Africa, some friends and I proposed just such a model with regard to Kenya’s public wealth stolen and siphoned abroad by corrupt leaders and their unscrupulous friends. We launched the BOMB -‘Bring Our Money Back’ - initiative whose key proposals were to set a time frame within which anyone who had money illegally banked or invested abroad was to publicly declare and account for it. If they did so and told the whole truth as to how they acquired it to enable the sealing of loopholes, they would be granted amnesty from prosecution and even allowed to keep 15% of the money, provided they invested it at home and returned the rest to the public purse.
We drafted a Bill to create a framework for tracing and repatriating such moneys, which unfortunately did not see the light of day, as the new government subsequently chose to engage Messrs Kroll & Co to prepare a glossy report to tell us what we already knew without giving us a clue as to how we would ever get our money back.
In conclusion and contrary to what our political elite would have us believe, the crimes committed against the people of Kenya in the past cannot be simply forgotten. To carry on with business as usual while ignoring the walking wounded in our midst would be, in the words of the Lord through the prophet Jeremiah, to “heal the wound of My people lightly, saying ‘peace peace’ when there is no peace.”
We have to build a culture of respect for human rights and democracy in our country. There has to be a genuine commitment to break with the past, to heal the wounds, to forgive but remember in redemptive ways in order to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past. This way, we can build a shared vision of the future; a vision of a great nation at peace with itself, for the sake of ourselves, our children and our children’s children.
God bless you and God bless Kenya.
I thank you.
I am grateful to be able to worship with you this morning. I arrived from Kenya on Friday and am visiting with family here in San Francisco ahead of attending a conference in San Jose next week. It is always such a joy to be with Kenyans abroad and whenever I travel. I take advantage of what spare time I can find to fellowship with brothers and sisters who are spreading the Kenyan charm in far-flung lands on this green planet.
Our reading today is taken from Judges 9: 1 – 21.
( Reading – Judges 9:1-21)
When I was asked to speak at this morning’s service, I struggled to come up with a suitable topic. I was taught in my preaching class in Bible school that when one mounts the pulpit to share from the Word, one should not only exegete Scripture, one should also exegete his audience to make the word come alive and relevant to his hearers. For me, this is a difficult undertaking, since I am a visitor and am not well acquainted with the issues of moment to you here. And so I will beg your indulgence as I speak from the point of view of what is happening back home in Kenya.
As you are aware, it is election season in Kenya and things are beginning to heat up as we prepare to elect a new government (or re-elect the old one) and a new parliament and local authorities by the end of this year. This has prompted my choice of subject for today’s sermon in which I try to highlight the role that good people must play in the politics of our land.
Traditionally, Christians in Kenya and in Africa have tended to shun politics. There are several reasons for this but due to limitation of time, I shall briefly discuss four:
First is the weight of history. The missionary experience during colonial rule discouraged active participation in civic affairs. Politics was largely regarded as worldly and Christians were to have as little to do with it as possible. Some have argued that this was part of a conspiracy where the missionary project was an intrinsic part of colonial domination. Indeed in extreme cases, for example in Apartheid South Africa, sections of the church provided a dubious “biblical” justification for apartheid.
Whether by default or by design, the teaching of the church in colonial Africa left a legacy of exclusionary politics where politics is left to worldly people while the church focuses on pastoral issues. But by so doing, this approach has ended up limiting the definition of politics as a process of acquiring political power for power’s own sake and thereby enabling politicians to protect their own interests as opposed to working in trust to advance the interests of the nation.
But even before the advent of colonialism and the missionary project, and this brings me to my second point, religion has historically tended to introduce a false dichotomy with regard to the management of human affairs. Jim Reeves’s famous song comes to mind here. “This world is not my home, I am just passing through…” Many have interpreted this song and sections of Scripture as meaning that Christians should have nothing to do with how their countries are run but should focus instead on winning souls.
But few stop to wonder what happens to the souls if the conditions in a particular country make it impossible to keep soul and body together. At worst those who subscribe to the “Jim Reeves” school of thought behave as if social problems do not exist; at best they try to salve their consciences by engaging in acts of charity.
They conveniently forget that Moses did not go to Pharaoh seeking better food and medicine for the slave labour force; he marched on the palace with a profoundly political demand, “Let my people go!”
When they read the story of the Good Samaritan, they deliberately refuse to ask, “What would the Samaritan have done if he repeatedly found victims of robbery on the Jericho – Jerusalem Road. Would he have continued taking them to the inn and paying for their treatment from his own pocket, or would he have started asking some fundamental questions like, why is there no street lighting on the road to Jerusalem? What have the police done to combat this sort of crime? Has there been any cooperation between the Jericho and Jerusalem metropolitan councils to improve security along this important access road? What have the authorities done to equip the inns along the road with medicine and oil to take care of those that fall prey to the robbers known to be operating along this road?
In the parable of the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25: 31 - 46) Jesus tells us that on the last day, we shall be judged on the basis of whether we provided food to the hungry and water to the thirsty; whether we invited in the stranger; whether we clothed the naked; whether we looked after the sick; and whether we visited the prisoner in jail. These things can and should be done at a personal level; but at a societal level, they all involve very political choices, and Christians should not imagine that they can escape their God-given responsibility to make life more liveable through fighting for a fair and just distribution of power and resources in the society of which they are a part.
Thirdly, we have been misled into maintaining a loud silence in the public square by buying into the false popular belief that we are “the leaders of tomorrow.” I am forty years old today, and all my life, I have been told that I am “the leader of tomorrow”. But tomorrow never comes. Those who became ministers at independence in their twenties are still calling the shots. We complain that our country is being left behind, but what do we expect when our leaders have been at the helm of politics since the 1950s. How can you have a new idea when you have been on the scene for 60 years?? I am amazed at how a young country like Kenya, with over 70% of our population at the age of 35 and below can allow itself to continue being ruled by septuagenarians?
The phrase “Leaders of tomorrow” should be scrapped from our political lexicon and dismissed with the contempt it deserves. We need to develop a culture of leadership development and succession that is in tune with the changing challenges of our time. And we should not apologize for it. I repeat here what I have said before. We will continue to value the experience and the wisdom of the old, but when they become obstacles to change and progress, then it is not just our right, but it is our solemn duty to politely but firmly show them the door.
Fourthly, we shy away from politics because we have a limited definition of politics. Politics is not just about party positions, important though this is. It is about the process of making decisions for groups in all spheres of social endeavour. God instituted politics and we should robustly engage in it the same way we engage in any other part of God’s creation. The powers we engage with are God-created. But because of sin, they are fallen but they can and shall be redeemed. Indeed we are God’s instruments in redeeming the powers and being a foretaste of the establishment of the Kingdom of God. This is not to take a position on the latest fad of church leaders seeking political office, which is not within the scope of our topic today, so I shall say no more about it here.
If politics is a dirty game, it is because we have left it to dirty people to play while we stand on the sidelines and complain. This brings me to today’s text from the book of Judges Chapter Nine. This is an interesting story of Abimelech, the illegitimate son of Gideon, who murdered Gideon’s legitimate sons in order to have himself enthroned as King. Only Jotham, Gideon’s youngest son, escaped the slaughter. Abimelech, then appealed to his mother’s tribesmen, on the basis only of the fact that he was their flesh and blood, to support him in his quest for power. Abimelech also hired reckless, adventurous youths who became his followers.
This profile of Abimelech, the usurper, sound uncannily Kenyan. His approach to politics was nakedly tribal, he murdered potential competitors and he intimidated the populace by using an armed militia of unemployed youths. But it is Jotham’s words that bring to the fore the most chilling comparison with our situation today.
During Abimelech’s coronation ceremony, Jotham tries to warn the people by telling an interesting parable of a community of trees in a desperate search for a king to reign over them. First they approach the olive tree but it declines. “Should I give up my oil, by which both gods and men are honoured, to hold sway over the trees?”
Next, they approach the fig tree but it also refuses to serve. “Should I give up my fruit, so good and sweet,” it asks, “to hold sway over the trees?” Then they approached the vine which also declines saying, “Should I give up my wine, which cheers both gods and men, to hold sway over the trees?”
In desperation, the trees turned to the thornbush and asked it to be their king. The thornbush, knowing their limited options, gladly accepts but with a caveat, “If you really want to anoint me king over you,” it tells the trees, “come and take refuge in my shade; but if not, then let fire come out of the thornbush and consume the cedars of Lebanon.”
Having thus warned the people of Shechem, Jotham flees into exile, but the people ignore him and proceed to anoint Abimelech king. His reign is marked by strife, oppression and civil war, as predicted by Jotham.
In the same way, many good people in Kenya today have opted out of getting involved in public affairs and left the country to be governed by thornbushes. We are too busy producing our olives, figs and wine to get our hands dirty with political issues. And yet we get all upset when these thornbushes go to our parliament, steal our money, while being unable to raise quorums to pass vital legislation.
But we must get involved. And not just in the voting during this election year, but in the daily tedious task of building institutions and holding our leaders accountable. We must be willing to take risks and to pay the price to reclaim our country from those who have stolen it from under our noses. And if necessary, we must refuse to cooperate with a political class that has made it their stock in trade to subdivide amongst themselves the garment that covers our nakedness. We must unmask the charade that goes by the name of party politics in Kenya today.
There are many reasons why we must do this but because we don’t have much time, I will briefly focus on three.
First, whether we are involved or not, we are still responsible. In any country, especially in Africa, politics has an important impact on the direction that our societies take. Hospitals have drugs when politicians want them to have drugs; roads are fixed when politicians say they get fixed. Politics is too important to be left to politicians alone.
Second, if we do not get involved, others will make the decisions for us. All the decisions made by politicians affect all citizens alike. The Bible reminds us that we may not be of this world, but we are in this world. We should therefore not be too heavenly minded as to be of no earthly good. There are too many moral dilemmas in our time for us to remain neutral. It was Edmund Burke who said that all that is necessary for evil to prosper is for good people to do nothing. Closer to home, Prof. George Kinoti has pointed out that it is immoral for Christians to opt out of the struggles of our time only to come in and reap from the blood and sweat of others.
Third, we must get involved because God expects us to get involved. Matthew 5:13 tells us that we are the salt of the earth. Salt both preserves and gives flavour to meat. Christians like to complain about the rottenness of society, but if the meat is rotten and tasteless, there must be something the salt is not doing.
In light of all this, how then should we live? It is possible that being so far from home and without the vote, you may be feeling pretty helpless. But there is much you can do both here and at home in Kenya. Three possibilities come to mind:
First, you should pray for the United States of America. In Jeremiah 29:7, God instructed his exiled people to pray for the country into which He had allowed them to be taken into captivity, “for when it prospers, you also prosper.” Likewise, we need to understand and own the problems and challenges afflicting the country of our sojourn; to pray about them and to contribute towards solving them.
Secondly, we should get involved in local political issues of our day – in our church, community, in our children’s schools, our local authorities and so on. As in evangelism, in social justice issues, the harvest is plentiful but the labourers are few. We should refuse to be lukewarm or complacent. God wants us to get actively engaged in rebuilding the walls around our communities to make them safe again in all respects.
Finally, for you who live abroad, you should remember Zion. I have had opportunity to speak to groups of Kenyans in many countries since the 1990s and I have repeatedly sought to remind them (including myself when I lived abroad) that the task of rebuilding our country belongs as much to us as to the people back home. In July 2000, in an address to a group of Kenyans in Oakland, California, I appealed to Kenyans to invest at home with what was then considered to be a controversial statement:
“My plea here is made even more urgent by the fact that all Kenyans look forward to the time they can retire at home and many are busy saving money to build a house there. But pray tell me, are you going to build that house in the air? How can you look forward to retiring in a country that is quickly going to the dogs on your watch?
Others are comfortable being Americans and we cannot fault them for that. But I would like to point out that American capitalism, in its current form, is on its last leg as a dominant socio-political formation. It is unsustainable for the simple reason that you cannot have all this accumulation in one part of the world while the rest of the world is starving. Something has got to give and it will give soon.
One of three things will have to happen in the next five years. Either there is going to be a major stock market crash precipitating a great depression; or there is going to be a major war – which is what capitalism has traditionally used to redistribute surplus resources from one part of the world to the other (… it has been the same story since 2nd World War where Europeans destroyed their continent to enable Americans to make a massive transfer of resources through the Marshall Plan). The third possible scenario is that even at this late stage, America and other rich nations will see the looming disaster and agree to a Marshall Plan for Africa.
Whichever comes to pass, it behoves Kenyans in the Diaspora to take the lead in reconstructing their country. For the comfort zone we have occupied in the US and elsewhere may not remain comfortable for long.”
A year after this warning, 911 happened and the war on terror began, making it inherently difficult to travel to, remain and work in the US. The comfort zones are no longer as comfortable as they used to be, and it has become even more important to rebuild our Zion. We should get involved in making Kenya liveable by defining those issues that we feel passionate about and giving our time, talent and treasure in reclaiming the fortunes of our land. You may not have the vote, but you have immense influence. You also have resources through which you can become involved in giving provision for the vision of a better homeland.
Nehemiah had a good secure job in the king’s palace (Nehemiah 1), but this did not blind him to the sorry state of the land of his birth. He used his position to rebuild the wall around Jerusalem to keep enemies at bay and restore the dignity of his people. We are in a similar position today. Our beloved country lies dangerously exposed to mercenary thornbushes who owe allegiance to no one but themselves. We will soon go through the ritual of electing yet another lot. But have we asked ourselves what would really happen if we all got seriously involved in snatching our country back from the brink?
Monday, May 11, 2009
Redeeming the Soul of Our Nation
[As Kenyans struggle to find meaning in the shenanigans surrounding their body politic, Njonjo Mue challenges the youth to join an army of ordinary people to fight the good fight; to defend our freedom, dignity, heritage and our children’s future, by engaging in brutal self-appraisal and refusing to aid decay. It is a call to arms - for men to leave the bars long enough to know what their children will eat for supper; for women to cease their escapism and confront the problems facing our communities; and for all of us to individually take responsibility for the future of our country.]
An army of ordinary people
A kingdom where love is the key
A city, a light to the nations
Heirs to the promise are we
A people whose life is in Kenya
A nation together we stand
Truly by birth are we worthy
Inheritors of the land
A new dawn is coming
A new age has come
When the children of promise
Shall stand together as one
A truth long neglected
But the time has now come
When the children of promise
Must fight together as one.
(adopted from a hymn by Dave Bilbrough, © 1983, Kingsways Thankyou Music)
Of being, belonging and identity…
What is Kenya and what makes you a Kenyan? Is it your ID card? Your blue passport? The fact that you were born here? Do you feel connected? Do you belong? Are you more or less Luo, Kamba, Kipsigis, Mijikenda, Asian, Caucasian or Arab than Kenyan? Are you more or less male or female that Kenyan? Are you more or less Christian, Muslim or Hindu that Kenyan? How do these multiple identities play themselves out in your psyche? Do you feel the need to run away from any one of them in order to embrace your Kenyanness?
In other words, what is your identity and what real connection do you have with Kenya? What makes you proud to be a Kenyan? If you had a choice among all the multiple identities that you have, would you choose to retain or drop your Kenyan identity? Why or why not?
The ties that bind…
Our parents’ generation was born into 42 different nationalities. However, they became Kenyans as they united to fight the common enemy of colonial domination. Once that enemy was defeated, they then went about determining the terms of their social contract, in Lancaster House and at home, in commendable attempts to build a nation. Have they succeeded? How and where have they failed?
What about us? 45 years later, what common enemy do we face? On what basis shall we negotiate our new social contract? Will the glue that held our parents’ generation together remain strong enough to bind us?
The answer is clearly in the negative. For we can see all around us depressing and alarming evidence that the social compact that once defined Kenya is quickly coming apart. The demon of political tribalism rears its ugly head with reckless abandon, as politicians declare that it is their turn to eat and then form all sorts of diabolical alliances to prepare how they might divide the spoils, and as they look determined to fight it out to the end, grabbing for power without caring if the nation falls apart in the process.
The need for renegotiating the social contract has been acknowledged by all, but there is seemingly no committed leadership with the courage and vision to lead us in navigating through these uncharted waters. We wander aimlessly in the wilderness of our despair, longing for our Land of Promise, but not even the mirage of social cohesion appears on the horizon.
Yet we have no choice in this matter. We must hold a genuine national dialogue on how to define our new dispensation – and by this I don’t mean merely discussing how to share power, for a society is more that the power structure to which it subscribes. The more we prevaricate on the need for national dialogue, the more certain quarters of our society continue to hold destructive monologues that push us ever closer to the brink.
We cannot leave things to run their own course. The train of liberty does not roll forward on the wheels of inevitability; it must be pushed, sometimes pulled; but always kept on track and moving towards the goal of social justice and the true wholesome development of the human person.
The generation gone before us appears to have run out of ideas on how to do this. This is hardly surprising considering that those who call the shots have been on the scene forever – they are exhausted, old and without a real stake in the future of our country. It is now up to us to take a stand and impose an environment of order to eliminate the daily chaos in our midst. In so doing, we will start to define a new vision for this country and to march decisively towards our collective sustainable future.
Heart of the Country or Soul of the Nation?
Politicians pretend to care a great deal about the need for a new constitution, but we all know that for them, the process is little more that glorified power play. Although the Constitution is the heart of the country, from which the entire legal system gets its lifeblood, in the end, only a small number of people will dominate the constitution-making process. Further, even if they came up with the best document in the world, it would still only be half the job done.
The other, more fundamentally half, is to reconstruct the soul of our nation. This is the responsibility of every citizen and cannot be left to politicians and their gate-keepers alone. It is an exercise which defines what the essence of being Kenyan is. What is the soul of our nation? What are the ties that bind? What are the criteria for belonging? In other words, what are the core values that make us who we are, above our diverse ethnic nationalities and beneath our common citizenship of the human family? As our favourite native son, Barack Obama reminds us, the Constitution is not just a source of individual rights, but also a means of organizing a democratic conversation around our collective future.
And so it is vital to reach a consensus on the values we espouse as Kenyans, for we cannot move forward as a nation until we know and internalize what that nationhood entails. Until we each individually and voluntarily subscribe to a core set of beliefs. Once consensus on this is attained, then we can ascribe censure to those who choose to transgress our compact through mutually agreed coercion. This is the essence of a society governed by laws and not by men.
Currently, we only belong to Kenya largely by accident of birth. We largely identify with the State only in its coercive sense.; in the sense that we see policemen telling us what to do on pain of punishment in accordance with a legal code we had little input in promulgating. We are also Kenyans by virtue of the fact that every June 30th we have a date with KRA which comes knocking on our doors seeking to know how much income we earned the previous year and whether we have given to Caesar what belongs to Caesar. We also think we belong because we demand rights that are hardly recognized or protected and services that the government is unwilling or unable to provide.
We understand the workings of government better today than we did ten years ago. However this has not made our lives better because, in spite of more transparency, there is no corresponding accountability on the part of the government or ourselves as citizens. We live in an age of lawlessness and impunity. Citizens feel no obligation to obey laws that do not bind those who make them. There is no sense of enlightened self-interest in making our systems work or in contributing to the public good. In addition, there are few role models left to follow, for we have allowed politicians to dominate our public space and to perpetually pollute our air with the stench of their incorrigibly bad manners.
Therefore, we need to find positive things that draw us to our Kenyanness, things that will make us assert confidently, ‘We are Kenyans by choice!’ We need to find a new focal point for our allegiance as citizens of Kenya.
What is Kenya and who are Kenyans?
At its most basic, Kenya is a juridical fact in international law. It is also a piece of real estate comprising 583,000 hectares occupied by some 37 million people who are as diverse as can be in ethnic belonging, religious affiliation, occupational persuasion, racial origin and social status.
In this dynamic mix, is there value in being called a Kenyan? By all means, I believe there is. But we are yet to fully appreciate it. That is why many of us continue to retreat into our ethnic cocoons whenever it crises arise. But we need to start defining that value and to clarify to ourselves what value we as a country and as a people add to the world around us.
All this cannot be done within a short period of time, for the search for nationhood is a long-term project. It is a conversation with ourselves that shall have no end, for what constitutes Kenya and Kenyans will continue to evolve as the world around us changes. But as globalization makes the world ever more homogenous, we need to identify and nurture our core values, those that make us uniquely Kenyan.
This exercise is not the preserve of any one person or group of people however defined. The endeavour to define these values has to be a national exercise involving all who bear the name of Kenya and reaching across all the strata of our nation. It will not be easy to arrive at consensus. Yet we must keep faithfully on this course until we are able to define ourselves and know and fully internalize who we really are.
For as long as we keep allowing others to define us – politicians and tribal chiefs, Western hegemonic geopolitical interests, the World Bank, the IMF, and a myriad other amorphous interests and agendas – we shall remain buffeted by winds of change, ones that make one demand of us one day and another the next. Instead of being the masters of our destiny, we shall forever react to the actions of others. Always waiting for them to tell us who we are and what we must do next to water out the fire of self-destruction in our own homes.
In other words, we shall be enslaved to the whims of others. Tossed hither by torrents of oppression and thither by waves of despair, all the while becoming the laughing stock of neighbours near and far; the subject of after-dinner conversations from South Korea to South Africa – whispers about a people who once seemed to be going somewhere but who got shipwrecked in the high seas of greed, economic collapse, socio-political confusion and moral decline.
If things appear desperate for us today, it is because they are. The road to our Land of Promise has been long and treacherous and there is no end in sight. One’s heart has to bleed as one looks around our country. Low intensity warfare and conflict violently and routinely disrupt the lives of innocents in urban and rural areas while Mungiki and other criminal gangs terrorize the populace with impunity and with the tacit support of the political class; all this while trigger-happy policemen gun down perceived criminals and answer to no one but themselves.
Poverty, inequality and underdevelopment are the defining feature of our age. Famine is the order of the day in many communities, hunger a constant companion to children across the land. AIDS continues to wipe us out indiscriminately, ravaging our fragile economy, leaving orphans to fend for themselves and frail grandmothers to look after helpless grandchildren. Crime and corruption are eating away at the soul of our nation, and responsible political leadership is a concept that has altogether eluded us. We have touched the nadir of despair, and darkness has fallen across the land.
We have become exiles from and refugees in our own country. IDPs continue to endure life in desolate ‘transit’ camps; our children find solace in the streets where drugs or regular sniffs of glue help them to accept the morbidity of their daily existence; our men have taken refuge in bars to consume large quantities of liquor to dull the gnawing pain of helplessness and the silent pangs of despair; and our women have found shelter in religious crusades to be fed generous doses of the sweet by-and-by to enable them to endure the nasty now-and-now!
The rest of us have become so impoverished and bereft of ideas and morality that we have lost our way altogether and become ourselves predators. We have no qualms about robbing the poor and exploiting the weak in our midst. We have sadly fulfilled Mwalimu Nyerere’s prophesy about Kenya being a man-eat-man society.
Amidst all this confusion, we have pushed politics to the centre of our existence. We continually engage in a strange conversation where all do the talking while no one is really listening. We conspire against the poor when they cry out for real solutions to real problems by forming endless commissions that only end up creating jobs for ourselves for which the poor are forced to pay us astronomical salaries and benefits.
Our politics is a politics of the stomach – of greed and exploitation. Having presided over the wholesale dismantling of our collective hope, the political class can now set the rules, rules that revolve around money – stolen money! And so this cycle of poverty goes round and round. I steal money today which I use to bribe you to send me to Parliament or the Local Council tomorrow with the single aim of stealing more money to purchase my seat the next round and make a handsome profit in the process.
When shall we stop this cycle of madness?
I say NOW!! Now is the time to draw a line in the sand! Now is the time to say to anyone who subscribes to this madness, ‘ENOUGH!’Now is the time to take a stand against these predators! Now is the time to reclaim our human dignity! Now is the time to start our long march to our true Land of Promise!
What we do now will determine what kind of country our children will inherit. Let no one fool you that it does not matter what we do. The choices we make today shall have irreversible consequences for generations to come. We are the people who shall save or lose Kenya. We are not perfect and we will make our mistakes, but the greatest mistake we can make now is to do nothing.
So, do something!
But first we must first do away with the futile search for a messiah who will come and fix everything for us. For the messiah we look for is to be found inside each one of us. We must each take personal responsibility in defining and enforcing our new social contract. We must say ‘No’ to any person who would seek to exploit us and use us as stepping stones to the corridors of the abuse of power. We must find the courage to believe in ourselves again and say ‘No’ to their destructive ‘favours’ and demeaning patronage for which we have hitherto sold our birth right. It is time to impose a new set of rules: a paradigm that puts country above personal comfort, our children’s inheritance and collective security above individual gain.
Fighting the good fight
Kenya is at war. And this is a fact whether it is acknowledged or not. We may not see tanks and troops on the streets and we may not go to bed with the sound of gunfire ringing in our ears. But we are at war.
The enemies we face are more dangerous than a conventional army. They may not destroy our infrastructure or kill our mortal bodies, but they have stealthily found their way through our defenses and are slowly eating away at the soul of our nation. We boast a form of civilization, but it is an empty shell and it is a matter of time before the whole edifice comes tumbling down. The cost of that eventuality is too ghastly to contemplate.
But unlike the politicians, I do not dangle the threat of cataclysmic implosion before your eyes in order to paralyze us into doing nothing, but in order to galvanize us into action. We must urgently retake control of our destiny and our country and start rebuilding the walls around our nationhood. It is not too late to reconstruct the soul of our nation, but the work must start now. Every moment of delay pushes us ever closer to the brink!
This is therefore a call-up notice:
All Kenyan men and women are requested to enroll into the Army of Ordinary People. Our sole objective is to defend our heritage from enemies within and without, to reconstruct the soul of our nation, and to lay a firm foundation for our new Republic.
And these are our rules of engagement:
The primary theatre of action shall be within ourselves, for ‘there is only one small corner of the world that we can truly change and that is ourselves’. We cannot impose rules on others that we are ourselves unwilling to live by. And so we must start by changing our own behavior, attitudes and mindset. We must become the change that we seek.
The next theatre of action is the world around us – our homes, our schools and colleges, our workplace, our communities and on the road as we drive and commute. We must politely but firmly point out whenever someone transgresses the human dignity of others or of ourselves – all the time being careful not to demand of others higher standards than we ourselves faithfully subscribe to. We must seek to faithfully influence our colleagues to act in the best interests of Kenya. In everything we do, we must constantly ask, ‘will it contribute to the reconstruction of the soul of our nation?’
What weapons shall our army wield?
Our conviction, our minds and our bodies. We shall scale the citadels of oppression to proclaim our humanity to those who have forgotten what it is to be human. We shall shun violence in all its forms – violence of thought, language and action. We shall engage in non-violent direct action when necessary to draw attention to our concerns and to bring about positive change. In everything we do, we shall conduct our struggle on the high plane of integrity and honour. Not seeking to conquer our opponents, but to convert them, for our fight is not against persons, but against injustice, against indignity and against oppression.
Counting the cost: What risks do we face?
The forces pitted against us are many, varied and vicious, and before we engage, we must count the cost. It will cost us – all of us – our very lives. The cause for which we fight will be here long after we have all passed the baton to a new generation. But some of us may have to go before others, for the entrnched forces we oppose are not benign. Therefore, like any other army, the army of ordinary people requires you to prepare to pay the supreme price for your convictions. You and I could die. This is a reality we must be prepared to come to terms with before signing up.
But if we wage our struggle with honour and discipline, and if we raise our cause above ourselves, then, even if we die in the struggle, death becomes redemptive. For hundreds and thousands will rise up to take our place; and our blood shall water the tree of freedom and invigorate our nation. Soon, our nation shall be truly free!
We could go to prison. But this should not perturb us unduly because for countless people who endure life in the slums or live under the specter of urban insecurity or rural poverty, there is a sense in which our country is one large prison today. And should we end up behind bars, we should take solace in the fact that in those very prisons are men and women, both jailers and jailed, who need to hear our message of hope. We will go to prison willingly and shall ‘transform our jailhouses from dungeons of despair into havens of freedom’. Soon, both prisoner and prison warder shall be free!
We could get physically injured. But what else is new? We are already bleeding from a thousand wounds. We suffer the daily indignities of hunger, oppression and disease. The thing to do is to regard every blow that lands upon my unarmed body as the blow of a hammer and chisel that will shape the stones that wound us into the forms of people. So that we might liberate both the oppressed and the oppressor and forever throw off the shackles of fear and brutishness from around the neck of our nation. Soon both the oppressor and the oppressed shall be free!
And what is in it for us?
I can promise you only hardship and persecution. These are the only guarantees. Our country did not get to the dark place where we find ourselves today overnight, nor will we get our overnight. It will get worse before it gets better. But I also promise you destiny. We were born for such a time as this. Future generations shall be beholden to the army of ordinary people – young men and women who had the courage of their convictions.
I call upon you to give up the material comforts of today to build a nation for tomorrow. I dare you to cross the line of the familiar and into the unknown in pursuit of a vision for another country, a better homeland. I challenge you to sow the seeds of a tree you may never personally sit under, that another generation may reap the fruit of dignity, security and prosperity for all. And I call upon you to invest in a future we may both never see that your children and mine might never again be called the children of a lesser god.
And may I remind you, my brothers and sisters, that Kenya was the first country in black Africa where the colonial master was not just asked to leave, but was pushed out of our country by our young men and women who risked their all to wrest our country back from those who had stolen our land.
A generation has since passed. Our parents can at least claim to have attained that formal independence. What about us? Do we want to leave behind a legacy of having let our country disintegrate during our watch?
Amkeni ndugu zetu!
11th May 2009
Monday, May 4, 2009
But a relay in which all citizens must run a leg.
As Kenyans take stock of their race so far,
A new generation urgently seeks to know…
WHO DROPPED THE BATON?
BY NJONJO MUE
Kenya is a country of runners. Even in the darkest times of our history, our light has shone bright on the tracks of the world as our boys and girls raise high the proud banner of Kenya in various stadia around the globe. Kenya’s true ambassadors have not been the dull men in gray suits presiding over the bureaucracies of our missions abroad, but countrymen such as Kip Keino, Paul Tergat, Samuel Wanjiru, and Martin Lel, and women like Pamela Jelimo, Catherine Ndereba, Elizabeth Onyambu and Justina Chepchirchir. They represent us more than our appointed career diplomats especially because, like us, they are ordinary people – soldiers and policemen, prison warders and workers, teachers and students - many of whom rose from poverty to conquer the world, most lifting themselves up by their own bootstraps. They epitomize all our hopes and dreams.
But Kenya knows more about middle-distance, cross-country and marathon running than sprinting; and not just on the track. For we as a nation have been running another race, which we don’t seem quite to have mastered yet despite our prowess elsewhere. It is significant that Kenya has rarely won a medal in the relays. Equally disappointing has been our lackluster performance in the relay race to building true nationhood.
Our race began with the advent of colonial rule with such luminaries as Me-Katilili wa Menza and Koitalel arap Samoei. Waiyaki wa Hinga was also among those courageous daughters and sons who grabbed the baton and led a generation of Africans in refusing to be deluded by the novelty of the white-skinned strangers who spoke in guttural noises and they started to construct the iron snake that had been prophesied about by the seer, Mugo wa Kibiru; these early runners were unimpressed by the fancy material that covered the strangers’ pale bodies which claimed superiority over the warm and simple animal skins that had covered our nakedness since time immemorial. They were non-committal about the new religion that was part of this strange package from a land they had never heard of; and as they began our race to nationhood, they were unwilling to accommodate the strangers except on equal terms.
But Waiyaki did not run very far. The baton was cruelly snatched from him and he was eliminated from the race for daring to oppose the strange new order that was quickly entrenching itself in the name of Queen and Mother England.
But it was not long before the yearning for liberty manifested itself in the heart of another young man. Harry Thuku quickly grabbed the baton and ran elegantly if impatiently. He engaged the colonial oppressor with the suave sophistication of African pride. In 1922 he marshaled the nascent forces of freedom into a procession in Nairobi. But those who thought that they could stop the train of freedom did their worst, opening fire on unarmed demonstrators and shedding innocent African blood. Many who ran with Thuku fell that day while Thuku himself was banned from the race and incarcerated in a far-away detention camp. The baton fell and for a while, we wondered whether, with all the foreign forces marshaled against us, we would ever complete this race.
But a young metre reader with the Nairobi Municipal Council got off his bicycle and quickly picked up the baton. And a great crowd of witnesses cheered Johnston Kamau Ngengi, running under the Nom de Guerre of Jomo Kenyatta, as he ran his leg with rare determination. Years of exile in the very country whose rulers he was opposing at home did not deter him. He took the baton to Speakers Corner in Hyde Park and cut a lonely figure in the wintry chill as he made an impassioned plea for the freedom of the black race. In between the laps, he wrote about how African peoples had organized their races before the disruption of those who thought it was their God-given right to show other peoples a more civilized way of running. After enduring several winters and a world war, he returned home with pomp and ceremony to continue running his leg and he was enthusiastically joined by other daughters and sons of the soil.
By this time, the field was becoming a bit crowded. The colonial master tried to ignore the fact that our race to nationhood was on, but the sheer din from the crowd could not easily be brushed aside. On October 20th 1952, our first team of top runners were rounded up and along with Kenyatta, Kung’u Karumba, Alfred Kubai, Achieng’ Oneko, Bildad Kaggia and Paul Ngei were sent to prison.
For a while, the baton lay still at Gatundu where it had been abandoned in the silence of midnight.
But the momentum towards Uhuru was unstoppable. Oginga Odinga refused to pick up the baton, insisting that the star athlete would have to come out of prison and complete his leg before Jaramogi could contemplate running his own. The crowd of witnesses defiantly continued to occupy the stands and agitate for their runners to be set free. They formed KANU but refused to be drawn into negotiations on alternative ways of completing their race until their team was made complete by the release of their jailed runners.
Meanwhile, elsewhere, another part of the race continued to gain momentum, but this one was not so neatly structured. Field Marshall Dedan Kimathi and General Mathenge led other sons of the soil in Mount Kenya and Aberdare forests, showing the colonial master what the alternative to letting Africans complete their race would be. The MauMau were not running their race with batons, but with home-made guns, their makeshift stadiums drenched in blood. They were answering fire with fire and, though they knew they were no match for the might of the British army, they were equally aware that their own race would suffice to make the enemy know that she could not possibly hope to govern an ungovernable people.
The message struck home and, at the dawn of a new hopeful decade, Kenyatta and other detainees were finally freed. James Gichuru gladly handed the baton he had held in safe custody back to the star athlete and our race was on again.
Our grand medal ceremony was held at Uhuru Gardens in the midnight hour of 12th December 1963. The people deliriously cheered in unison as the Union Jack was lowered for the last time, and the black, red, green and white banner of a new proud nation danced contentedly in the crisp new air of freedom keeping careful watch over a newly freed people against the triumphant sounds of the new national anthem which invited the God of all creation to bless this our land and nation. This magical night marked the triumphant completion of the first leg of our race.
Thereafter, for a few years, our race progressed remarkably well. The team grew with the spirit of the young nation. Nor was it mandatory to merely cheer Kenyatta on as he ran his leg. For others came in to play their part. Jaramogi stepped in as Kenyatta’s able deputy while Tom Mboya organized the famous airlifts to America to help prepare a new generation of runners to continue running the race once the current one was ready to pass on the baton. In due course, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, who was not entirely happy with how the star runner was running this race, decided to switch and contribute from the other side of the track; Bildad Kaggia, too, fell out with his erstwhile compatriot-in-arms and eventually retired to a quiet life in the countryside. So did a disillusioned Joseph Murumbi who did not let the trappings of power as Kenyatta’s new Number 2 blind him to the fact that things were not going according to the original plan. In time, Daniel Moi was anointed to sprint alongside Jomo and prepare to take the baton once the latter called it a day.
But there were signs that the race was not going well at all. Pio Gama Pinto and Tomas Joseph Mboya were gunned down in Nairobi for daring to get too close to the baton. Ronald Ngala too died under mysterious circumstances for looking like he was planning to run a leg. Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, Jean-Marie Seroney, Martin Joseph Shikuku were all hauled into detention for having the temerity to suggest that this race could be run differently. Ngugi wa Thiong’o, too, was locked up when he suggested that the crowd of witnesses should actually have a say in the way that the race was being run and should be allowed to cheer in their own mother tongues. James Orengo, George Anyona, Chalagat Mutai, Chibule wa Tsuma, Koigi wa Wamwere, Abuya Abuya and Mashengu wa Mwachofi, were contemptuously dismissed and labeled as the seven bearded sisters for their spirited attempts to call the runners to run in the direction the people who chose them had collectively agreed.
The nation began to wonder, wasn’t this precious baton the property of the people? Did not many give their lives to get it where it was? Did the people not have a say as to whom their relay team should be? Why then were Kenyatta and company behaving as if they, and only they, knew how best to run this race?
Josiah Mwangi Kariuki asked these questions a bit too loudly and too often. He was found dead and mutilated beyond recognition in a lonely forest in the outskirts of Nairobi. The people, looking through teary eyes, started to lose interest in a race they no longer felt a part of. Still, Jomo and a cabal of political mafia continued to run and to cheer themselves on. Our Star Runner refused to hand over the baton even when he should have finished running his leg, preferring instead to bump off all the able runners we had lined up to take over from him. He kept running the race in our name even when we had walked out of the stadium in disillusionment and disgust and found something else to do to occupy our time.
On August 22nd 1978, exhausted and old, our erstwhile Star Athlete dropped dead, and the baton lay lifeless in the resort town of Mombasa. There was temptation from among the ranks of the favoured bystanders to pick it up and run for themselves. But one Charles Mugane Njonjo pushed his chosen successor forward to pick up the baton and run a leg. The people, thinking that they had taken back their race, stormed into the stadium and enthusiastically picked up cheering where they had left off. But the few who understood this game saw the signs of trouble, as one Sharrif Nassir declared on our behalf that we had already chosen our next Star Runner without so much as giving us a chance to have our say.
It was not long before the nation realized that this race had developed a life all of its own and no longer depended on the people for legitimacy. Moi started off well, releasing political detainees “that their children might not suffer.” But he completely went astray after five years. In his efforts to get away from Njonjo, who was now chasing him and demanding to run a leg himself, Moi ran right out of the stadium and mapped his own route, following his footsteps to nowhere far from the madding crowd.
The people, left staring at an empty track, were rather bemused when they were assured by VOK (later KBC) radio and TV that the race was indeed going quite well. Yet they could not see their runners for they had bolted right out of sight and were making their own rules as they went along – no opposition parties; introduce Section 2A; disband the entire air force; shut down universities at will; jail and torture dissidents at whim; introduce 8-4-4 by force; vote by queuing. “It’s our turn to eat, wapende wasipende; put up or shut up!”
And yet the so-called people’s representatives continued to go in and out of the people’s august House, studiously ignoring the immortal words etched at its entrance. These words sought, in a still silent voice, to remind them that the only reason they were sent there by the people was to find strategies on how our race to nationhood might be ran ‘FOR THE WELFARE OF SOCIETY AND THE JUST GOVERNMENT OF MEN.’
Meanwhile, after successfully evading Njonjo’s challenge, the runners re-entered the stadium as if to complete a marathon, and alas, the whole nation was surprised to realize that it was Biwott, and not Moi, who was holding the baton, though the latter continued to wield his ivory scepter and to faithfully mouth the words he was fed by his Total Advisor.
At the end of the 1980s the nation was again rising and asking for their baton back that they may continue running their race to nationhood. But the new boys on the track would hear none of it. They invented all manner of ‘enemies’ as a pretext to banish and jail, torture and kill, all who looked like they might want to run a leg.
Robert Ouko’s only crime was being too eloquent in defending the very runners who were later to brutally murder him. He was found dead and burned beyond recognition on a lonely hill near his rural home. The runners told us that he had committed suicide by burning himself alive and then shooting himself dead.
Alexander Kipsang’ Muge dared to be too vocal in suggesting that there were other sons and daughters of Kenya who might like to run a leg. But he at least had the benefit of being forewarned in public by one of the runners that if he visited Busia that day he would “see fire and will not leave alive,” words that sadly proved all too prophetic for the young Anglican prelate. He was abruptly cut off in his prime by an on-coming truck.
But fortunately, not all voices of reason met the same sad fate. At the dawn of the 1990s, Henry Okullu dared to call for an end to the one team monopoly in the running of this race. He was joined by another courageous prelate, Timothy Njoya. Oginga Odinga’s voice had never really been silenced. Others came to join the chorus of disapproval at the way this race was being run.
1990 proved to be a watershed for our race. Two gentlemen who had shown their prowess in the world of business and politics, Kenneth Stanley Njindo Matiba and Charles Wanyoike Rubia, threw down the gauntlet and dared Moi to declare who this baton and this race really belonged to. The chorus had reached a crescendo as the nation defiantly organized trial runs at Kamukunji and elsewhere in the country in what has been immortalized as Sabasaba Day.
But those who had hijacked the baton were not about to give up so easily. They brought the full might of the State into the makeshift stadium and stopped the people’s race in its tracks. Many innocent people fell that day. Harry Thuku must have winced in his grave, distraught at the sight of a black government shedding innocent African blood in scenes reminiscent of what his adversaries had done to his team in 1922.
A year la later, special running advisers by the name of the Paris Club pointed out the absurdity of running a race without opponents. The runners, posing for breath at the Kasarani Gymnasium, decided to introduce a form of competition by repealing section 2A of the running rules. But they then set about erecting all kinds of obstacles on the lanes they would assign to their opponents. Not only did they control all the resources of the State, they also insisted that even to go for trial runs around the country, the opposing teams had to apply for permission from the very people they were seeking to take the baton from.
The much expected 1992 tournament proved to be a sham. The divided Johny-come-latelys clearly stood no chance against the self proclaimed professor-of-politics with all the might of the State behind him. The racetrack had been designed in such a way that only one team could win. Alas, we had entered a treacherous leg of this race. We would be forced to cheer the illusion of a competition; coerced to participate in a race in which we really had no part. Over the next fiver years, the monies we had painstakingly saved in our shared chest for the welfare of society and the just government of men and women was squandered on buying runners from the opposing teams and organizing wasteful mini-races to fill the places they left vacant in a wasteful power game.
Nor was the crowd of witnesses guiltless of wrongdoing. With their leaders fighting and haggling over who would wield the baton, the people became like sheep without a shepherd. Poor and confused, they turned to looting their own land at every chance they could get. Others were used by the wealthy runners who turned brother against brother in a desperate attempt to stop the baton from passing on to a new generation.
This race had began with a bang; would it end with a whimper?
As 1997 approached, some thought salvation might be found in Kitui Central. “Run, Charity, run!” they cheered the charismatic daughter of the land who had taken the country by storm. But the field was once again too crowded and the various chants drowned each other out in a cacophony of confusion allowing the star runner to romp home yet again. That round left the whole nation exhausted and wondering whether running this race was worth all this trouble.
In 2002, our reserve runners seem to have finally caught up with the spectators who had all along been urging them to unite to snatch the baton from the old runners and their neophyte protégé, infamously dubbed ‘Project Uhuru’. They came together in a strategy that seemed to offer a glimmer of hope and the stadium erupted with the thunderous sounds of “Yote yawezekana bila Moi!”
This time, cheered on by the crowd of witnesses led by Jaramogi’s son who declared with finality, Kibaki Tosha!, Mwai Kibaki snatched the baton from those who had killed and maimed to keep it in certain hands and, for a while, we thought that our race to nationhood was back on track. We ran with new confidence believing that indeed, after the 24 year reign, we could finally behold the rainbow.
But our celebration was short-lived. For soon we started hearing murmurs from some of our new dream team about a dishonoured MOU. Before we could understand how the new runners planned to run their leg, there was a great falling out from the ranks of our chosen team and they were running helter skelter in different directions.
A discussion on the new Rule Book in 2005 was turned into a battle of the titans with some runners urging us to approve it and others to reject it without really explaining why. The orange team won on the field but were rewarded by being expelled from the track altogether.
As the country approached the 2007 stretch, the race had turned ugly with the runners using unorthodox means to retain or get the baton by all means necessary. One side told us that their opponents were thieves and had stolen enough, while the other side tried to convince us that the state of a particular part of a runner’s anatomy was an important determinant for choosing the next team captain. The stage had been set for the spectators to turn on each other at the slightest provocation.
That provocation came from the team of referees who could not say with certainty which team had won the right to lead the race for the next five years but did not hesitate in announcing that Kibaki would continue to wield the baton. Chaos broke out all over the land as angry and disappointed citizens turned on each other in the battle for supremacy and the words Post-Election Violence, IDPs, Power Sharing and Grand Coalition Government were added to our political lexicon. God Himself had to mercifully intervene by sending us an Eminent African by the name of Kofi Annan to calm our extremely frayed nerves and save us from ourselves. Now we have entered confusing times of our race to nationhood with the baton being wielded by two runners at the same time even though an eminent South African judge told us that neither could with certainty be shown to have won the right to lead this latest round.
But even as we try and extricate ourselves from this latest hole that we have dug ourselves into, another truth has begun to strike on the edges of our consciousness. Could it be that while we slept, the baton – the REAL baton that was passed on from Me-Katilili and Waiyaki to Thuku, kept in safe custody by Gichuru, touched by Jaramogi, eyed by Mboya, glimpsed by Kariuki, wielded by Moi, defended by Ouko and shared by Kibaki and Raila – could it be that that baton may have been dropped somewhere along the way and surreptitiously substituted with a fake one? Might we have been cheering the wrong team all along and fighting for the wrong prize? For the goal initially was to run our race with distinction, each runner gracefully passing on the baton at the end of their leg, until we finally reached the finishing line of true nationhood. But anyone with eyes can see that our stadium has long since been turned into a battlefield of gladiators where there are no rules and where our national motto has become not just survival of the fittest, but of the most greedy and corrupt.
Where will our salvation come from? Will it be in the re-writing of our constitution? Will it be in organizing a whole new race? Will it be in continuing to kill, steal and destroy and just declaring that the last man left standing is the winner?
Or will it be in stopping this mad race to nowhere and acknowledging that we have been chasing the wrong baton; in painstakingly walking together back to the place where not one person really knows, but to the place where nonetheless our collective future lies; to the place where the true baton has been left abandoned.
We may not easily agree where that place is, or who really dropped the baton, or even whom to hand it over to once we find it to lead in running the next leg. But these are challenges that we can face together.
The choice for Kenya at this hour is clear: we can either run together as brothers and sisters, we can or continue running along the destructive path we have taken, and perish apart as fools.
Amkeni Ndugu Zetu…
4th May 2009.
Thursday, March 12, 2009
Let all with one accord
In common bond united
Build this our nation together
And the glory of Kenya
The fruit of our labour
Fill every heart with thanksgiving.
Last stanza of the National Anthem
There hasn’t been much glory in Kenya lately. The body politic continues to spin out of control. The press regales us daily with detailed tales of who in government is doing what to whom. The country recoils with hunger; the nation limps on in despair.
The air is filled with the sounds of complaining and griping, moaning and blaming. Starting at the very top and trickling down to the very bottom. The Minister of Justice complains of corruption and the slow delivery of justice. The Minister for Energy moans about the disappearance of oil. The Minister of the Metropolis gripes about the inefficiencies at the City Council. The Minister of Gender bemoans the absence of women in high level appointments. The Minister for Agriculture shouts for the umpteenth time ‘It wasn’t me’. The Prime Minister says his life is in danger. The President’s wife complains of inefficient male ministers. The President complains about his wife’s complaint. And the entire population complains about everything else.
In Kenya today, it is all too easy to point fingers and there are more candidates for blame than fingers to point. But I should be slow to cast the first stone since I am the single biggest culprit in the woes that have befallen the land; I together with my fellow countrymen and women. For we freely chose the men and women whom we have made a hobby of disdaining in private and dismissing in public– the 222 who run this country on our behalf and make the laws by which we live but which do not bind them. And it is I together with my brethren who shrink daily from our sovereign responsibility to call these honourable individuals to order when they step out of line, and resort instead to endless complaining.
And so today, although the temptation to complain is overwhelming, I must choose a higher road, a more excellent path. I must pause and contemplate the Kenya I will set out to build for my children and their children after them. I do so with faith that there are many patriotic citizens who, like me, are concerned that we have chosen to murmur where we should be working; and to weep where we should be fighting for the survival of ourselves and our country.
Rather than watching the morals of the nation go down the drain we should vigorously promote virtue in our own private lives, in our homes, in our communities, on our roads, in our workplaces. We must take personal responsibility to make our personal spaces a little part of the Kenya we want. We must create little islands of excellence every day and have faith that at some point in the not too distant future, these islands will meet and squeeze out those in our midst who labour to destroy rather than to build.
In private therefore, I choose to consider every moment of every day as an opportunity to build Kenya. I will make myself aware that every time I choose to act unjustly in private, I am destroying my own island of hope and so postponing that day that we all work towards when the glory of Kenya shall be realized and fill every heart with thanksgiving. It is a project of great honesty. For it allows no space to drink water in public while imbibing wine in private. It leaves no room for pointing fingers because all the hands available will be too busy building the new foundations of our nationhood.
This personal responsibility will inevitably lead to our public greatness as a people. It will contribute to creating a Kenyan society that is - to paraphrase 18th Century English writer, Samuel Johnson - opulent without luxury, and powerful without faction; its counsels will be steady, because they will be just; and its efforts vigorous, because they will be united. The governors will have nothing to fear from the turbulence of the people, nor the people anything to apprehend from the ambition of the governors.
The encroachments of calamities we cannot always avoid, but we will certainly be prepared to defend ourselves, for scarce any civilized nation has ever been enslaved till it was first corrupted… Difference of opinions will never disturb our community, because every person will dispute for truth alone, look upon the ignorance of others with compassion, and reclaim them from their errors with tenderness and modesty. Persecution will not be heard of among us, because there will be no pride on one side, nor obstinacy on the other. Disputes about property will seldom happen, because no man or woman will grow rich by injuring another.
As I call on my fellow countrymen and women to unite with one accord in order to build this our nation together so that the glory of Kenya, the fruit of our labour, might fill every heart with thanksgiving, the prayer of Rabindranath Tagore rings in my ears with increasing urgency:
Where the mind is without fear and the head held high;
Where knowledge is free;
Where the world has not been broken up
Into fragments by narrow domestic walls;
Where words come out from the depths of truth;
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection
Where the clear stream of reason has not
Lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit;
Where the mind is led forward by Thee
Into ever-widening thought and action –
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father,
Let my country awake.
In the big scheme of things, Kibaki and Raila, Karua and Ruto, Uhuru and Saitoti, mean nothing. They will be confined to the footnotes of history before you can say “Kenya Tuitakayo.” You are free to choose to join them on their long journey to nowhere, or you can hide behind the fig leaf of endless complaining.
As for me and my house, we choose to work towards building a new Kenya, one where the dark days of despair shall soon begin to give way to our new season of hope.