By Otieno Kenyatta
The saddest thing about negative ethnicity in Kenya is that it has infiltrated and reared its ugly head deep in the church. The naïve assumption is that the church will always rise above tribalism, but the reality is the same people who spew hate in the streets are the same ones who worship in the churches. This comes against the general uncomfortable reality of a church that will go to any lengths to water down any tribal talk within its ranks just to keep the boat afloat.
An Anglican friend of mine once joked that you will never get the right candidate in an election in Kenya because even his archbishop was a compromise candidate. He then explained to me the intrigues that led to Dr Eliud Wabukhala winning 75 per cent of 162 Anglican Church of Kenya Electoral College votes. He beat Maseno West Bishop Joseph Wasonga in the fourth round after seeing off Taita Taveta’s Bishop Samson Mwaluda and Bishop Stephen Kewasis of Kitale in the earlier rounds.
The fire burning under the ash was that majority of ACK congregation felt that the Mt Kenya region had given Kenya two Archbishops in Manasses Kuria and David Gitari who led the church for a total of twenty-three years until 2003. It was thus agreed that the Mt Kenya region bishops withdraw from the race.
At a glance, Joseph Wasonga was the strongest candidate to clinch the seat. He had lost to Nzimbi in 2003, so people thought he was going to be the next archbishop until murmurs were heard in Central Kenya about their discomfort with him. This led to a search for another bishop who would be accepted by central Kenya region in place of Wasonga. It is Central Kenya delegates who tilted the votes in favour of then little known Bishop Eliud Wabukhala of Bungoma to avoid a split, thus the “compromise candidate” tag.
Even before the ink that wrote the memo asking interested candidates for the archbishop seat to pick nomination papers dried up, Bishop Wasonga delivered a strong sermon at St Peter’s church in Siaya. Typical of today’s clergy, he urged the Electoral College to elect a younger bishop in a process that should be devoid of tribalism. If that call had come from the late Bishops Henry Okullu, Alexander Muge or Archbishop David Gitari, it would have shaken the Anglican Church. Today, the clergy prefer to shoot from the hip when tackling controversial matters.
It is also reported that the late David Gitari once told the late Bishop of Maseno South Henry Okullu that a Luo will never lead the Anglican Church in Kenya. This was captured in one of Okullu’s writings and was highlighted before Gitari was buried, to puncture his impressive human rights defence record. Looking at this with the murmurs from Mt Kenya, one gets the elephant in the room that the ACK will do its best to cover in evangelical draping.
Once upon a time in the 80s, many Kenyans were afraid to speak against the abuse of human rights, looting and grabbing by government officials in the Kanu government. Apart from a small group of radical activists who propped up their head once in a while, the voice of reason came from the church.
Upon the opening up democratic space and positive steps in human rights in Kenya, the next generation of clergy lacked a pressing social need to rally around. This must have led to churches embracing an inward look which led to lack of progress and thus self-defeatist tendencies that left the church out of touch with reality.
This was evident in 2007 when Kisumu Catholic Bishop Zacchaeus Okoth disagreed with his boss, then newly-appointed John Cardinal Njue, on the church’s stand against devolution –it was then branded majimbo. Soon church leaders presumed to be aligned to pro-devolution side branded Cardinal Njue a President Kibaki stooge. By the time Archbishop Desmond Tutu came to try and mediate in the post-election conflict in 2008, there was no local church leader who had the moral authority to speak to both sides of PNU and ODM.
It takes courage to fight tribalism and not education nor urban exposure. It is such a courage that should give the church in Kenya a new zeal to shape the future of our country. As it is, when the matter on the table is heavy and demanding, church leaders like everybody else coil back to the safety of their tribes.
It is only the Anglican Church and Catholic Church that enjoy strong presence in virtually every corner and community in Kenya. The rest of the denominations tend to be identified by one or two regions or demography for urban based churches. The moment I hear someone is a Methodist, without a second thought I will conclude he is a Meru. If you tell me you are a Quaker, on the other hand, then I conclude you are a Luhya without question.
This is because colonialists, in their “divide and rule” method of governance, allocated missionaries areas to operate. I sometimes feel that after initial allocation, expansion of operations depended on the financial power and willingness of missionaries to go beyond their designated zones. This is because even before independence, all the churches established themselves in major urban centres in Kenya but still retained their upcountry clientele who were moving to urban centres in search of opportunities.
To this end, A Kalenjin joke will go down well in an African Gospel Church. African Inland Church went into Kalenjin land and spread into Ukambani as well but it has always been led by the Kalenjins. The Adventists were confined into Nyanza, with a strong presence among the Luo and Kisii. A Kikuyu joke in Presbyterian (PCEA) church will be received in the air with laughter even before the punch-line arrives. This is how the church was divided.
The church must realise that the colonialists did not have our best interests at heart. Their unit of administration was the tribe, and we inherited and swallowed the idea hook, line and sinker. To date, our counties which were former districts were designed with one or a collection of similar tribes in mind and some of their names betray this. Even our locations and wards that are represented by Members of County Assembly in most cases are delineated around clans.
Unfortunately, our mainstream churches did not put efforts beyond where the missionaries stopped. It is believed that the twenty first century is the season for the African Church. Already we have seen the African Anglican Church shaking the global Anglican Community in relation to their stand on ordaining homosexuals into church leadership. Some courageous evangelical churches, another word for your charismatic non-denominational churche that sprung up in the 20th century, are taking the gospel back to a “disillusioned” population in Europe and US.
I will commend the Seventh-Day Adventist Church for moving out of its “stronghold” and setting up churches deep in regions where they did not have a presence a few years ago. They have also been led by a Kamba in Paul Muasya when Kambas are a minority in the church.
Churches must take steps to embrace minorities in their congregation and go out of their way to win over people from communities that are never associated with them. I will be happy if PCEA Church in Kisumu begins a Dholuo service and then raises leaders to plant their churches all over Nyanza. The same should apply to all the other churches that have confined themselves to singular regions in Kenya. It will take courage for a Maasai to head the Methodist Church in Kenya and a Kalenjin to be the PCEA Moderator. This will open a new chapter in Kenya where people begin to trust that they are safe in the hands of a leader from another community.
Back to the Anglican Church. As the Chancellor waits for April 1 deadline to know who will be running in the May 20 election, the delegates should begin a season of soul searching with the goal of knowing the path their church needs to take, and vote accordingly. Bishop Joseph Wasonga may have made a veiled statement, but I will reiterate it: tribalism has no place in the twenty first century church. Kenya is waiting, and ACK has the chance to take the lead.
If this is the time for the African Church to lead the world, then the church in Kenya must make bold moves. The church must begin to lead Africa before the world can embrace its apostolic voice.