Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Religion in Kenya

One difference between living in the United States and living in Kenya is the cultural perspective on religion. If you were interested in learning about someone’s spiritual or theological beliefs in the US, you might ask, “Are you a spiritual person?” or “Do you believe in God?” But in Kenya, it is assumed you are a spiritual person and believe in at least one god. So, you really just have to find out what that spiritual belief is. That is traditional in Kenya, although we were told by Reverend Edward Buri at St. Andrews Presbyterian Church that communities are becoming more secular especially the youth. Christianity has been the dominant religion in Central Kenya for the past 100 years, but now agnosticism and Islam are growing faster than Christianity. Christianity was able to become dominant because the missionaries that came in the 1800’s allowed Christianity to mix with traditional African culture.

We got our first lesson in African Church History from Dr. Douglass Waruta from the University of Nairobi. The Portuguese, who arrived around the time that Columbus landed in America, tried to force Christian culture on the people they met along the Kenyan coast. They wanted people to not only believe the story and religion set up by Jesus, but to also take on Portuguese culture and language as well. For the Portuguese, spreading the gospel was a way to dominate the local people. We visited Fort Jesus in Mombasa, which was built by Africans who were forced to work under the Portuguese to protect their interests from the Arabs who also had trade interest in the region. When the Arab Muslims finally kicked the Portuguese off the Kenyan Coast, the religion left with them.

The missionary movement of the 18th and 19th centuries came with the movement of imperialism into East Africa. These Christians believed evangelism and education (not just baptism) were key to becoming Christian. The British sent Dr. Krapf and Johann Rebmann to translate the bible into the native languages of the people they came to convert. Each of the Christian denominations carved out their own tribal group to evangelize and set up schools to educate Africans on what you would learn in an English school. The divide and conquer method they used can be seen today when you visit a Presbyterian Church and find that all the members are Kikuyu, or if you visit a Quaker Church all the members would be Luiya. In some cases, this has led to continued tribal racism and political conflict.

So far, I have been to the Laresho Presbyterian Church and Kangemi Holy Spirit Church. Laresho is a suburb of Nairobi in a nice part of town. Laresho had wonderful gospel songs, some that sounded more like tribal chants, and others that were sung by a choir that was similar to something you would find at my church in Indiana. Some of the service was in English, some in Swahili, and some parts in Kikuyu (since most Presbyterians are Kikuyu). Besides these differences, the service followed the same form as it does in Indiana. We did the Lord’s Prayer, had offertory, had a wonderful sermon by Reverend Phyllis Byrd Ochilo, and even did the passing of the peace. After the service, the church had a luncheon to celebrate one of their pastors. We ate traditional Kenyan – and specifically Kikuyu – dishes with Coke products to drink. This church also has prayer groups that are organized by neighborhood in Nairobi. I went to a prayer meeting where we sang more songs in Kikuyu, prayed for family and for Kenya, and had tea afterward to socialize. I really enjoy how comfortable people are here with singing loudly and putting their struggles out in the open to be prayed for.

The Kangemi Holy Spirit Church was a totally different experience. Kangemi is one of the major slums (low income, informal settlements) in Nairobi. Emmanuel Simwa – the Bishop of Nairobi and Mombasa in the Holy Spirit Church pictured below at the Just Communities Inaugural Celebration – drove us through crowded streets filled with people, livestock, and trash to the small church. I was surprised at how many churches we passed along the way. Many were independent African churches, but the Salvation Army also had a congregation there that worshipped outside. The Bishop parked his truck outside a small building with a corrugated metal roof and walls made of tree branches and large plastic sacks. When we stepped out of the truck we could hear a booming chorus of African song and drums coming out of the building. The youth service – for any unmarried person between the age of 5 and 45 years old – had started an hour earlier and just continued into the main part of worship. The other ministers of the church had jumped in the bed of the Bishop’s truck along the way, so they showed us where to go as they prepared for worship. We entered through a flap in the wall and removed our shoes. This was definitely a holy place. We were ushered to the front of the room where we sat with the Bishop and other leaders of the church during the service. We enjoyed three hours of singing Christian chants, swaying from side to side, jumping up and down, drumming drums, and listening to sermons and prayers. I was again amazed at the unity of the church. A married couple had returned to church for the first time since their child passed away of what was probably a preventable disease. The pastor asked them to come forward so they could pray for the family, and the whole church prayed for them individually and together in song. They all mourned the loss together.

They also welcomed us into the church. We had come on the day they celebrated the initiation of their church in 1927. Prior to being recognized as the Holy Spirit Church, members had been part of the French Quaker Church. African leaders promoting African traditional singing and dancing and values in the church were beaten for insubordination up until the time they were “allowed” to start their own church. This is one way the church upheld the imperialist doctrine of superiority. The pastor asked us to take their cross back to our home churches to show how they live and worship in the slums of East Africa. It was a powerful statement of solidarity that I hope to accomplish. We are all part of one body of Christ that must live in unity and equity.

Anything I missed? Hope you are doing well! Send me a line.


  1. Thank you for the post Ben!
    It may prove to be helpful to me and to your other readers if you could tell us who are the Kikuyu and the Luiya? What any differences there are that seaprat them?
    By the way I'm not suprised that you found small churches almost on top of each other...we have that hear also in black neighborhoods.

  2. Sorry for taking so long, my original post didn't save:
    The Kikuyu are a tribe located in the region near Nairobi. They have a long history or political success and business success in the country. They were the leaders of the Mau Mau rebellion in the 1950s that eventually led to independence in 1963. They are also traditionally Presbyterian, because that is the region the Presbyterian Church was given to minister to.
    The Luiya are a tribe in Western Kenya. I don't know as much about them. They are mostly farmers and live in a pretty fertile part of the country. Even with that, many Luiya have been forced to move to the city for lack of income in the region. That is why the Africa Israel Nineveh church has such a strong presence in Nairobi slums: most of the members of the church that moved to Nairobi live in those areas now.