When Prof John S. Mbiti asserts in his acclaimed book, African Religions and Philosophy that Africans are notoriously religious, I have often conjured a drum-beating fanatic prancing around in shukas and other traditional regalia. But come to think of it! He could have been describing me, alongside 85.5 per cent of those reading this article, as well.
For Kenya’s Christendom, and I should know, is an arena of supreme piety. We have an impressive devotional lexicon with many sacred entries such as ‘crusade’, ‘fellowship’, ‘kesha’, ‘30 days fast’, ‘planting the seed’, ad infinitum. Our obligatory salutation remains “bwana asifiwe”, lately embellished with the melodious refrain, “all the time, God is good”.
What about the impromptu testimonies that we give about the goodness of the Lord, that also serve as a reliable dipstick of a brother’s heart? And the way we cap it all with vigorous dancing and jubilation, as soon as the snappy gospel tunes are unleashed? I have no doubt that other faiths have their own expressiveness of fervent divinity.
Indeed, on a typical Sunday where I live, the streets empty out as most folk dust their Bibles and troop to church in the best possible attire. The notable exception are the hardworking policemen at a nearby checkpoint, who surprisingly, plough on even in the foulest weather. But they also retire their truncheons and hats at midday. For even matatu operators, ordinarily as avaricious as piranha, keep off the highway on this day. And with such diminished traffic, it is not worth the effort. Their version of law enforcement can always resume on another day.
Religion in Kenya truly colours everything, which is, of course, not necessarily a bad thing. Thus, God was hugely credited with the outcome of our last general elections, thanks to the feisty collegiality between the clerical and political classes. And deity continues to be invoked in the most unlikely enterprises.
In the betting circles, for example, divine benevolence is reportedly the force stopping roulette wheels at just the right position “in response to prayer”, at least going by what many radio stations, already capitulating to lucrative gambling at the expense of traditional journalism, are announcing to their excited ‘lucky winners’ live on air.
But don’t be fooled. This is Kenya where leaving your chicken outside unattended almost always guarantees its disappearance. For away from the cameras, many a countryman tosses religion out of the window like asphyxiating baggage, and with utter abandon, perpetrates depravity, corruption, pilferage, tribalism and generally, wrecking of the system as far as is possible without getting caught.
Our famous piousness has barely impacted on rampant graft; the 2022 Corruption Perceptions Index gives Kenya’s anti-corruption efforts a paltry 32 per cent - an ‘E’ grade in most evaluation systems in the world.
My somewhat bitter tone should not be confused with disrespect for hallowed things, but rather understood as an insider’s desperate effort to decipher this mystery of fervent religiosity coexisting seamlessly with remarkable viciousness in our society. I am writing this article as the funeral of a Grade Five girl from my county who was recently sexually brutalised and killed a stone throw away from a renowned prayer centre goes on. What on Earth makes a worshipful citizenry have such a ruthless and unhinged underbelly, reminiscent of RLStevenson’s story of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde?
In some European countries whose ‘godlessness’ we routinely deride, your fellow citizen would rather die than swindle you out of a dollar. Many shops and filling stations still run perfectly well without attendants. Conscientious shoppers will pick just the right amount of goods, use weighing scales honestly, and retrieve just the right amount of change from the till on their way out unsupervised. BUT PLEASE DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME!
Similarly, the ubiquity of religious practice seems to have a direct correlation with reduced crime, admirable social order and economic prosperity in many Gulf countries. Can we hope to see this in our country some day? The open-air gold Suq (market) in Dubai used to operate with minimal security, until incidents involving visitors from our part of the world forced a rethink.
Numerous spurious theories, as one would expect, abound in these types of conversations. The most interesting - albeit a self-incriminating one–claims that without such a heavy dose of religion, Africa would actually be much worse!
But on a serious note, our homogenous dishonesty ultimately undermines our national development, and engenders serious reputational risk. Former president Uhuru Kenyatta once informed us that the country loses about Sh2 billion a day to corruption. Some social media posts have been asserting that one of the greatest challenges manufacturing companies face in Kenya is lack of honest indigenous staff, which forces them to needlessly import expensive expatriates.
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Maybe the taskforce recently appointed by President Ruto to review the legal and regulatory frameworks and standards of certifying religious institutions should have begun by establishing why Kenya’s proliferation of faith fails to translate into improved fairness, justice and equity.