Shakahola deaths: Religious link, science and the economic reality

A church in London. Does religion still give us meaning and purpose? [Courtesy, XN Iraki]

A crisis is haunting our no longer young nation, now 60. It’s not debt or drought. It’s a crisis of religion, faith and to be more precise, meaning. 

It could not have come at a worse time when religion was a big factor in the polls and national leadership, and still plays a big role in our public life. Few public meetings start or end without a prayer.

The events in Shakahola, Kilifi County have left the country numb. The area has been cordoned off and police have taken over. The media should get unfettered access to this place and the truth must be known, no matter how painful. How did we get there?

Have you noted that at any given time there is a reigning star preacher in Kenya who then fades and another takes over? It’s very Schumpeterian where one innovation replaces the other.

We once had preachers such as Reinhard Bonke, Pius Muiru, Pastor Kanyari, Lai, Owour and now Ezekiel. Each star hypnotises the nation and fades away.  

Beyond crusades, tithes and their preaching, deaths are rarely reported in these rallies that target big towns and mostly poor suburbs. The church owners make their easy money by preaching from one source, one holy book - unlike us who are encouraged to read as many books as possible.

Now it’s death by fasting, if that’s true. I fear with a chill through my spine that there is a possibility, no matter how remote, of human sacrifice. Why go to such extreme with the faithful? Is it a desperate trick to win followers in a highly competitive religious market? How many churches are registered in Kenya?

Could the economic crisis be making us irrational? It’s a strange relationship; the followers also want money. And easy money through divine intervention.

This relationship originates from our upbringing. We learnt to spend money long before learning to earn it. Entrepreneurship is taught in undergraduate, not primary school. But religion is taught before going to school. In the long run, religion wins!

Remember your high school days; only preachers had unfettered access to school, not entrepreneurs, doctors or lawyers. By the time we leave school, money-making is still a mystery. Even in business schools, we focus on mature firms, listed on the stock exchange, adding to the mystery of money. Gikomba or street hawking is disdained.

Devil worshipers

When someone promises to help you make money by whatever means, you have ready minds. The popular belief that the rich are either devil worshipers or corrupt does not make matters any better. 

What else makes Kenyan crisscross the country beyond the search for money and wealth? It’s meaninglessness. Religions does not seem to give us meaning and purpose. Or is it overdone, becoming routine and meaningless? Why would such episodes like Shakahola happen when everyone professes faith? 

How did we end up flirting with meaninglessness? It starts with our homes where technology long took over. When growing up, we had time with our parents. They shared family history, struggles and how they overcame them. We had time to be human. Now TV or the internet have taken over. Who has spent more time with your children, yourself or TV? 

Schools do not allow search for meaning. We straight-jacket kids with theories and no time to explore. We even confuse them. God created us but Zinjanthropus or Neanderthal man are there. 

The media inundates us with bad news, no wonder the falling readership. The alternative is unfiltered news on social media but equally negative. By the time we are young adults, we have learned to be hopeless. Any glimpse of hope is embraced with open arms. 

Let’s add that science is disdained: 75 per cent of the students in Kenyan university study social sciences, more tuned to emotions, not reason. Get annoyed with me if you want. And there are lots of echoes of old thinking, from witchcraft to myths and legends. Where did Mombasa jinis go?

To cement their hold on followers, preachers acquire titles that awe their followers like ‘Dr’.

The followers rarely question them; after all, few of us loved school. The spell of titles and faith results in total submission.

The fear of a second coming or doomsday while isolated from those who can nudge you to reality make matters worse. Where do we go from here? 

The Shakahola deaths (97 died in Lari massacre) will erode the church as a meaning-giving institution. Will philosophy, science and traditional wisdom take over?

Jobs and affluence

How many young adults can toss a proverb? Ever noted how our proverbs mimic the laws of economics? Shall our kids find meaning in the Competency-Based Curriculum? Shall we stop education for jobs and affluence?

When I visited a public high school in Germany last year, I learnt that they educate the whole man. Do we focus too much on the money part of our lives and forget the meaning, the purpose?

Why else are we easily swept by preachers, pseudo preachers and cultists? As technology becomes more prevalent, our traditional wisdom fades, and meaningless will haunt the nation.

I found such meaningless in the US Deep South where, like in Kenya, religion is a powerful force. Remember the Bible Belt? Should we boldly accept that religion is one of the many meaning givers? Will the profile of science now rise at the expense of religion, reinforced by the successful vaccine that tamed Covid-19? 

Shakahola’s mystery will not be solved by the police alone; we won’t get to the root cause. Bring in others such as psychologists, sociologists, psychiatrists, witch doctors (yes) and religious experts.

There was once a public inquiry on devil worship in Kenya. Can it be made public in good faith?