Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Christianity in Kenya

So the internet has been down in my village for the last, like hundred years. Even today I've been waiting at the post office for the internet to come back up (it's up and down, mostly down). The only good thing that has come out of this is that I met a 25”year”old
runner who was also waiting for the internet to come up. Heh heh heh. :D :D :D

November 6, 2005. Sunday, 9:09am. It must be the fact that it’s Sunday that I’m feeling acutely bitter about Christianity in this country. My neighbors no longer invite me to church, which a normal person might take to be an expression of respect for my spiritual beliefs, but after the whole lesbian pedophile incident, I take it to mean they have given up trying to save my blackened soul, and have decided to leave me to rot in hell, which in their eyes is appropriate retribution for my heathen ways.
For some reason I have run into Pastor G like every single day this past week. Even yesterday when I only stepped out of my house for about 30 minutes, there he was, calling out to me as he was coming out of a shop. Now Pastor G, despite his brand of judgmental, fire”and”brimstone Christianity, still seems willing to be seen talking to me in public, which if he were true to narrow”minded form, he would try to avoid doing because he wouldn’t want to be associated with my Pagan, church”skipping ways. But Pastor G is also a true Kenyan religious leader, and by that I mean he might be just a little bit corrupt. So he sees a mzungu and he thinks, it doesn’t hurt to have friends in economically high places even if her soul is in one of Garth Brooks’ low places. (“I’ve got friends in lowww places”“ yeah you got that reference.) Maybe corrupt isn’t quite the right word for Pastor G, as in truth I haven’t worked with him enough to see
evidence of it. A better word for him is freeloader. Mooch. He came up to me last week and saw that I was carrying my organization’s printer.

“Justina! Can you print out a book for me?”
“Print a what?”
“I have written a book, it’s really wonderful,” he said. “It has many chapters with advice to men and women about how to live according to the Bible.”
“Well there just aren’t enough messages like that in this country,” I said. “How many pages are we talking?”
“Okay, bring forty sheets of printer paper, your manuscript on a disk, and extra cash to pay for the ink cartridge.”
“Sawa?” I said. Okay? Printing services are 40 shillings per page in my village so he’s getting a deal.
“I have the book on paper,” he said. “You can type it for me.” Typing services cost even more.
“Bring it on a disk or else I can’t print it.”
“Haya,” he said. Okay. “I will bring it. We shall meet.”

One day Pastor G saw some literature from a Bible correspondence course Hillary is taking through the Seventh-Day Adventists (SDA) church.

“Do you know that those are the people who killed Jesus?” said Pastor G.
“Which people?” Hillary said.
“Those who don’t observe the Sabbath,” he said. “Those who go to church on Saturdays.”
“The SDAs?”
“Yes,” said Pastor G. “They are bad people. Be careful what you read.”
Hillary is an SDA. He said, “What denomination do you recommend, then?”
“Pentecostal Assembly of God,” said Pastor G. “We are a good church.”

When I asked Hillary later what the PAGs were, he said that when they receive the word of God in church they fall to the ground, writhing and speaking in tongues. Which sounds like it could be pretty cool, I don’t know. All I know is that Pastor G is a perfect example
of how religious leaders twist the teachings of the Bible to vilify others for no good reason. Why are the PAGs any better Christians than the SDAs, or any less bizarre and cultish? As far as I can tell they’re all a bit weird and repressive, and I judge their judgmentalism. Hillary said he could never take me to his church because they believe that it’s not a woman’s place to wear trousers. What’s really hard to understand, though it’s certainly not limited to Christianity in Africa, is the moral hypocrisy and the apparent disconnect that many people who call themselves Christians seem to have between their own actions and the moral code they claim to adhere to. It’s this disconnect that allows
them to condemn other people while appearing to have no self”awareness of their own moral failings. Maybe it’s just an excuse not to have to take responsibility for their actions. Of course no one is perfectly morally upstanding, but at least I don’t judge people according to ridiculously narrow and arbitrary definitions of right and wrong.

Maybe I haven’t explained exactly why I’m so bitterabout all this. I wouldn’t be so defensive if the following conversation hadn’t happened about two months ago between two people in my community:

“So, I hear that Justina isn’t a Christian.”
“Why do you say that?”
“She doesn’t go to church.”
“So what’s the problem?”
“Well I hear she likes to go around taking pictures of the girls at her school while they’re bathing naked.”
“That’s the kind of thing people do when they aren’t Christian.”
“Don’t tell her I told you this.”

I’ve recently formulated the following indignant and vaguely bigoted response to anyone who suggests that there might be something wrong with me because I don’t go to church. It goes:

“This is a country where 80 percent of the population claims to be Christian, yet
your society and economy is being ravaged by corruption and AIDS, both of which are the result of grossly un”Christian behavior. Explain to me then, why you think church will make me a better person rather than an even bigger sinner. Because just based on the
math, it sounds like if I go to church I will certainly end up in hell.”

6:32pm. Oddly enough, I was talking to some of the Chebisaas* girls this afternoon and one of them said, “In our country we have 80% of our people calling themselves Christians. But we still have so much corruption and sin.” They asked me why there is relatively little corruption in the U.S. compared to Kenya. I didn’t know how to answer them. I guess the answer would be complex and subject to debate, and I’d have to emphasize that the operative phrase is relatively little corruption. Most Kenyans are under the impression that there is no crime, no immorality, no poverty and no corruption in the U.S., an idea that every American would find laughable, though it explains why every Kenyan I’ve ever met has asked me to hook them up with a visa to the U.S. They think I live in the Utopian States of America.

I guess you could explain the relatively little corruption as cultural, or historical, or a result of free market capitalism, or any other combination of factors. But what may be more meaningful is to say that the corruption in the U.S. hasn’t incapacitated all our major institutions and market systems like it has in Kenya. (At least not yet.) We all steal office supplies and napkins and taco sauce packets, and maybe we’ve claimed corporate expenses that we didn’t accrue, or lied on insurance applications, or cheated on exams.

The U.S. was founded on the idea that the individual is supreme, and that respecting and protecting individual freedoms is the law’s top priority. We believe in a God-given right to express our opinion, practice whatever religion we believe in, and acquire whatever property we want, without fear of persecution. We believe that we have a moral imperative to defend and enforce (or maybe impose) our definition of individual human rights around the world, regardless of cultural traditions within other borders. It’s the mentality that each person is unique, significant, and therefore entitled to these things. By extension, if someone doesn’t get what they want, they have the power to do something about it. And we have set up institutions (courts, legal systems) to support this.

But then you would think that in a collectivist society like Kenya, people would be even more inclined to strive for the benefit of the whole. How did it come to be then, that a few individuals seized power and withheld opportunities from everyone else? Greed is human nature, I guess, but greed doesn’t necessarily have to strip everyone else of everything they have. Maybe the fact that Kenyan culture de-emphasizes individuals and their ability to assert themselves - people are disempowered by the fact that they’ve never known the possibility of taking control of their lives - is what allows the corrupt to walk all over everyone else. Corruption has now become so entrenched that it’s just the way things work. It’s easier to give a bribe than to fight injustice, and in many cases you lose less. Honesty doesn’t pay. I also think that since power is in the hands of the few,
it’s up to these few people to change things - to put money back into the country’s roads, schools, infrastructure, health care, and social services rather than into their own pockets. * Chebisaas is the name of the girl’s school where I live.


Alfred, my Luhya neighbor, stopped to chat as we passed each other on the road yesterday. This is the guy who got really offended a couple months ago when I assumed he was a Nandi and said, “Chamgei,” which is a greeting in the Nandi language meaning hello or peace or, oh, I don’t know.

The dark irony is that yesterday, after talking to me for ten full minutes in English, he said, “You are from China. How is the road construction going?”

I wanted to say, “Chamgei, you idiot. At least when I assume things wrongly about you I get the freaking hemisphere right, let alone the country.”

But instead I explained patiently, as I’ve explained about 148 thousand times in the last five months, that I’m from America, specifically California.

“Oh, I know! I’m very good in geography,” he said. “California is around…Argentina.”

Yes. You’re a brilliant Luhya. A thousand chamgeis to you.


Anonymous Ton frere said...

Kenya's not so different from the States. Instead of a country full of hypocritical zealots, we just have one in the White House. Okay... and a bunch more in Congress.

7:08 AM  

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