In the last few months, Kenyans on Twitter have been circulating?images of statues of political elites replaced by deserving national heroes.?Most notable is the replacement of the statue of the first president Kenyatta with that of Mau Mau leader Dedan Kimathi. This movement has been spurred by the toppling of statues in the US and Europe, where protestors are demanding that their countries grapple with the protracted systemic racism that pervades quotidian Black life.
Calls for the removal of statues that serve as colonial and racist relics have become common means of subverting power structures. In 2015, the #RhodesMustFall movement at the University of Cape Town in South Africa successfully called for the removal of British colonialist Cecil Rhodes statue. Rhodes, a British imperialist and mining magnate, was at the forefront of laying the foundations of apartheid in South Africa.?This decolonizing movement?sparked similar outrage on other campuses, as in Oxford, where protesters are now demanding the removal of the Rhodes statue by the university. Similarly, in the US,?the politics of memorialization?remain contentious, as calls for institutions to atone for their involvement in slavery continue.
Closer to home, in Kenya, what does the fall of statues mean for most postcolonial cities that are mired in complex and intricate histories, whose architecture centers colonial rulers and the postcolonial elite? Cities were, and remain, arenas of power contestations, political games, and socio-cultural constructions. These conjunctural spaces are important sites of study in that they not only inform us about the larger political situations in the country, but also the relationship between the nation-state and its citizens, the pre-independent state, and its former metropole. Borrowing from Marxist thinker Henri Lefebvre who contends that?conceptions of space have always been political, analyzing city structures is paramount.
Attempting to trace the history of Nairobi’s statues and monuments brings up the city’s deep ties to British colonialism, manifested in the politics surrounding this memorial architecture. During the colonial period, England’s proclivity for erecting monuments and naming streets and physical features to honor their own heroes was a tool for their imperial project as they established Western dominance. For example, the Duke of Connaught unveiled?the Queen Victoria statue?in 1906, signifying the ascendancy of British rule in Kenya. Alibhai Jevanjee, an Indian who owned a shipping company that worked with the Imperial British East Africa Company—a colonial enterprise that administered the protectorates before the British government assumed full responsibilities—paid for its construction. The Queen’s statue was located in the Jevanjee Gardens in the Central Business District until 2015 before?it was vandalized. And, in celebration of King George V’s 25-year reign, his life-like statue graced the newly built High Court Square in the city center. Later, during a state of emergency (1952-1959) imposed by the British colonial government in response to growing anti-colonial upheavals, the administrators erected the East Africa Memorial and the King George VI Memorial. The East Africa Memorial, built in 1956 in the Nairobi War Cemetery, recognized the efforts of the multi-racial troops that fought in Italian Somaliland, Southern Ethiopia, Kenya, and Madagascar in an effort to prop up loyalty to the colonial government. In 1957, the King George VI memorial plaque was put up along Connaught Road, now Parliament Road, to assert colonial presence. These statues and monuments were taken down in 1964 after Kenya was recognized as a republic, signaling the end of British rule.
Some might argue that the tearing down of colonial monuments reduced Nairobi’s significance as a site of memory, however telling accurate history to prevent erasure of the past should be emphasized. Initially, removal of the statues, as well as renaming exercises, were a means to promote nationalism and reduce imperial domination in post-colonial Nairobi. Political elites co-opted this process to position themselves at the forefront of the country’s independence struggle,?erasing the efforts of deserving nationalists and groups?that fervently fought colonization, such as the Mau Mau.
The erection of monuments in Nairobi after independence was strategically undertaken to inscribe power and shift the landscape. These notable monuments were important instruments in asserting authority over Kenyan citizens and especially those who lived in the city and interacted daily with these structures. In 1973, the government commissioned a London-based sculptor, James Butler, to design a twelve-foot seated statue resembling President Kenyatta, showing continuity with the colonial monumental landscape by replacing King George VI plaque at the city square. The statue stands as an island in front of the Kenyatta International Conference Center (KICC) square—the conference center being one of the more salient buildings in Nairobi. The KICC was the tallest building in the city for about 26 years, underpinning the strategic position of the Kenyatta statue. Interestingly, President Kenyatta launched the conference center and the statue during the 10th anniversary of Kenya’s independence.
President Daniel Toroitich Arap Moi came to power in 1978, after Kenyatta’s sudden death and his era was also riddled with monuments as commemorative tools. Just as Kenyatta had the?Harambee?(pulling together) philosophy, which emphasized collective participation and self-help in development, Moi developed?Nyayo,?(footsteps) as he was keen on following Kenyatta’s ideals.?Nyayo, intended to be a moving force and denoting peace, love, and unity, would later be legitimized as Kenyan law. To be “anti-Nyayo [was] to be anti-Kenya.” Moi set about building monuments all over the city that reflected an ideological philosophy that those around him deeply espoused. On the 20th anniversary of Kenya’s independence in 1983, two monuments were launched: a grand water fountain in Central Park and an intricate National Monument at Uhuru Gardens, just outside the city.
Prior to these celebrations, rumors spread of an alleged coup by Charles Njonjo, a member of the cabinet challenging Moi’s credibility. In response, Moi called for impromptu elections, ensuring that Njonjo’s cronies would be kicked out of the government. The decision to erect these two monuments at the end of the year was, therefore, a strategic signifier that the Moi/Nyayo?government was still in power. Geographically, the locations of these monuments were no coincidence either. The?Nyayo?Fountain was built in Central Park, one of the few remaining public green spaces that most Nairobians frequented to unwind and where most political rallies were held. The National Monument was erected at Uhuru Gardens, the site for the symbolic lowering of the Union Jack at independence. This prominent white?Nyayo?monument was flanked by two black sculptures to show, ironically, that the government stood for peace and purity.
Erecting statues, as well as renaming streets, institutions, and buildings in Nairobi was meant to signal new political leadership and ideologies. It was also meant to recognize freedom fighters, whose efforts the independent government criminalized and largely ignored. Memorialization is ongoing to date, and despite the practical justifications to erect statues in memory of freedom fighters, the motives of such projects have remained deeply political. For example, it was not until 2007 when?Dedan Kimathi’s statue was unveiled, finally recognizing the tremendous efforts of the Mau movement. This statue was put up following surviving fighters’ outcry to honor their marshal. Previously, Kenyan leaders had considered the movement a “terrorist” organization, dropping this colonial-era categorization in 2003, more than 50 years after it was imposed. This would finally allow freedom fighters to demand compensation from the British government for the torture they endured during the rebellion. While Kimathi’s statue is a pride of the city and remains a site of protest and prayers, it has been neglected—unlike Kenyatta’s statute that remains guarded in a controlled space. Furthermore, despite this symbolic recognition of the war heroes, Kimathi’s family, as well as other Mau Mau veterans, continue to live in squalid conditions dispossessed of their land, as the political dynasties?plunder our country.
Nairobi remains a space where imperial and postcolonial ideas continually collide to create a new political hybrid that uplifts elite actors while disenfranchising the majority. Monuments celebrating members of the political elite dominate the political landscape, shaping public opinion through farcical reputation-building. As?Ugandans call for their streets to be renamed in Kampala, we also insist on not only interrogating and falling our physical structures, which belie the deeds of our “founding fathers,” but also providing history about these monuments that foregrounds the efforts of those who actually fought for our independence.
“Under pressure”: Negotiating Competing Demands in an Age of Uncertainty
The pressures young black un(der)employed men experience are at once economic and social given the pressure they face to not only “provide” for themselves and their families exists alongside a pressure to improve or “upgrade” their lives.
A few years ago, during a year of ethnographic fieldwork with young un(der)employed men in a poor shack settlement on the outskirts of Johannesburg, I found myself sitting in Senzo’s one-room shack on a foldout camping chair. It was a hot Wednesday afternoon. Popular R&B music was blaring into the air from the nearby tavern. Senzo sat on his double bed. Soon after I arrived, Senzo handed me an ornate invitation with gold foil on the sides and his name on it. It was an invitation to the wedding of his cousin that was set to take place the following weekend.
I asked Senzo if he planned to go. “I’m not going”, he told me, explaining that he had declined the invitation because, as he put it, “I don’t want to put more pressure on myself” describing the difficulties he already had paying rent, keeping up with outstanding debts, and supporting his girlfriend and children. Going to the wedding would require him to buy a fancy suit and a gift for the couple. This required money he didn’t have. The “pressure” Senzo described was not just the monetary cost of attending the wedding. It was also the feeling (what Senzo called “stress”) of being overburdened by competing demands on his money including buying consumer items, sending his children to good schools, and supporting family members.
To understand the continuous “pressure” young men like Senzo face requires we give attention to the changing nature of work and the changing world of families in contemporary South Africa. As I show below the pressures young black un(der)employed men experience are at once economic and social given the pressure they face to not only “provide” for themselves and their families exists alongside a pressure to improve or “upgrade” their lives. As such, I show how the ? “income-demands gap” (a key catalyst of “pressure”) in young men’s lives is produced in and through specific (increasingly temporary rather than enduring) social relations and ties.
It is well known South Africa has one of the highest youth unemployment rates in the world, with 59% of young people between the ages of 15 and 24 years are currently unemployed. These figures pertain to the pre-lockdown phase (the first three months of 2020) and have only worsened due to the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, which I cannot consider here. In a context where wage work is not only increasingly unavailable but also precarious, my on-going research demonstrates that while young men use a diverse range of strategies to get by—with many combining formal wage labour with informal entrepreneurship while also leveraging distributional claims on others both inside and outside of their households— their income is, like many urban dwellers, sporadic and unpredictable.
One of the striking consequences of the decline of wage work in South Africa is the increase in the number of unmarried people in their twenties and thirties who live in multigenerational family units. In particular, unemployment delays the setting up of an independent household, in some cases by decades. Many young people “survive unemployment” by staying in multigenerational households, especially in rural areas, to access the employment income or state transfers of other household members. The situation in urban areas is quite different with a growing shift toward smaller and more numerous households. This trend is intensified in urban informal settlements like Zandspruit where a growing number of people, especially young men, are ‘living solo’. Of one hundred young people (between the ages of 18-34) I surveyed in Zandspruit, the vast majority (87%) were unmarried but just over half (52%) had one or more children. Over half (56%) of these same youth lived? in households of two or fewer with a further 25% ‘living solo’.
Further, in the majority of cases, young men did not live with their children. This reflects national trends that show 43% of all black children in the country live with their mother or maternal kin (often in rural areas) with little contact with their fathers (Hall and Sambu 2017). The shift to smaller households and ‘solo living’ (especially among young men) in urban areas must be seen in the context of mass unemployment, inadequate housing and low-marriage rates. It is these factors that also underpin the pervasive view in South Africa that young men are failing to support their families, and meet their obligations to their children.
Senzo was 27, single, and had been unemployed for four months at the time of the wedding he had been invited to. He had previously worked as a driver for butchery but quit during a disciplinary hearing that resulted from Senzo’s absence from work after a car accident. Senzo was living alone in a one-room rented shack that was not far from his grandmother’s yard where he had lived from the age of thirteen. Senzo had a new girlfriend at the time of this research and two daughters (age 8 and 3) who lived with their respective mothers. Senzo was staying afloat with support from his sister who worked as a receptionist, his grandmother who received a government pension, and some ad-hoc work with a local NGO.
Unlike some of the poorest people in Zandspruit, many of whom migrate to the area in search of work, Senzo had a long-established support network that allowed him to survive periods of unemployment. These relationships and forms of support allowed him to get by. They did not allow him to provide for his grandmother, girlfriend and daughters. Since losing his job, Senzo was no longer supporting his grandmother and sending money to the mother of his younger daughter every month. The pressure to support others was not necessarily lessened when Senzo had a more stable income. “Even though I’m working I’m always left with nothing”, he told me some months later when he found a part-time job as a soccer coach, describing how he often felt like he was “drowning” from the multiple claims to his limited earnings.
It is important to recognize that the experience of pressure is not static. It is constantly shifting in response to changing incomes, demands, obligations and desires. My on-going research shows that while many young un(der)employed men long for the temporal stability of a wage job (compared to the erratic and unpredictable nature of informal earnings) they also recognised the increased social burden that came with the predictability of a wage. Mandla, another of my interlocutors, put it like this: ‘Having a job, especially for men, carries a big weight, a big burden […] but when you’re hustling there is no fixed time [when people know] I have X amount of money in my bank account.’ ‘But’, he continued, ‘if you have a job, even the extended family, they will know that at the end of the month Mandla is going to get paid. […] But when you’re hustling there isn’t really a plan to say “Hey, listen – we know you’ve got money”’. Seen this way, the temporal stability of the wage was often seen as a burden rather than an advantage for the young men I spent time with. At the same time, the erratic and unpredictable nature of informal earnings allowed them to hold onto more of their limited resources and, in some cases, have more say over what they did with their money.
Throughout my research in Zandspruit I heard young men described as “run[ning] away from their responsibilities” and failing to “make a commitment” to their children. The lives of young men like Senzo reveal a more complicated picture than that offered by the dominant portrayal of young men as ‘stuck’ and ‘failing’. While most young men are severely constrained in their ability to meet their social obligations and attain the normative markers of adulthood—to build a home, get married, and reliably support a spouse and kids— they are not stuck in some kind of ‘limbo’ or extended state of non-adult. Instead, young men like Senzo are negotiating competing demands on their resources in a context of precarious and unpredictable earnings and fluid (often fraught) social relationships.
The “pressure” to provide for one’s children, partners and families is the site of both aspiration and resentment as well as pride and humiliation. Young men in Zandspruit understood their obligations to their families as one of the prime areas for them to acquire or maintain a sense of masculine respect or status while also resenting the economic pressure this placed on them. Senzo often criticised the mothers of his children for only contacting him to “demand” money. “They won’t phone me saying we miss you, come and visit us”, he told me, “No, no no.
The only time they give me a call is when there is a reason [like a] school trip or something”. Senzo’s relationship with his older daughter was limited to short meet-ups at shopping malls where, as he put it, he is expected to “buy nice ice-creams and shoes”. Senzo often expressed his frustration at only being able to spend time with his child if he could “spend” money. The situation with his younger daughter (who he lived with for the first year of her life) was slightly different. Her mother phoned him, sometimes daily, demanding financial support. “When I see the phone call I just switch off my phone”, Senzo told me, describing the endless requests for money for nappies, school fees and other expenses. Senzo’s decision to turn off his phone was an attempt to sidestep these economic claims but also the humiliation that came with being unable to offer financial support.
It was this burden and humiliation that lead some men to purposefully avoid seeing their children until they had money and, in some cases, being estranged from their children altogether. In a context where being a man remains inextricably tied up with financial provision, the stress of being unable to provide for others not only leads to feelings of failure but also contributes to increasing social atomization and gender-based violence (as highlighted in Nairobi).
The stress of being unable to provide for others was made worse by the tension young men experienced between using their money for immediate and more conspicuous purchases and forms of enjoyment and the obligation they felt towards their family and children. The tension between spending money on consumer goods versus meeting their social obligations was often felt most acutely by those in employment or with a more regular source of income. Having a job not only came with an expectation to support one’s family. It also involved the pressure to “show you are working”, as one of my interlocutors put it, that involved acquiring and displaying desirable goods—from clothes and cell phones through to cars—that earmarked you as a person whose life was improving.
This desire to consume not only underscores the inequalities that pervade South Africa but also shows how the lives of young people throughout the continent are not simply structured by their limited means but by their desires and aspirations to get ahead. While wearing expensive clothes, owning a car, or being seen to drink expensive brands of alcohol might increase young men’s social status it also made them vulnerable to accusations of misguided prioritisation of self over others and the present over the future. I heard this concern expressed most clearly in the phrase that someone was “forgetting where they come from”. The phrase was most commonly directed at someone who was seen to be engaged in conspicuous consumption (such as the purchase of alcohol or new shoes) without “taking responsibility” for others and was thus seen to be prioritising their individual status over their families.
Senzo’s reluctance to attend the wedding not only reflects the competing demands on his income but also the social and moral pressures that come from the tension young men face between improving their own lives and taking responsibility for others. The consequence of this tension is that young men have to tread a fine line between succumbing to the pressure to consume—in a context where not being able to wear nice clothes or getting take-outs signals a kind of social poverty—and looking after their social obligations to others. The feeling of being “under pressure” not only indexes the widespread feeling that comes from being overburdened by the multiplicity of economic demands young men experience but also the reality that certain aspirations to get head remain perpetually out of reach.
This article was first published in The Review of Africa Political Economy journal
It’s Time To Make the Sovereignty of Wanjiku Count as Decreed by Our Constitution
Both the state and ruling elite have lost the legitimacy and morality to rule.
The idea of the people’s sovereignty in our Constitution has been an abstract concept since its promulgation on August 27, 2010. But not any more, thanks to both a state and a political leadership that has led an assault on our sovereignty – so the idea is, now indeed, real and alive!
Domination, oppression and exploitation beget resistance. Crises breed opportunities for such a resistance. The COVID-19 pandemic has “raptured normalities” the world over. Kenya has not been an exception as the pandemic has breathed life into the clarion call for the implementation of the 2010 Constitution.
Where do we find the sovereignty of the Kenyan people in the 2010 Constitution?
Right from the beginning, the Preamble of our Constitution: We, the people of Kenya adopt, enact and give the Constitution to ourselves and our future generations. Article 1(1) provides that “All sovereign power belongs to the people of Kenya and shall be exercised only in accordance with this Constitution.” Article 1(1) states “The people may exercise their sovereign power either directly or through their democratically elected representatives.” We are called upon as Kenyans under Article 3 to “respect, uphold and defend the Constitution.”
That responsibility and obligation allows Kenyans to make sure “any attempt to establish a government otherwise than in compliance with this Constitution,” which the Constitution decrees as “unlawful” is resisted in our national duty to respect, uphold and defend our Constitution.
It is fundamentally important to bear in mind that we Kenyans can exercise our sovereign power directly.
Participation of the people in all societal matters is a national value under Article 10 of the Constitution. Executive, Legislative, and Judicial authorities are derived from the people of Kenya. So, Wanjiku is also the sovereign President, Speaker, Chief Justice, Senator, MP and MCA, indeed, the sovereign in all public and state offices. The independent institutions, the security apparatuses, and the financial bodies derive their authority from Wanjiku.
The idea of the people’s sovereignty in our Constitution has been an abstract concept since its promulgation on August 27, 2010. But not any more, thanks to both a state and a political leadership that has led an assault on our sovereignty – so the idea is, now indeed, real and alive.
They are all called upon “to protect the sovereignty of the people” of Kenya. National resources are held in trust for Wanjiku. Our Bill of Rights is the most progressive in the world by giving us the promotion and protection of their whole gamut of political, civil, economic, social and cultural rights. Implementing these rights fulfills the promise of our democracy and ensures the equitable distribution of our national resources. The sovereign debt benefits Wanjiku and not the institutions and people to whom she has delegated power.
Our power to recall MPs and MCAs as well as our power to impeach the President reflect that Wanjiku can recall the power she has donated to all state institutions and officers. The state’s “machinery or forces of violence” are told in very clear terms that national security is protection of the sovereignty of the country, “its people, their rights, freedoms, property, peace, stability and prosperity, and other national interests” under Article 238 of the Constitution.
Devolution is about the equitable distribution of political power and resources. It is about grassroots democracy from the village when Kenyans get to control and share not only resources but also their political power.
General COVID-19 marches all over the world
Unfortunately for both the state and the ruling elite – General COVID-19 marched all over the world since January 2020 leaving in his wake death and destruction. Wanjiku started demanding her rights under the 2010 Constitution by asking the state and the elite the following questions: Where is my right to the highest attainable standard of health? Where is my accessible and adequate housing? What about my reasonable standards of sanitation? Where is my freedom from hunger and to have adequate food of acceptable quality? Where is my clean and safe water in adequate quantities? My social security? My children’s education? Why are you denying me emergency medical treatment?
Devolution is about the equitable distribution of political power and resources. It is about grassroots democracy from the village when Kenyans get to control and share not only resources but also their political power
The responses to Wanjiku were inhuman: ulisikia wapi (who told you this?) When Wanjiku insisted on asking these questions the Karaus (security personnel) responded with demolitions of housing, sprayed poisonous tear gas and dangerous water canons to disperse Wanjiku’s children contrary to the dictates of Article 37 of the Constitution. Police officers are ordered other Article to protect the right of citizens to “peaceably and unarmed, to assemble, to demonstrate, to picket, and to present petitions to public authorities.” In my long history of activism I have never seen citizens armed. Indeed, its the police who are armed, and arm goons and criminals to attack peaceful protesters. There were reported extrajudicial killings in the people’s informal settlements. The rich and powerful kept their billions in their foundations and banks (except for two) and shamelessly sold donated PPE’s, surgical masks and vitamins, and announced from the rooftops that they are now COVID-19 millionaires and billionaires.
As if this was not enough, Wanjiku was told to keep social distance, wash hands and wear surgical masks. Curfew was declared and hunger imposed in the bargain. Wanjiku’s cries for justice under the Constitution were met with state brutality and elite responses of Utado (what will you do if you cannot breathe?). No humanity, no caring, extreme callousness and untold greed on the part of the state and the elite. Both the state and ruling elite lost the legitimacy and morality to rule.
In the midst of all this, Wanjiku is told that the only game in town is called Building Bridges Initiative (BBI). Wanjiku responds Kweli ashibaye hamjui mwenye njaa/those who are never hungry never experience hunger. The response is yet again ulisikia wapi? BBI itafanyika upende usipende/BBI will happen whether you want it or not. Wanjiku can see that the government and the opposition have become an imperial presidency, combining support for imperialism and the engine of dictatorship that we rejected by promulgating the 2010 Constitution. BBI is the subversion of the Constitution and the political coup that is unlawful under Article 3 (2) of the Constitution. Wanjiku has decided to resist BBI and respect, uphold, and defend the Constitution.
The official opposition has ceased to be the government in waiting, signaling the beginning of the idea of an authentic people’s opposition. For Wanjiku, the “people’s president” urged by the leader of the opposition has been demystified as elite chicanery, a ploy to claw back the gains of the 2010 Constitution.
In the midst of all this, Wanjiku is told that the only game in town is called Building Bridges Initiative (BBI). Wanjiku responds Kweli ashibaye hamjui mwenye njaa/those who are never hungry never experience hunger. The response is yet again ulisikia wapi? BBI itafanyika upende usipende/BBI will happen whether you want it or not.
That is how the idea of the sovereignty of Kenya’s people ceased to be abstract. Resistance to the state and the ruling elite in the name of #Tekeleza/Linda Katiba/implement and defend the Constitution is now loud and clear.
Wanjiku’s sovereignty in various matters is being validated in courts through Public Interest Litigation. Various petitions have been filed in the High Court while civil society movements are organizing and mobilizing Wanjiku to stand up for the protection of the Constitution. In the constitutional works is discussion of the institution of private prosecution under Article 3 (2) of the Constitution against the proponents of BBI for seeking to “establish a government otherwise than in compliance with this Constitution.” Activities of the BBI are going to be constitutionally tested and criminal proceedings shall be brought by Wanjiku to stop BBI from overthrowing the Constitution by unlawful means, the crime of treason!
When General COVID-19 Retreats
While General COVID-19 occupies our Motherland, Wanjiku will not distinguish him from the state and the ruling elite. Wanjiku will have to fight both. The state and the ruling elite have not made any concessions as decreed by the Constitution. The uses by the state and the ruling elite of the machinery of violence under the conditions imposed by the occupation of COVID-19 have been ill advised and inhuman. This is not the time to put profits, corruption and theft before the interests of Wanjiku.
The state and the ruling elite are both endangering our democracy, our peace and security, our prosperity, and our future. BBI cannot be an answer to this national crisis. Police brutality is not an answer to the crisis.
If General COVID-19 is to be defeated, the state and ruling elite must be on the side of the people. There is no evidence that both want to be. The unfolding history of this country will validate my belief that those who are not with the people of Kenya are on the side of General COVID-19. They will consequently also retreat with General COVID-19. The state and the ruling elite will consequently lose their constitutional legitimacy to rule.
When that happens there must be an alternative political leadership that Kenyans are convinced will be different from the current one – a leadership that will use the institution of the state in the material interests of Kenyans. It has to be a leadership that will implement the critical pillars of the 2010 Constitution while auditing, through a national participatory consultation, from the grassroots, from the ground up, our Constitution. The audit will be about illuminating the weaknesses in the Constitution and thereby plugging those gaps so that the voice of our united people will lead in the decision making of our country’s future.
Edited by Natasha Elkington
Evangelical Christianity: Is it Love or Colonisation?
At a time when Evangelical Christianity frequently goes against the interests of African people, is it time for us to re-make Christianity?
Two recent stories from Africa, both connected to the just ended US presidential elections, have led some observers to remark that Christianity seems to be alienating Africans in ways that prevent them from having a clearer view of their own interests.
The first story was a?BBC report?detailing how some African evangelical leaders, mostly from Kenya and Nigeria, were praying for the incumbent Donald Trump to defeat his challenger, Joe Biden. The rationale these leaders gave for supporting Trump was one directly culled from the issues Christians in America have been debating, including abortion and religious freedom. The African evangelical leaders praised Trump for promoting anti-abortion policies and for being a defender of Christians, even though the issues of abortion and religious freedom are not the dominant issues Christians in Nigeria and Kenya are facing.
Shortly following this report, a video of some Christians in Nigeria marching in support of Donald Trump circulated on the Internet, and Donald Trump himself?retweeted?the clip with the response, “A parade for me in Nigeria, a great honor!” This support for Trump was jarring given that he had disparaged African countries and expressed what may be described as?racist sentiments?about them. That African Christians would be supporting a person who clearly could care less about them struck many as symptomatic of the ways that Christianity leads Africans to militate against their own interests.
That Christianity has had deracinating and other harmful effects on Africans is not a new insight. The problematic effects have been recognized since at least the 19th century both by those who embrace Christianity and those who do not. In an 1881 essay entitled “The Aims and Methods of a Liberal Education for Africans,” presented at Liberia College (now the University of Liberia), the Caribbean-born Liberian and Presbyterian churchman, Edward Blyden, decried “the treatment which our own race and other so-called inferior races have received from Christian nations.” He noted how the “sword of the conqueror and the cries of the conquered have attended or preceded the introduction” of Western Christianity into non-Western lands. Also, the theme has been central to much of African literature, especially exemplified in works of authors such as Ngugi wa Thiongo, Wole Sonyinka, Mongo Beti, and Chinua Achebe, among others. For many of these writers, Christianity has not only divided Africans but also diminished their being in the world.
In his now classic work called “Song of Lawino,” which pits a Westernized and Christianized husband against his wife who stands for indigenous Africa, the Ugandan scholar Okot p’Bitek critiques Christianity for turning Africans into “parrots,” who unquestioningly adhere to a religion they do not understand, despising their own traditions in the process. Even scholars of African Christianity, such as Jesse Mugambi, Musa Dube, Tinyiko Maluleke and Emmanuel Katongole, among others, have wondered aloud whether Christianity can be trusted to bring healing to some of the ills that the continent faces. Others, such as the South African theologian Gabriel Setiloane, have even wondered whether Africans should continue to be Christians. These are questions that still largely remain unanswered, especially given the checkered history of modern Christianity in the continent.
Yet, it is recognised that Christianity has been gaining significant ground in Africa, so much so that the continent is now home to more Christians than any other continent in the world. Given that Christianity has taken root, many now acknowledge that it is only by Africanising Christianity that the religion may better account for the interests of Africans, rather than placing Africans at the mercy of external machinations. This project of Africanizing Christianity has a long history in the continent but in a recent book,?African Catholic: Decolonization and the Transformation of the Church, the historian Elizabeth Foster captures how Africanizing Christianity may enable Africans not only to transform their continent but also to transform Christianity as a whole. Focusing on the Catholic tradition, the book explores how West African Catholics pushed the French colonial Catholic Church in West Africa to see the wisdom of decolonization, thus helping to decolonize not only the continent but also the church. This is still an unfinished business.
At a time when most churches in Africa are led by Africans, there still exist Christian ways of thinking that are anti-African. This is especially seen in churches that demonize African indigenous traditions, turning African deities into devils and ancestors into sources of demonic blockages. It seems that in these churches, the only way to be Christian is to seek to untether oneself from one’s indigenous background.
Because of their connection to churches in Europe and the US, many of these churches continue to see issues raised by churches in Euro-America as issues that should be of central Christian concern. This is how abortion and religious freedom came to be central to some churches in Nigeria and Kenya, whereas they are not the central issues for most Christians in these countries. This anti-African Christian imagination seems to be the source of spectacle, such as those detailed at the beginning of this piece. Challenging this anti-African Christian imagination is one way of checking a Christianity that appears to alienate Africans from their being in the world.
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