Disconnected: Faith and poverty in Nairobi (1)

Posted on October 26, 2011

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It was a strange way to spend a Sunday, seeing two sides to the city I now live in and confirming why Kenya remains such an enigma to those that visit it.

My morning began early, even earlier than it would midweek, as I dragged myself from bed to catch a matatu and a bus from my base north of Nairobi to the more plush southern district of Karen. Karen, named for Out of Africa author Karen Blixen, is an area of relatively high-income housing with a large European population. I was certainly visiting one of the city’s nicer areas, evident as the mess and mayhem of central Nairobi fell away to lush fields, trees and the unmistakable feel of the countryside. For once in Kenya, however, I wasn’t there to see wildlife. I was there to do something I hadn’t done for many, many years. Possibly since my ill-conceived christening, in fact. I was going to church.

Whereas a visit to a church for a Sunday service in the UK would be a lonely and echoey experience, it is quite the opposite in Kenya. Whole families dress up for this pivotal moment on the weekly calendar. So not only was I making a long trip to be the only atheist amongst many committed believers (and one of only two or three mzungus in the congregation), I was doing it in shirt and jacket. And upon arrival at Karen Catholic Church – slightly late, as is the Kenyan way – we witnessed a sight that would be almost impossible to find back home. A full church.

Actually, ‘full’ isn’t quite right. There was actually overspill. Tents had been erected outside the church and chairs laid out for those blasphemers that had had the gall to show up late for the word of our Lord. It felt like some kind of country fete in a way, but at most country fetes I have been to (it isn’t many, by the way) you weren’t confronted by an angry Kenyan preaching with all his might.

He wasn’t angry all the time, in fairness. He would start off quiet and reserved, only to gradually to build to some kind of powerful crescendo, demanding amens from his congregation and tackling almost ridiculous topics along the way. After almost going through the motions beseeching those gathered to pray for women abused or ignored by miscreant husbands, he then became particularly furious about women who had the nerve, incredibly in his eyes, to not cook for their husbands. His fire-and-brimstone fury was so powerful I had my eyes screwed shut, desperately praying for these poor hungry men. Apparently feminism as a concept isn’t quite embedded here.

The next order of business was the most important: asking for money. Though the sermon had touched on “not taking advantage of others”, those conducting proceedings had little shame about, ahem, taking advantage of their congregation by asking people to be generous towards a fundraiser scheduled for the next weekend. The basic Catholic business of mass seemed almost secondary to this fundraising, with the idea of private donations thrown aside by the announcement that names and total money donated would be read out the following Sunday. I can only imagine the fate that would befall any member of the congregation whose donation was deemed unsatisfactory. To my ignorant eyes, they didn’t need too much money in order to improve the church, it just needed extending a bit at the back. In any case, those present seemed to be generous enough judging by the amount of money that was placed in the collection towards the end of the service.

The religious observance of Kenyans is certainly undeniable. Even those slightly less-desirable individuals that I have met in various bars around town consider themselves to believe in God. As mentioned before, families dress up in their finest gear for the weekly trip to church. During the service itself, people joined in passionately with the many songs and prayers, dutifully answering the priest when he demanded an “amen” or “God is great”. What was refreshing, coming from godless Blighty, is that they actually seemed to mean it, for most people it didn’t seem to be some kind of act that they go through every Sunday just to keep up appearances. They participated fully, gave generously, and dressed to impress. Church ministers in the UK would kill to have such a congregation (if they were allowed to kill).

Needless to say, it was disconcerting, and I won’t be going again.

*Part 2 to follow

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Posted in: Experience, Issues