“Christ is the Answer” screams a billboard at the Valley Road Pentecostal church, catching the eye of motorists as they speed down into Nairobi city centre. The Valley Road church attracts the more up-market crowd. Recently an American preacher, T.D. Jakes, pulled nearly 1 million people to a crusade in the city’s central Uhuru Park, where his simple message to the congregation — that they had to pull up their socks, elect better leaders and have confidence in themselves — hit a chord that most political speakers miss. This is one side of Pentecostalism in Africa.
The other, more sensational side, which features on the TV news and in newspaper columns, tells such stories as these: the West African preacher who promised his congregation prayers if they paid him a certain proportion of their income or possessions. All was going well, until one of his faithful brought along his car in return for prayers, and it quickly became a police case. Or the preacher who promised to heal people with AIDS through his prayers — and their stipends. The ones he tested as positive would be asked to come back in a week, would be tested again, and, “miraculously”, all had recovered. That is, until the authorities heard about it. He also has to face the courts.
In a large city like Nairobi where most people live on the edge, the streets are crowded with unemployed men, young and old, with mothers (single or married) contending with a drunken or unfaithful partner and many children to bring up on the pittance they earn selling vegetables. Many are close to despair and search out someone who gives spiritual consolation, since in the towns witch doctors are few and largely discredited by people with some education. The itinerant preacher is the answer to the problems of many. In Kenya he has become an institution.
Public transport preachers
Preachers are very forthright and know neither fear nor respect of men. They parade at the public taxi queues as people are leaving work for home, giving some words of inspiration or scolding listeners for their lack of fervour, while, incidentally, asking for a few coins for their own trip home that night. They take a seat on inter-city transport and preach for the whole trip. During the lunch hour, people who cannot afford to buy lunch, go to a nearby public park or gardens to listen to an evangelist, who passes around the hat at the end. Women have got in on the act too, and a few have started preaching in the city centre — with little success so far.
Their message is simple and hits on the political, social or criminal event of the day. They speak the language of the people and know their mindset. The climate of Nairobi is perfect — never cold, and almost always dry — and encourages outdoor activities such as these. Combined with the simple message of politics and traditional morality, and based on a literal interpretation of selected passages of Scripture which make few demands, certain brands of Pentecostalism have a more superficial appeal. If, besides, people are convinced that by just believing they are saved, they are in fact saved, regardless of what they do thereafter, what better deal can they hope for?
These evangelists are aggressive in their proselytising and aim for those who are weak in the faith in their current church. In the Pentecostal churches on Sundays, worship is lively and vibrant: singing, clapping, dance. It is attractive to young people who find worship in some mainstream churches dull by contrast. In some churches, the Sunday service will have been preceded by an all-night foot-thumping, spiritual jam session of personal witnessing, that has kept the neighbours awake.
As more and more Kenyans move to the cities, will Pentecostalism and the evangelists oust established Christian churches? The Baptists, who are closer in belief and practice to the Pentecostals, are doing well, and for the same reasons, although they have a less flamboyant style. The Anglicans, Presbyterians and Methodists, however, are undergoing a critical time. They are losing youth, are sometimes seen as too tied to political leaders and the ambiguous stance of their mother churches on traditional morality, such as bioethics and the tacit or not so tacit acceptance of homosexuality and gay rights. Equivocation is beginning to undermine their credibility. Increasingly what people are looking for is clear answers to such matters as abortion, contraception and divorce — black or white, not grey.
It is the Catholic Church that perhaps attracts the more serious converts. In 2004 there were almost 150,000,000 Catholics in Africa, a spectacular growth over a few years, and this has been reflected in Kenya. As the Lineamenta (working document) of a recent assembly of African Catholic bishops stated: “African tradition holds that the word and life are closely related”. For most Africans the revealed word of God means life. Africans are very down to earth, and have little time for theories. Despite the weaknesses and occasional unfortunate example of some of its members and pastors, they know that, when all is said and done, the Catholic Church walks the talk and makes no “pie in the sky” promises. It is not involved confrontationally with politics and politicians, nor is it out to earn a quick buck. Moreover, it not only supports traditional morality, but defends it tooth and nail.
The Catholic Church has cared for those whom most people would rather not notice: the street children, orphans and widows, the women in distress, men (and women) defeated by alcohol, AIDS victims and the unemployed. And outside the urban centres, in the far-flung corners, the remotest forest or the arid plains and semi-desert where only nomads, some carrying guns, eke out an existence, there will always be a mission station, a clinic and perhaps a primary school. It is there that missionaries consume their lives, training people to build up a basic infrastructure and feed their families — as a preparation to evangelisation, if they are non-believers, or simply to help develop their lives, if they are animists or Muslims.
The Catholic Church often stands in for the almost complete absence of government action. It is the Catholic schools that the education mandarins watch when national school-leaving results are published. It is there that so many parents want their children to be educated, irrespective of their beliefs, Protestant, Seventh Day Adventist, Muslim or Hindu. It is the Catholic bishops and their pastoral letters which the government respects most, not the street preachers or the tele-evangelists.
With such solid foundations, the Church has become a benevolent force to reckon with. Prejudices and misconceptions remain, but for those who want a belief that challenges the best in them, it is normally to the Catholic Church they turn, whatever their age, and especially the young.
Africans are constantly aware of their dependence on God, and on God’s laws regarding their personal behaviour. Religion is here to stay in Africa. Hopefully it will avoid the current spiritual and moral crisis of much of Europe or the church-state conflict of the United States. In Kenya public meetings normally begin and end with prayers, and people have a strong instinct for correct behaviour. The main problem is not which faith will predominate, but a shortage of shepherds, responsible shepherds, who can take their flocks into green pastures. Once that is guaranteed, the faithful will look for and be attracted by results, not vain promises.
Martyn Drakard is a Kenyan of British origin, a teacher for many years and now Director of the Community Outreach Programme in Strathmore University, Nairobi. He is a regular columnist on social issues for local publications.