Tuesday, March 20, 2012

My Life In Kenya: A Musungu Memoir -- Part 1

“Musungu” is the Bantu word for a white person. It comes from a longer word meaning someone who travels around.

First Surprises and Learnings.

Thanks to the moral encouragement and financial support of Fr. Lloyd Rupp and the hospitality of Melvin Stringer (St. Tim’s/ Kenya Keep) who squired us around the country and the fellowship and grace of the Rt. Rev. Joseph Kanuku, 2nd Bishop of Machakos, we have experienced an eye-opener of an African sojourn.

After an arduous flight – Las Vegas to Los Angeles to Amsterdam to Nairobi – and a drive from Nairobi to Machakos, we met Bishop Kanuku and his wife Josephine. That is when the surprises began.

Relations with Islam.

The first surprise was the relationship between Anglicans and Muslims in Kenya. Interfaith hostility is at the heart of violence and discord along the 10th Parallel to the North – running through Nigeria in West Africa and dividing Northern and Southern Sudan in the East. (See Griswold, The 10th Parallel) Things I had heard here and there led me to believe similar tensions beset Kenya.

So we were quite surprised to learn that Josephine Kanuku (the Bishop’s wife) teaches Christian Education as a faculty member at the Islamic School in Machakos. It turns out Bishop Kanuku and the local Imam are good friends. During times of drought, the Anglicans have come to the aid of Muslims. When I sent money for crop seed during a drought, the Anglicans shared the seed with the Muslims. Bishop Kanuku and the Imam talk about the “fundamentalist” Muslims and Christians who are each other’s enemies, each disavowing the hostility of either brand of religious intolerance. The Anglicans and most Muslims are friends. Since building bridges across the religious divide is essential to peace and prosperity in Africa (and in much of the world), I was just delighted to find that our Anglican Communion partners are at work for harmony and understanding. Well done Diocese of Machakos.

Status of Women.

I came away from Lambeth Conference (2008) with the impression that women are not doing well in Africa. I still know that is often true. The struggle for equality has not yet been completed in Kenya as it has not been completed here. But I was quite surprised to find how much Kenyan women have achieved both inside and outside the Church.

Understanding the place of women in Kenyan society has to begin with Wangari Muta Mary Jo Maathai who won the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize for “her contribution to sustainable development, democracy, and peace.” A member of the Kikuyu tribe, Mrs. Maathai founded the Green Belt Movement and linked women’s rights to environmental sustainability.

It took me awhile to figure out why Bishop Kanuku is obsessed with planting trees. He goes about doing it himself all the time. And when he meets with his clergy, he wants to know “how many trees have you planted?” The answer had better be in the thousands! I cannot count how many trees he showed me that he had planted with his own hands. He and I each planted a tree at the second school we visited. It turns out planting trees was Maathai’s signature symbolic political act as weaving cloth was Gandhi’s. So as not to sugar coat the truth, Maathai’s efforts were vehemently resisted by the single party government of Jomo Kenyata and even her own family. But her courage has opened doors to Kenyan women in politics and the economy.

The Diocese of Machakos has been ordaining women since 1998. We met a good number of women clergy and other women in the ordination process. At meals and other times in the home and church, women often lead the prayers. Women are active participants and sometimes leaders in Bible Study. Many a school or community service project traces its beginnings to The Mothers Union.

As important as the status of women in the Church may be, what matters more is what the Church is doing about the status of women in society. Problem one: female genital mutilation and forced marriage. In traditional Kenyan culture, girls of 12 or 13 are “circumcised” and married off to older men. The government now opposes this practice, but people still do it. I saw no evidence of Child Protective Services stepping in to protect these girls. But the church funded schools do. They operate “Rescue Houses” on the school campuses where the girls receive sanctuary. It was my privilege to dedicate the cornerstone of the ACK (Anglican Church of Kenya) Kyandote Bulwa Girls’ Hostel in a remote mountain area – where there are no foster placements, group homes, or other government facilities to protect girls from FGM and forced marriage or other abuse – but the Diocese of Machakos is building a home where they will be safe, nourished, and educated. We met rescue girls sponsored by Kenya Keep and saw several rescue houses on school campuses. Yes, we have decided to sponsor a rescue girl ourselves. It cost $250 per year and can be easily arranged through Kenya Keep in Henderson.

Problem two: economic independence. Those engaged in economic development as part of the Millenium Development Goals have learned through experience that the key is equipping women to operate small businesses to support their families. In Kenya, 80% of the population subsists on less than $1 per day (that is in actual buying power). So this is where the rubber meets the road for MDGs. The gender factor exacerbates poverty everywhere, but it is most obvious with the Masai tribe. The Masai are the cowboys of Kenya – only they are on foot, not horseback. They are nomadic herders of sheep, goats, and cattle. But changes in agriculture and the climate have compelled Masai families to settle. The problem is that the family settles, but the dad doesn’t. Men tend to marry, father children, then just wander off on a walk-about that could be a year or a lifetime – and they do not mail back a child support check. Equipping women to earn a living for themselves and their children is essential to alleviating poverty. More on this later. For now, let me just say, the Church is in that struggle up to its elbows.

More than anything else we did in Kenya, we visited schools. I spoke to lots of children, but the lights really turned on when Linda spoke to them. The girls were transfixed by the sight of a woman who is a lawyer, a professor, and an author. It was amazing to see how excited they were by her example. The church women were pretty taken with her as well. One young transitional deacon couldn’t get a word in edgewise in the clergy conversations – the Church is doing better than I expected, but it does have a way to go. I tried to open up space for her to speak, but it was Linda who really brought out her smile and her voice.

Security and Stability.
Our trip to Kenya had been planned for last November but was delayed by a terrorist threat. So a number of folks were worried about us going now. I don’t mean to say there was nothing to worry about. The day we arrived, there was a fatal grenade incident in Nairobi. And the crime rate in the slums is bad; hence, the local habit of referring to the capital as “Nairobbery.” But on the whole, I felt safer in Kenya than in any developing nation I have visited. Kenya is the anchor of political stability in East Africa. That is why it got so much press and caused so much international concern when there were riots and ethnic violence after the contested elections in 2008. That is not the norm in Kenya. There is corruption and the politics are not what the people would hope. The rich few live behind barbed wire crowned fences protecting them from the poor. But Kenya is not a violent place. There are neighborhoods in Nairobi that it is better not to go. But outside those neighborhoods, there is not much risk from criminals – and more importantly, not much risk from the police or military who are sometimes the more serious danger in some developing nations.

The threat in Kenya is not homegrown. It is a spill-over from the failed government in Somalia. Just as there are Somali pirates on the seas, there are gangs that adopt a political pretext for what is really just lawless hooliganism. Operating out of Somalia, they cause problems in Kenya and other neighboring countries as well. The military of several East African states is at work fighting the gang known as Al Shebab. The people in Kenya hope to see a stable government in Somalia so that the whole region can experience security.

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