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Food for Thought: Culinary Cultures and Their Discontents

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Peoples are what they eat and the dietary consumption and what we choose to imbibe, or not consume based on habits, health, religion, or taboos symbolically reflect this dynamic.

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Food for Thought: Culinary Cultures and Their Discontents
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Meals, beyond meeting our dietary and nutritional needs, is pretty much one of the most telling signallers of Kenya’s social sensibilities, in which food preparation, serving, availability, and taboos give insights into our people’s histories, geographies, ethnicities, tragedies, and self-perceptions.

That we’re a crop people, with crops making up 81% of our food output and yet milk products records the highest consumption belies the fact that our supply systems are still better geared towards industrialized supplies.

Still, maize and wheat and their related products come in at a close second and third respectively in national food consumption. According to the status of traditional vegetable report, 200 species growing naturally in Kenya are used as leafy vegetables. About 10 more exotic species introduced during the pre-colonial period have been integrated into the traditions of various communities and can therefore be regarded as traditional vegetables.

Ethnobotanist Patrick M. Maundu’s research documented 10 exotic species introduced into Kenya in the pre-colonial period of which the top three of maize, milk and wheat have recorded higher profitability pegged on the large scale technological production. Consequently this has entrenched the food industries the primary arbiters of Kenya’s culinary aspects with the resultant cartelism, artificial shortages, oligopolies, market inefficiencies and food safety issues. Food occupies this complex place in society and social order, a fact that led the pioneer gastronomy Jean Brillat-Savarin to remark ‘Tell me what kind of food you eat, and I will tell you what kind of man you are.

Pretty much all indigenous foods chiefly Cassava (8th), Sorghum (15th), and Millet (19th) position, have been edged out of the primary consumption basket. Mass production of the top industrial food items, pegged on their mass marketing, industrial production and the resultant lower prices put them at the top of the totem pole of food intake. Even then, the distinction between foreign and indigenous foods is fluid and often tentative given the transitory nature of ethnic cultures including food and culinary habits among ethnicities over time.

Food and Meaning

Food, therefore as a cultural and ethnic text, expresses the truism that man, since his prehistoric times, was able to link nutritious foods not just with robust health but also its capacity as a social marker, cultural identity, and insight into the economic, myth-making, and resource constraints of his immediate ecology.

Peoples are what they eat and the dietary consumption and what we choose to imbibe, or not consume based on habits, health, religion, or taboos symbolically reflect this dynamic. Our respective food traditions communicate to others, our beliefs, cultural and social backgrounds, incomes, and experiences. Granted there are many reasons why we exclude certain foods from our diet, from basic health issues to deep cultural and personal beliefs.

An intuitive survival need such as eating, that all humans share, is also something that we use to differentiate ourselves; our psychologies, anthropologies, individual preferences, desires, sense-making, economic capacity, health concerns, farming practices, and social limitations.

Food political Failure

At the economic level, resource constraints and starvation occasioned by the current political failure, limits dietary choices in terms of available food, pricing, alternative meals, and future food needs, with drought warning mechanisms estimating one-third of the 4 million Nairobi residents as starving.

In many ways the frequent food shortages and the attendant perennial famine are reflections of political and policy failure to modernize our supply systems, audit our food systems, and mainstream food security initiatives. This phenomenon isn’t just a city problem as shrinking land sizes have necessitated the need for food purchases even in rural Kenya.

New City Norm

The average Kenyan therefore, robbed of the capacity to consistently afford, and access quality variety of meals is forced to a primary dependency on the Kibanda food stall culture. These Kibandas as profit-making ventures definitely go for the cheapest easy-to-mass-produce foods on the menu item.

Their lack of proper food safety notwithstanding, the Kibanda culture plugs the gaps in urban food supply systems, and shortens the elaborate process of food production at home, for an exhausted and fast-paced urban dwellers.

Grocerants and delis in supermarkets meanwhile play the same role Kibanda do but for the middling and upper classes. Keenly aware of the changing lifestyles of the ingredient shoppers, supermarkets shifted from only selling ingredients and recipes to also fixing the meal and selling it like a restaurant. This trend started with the retail outlet Tuskys supermarket in 2014 before their competitors caught on, buoyed by the convergence of tech and hospitality, and the desire for fresh food, access, and convenience at decent prices.

Cucumbers on Sale

What’s never obvious to the average Kenyan is that the structure of society closely correlates to the nature of its status foods. Societies with small social classism tend to have more elaborate staple foods and go for larger portions, while highly unequal and stratified societies place inordinate emphasis on culinary style, quality and even presentation. Hence, depending on the society’s structure, food either becomes a bonding mechanism for neighbours and friends, or a signifier of exclusivity, distance, class, and prestige.

Further to that, culturally homogeneous communities designate uniqueness of an occasion based on quantities of foods served. Meanwhile the interactions in heterogeneous cultures say during inter-ethnic dowry negotiations, special occasions are designated uniqueness based on the variety of cuisines served. Despite the stratified nature of our local society haute cuisines and fine dining haven’t taken root since Kenyans-even the elite strata-still prefer foods they know. This lack of experimentation with food has curtailed fine dining restaurant culture even as casual dining, kibanda culture, and fast food outlets continue to grow and expand.

The underlying issue here could be that Kenya lacks a notable process of aristocratic acculturation such as can be spotted among Rwandese, Ugandan, French or South African nobilities. Hence we’re stuck with a financial and economic elite who besides monetary outlay do not have any binding social sensibilities, dining rituals, and any unique markers of identity formation outside of high incomes.

Markedly, in cultures where there is an abundance of food, slender bodies are associated with privilege and status, while in societies where food is scarce, there is the perception that being chubby is a status marker. However body image, in relation to food, has increasingly lesser social meaning, given that we’re more inundated with Euro-American notions of fitness, beauty, and bodily aesthetics.

Eat Your Caviar

These Euro-American notions do not stop at how we perceive bodies, even what’s often considered good food whether in movies or Instagram is mostly white food, American food or generally processed foods. While I’m focusing on white foods here, coffee, tea and alcohol are also used in similar ways. Brand name Euro-American beverage and food varieties pasted on our digital profiles are overtly supposed to signify prestige and implicitly convey taste and status.

Indigenous Kenyan foods are then exoticised within the make-believe Kenyan high-society and sold as special cuisines. These classists and racial notions of food hierarchy relegate local dishes to healthy but low-status meals best left to the sick, the aged and those in the rural enclaves.

The politics of food much more poignantly plays out even locally with the Kikuyus and their stereotypical soupy foods, political connotation of wishy-washy politician as watermelons, and the signifier of tribal rank in the disdainful phrasing uthamaki witù, thamaki ciao, as well as Luhyas and their typecasted food quantities.

Who Moved My Cheese?

Further away from tribal stereotypes foods as religious markers distinguishes local sects, genders and communities who are bounded by certain edicts. The growing yoga community in the country desigantes certain food consumption so does the vegan society, as well as the vegetarian communities.

Adventists relation with red meat, Halal foods for Muslims, Kosher for the Jewish community and the organic feeders work within a wider framework of food censures and freedoms for cultural, health, ideological or religious reasons.

Eat of the Ground

The organic food network is gradually gifting a growing cluster of health and safety conscious Kenyans with a healthy and well-curated food system. The Kenya Organic Agriculture Network (KOAN) has designated the organic markets in Nairobi to include the Organic Farmers Market next to Hillcrest, US Embassy Organic Farmers Market, Kids Ventures Garden Estate, and Karengata Farmers’ Market both in Karen, Community Sustainable Agriculture and Healthy Environment Programme (C-SHEP) farmers market in Rongai Township.

Grocery stores such as Kalimoni Greens in Karen, Zucchini at ABC Place, The Corner Shop at Diamond Plaza also sell organic food products. Chandarana Foodplus, Carrefour, and Tuskys retail outlets have organic food sections. Where tech meets food distribution deliveries; Mlango Farm, Sylvia Basket, Greenspoon, and Kalimoni Greens make doorstep deliveries.

The conservative dietary streak however, has not stopped a small but growing cluster of Kenyans who’ve begun exploring foreign dishes, newer urban cuisines, and flavours made accessible by online recipes, specialty meals, food carnivals and galas. For such a complex society Kenya makes up for a lack of unique and authentic Kenyan dish by constantly evolving its servings to meet the demands of a diverse community. 

The Semiotics of Kitchen tools

Curiously, unlike in large swaths of the urban homes where citizens lay out elaborate cutlery, in many rural homes, eating with the hands is the norm in many households. That even pop culture icon Oprah Winfrey couldn’t fathom such cultural differences through her now infamous phrase ‘’I heard Indian people eat with their hands still” belies the hard to discard stereotypes.

The underlying belief being that eating with well-set cutlery as is the norm in modern homes is superior, more culturally evolved and sophisticated. These attitudes towards eating with hands is grounded in the never-ending war on germs and hygiene-related Non-Communicable diseases especially in our informal settlements.

This health concern isn’t farfetched given that the rapid growth in the use of cutlery partly acted as the definer of space among diners, and later on as a means of dealing with the disease outbreaks that hit rapidly urbanizing metropolis. Cutlery therefore went beyond practical consideration to being an indicator of space, safety, class, cultures and the relationship between man, place and food.

The kids too need to eat

The place of children in the food system is significantly evolved from the traditional open homes setups that had no delineation or gender. Progressively most modern food outlets have had to develop manned indoor play area with small pitches, swings, huts, and ball games to accommodate family and kid’s needs.

Children are major influencers on where a family eats, wine and dine in which little attention given to amusement, food variety, space, gifts, and furniture, paying off hugely. The centrality of the kid’s concerns to parents elevate their comfort as among the primary determinant of whether the family will patronize a food outlet.

Food considerations built for convenience of toddlers equals happy family dining experience, a key premium for most parents that equals great returns for the food business. Kids nutrition, their allergies, preferences are front and centre in the Kenyan family dining experience and while the children may not have the most sophisticated tastes they are very discerning eaters. The modern day dining experience whether in restaurants, homes or events have to prioritize the kids comfort, and palate, especially child-friendly focus over the weekends.

Eat Your Heart out

In the midst of all this Kenyans have to contend with the implication of industrial mass food production model of their top food preferences maize, milk, and wheat. Whether out of modern speeds, convenience or prices we’ve come to believe that we can feed our bodies industrial, processed foods in perpetuity.

It’s this prospect replicated over large swaths across the world that columnist Mark Hyman remarked,

‘In the 21st century our tastes buds, our brain chemistry, our biochemistry, our hormones and our kitchens have been hijacked by the food industry.’

The Kenyan food industry tries to minimise losses even at the expense of consumers even as regulatory systems and institutions mandated to guarantee food safety such as Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service (KEPHIS), Kenya Bureau of Standards (KEBS) have capitulated to the tyranny of the rogue market. A core issue many Kenyans have to grapple with is the institutions mandated to monitor and ensure food safety understand that food systems are a national security issue.

 

Written and published with the support of the Route to Food Initiative (RTFI) (www.routetofood.org). Views expressed in the article are not necessarily those of the RTFI.

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Darius Okolla is a researcher based in Nairobi.

Culture

Influencer Culture and Food Habits in Urban Nairobi

Alice Taabu’s years of pioneering work on television have spawned a growing Kenyan culture of online cooking shows, recipes, and the marketing of new social trends in food consumption.

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Influencer Culture and Food Habits in Urban Nairobi
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In June 2002, veteran Kenyan chef Ms Alice Taabu bagged the prestigious Gourmand-World Cookbook Award in recognition of her two-decade-long career on the famed KBC TV cookery show Mke Nyumbani. Founded in 1995 by Chef Edouard Cointreau, the Gourmand Award marked a critical turning point in Kenya’s food conversation as historical dishes found their place on the global stage, and within a fast-evolving online life and culture spaces.

On June 5th Gourmand will be awarding their 2021 winner amidst a shifting influence in global food tastes, in an event that’s dubbed “the Oscars” or “the Olympics” for food enthusiasts, and one that has been increasingly dominated by chefs from the South and East, notably the Chinese. Alice Taabu’s versatile feature on our TV shows marked a gentle and progressive expression of our food habits within inter-webs that in hindsight we take for granted.

And it’s out of Alice Taabu’s years of pioneering work that now there’s a growing Kenyan culture of cooking shows, online recipes, and marketing of new social trends in food consumption in the internet streets. With their origins in broadcast television in Kenya, they have evolved tremendously with the growth and uptake of Instagram and YouTube.

This includes the adaptation of television food show formats onto multi-platform content channels such as Netflix, Pay-Tv, Amazon Prime, brand websites and digital platforms like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Instagram.

Yet, even as the ever versatile chef Alice stuck to the time-tested free-to-air TV model, younger, more boisterous incomers like Arthur Mwai were pushing beverage and culinary options away from the mainstream into newer spaces, including setting up the famed Psys, first on Langata Road and later in Westlands.

Since the mid-2000s the online food culture has evolved and birthed offshoots of Mke Nyumbani with varying shelf lives and scope. Buoyed by both the growing ease of content creation, falling cost of internet connectivity, and increasing demand for more local content and local delicacies, recipes increasingly find their way online and into the watching experience of Kenyans within ever-expanding digital ecosystems.

The 2010s saw the explosion of the online world as local content creators consolidated their influence, benchmarked against each other, and set-up entire platforms for curating similar content. It’s no wonder then that Yummy was launched a year later, in 2012, Eat Like a King in 2013, Kaluhi’s Kitchen in 2014, Get in The Kitchen on K24 in 2015, and Shamba Chef in 2017.

Kenya’s Anita Kerai secured a 7-part food series on Amazon Prime, and published her 170-page Flavours from Kenya cookbook. Then there’s The Great Kenyan Bake Off which is based on the British Version The Great British Bake Off, Ali Mandhry’s Tamu Tamu, and Martin Munyua of Dads Can Cook who pioneered the conversation around the legal protection of food TV formats 2013.

A 2015 survey by the Communications Authority of Kenya (CAK) showed that the country has 64 TV stations, and that a majority of local TV viewers preferred local content to foreign programmes. So starting in mid-2016 onwards, the state agency mandated all local broadcasters to start airing 40 per cent local content, increasing gradually to 60 per cent.

The preferred formats are usually semi-structured discursive models involving cooking competitions, instructional methods, light entertainment, storytelling, global cuisine tours, and celebrity guests.

Food Shopping Apps

Locally, a February 2021 poll showed that nearly 4 in 5 shoppers are spending more on online shopping with data top-ups (92 per cent), clothing (67 per cent) and electronics (56 per cent) topping the list of products bought. Meanwhile services sought online include cooking recipes and techniques, dancing classes, learning languages, and mastering DIY projects. That number has inched even higher as COVID-19 restrictions closed down brick and mortar outlets across the country.

The music/movies segment tops the list of online search content, followed by electronics with fashion in third position. But the food segment is growing rapidly; online food stockists and delivery firms including E-Mart, Glovo, Chandarana FoodPlus, UberEats, Yum Deliveries, as well as Green Spoon and Jumia Food have recorded spikes in their online demand.

Twiga, Kalimoni Greens, Kibanda Online, Gobeba, and a host of other online platforms have embraced digitisation and online payment systems to cater to the expanding palate of a tech-savvy society. As online food shopping gains traction, the numbers are bound to surge forward as consumers develop trust and make buying decisions based on the online visual displays, coupled with a seamless product and user interaction.

The influencer culture covers both cooking shows, shopping, dishes, recipes, and food markets in short simple, accessible TikTok and YouTube clips, and often highlights both exotic and local ingredients.

In typical Mke Nyumbani format, such shows offer useful tips on cutlery, techniques, recipes, hygiene, new appliances, first aid, or even what to do if things go wrong. The foodie culture blurs the lines between the food reality TV show and the everyday feeding choices of people and families at home.

Then there is the rise of “Indomie Twitter”, a subculture on Twitter which promotes the growth in the variety of foods consumed, sharing of recipes, online food delivery stores, and outlets.

Psychology of food influencer marketing

The question still remains though: why and how does the psychology of food influencer marketing work? What makes Mke Nyumbani, or Dads Who Cook, Shoba’s Cookouts or Indomie Twitter such a social phenomenon. The short answer is that influencer marketing plays directly into the human desire to belong. It amplifies our proclivity towards that which we already are familiar with.

Behavioural psychologists and neuromarketing experts call this the Mere Exposure Effect. All else being equal, the more we’re exposed to something that’s relatable, the more we like it. And fascinatingly, this preference for the familiar often appears to operate outside of our consciousness.

It appeals to our need for social conformity, and our mental processing functions. Basically, our brain is wired to respond to stimulation from influencer marketers whom we already trust at a virtual interaction level. We find their persuasion more authentic, more fun, and more attractive than other types of persuasions. The link is optimised when the awareness and affinity of the consumer gels with the creativity of the influencer.

Hence, for example Shoba Gatimu’s earthy humor, the ingenuity of the Indomie Twitter crew, Hannah Thee Baker’s digital influencing makes food products look good on set, given they are agile chefs who’re good at their craft.

The psychological terrain of the food influencer market is what happens when social users follow friends and famous users rather than corporate brands. These consumers turn to social platforms to connect and find out how people they look up to build their lifestyles and to look for relatable figures to help them filter through the hundreds of choices in the online markets. In turn they consume lots of visual content which food influencers are primed to optimise.

Research shows that well thought-out visual influencer marketing in the food industry incentivises an engagement rate of 7 per cent and can imply conversion rates of up to Ksh7 for every shilling spent. Ultimately, the partnership between brands and influencers is built on the social ingredient that their personas brings, while building up significant returns on investment (ROI).

To understand the psychology of persuasion, author Robert Cialdini places the construction of influence under six metrics: Reciprocation – the internal pull to repay what another person has provided us with. Consistency – we work to behave consistently towards a choice we’ve already made. Social Proof – when we are unsure, we look to similar others. Liking – the propensity to agree with people we like and the desire for others to agree with us if we like them. Authority – we are more likely to say “yes” to others who are authorities. Scarcity – we want more of what is less available or dwindling in availability.

The overall group psychology that happens ends up creating consumer tribes in which the pursuit of consumption of certain meals or dishes built into our ethnic, class, religious or moral influence is reinforced. This isn’t hard given that the need for social conformity is already hardwired into our brain’s reward system.

The evolution of the kitchen influence

An even bigger influence in group-wide food tastes and preferences among Kenyans stems from social sharing. Influence at that level is therefore built into our deep networks of trust, approval, love, companionship and even identity. The most enduring influence on our food tastes therefore comes from the social affections that we’ve built with our friends within family and friendship set-ups.

In the modern family kitchen, efficiency has gradually eroded camaraderie, as technology reorients and at times replaces our cooking traditions. Meanwhile convenience has become king, as cookware, countertops, drawers, ovens and cabinetry signal the gradual evolution of both the home, the consumer society, and technology.

Your typical modern Kenyan kitchen now bears little resemblance to the home kitchens of old. Before the dawn of modernity, human life revolved around the kitchen and the farm, and the roles that defined kitchen life were often assigned to the women in the community. This lent the home life to critical contestation at the dawn of modernity as family life shifted away from those two domains and into the urban environment.

The traditional designation of the kitchen as a place for mothers and women in general was challenged by the industrial revolution that drove the locus of civilisation away from the kitchen — and by extension the home — and into the milling factories miles away.

And as Ally Matsoso opines, “As men began to accumulate excess wealth and power, they gained freedoms women lacked. Survival and family stability were no longer their sole motivators. Women, as Nourishers of the family, decreased in influence as the family’s importance decreased, crowded out by commerce.  Local bakers could now supply our bread. The spiritual center, the home, had to compete with a material culture, capable of satisfying needs the home once met, and of creating new needs as well.”

What we are seeing at the tail end of capitalism as we know it, is a major shift in food cultures and the nuances built around them. Male chefs grace our TV shows and Instagram food influencers represent a wide range of ages, gender, sexes, class, and persuasion.

There is increased diversity in meal plans, and orthorexia is now a prevalent habit that is defined as a genuine and critical concern about what someone eats. This could range from giving up sugars or oils or meat as a matter of preference. It can also be seen in veganism, vegetarianism or pescatarianism, diets that are adopted either because of health concerns, ecological issues, religious beliefs, or a myriad other social, cultural, moral or personal desires. Entire groups like Hindus, Adventists, Muslims have given up certain foods for one or more of the aforementioned reasons.

Recipes are getting increasingly local as health concerns, and choice of nutrition over taste gives preference to local delicacies once considered not cool enough for our social media streets. Nduma, ngwaci, boiled/roasted maize, bean bread, osuga, banana bread, githeri, chicken and ugali, fish, groundnuts, vegetable dishes, irio, kimanga, cassava and bean mash, matoke, mbaazi, njahi, porridge — to name just those — are sneaking their way back onto our dinner plates, Tiktok, YouTube, and Gram.

In this sense, the growth of cookery shows and food influencers is not so much the ultimate co-option of the home kitchen by modernity, as it is an imperfect recreation of what was, until the dawn of modernity, the soul of the home.

At the end of the day, the ultimate food influence in our lives may not be the familiar and likable chefs on TV, but our mothers and fathers, their recipes, the dinner table, and the food rituals in our family kitchen.

This article is part of The Elephant Food Edition Series done in collaboration with Route to Food Initiative (RTFI). Views expressed in the article are not necessarily those of the RTFI.
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Culture

The African Roots of Cuban Music

How socialist Cuba’s foreign policy of solidarity with Africans, midwifed a new genre of music on the island.

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The African Roots of Cuban Music
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British sociologist Paul Gilroy suggested the history of culture in the Atlantic world is characterized by constant exchange. One of the most traceable elements of that exchange, is the musical connections between communities of African descent on either side of the ocean. These musical practices operate as sites of resistance, cultural retention, and social cohesion that allow us to understand some of the ways we all are formed by trans-continental processes.

During the dawn of recorded music in the early part of the 20th century, Cuba—one of many New World sites of African and indigenous resistance to European colonisation and enslavement—would become a hotbed for musical export in the emerging industrialized system of music distribution. Folk musical traditions from across the island would come together in Havana’s studios, and then get dispersed around the entire Atlantic world. In the early part of the 20th Century, Cuban musical styles like son, mambo and guaguanco followed migrants and sailors out across the Atlantic, hitting radio waves in the ports of landing, and spreading throughout the interior of the countries they landed in.

With its strong traces of West and Central African rhythms, this music would find legions of devoted followers on the African continent. Local artists would try their hand at recreating the sound, and start to mix elements of their own local traditions creating what we now know as Congolese rumba, soukous, mbalax, semba, kizomba, and highlife, etc. These styles, amongst many others on the continent, would go on to form the backbone of national identity in the post-independence period, their propagation supported with enthusiasm by the leaders of the new nations. They are also the ancestors of many popular music sounds on the continent today.

Kiki on Conga. Image credit Eli Jacobs-Fantauzzi.

Kiki on Conga. Image credit Eli Jacobs-Fantauzzi.

While Cuba had technically been independent for at least a half century before sub-Saharan African nations, one could argue that Cubans found their true independence in conjunction with their peers on the continent. The Cuban Revolution in 1959 shook off the final shackles of American empire and posed a challenge to the hemispheric dominance of US imperial capitalism. In the Cold War propaganda machine, Cuba would go on to become the western hemisphere antithesis to everything its larger and more powerful neighbor to the north stood for.

After the Revolution, Cuban cultural production would become cut off from capitalist networks of trade, though the nation would retain some influence in the Caribbean and South America (despite US attempts to prevent it). In Africa, countries like Angola would strengthen their ties with Cuba during the Cold War, but the outsize cultural influence that Cuba held in the Atlantic world, pre-revolution, would leave a void that would quickly be filled by Jamaica, Brazil, and the Cuban and Puerto Rican diasporas in the US. Cuba itself would turn more inward, its cultural production burdened by the heavy weight of nostalgia and nation building—European, indigenous, and African roots fighting it out in a perennial dance on top of the ruins of the Spanish empire.

Youth of Chicharones. Image credit Eli Jacobs-Fantauzzi.

Youth of Chicharones. Image credit Eli Jacobs-Fantauzzi.

The beauty in black Atlantic cultural formation is in the continual exchange of information that persists between peoples of African descent across language, national borders, and even time. This “counter-culture” of western modernity utilises and navigates systems that were designed to exploit and repress the communities from which it came. So naturally, on the back of western capitalism, African popular music influenced by Cuba would repeat the process initiated in the early 20th Century, finding receptive audiences back on the western side of the Atlantic Ocean. In places like Santo Domingo, Port au Prince, Cartagena and Baranquilla, the process of acculturation and hybridiation would repeat, and Africa would have its turn to make its mark on the popular musics of the Caribbean in the latter part of the century.

While Cuba had technically been independent for at least a half century before sub-Saharan African nations, one could argue that Cubans found their true independence in conjunction with their peers on the continent

It would take until more recently, in the wake of political and cultural revolutions driven by youth on the African continent, and a global revolution in communication technology for similar processes to happen in Cuba. And that’s where Puerto Rican brothers Eli and Khalil Jacobs-Fantauzzi’s latest documentary Bakosó: Afrobeats in Cuba picks up.

The opening scene in the film shows Havana-based DJ Jigüe tuning into a radio interview with an artist named Ozkaro to hear that “something” is happening 700 km away in his home province of Santiago. A new musical genre, bakosó, was developing, and local artists such as Ozkaro were blending Afro-Cuban folk and popular music with contemporary continental genres like afrobeats, afrohouse, and kuduro. There are huge parties with hundreds, maybe thousands of fans in a public square, new dance styles and crews, and the city’s existing set of rappers and reggaetoneros are enthusiastically taking to the genre.

DJ Jigüe. Image credit Eli Jacobs-Fantauzzi.

DJ Jigüe. Image credit Eli Jacobs-Fantauzzi.

Jigüe decides that he needs to go back home after being disconnected and see what is going on in Santiago. This personal journey home, to a place of roots, serves as a metaphor in the film itself, for bakosó’s origin story, and for Cuban’s engagement with African culture in general. This, along with other devices employed by the directors, such as the folkloric dance performance that bookends the film, create a form-defying, yet accessible introduction to Cuba’s cultural landscape.

Once in Santiago, we travel with Jigüe to meet Ozkaro in his home studio where they discuss the difficulties in being an artist in Santiago: the lack of technology with which to produce and the challenge of being distant (or rather disconnected) from Havana where the largest media houses are. The absence of such hurdles is taken for granted in the global North. In the production of the current mainstream global pop sound, access to state of the art technology is a necessary prerequisite. Even with these limitations, Cubans have no problem accessing sounds from Africa. That’s because contemporary African genres arrived in Cuba from a surprising source: medical students from Angola, Mozambique, Tanzania, South Africa, and across the continent.

DJ Jigüe and Ozkaro. Image credit Eli Jacobs-Fantauzzi.Some bakosó producers offer explanations as to why they think the African students’ music has been taken up with enthusiasm by the public in Santiago. Reasons dance around the idea of African retentions, sometimes slipping into essentialist tropes common across Latin America like, “Santiageras have a certain sexuality.” But, it’s Ozkaro who provides one of the most profound insights when he explains the importance of the clave rhythm to the Cuban public. His insight is interesting because it is an electronically programmed clave that has become the most pronounced element across many African popular music genres, and was one of the main rhythms that African audiences had originally connected with when Cuban music reached their shores.

The film moves on from there to explore more of the African retentions embedded in Santiagero culture, and explains the conditions that birthed a strong African consciousness in this part of the island. In a scene where the group Conexión Africa is recording a song called “Africa” with an Angolan football club’s banner on the wall of the booth, one can tangibly feel such African consciousness manifesting.

Bakosó party. Image credit Eli Jacobs-Fantauzzi.

Bakosó party. Image credit Eli Jacobs-Fantauzzi.

While this celebration of Africa in Cuba is inspirational, the film is a bit overburdened by the weight given to the personal allegory of a return to African roots (and subsequent journey out to share them with the world). Beyond just a connection to roots, it must be understood that the birth of this new musical genre was assisted by Cuba’s state foreign policy of building global South solidarity, and aiding the African liberation movements. The film lightly touches on this. For example, Jigüe mentions the history of Cuban military support for Angola, and how this action is thought upon fondly by many of the Angolan students who arrive to Cuba. The film, however, would have benefited from more of this political context to balance out Jigüe’s romanticism.

One section, if expanded on, would have gone a long way to rectify this issue, and that was the story of how a nationwide Africa Day celebration came to be in Cuba. Nayda Gordon, the founder of a youth African dance troupe, Sangre Nueva, explains how years ago African students would only practice their cultures with each other in parties and celebrations behind the closed doors of the medical schools. The cultures of these students piqued her interest, so she reached out to a medical student named Demba and together they organized to form the troupe. A former African medical student, Dr. Ibrahim Keita, mentions Demba and a committee that was formed ten years ago with the aim of integrating African students more with the local community. Keita alludes to the fact that this committee helped bring about the Africa Day festivities and claims, “if Kuduro is being accepted by Cuban youth today, it’s because that was our intention.”

Santiago, Cuba. Image credit Eli Jacobs-Fantauzzi.

Santiago, Cuba. Image credit Eli Jacobs-Fantauzzi.

Gordon’s personal motivation to connect with strangers is fascinating. It would be interesting to contextualize her initiative in relation to Cuban social norms and find out why it was important for her to connect Cuban youth with African culture. Also, the modes available for building programs of integration through grassroots solidarity in Cuba are unfamiliar to me, and in the film this section passes very quickly. It left me wondering: What was the committee? Who all was involved? And, how did they managed to gain state support? An international audience especially would have benefited from further exploration of these questions.

After the Revolution, Cuban cultural production would become cut off from capitalist networks of trade, though the nation would retain some influence in the Caribbean and South America (despite US attempts to prevent it).

Jigüe mentions over and over that this or that could happen “only in Santiago.” This perhaps works best in a local context amidst a continued struggle with racial inequality on the island, but not so much outside of Cuba. Because, rather than exceptional, the formation of a genre like bakosó, and the conditions that allowed it, is a process that I have personally seen repeated over and over across the Atlantic world (admittedly thanks to a little passport privilege and a fast internet connection). Kuduro, afrobeats, and afrohouse themselves are a result of such processes, and this is not the first time director Eli Jacobs-Fantauzzi has been there for such moments. He previously documented the growth of hip hop in Cuba with his film Inventos: Hip Hop Cubano and the rise of hiplife in Ghana in Homegrown: Hiplife in Ghana.

What is exceptional about Santiago that makes it stand out amongst its hemispheric neighbors are the social conditions that allowed this exchange to happen. In contrast to North America—where corporate streaming platforms and an “Africans! They’re just like us” narrative are propelling Afropop into the mainstream—in Cuba a state policy of global South solidarity, has merged with an African consciousness embedded amongst the people. This political formation is what opened pathways for integration between Cubans and their African immigrant neighbors. Paradoxically, at a time when much of us are hyper-connected, in the face of digital disconnection, Cubans were able to connect with Africa via Africans themselves. So, bakosó remains as a unique cultural space in a world where cultural difference seems to be melting away—it is wonderful, simply, because it is still a story of a specific place, and a sound for a specific people, at a specific moment in time.

Still, what may be most exciting for audiences in regards to both the film and the music itself is that they allow us to romanticize the potentials and possibilities they symbolize. Bakosó, as a gift to Cuba from the African nations that were touched by Cuba’s influence, being sent back to the island that helped define what it means to be African in the modern world. With beautiful cinematography, and an innovative take on the documentary genre, the Jacobs-Fantauzzi brothers have done a great job in documenting this exchange on another leg of its journey.

This post is from a partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.

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The Clergy and Politicians: An Unholy Alliance

What Kenya needs is not a clergy in bed with politicians but one that can boldly speak up against the state and hold political leaders accountable.

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The Clergy and Politicians: An Unholy Alliance
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There has been an ongoing debate in the last couple of months about the hefty cash donations politicians make to churches and to individual clergymen in Kenya. There have also been debates about the impact of money on the relationship between the church and the state, and about by the political class co-opting church leaders. There is even talk now about politicians radicalising thousands of angry, disenfranchised, jobless youth through cash donations and political and religious ideologies. An emerging Christian nationalism that is inspired by populist politics in many parts of the world also has many observers worried. Money, economic disenfranchisement and religious ideologies are blamed for this emerging trend.

A large section of Christian evangelicals in Africa, for example, support populist politicians including former President Donald J. Trump. In Kenya, money, ethnicity and religion have apparently taken centre stage in national politics in the last couple of years and this could lead to seriously compromising the religious leaders’ ability to stand up to the political class.

Deputy President William Ruto has caused a furore over the millions of shillings he has been donating to the churches. Ruto has sought to create an image of himself as a God-fearing generous giver, as demonstrated in the many churches he has visited, the questionable source of the money donated notwithstanding.

The clearest example of this is the dichotomy now playing between the president-led Kieleweke and Deputy President-led Tanga Tanga factions of the ruling Jubilee Party. When they took their battles to the African Independent Pentecostal Church of Africa (AIPCA) in Kenol area of Murang’a County on 4 October 2020, it led to the deaths of two young men. The commotion created at Gaitegi AIPCA church by the two opposing factions is the latest testament of how the church has been infiltrated by the dark forces of political rivalry.

On 11 January 2021, Bishop Margaret Wanjiru of Jesus is Alive Ministries (JIAM) was back in the limelight. A video circulating on social media showed the evangelist-turned-politician-turned-Ruto supporter dishing out money to scores of people.

While some church leaders in the Anglican and the Catholic churches have clearly told politicians to keep their money off their pulpits, the majority of Kenya’s clergy, especially those of the evangelical and the pentecostal persuasion — and particularly the prosperity gospel-allied churches — see absolutely nothing wrong with this. Anglican Church of Kenya (ACK) Archbishop Jackson Ole Sapit, while speaking in a multisectoral initiative against corruption in 2019, warned ACK clerics against accepting corrupt money. “Let us not allow Harambee money to become a subtle way to sanitise corrupt leaders,” said Sapit. Deputy President William Ruto and a coterie of politicians allied to him promptly answered Sapit: “We will continue to worship Jehovah God with our hearts and substance. We are unashamed of God and unapologetic about our faith.”

In Kenya, money, ethnicity and religion have apparently taken centre stage in national politics.

On 24 October 2020 Ruto held a fund-raising meeting for the St Leo Catholic Church in Sianda, Mumias East. Evidently, the COVID-19 crisis and the lockdown had not locked up the DP’s purse. Clearly, it’s not only the evangelical leadership that covets politicians’ money. While the Anglican and Catholic churches’ leadership have clearly specified their criteria for receiving donations, and have at the same time asked the politicians to keep off their pulpit and keep their money, evangelical and pentecostal churches, especially those aligned to the prosperity gospel, see nothing wrong with accepting money from politicians. There have been public spats and bitter exchanges in the country that essentially encapsulate a debate that has not only refused to go away, but one that divides Christians and non-Christians alike.

The Kenyan Church and its credibility

Struggling with a legitimacy crisis since the 2007/8 post-election violence (PEV), the church leadership seems to have abandoned its flock, divided by ethnicity and politics as it is.  Archbishop David Gitari (ACK), Archbishop Raphael Ndingi Mwana a’Nzeki of the Catholic Church and retired Rev. Timothy Njoya of the Presbyterian Church of East Africa (PCEA) fought for democracy, freedom of expression and multiparty politics during Daniel T. arap Moi’s dictatorial reign and have often been described as the architects of social justice and as the conscience of the nation.

The emergence of evangelical pastors driven by the gospel of prosperity seems to have undone all the foundational work that these mainstream church leaders fought so hard to set up. The PEV exposed the underbelly of the Kenyan church as it were and since then, the church has never been the same and it has struggled to recover its image as the moral compass of the nation. The National Christian Council of Kenya (NCCK), the umbrella body that brings together all the protestant churches, even offered a public apology, acknowledging that the Church had let down Kenyans.

Given the fact that liberal democracy thrives where the secular and religious domains keep a safe distance from each other, the churches’ acceptance of hefty cash donations from politicians has led Kenyans to question the very credibility and legitimacy of these churches’ leadership. Yet the co-option of religious leaders by the state and politicians is nothing new. The Deputy President’s  donations to churches have brought to the fore the causal inter-play between church and state, the intersection between faith, politics and governance issues. The donations have also raised critical questions about the relationship between Christianity and religio-ethnic politics.

Christianity and religio-ethnic politics

Religio-ethnic political competition and mobilisation have increasingly become the defining features of electoral politics in Africa, Kenya included. In Kenya, God, politics, money and ethnicity are often inseparable. Yet church politics, money and ethnicity have recently assumed centre stage. During the 2013 and 2017 general elections, for example, political competition was increasingly defined and characterised by the use of the notions of God and tribe. The appropriation of biblical language and rhetoric and its imagery by politicians during the campaign periods sought to paint their politics as God-driven and God-ordained, while casting their antagonists’ politics as driven by the dark, evil forces of Satan and witchcraft.

Prior to the 2013 general elections, the Jubilee Coalition presidential candidate and his running mate, Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto, faced criminal charges at the International Criminal Court (ICC). To fend off the ICC, the duo turned to religious rhetoric and portrayed their tribulations as the work of the devil and the opposition, then led by Raila Odinga. They also referred to the civil society as the “evil society.” Uhuru and Ruto traversed the country, holding political rallies camouflaged as prayer meetings, accompanied by a retinue of clergymen who would lay hands on them and anoint them with special oil, as they prayed fervently, casting away ICC demons, castigating the opposition and condemning the “evil society”.

Their political nemesis, Raila Odinga of the National Super Alliance (NASA), equally appropriated religious rhetoric. Raila promised to lead Kenyans to a new dawn by taking them to Canaan, the Promised Land that flows with milk and honey. He appropriated the biblical imagery of the Book of Exodus, where he likened himself to Joshua, who would lead the people out of slavery into the “promised land”. The imagery became a rallying call for millions of his followers. In 2019 and 2020, Deputy President Ruto not only appropriated Christian theological language, but also became one of the biggest church funders just like President Moi before him.

In a bid to outdo everyone, Ruto has elevated the prosperity gospel and its proponents, the self-styled prophets and bishops, to unprecedented levels of self-importance. In the process, he has cleverly cultivated a Christian nationalistic image, subtly appropriating pentecostal language in his public speeches. He has also been accused of taking advantage of the socio-economic vulnerabilities of unemployed youth in a way that could potentially radicalise them.

Ruto’s cosy relationship with the clergy should be understood in the light of religio-political and ethnic mobilisation that has now become the defining feature of post neo-liberal politics in Kenya and beyond. During the 2010 constitutional referendum, Ruto aligned himself with the Christian clergy to oppose the new constitution. Since then, the relationship between the Deputy President and the Christian right in Kenya has blossomed, the allegations of corruption made against him notwithstanding; Ruto has his allies in the church.

Liberal democracy thrives where the secular and religious domains keep a safe distance from each other.

In a country reeling from massive debt, loss of employment and the coronavirus pandemic, the clergy has been silent as Kenyans go through unprecedented suffering, massive job losses, a weak public health infrastructure, corruption, and the theft of medical equipment donated by humanitarian people and organisations. Their loud silence in the wake of the high numbers of deaths of medical personnel, the doctors’ strike and the controversial BBI politics, has been deafening.

But Ruto’s disturbing relationship with the clergy is not anything new. Moi heavily appropriated religion and created for himself an image of a God-fearing politician who not only attended church service ritually and piously every Sunday, but who also heavily invested in the churches and the clergy by contributing large amounts of money and allocating them large tracts of land.

Politicians have perfected the art of appropriating religion in times of crises. With the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, politicians have been calling on religious leaders to offer prayers as they call on the people to repent their sins. While there is nothing wrong with politicians asking for frequent and collective prayers when the country is faced with crises, Kenyans also need to question how they are governed and what the priorities of their politicians should be. No amount of prayers will ever take away bad governance, corruption, disease, inequality, poverty, road accidents and violence. These are policy issues that have everything to do with ethical and just leadership, the rule of the law, governance of national resources, respect for human rights, well-equipped and functional hospitals and efficient public service delivery, and little to do with religion.

Deputy President Ruto’s relationship with the clergy must be understood through the prism of, not just the politicisation of religion, but also its implications for good governance, and for the church and the state. The Jubilee Party administration has since 2013 been weakening the church’s leadership by compromising it with money so that the clergy does not call out on its excesses.

In Kenya, the church and the state have always had a symbiotic relationship. The clergy has always tried to co-opt political leaders while the state has always been involved in schemes to co-opt the church. This is not to ignore the fact that the leaders of certain mainstream churches have, in certain critical political moments, stood their ground and urged the government to abandon its authoritarian tendencies, and even pushed for constitutional reforms.

After the promulgation of the new Constitution of Kenya 2010, mainstream churches took a back seat as pentecostal and evangelical churches occupied the centre stage of the country’s political arena. Ruto has ostensibly found dependable allies in the majority of evangelical churches, who see him as a generous giver and one who fits in well with their health-and-wealth gospel.

This is not peculiar to Ruto. Politicians across the country continue to appropriate religious idioms, language, rhetoric and symbolisms. We are witnessing the same developments in other African countries like Ethiopia, Ghana, Malawi, Nigeria, Tanzania and Uganda — politicians appropriating religion as a means to their political ends. In 2016, Donald Trump appealed to the evangelical right and their unwavering support helped him win his presidential bid. In 2020 Trump again appealed to the same Christian right to try to win a second term. He appropriated religion and mobilised the evangelical right to cast himself as the protector of religious rights from neo-liberals, socialists and leftists.

The Ruto factor in churches and its implications for governance

William Ruto projects the image of a God-fearing man under perpetual siege from the political dark forces of Satan. He gives the impression that his Christian faith has helped him overcome the forces that his political enemies are using to fight him. While his enemies are busy working hard to make him look bad in the eyes of the electorate, the church, it seems to me, has also been working overtime to paint him in the light of a generous servant of God who is largely misunderstood. Even as his enemies describe him as a most corrupt, divisive and ambitious politician, the church makes him look humble and decent and “a fearfully made child of God” who is a victim of political machinations.

Ruto’s spirited efforts to be allied with the clergy must be understood within the context of a search for a Christian legitimacy and social respectability. The Deputy President could also be looking for approval and acceptance from the clergy. He is looking to his faith to repair a badly damaged public image that has refused to go away: the image of a fabulously wealthy politician who passes himself off as a humble servant of God who speaks the language of the downtrodden. And so the apparent association with the church is a quest to portray himself as a victim of dynastic politics that are jealous of his “hustler” beginnings and that do not want him excelling in national politics. In short, Ruto is using the church to advance his overarching political ambitions.

Like many a politician before him, Ruto has appropriated religion during this period of turmoil in his political career to draw, not just admiration, legitimacy and respect, but also empathy and pity. The late President Moi appropriated the Christian faith to cleanse his autocratic regime. Zambia’s President Fredrick Chiluba declared himself a Christian and Zambia a Christian nation, despite the massive corruption dogging his country. The recently deceased President John Magufuli declared that God had healed Tanzania of the COVID-19 pandemic. He appropriated religion and notions of God in his populist politics in a way that appealed to millions of religious people wish want to see God at the centre of politics and governance.

Intent on getting money and socio-political power to influence public policy, the Church has opened itself to the vagaries of political pedlars. To that extent, hunger for power, particularly political and social power play, is no longer the preserve of politicians. The Kenyan clergy also wants a piece of that power and influence. Hence, spiritual power is hardly the driving force of these religious leaders who no longer view politics as a dirty game. On the contrary, many clergy now see politics as a means to financial, social and political power. African pentecostal and evangelical clergy (with the exception of a few who are well-grounded in proper theological training) lack the philosophical and theological tools to engage the state or politicians. Many rely on the Holy Spirit to interpret scripture and socio-political phenomena. Pentecostal clergy are also prone to populist politics and, more importantly, they are less likely to criticise a dictatorial government. They prefer to pray away issues including pandemics like COVID-19. They are beholden to faith healing, miracles and the gospel of prosperity. Human rights, social justice and poverty are not issues they like to engage with, let alone seek to understand their primary causes; they much prefer spiritualising issues.

The church leadership of the pentecostal and evangelical churches believes in creating social transformation by transforming individuals’ morals and personal lives, which is commendable. Individual transformation is not necessarily a bad thing, but it would be even better if the whole society were to be fundamentally transformed. Pentecostals also place greater emphasis on the heavenly realm and the hereafter than in the hell in which many Kenyans already live. In a country under bad governance, the theology of individual transformation must be questioned. And we must ask critical the questions: how is it that a highly religious country like Kenya, where more than 80 per cent of the population identify as Christians, has not seen it fit to embrace meaningful socio-political transformation?

Religion “cleans” up people, gives them a veneer of credibility, respect and acceptance. That is why politicians align themselves with the Church. When politicians are under siege, they take refuge in the Church, even as they seek to mobilise their ethnic bases. In a kind of symbiotic relationship,  religious leaders use politicians such as Ruto to access state resources and political power. In return, politicians give the clergy not just money, but personal appeal, social power and a sense of self-importance. Such clergy crave to be seen as special “big men and women of God” who are powerful, rich and have friends in high society. One would hope that spiritual leaders would be the salt of the earth, that they would champion social justice causes as well as human flourishing, but unfortunately, like the political class, they seek power, prestige, money and state recognition for their own sake.

There are a myriad other reasons why the clergy courts politicians. In its effort to push its conservative agenda on reproductive health and rights, sex education, sexuality and gender empowerment among many other issues, the clergy’s romance with the political class is strategic: they are partners when it comes to controlling society for their own selfish ends. Kenyans have not forgotten that religious leaders coalesced around Ruto to oppose the adoption of the 2010 constitution; he clergyviewed the constitution as too liberal in matters of sexuality, reproductive health rights and women’s place in society.

There has also been religious mobilisation and contestation over sexual and reproductive health rights and choices in Kenya, as recently witnessed with the Reproductive Health Bill (2019) and during the 2019 UN Conference on Population and Development (ICPD25) held in Nairobi. On the two occasions, religious leaders and their powerful lobbies employed mobilisation tactics to oppose the Reproductive Bill and the ICPD25 conference. Demonstrations were recently held against the Reproductive Health Bill — also christened the abortion bill or the Susan Kihika bill — because of its supposedly neo-liberal agenda.

Kenyans have not forgotten that religious leaders coalesced around Ruto to oppose the adoption of the 2010 constitution.

The influence of the American evangelical far right is also evident in Kenya’s conservative churches, especially in the area of sexuality and reproductive health rights. The American evangelicals’ support for President Donald J Trump — who is not a Christian by any standards but uses Christianity for his own political ends — is alive in African evangelical circles. Some of the evangelical pastors here in Kenya are reported to have prayed for Trump as he battled to win a second term in the 4 November 2020 elections. One of the reasons evangelicals support Trump is because he aligns himself with the Christian right’s ideologies and conservative positions on a score of social and political issues.

It is also a fact that evangelical churches here in Kenya receive a lot of funding from the American evangelical right. The same logic explains the clergy’s relationship with politicians in Kenya. It is a money thing. And it is not hard to see. In its 10th month now, the COVID-19 pandemic has left many Kenyans vulnerable and in dire need of financial help. Yet the Church leadership has chosen to pursue its narrow agenda of cavorting with the political class in exchange for financial gain, self-aggrandisement and the opportunity to influence public policy.

A dozen years after PEV, the church leadership in Kenya does not seem to have learnt any lessons. It has become the butt of crude jokes on social media from a woke generation that does not fear and is not beholden to the “touch not my anointed servants” cliché. It has refused to be spiritually blackmailed and financially manipulated. That generation is daily debunking the myth of spiritual power and torment.

Religious institutions and religious leaders are important actors, key elements and important forces within civil society. Religion is also important in the lives of many Africans, Kenyan’s in particular. A recent Pew Research Poll found that more than 85 per cent of Kenyans said religion was very important to them. There are a number of reasons why religion is important to Kenyans. First, religion provides Kenyans with the language to make sense of their suffering. Secondly, religious people want to see good people voted into government because they believe they can bring ethical leadership and decency to public life. Christians want to see good people voted in, people who promote healing, national cohesion and economic betterment.

The Church has become the butt of crude jokes on social media from a woke generation that does not fear and is not beholden to the “touch not my anointed servants” cliché.

But this is not the case. Instead what we have is a clergy that is in bed with the political class. Co-option of the clergy is bad for democracy and governance. When the Church and its clergy accept monetary contributions from politicians, it compromises them. The Church loses its voice, conscience and ability to hold politicians and the state accountable. In a country reeling from corruption, bad governance, gender and sexual abuse, high incidences of teenage pregnancy, police violence, poverty, ethnic marginalisation, inequality, ethnic tensions and the coronavirus pandemic, Kenya needs a clergy that can boldly speak up against the state and hold political leaders accountable even as they set a good example of moral leadership themselves. Kenya needs a new moral compass and consciousness, an alternative imagination from both citizens and religious leaders. But such leaders in Kenya today are few and far between; partisan politics always has its consequences, more so for the church leadership.

The Ruto factor in church can therefore be understood as a weakening of the structure of the church and the co-option of its leadership. Yet, it also speaks of the church’s lack of philosophical and theological tools to deal with such infiltration, a lack of ethical and moral underpinning to resist such an injudicious relationship. Yet I proffer that it is not too late for religious leaders to rethink their nebulous association with the political class and to re-engage the Kenyan people in their quest for social justice and human flourishing.

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