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Jesus Christ, the Feminist Who Unlocked Women’s Potential

13 min read.

The Bible paints a picture of Jesus Christ who was not just pro-women, but who included and recognised women’s full potential and humanity. What lessons can African Christian churches draw from the extraordinary life of Jesus and his relationship with women?

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Jesus Christ, the Feminist Who Unlocked Women’s Potential
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The face of the Christian church in sub-Saharan Africa is heavily female. A cursory look at hundreds of church services in Kenya and elsewhere suggests that there are more women than men in both mainstream, as well as the Pentecostal, evangelical and charismatic churches. Are women more religious than men in Africa? The jury is still out there. What is not in doubt though is that the church in Africa is profoundly feminine in its rank and outlook, but heavily male in its leadership and ethos.

Sociological research suggests that African women are the backbone of African Christian communities. Despite their numerical strength, women’s voices are not only marginal in many churches but their contribution to African Christianity is hardly ever recognised by the church leadership, particularly at the level of decision making and preaching. In many Christian denominations in Kenya and beyond, ordination of women as adjunct leaders and pulpit preachers is still being discussed. Even in the public spheres, people still debate whether women should be allowed to preach, lead and found their own churches.

The Catholic Church, for example, still does not ordain women to ministry, neither can women administer or preside over the Holy Communion. Other churches are gradually ordaining women, while others cannot even discuss or consider women’s ordination. In many established Pentecostal churches, women are still not ordained to leadership positions despite the so-called democratisation of the charisma. Nevertheless, women are moving out to establish their own churches. They then invite their former bishops to ordain them, which is paradoxical.

Except for Pentecostal, charismatic and evangelical churches, where women have successfully founded and carved out their own ministries, women in male-founded churches hardly ever rise to leadership positions. In all other churches, and as far as the leadership of spiritual communities are concerned, women’s voices remains at the fringes or margins, especially in masculine spiritual spaces – at least at the level of church leadership and decision making.

This is despite studies upon studies suggesting that women are a significant majority and part of the powerhouse of African Christian spirituality. Women not only fill the pews of African churches every Sunday, they also carry out incredible responsibilities for the survival and sustenance of those churches. My ethnographic research suggests that many women spend incredibly long hours in churches, putting in time and money in unpaid hours cleaning, ushering, organising, receiving guests, singing, leading praise and worship, teaching Sunday school, cooking for guests, collecting offerings, prophesying, praying, and offering social and spiritual support to the sick (physically and emotionally).

Except for Pentecostal, charismatic and evangelical churches, where women have successfully founded and carved out their own ministries, women in male-founded churches hardly ever rise to leadership positions.

In church spheres, they also create and generate tremendous social capital, creating community prayer cells, mobilising resources to form networks for support, fund-raising, forming wedding committees for members, arranging funerals, joining merry-go-rounds, and generally looking out for the welfare of members. Much of this replicates the domestic chores they undertake at home. As such, they are fundamental to the very life and sustainability of their churches. I believe that many churches would not function without the work, time, varied gifts, talents and abilities and the immense social capital that Christian women generate for their church communities.

Why do women do so much for churches that do so little for them? I asked scores of women. What is in it for them that makes them spent so much time in church?

The women I interviewed shared with me some of the reasons why they gravitate towards church and why they give so much of their time to churches that seemingly do little for them. I found out that churches are more than just spiritual spaces; they are also spaces for the creation of community, where social capital is generated, where they fellowship and share sisterhood, a space for emotional and momentarily release, where they cry to God about their many vulnerabilities, a space for spiritual growth and spiritual nourishment.

The women told me they flock to churches in search of healing – physically, emotionally and psychologically. They also go there in search of deliverance from spiritual and earthly demons and from the fear of curses and witchcraft. Many others go to church in search of companionship and love. Others go to church because they have been socialised from childhood to attend church and because “it is the right thing to do”. Many others told me that they cannot fail to go to church because it is the Christian thing to do. Many others go there to be away from the home sphere and escape from violence and toxic home spaces. Yet many also go there because they simply love God and want to grow in their Christian faith and in communion with fellow believers.

Yet, churches have treated and continue to treat women badly: they ignore them, objectify them, abuse them, assault them, oppress them and then attempt to use theological and patriarchal ideas to rationalise their actions. “It is written in the Bible”, “the Bible says”, “It is our culture and traditions” are common dictums of explanations and justification in the Kenyan social and religious sphere. This is not surprising as both Christianity and African culture have long been used to manipulate and reinforce the sorry treatment of women in Africa. African (male) clergy and men are seen as ideal spiritual leaders, while women are there to submit to men’s authority both at home and in church.

In church services, sermons about male headship and female submission are common. This has resulted in the smothering of women’s gifts of pastoral leadership and ministry. Women are further excluded from leadership roles and their gifts, talents and wisdom have been often dismissed. Pentecostal Christians leaders have perverted the gospel in favour of the gospel of money and fake miracles and the control and objectification of women’s bodies and sexuality. In her article titled, The Neck That Turns the Head, Brandon Ambrosia talks about this and speaks about the power of the good Christian woman as one that is submissive to her husband. I have heard Pentecostal pastors teach about men as the head and women as the neck that supports the head, instead of speaking about companionship.

The church continuously thinks of women as the weaker sex, even when women have shown that they can be presidents, astronauts, doctors, engineers and people who manage millions of dysfunctional homes every day. In fact, Christian women are everywhere except at church pulpits.

Besides, many churches, just like Kenyan and African society still frown on female religious leadership. That is true for the Catholic Church that is heavily male and gerontocratic, and also misogynistic. Pentecostal and evangelical churches are led by men who serve with their wives as co-pastors, mostly leading women’s wings of the ministry. These wives are known as “First Ladies” to entrench the important place they occupy in their husbands’ ministries. A case in point is the Women Without Limit Ministries led by the flashy Rev Kathy Kiuna and many other small women-led ministries within their husbands’ churches. Women’s wings within the larger church polity are meant to leverage the large numbers of female patrons in such churches, as well as provide a pseudo-empowerment fellowship for scores of women.

The church continuously thinks of women as the weaker sex, even when women have shown that they can be presidents, astronauts, doctors, engineers and people who manage millions of dysfunctional homes every day. In fact, Christian women are everywhere except at church pulpits.

Yet this move is a smart way to keep female worshipers in church both for respectability of the church – and in particular, for the pastors’ wives prestige – and to look like they are catering to women’s needs. And while many such women’s wings are said to empower women in spiritual spaces using spiritual resources, such ministries rarely ever scratch the surface to tackle the myriad of social and structural challenges facing women in Kenya and beyond. These challenges include domestic violence, family break-ups, poverty, sexism, and patriarchy.

Instead, they gloss over real and tangible issues that affect women and create a sort of motivational speak, the kind of feel-good sermons about building self-esteem and confidence without ever thinking of delving into the reasons why many women feel inadequate, lack proper education and struggle financially. The kind of preaching that goes on here is that of overcoming the demons of poverty, adultery, needs and wants, and of miraculously getting miracle visas to the United States and Europe and many other mundane wants. Much of the preaching revolves around the power of the praying wife, partner, and mother.

In nearly a decade and a half of research on Pentecostal churches, I have never come across a single message condemning violence and the many layers of discrimination holding women back from attaining their full potential. Nor are there sermons that tackle the social and structural issues that many women grapple with, such as gender-based violence, intimate partner violence, lack of decision making roles and women rights. What we see is a gospel where every imaginable challenge, including serious ailments such as cancer, diabetes, high blood pressure, malaria, and other communicable ailments and global epidemics, are all viewed through spiritual lenses.

The church’s deafening silence on women’s issues

Yet, the status and roles of women in churches mirrors that of the general status of women in the larger Kenyan society. The biggest purpose and most important role of the church is to preach the good news to the laity and set captives free. How is it that the church does not speak when women and girls continue to be subjected to sexual abuse? Why is the church silent when scores of women and young girls are brutally murdered almost weekly or when little girls are raped by their fathers or guardians? Why is the church silent in the face of tremendous corruption that is killing the future of Kenyan women, youth and children?

Kenya is a heavily patriarchal society where women and girls, in particular, grapple with multiple layers of discrimination, marginalisation and stereotypes. Patriarchal, cultural and religious ideals and beliefs, as well as deeply entrenched gendered social norms, continue to portray women as inferior to men.

The Kenyan Parliament, for example, totally disregards the constitutional two-thirds majority rule that would have seen an increase in the number of women serving in Parliament and public life. While some progress has been achieved in Kenya in the last couple of years, Parliament is still debating the roles of women in the legislature, a decade after the passage of a liberal constitution with an excellent Bill of Rights. This blatant disregard for the constitution is not only suggestive of the condescending attitude of male leaders towards female leadership, but also shows how Kenyan society still struggles with the idea of women leaders in a largely male-dominated legislature. Interestingly, the church has not raised its voice about this, which is hardly unsurprising given that the Kenyan church leadership largely mirrors our political leadership, if not worse.

The church in Kenya treats women even worse than the state. Church spaces are no longer safe for women seeking spiritual sustenance and refuge. Women are physically and sexually abused in church; their bodies are used as porn for the healing and miracle industry. The voluntary work they put in brings no immediate value to them outside of their spiritual life. At the same time, church spaces are masculine spheres in terms of leadership, but heavily female in respect of congregational composition. The church’s restriction and control of women’s leadership and decision making should be questioned.

Churches are also becoming increasingly violent spaces for women, in terms of violent theologies of women’s bodies and spaces where women have been physically and sexually abused. Churches are not just violent masculine spaces, but also patriarchal and dangerous spaces. This is not surprising, given that the Bible itself is a patriarchal document interpreted through patriarchal lenses. At the same time, churches treat women the way the Kenyan communities treats them: they frown on single women, widows, divorced mothers, unmarried mothers and their children.

The church in Kenya treats women even worse than the state. Church spaces are no longer safe for women seeking spiritual sustenance and refuge. Women are physically and sexually abused in church; their bodies are used as porn for the healing and miracle industry.

Given this scenario, how can we foreground a church that is on the side of women and one that can move the middle to treat women as God’s children? How can we unlock the power of women in churches? What lessons can we borrow from Jesus’s extraordinary treatment of women? How did Jesus model behaviour that could guide the church and society on how to treat women better? How can the life of Jesus model for us a women-centric theology of human flourishing where women are treated the way he treated them? How can the church become a progressive space that puts women’s welfare at the centre of a theology of care, one that respects them, includes them and allows them to use all their mental resources and abilities to build the kingdom of God as well as the earthly kingdom?

Unlocking the power of women, as Jesus did

There is a need for the church in Africa to rethink and unpack a theology of women flourishing, one that unlocks the power of women in Africa and one that would bring about a transformation in the lives of African women. Here, I would like to propose a new imagination that would unlock the power of women, a new narrative, new conversations about the role of women that allows them to flourish at home, church and society.

The Bible and the life of Jesus Christ allows us to foreground such a possibility. It gives us the tools to recreate a new future, another world for African Christian women. The Bible, which occupies a central role in the lives of millions of African Christians, foments many examples of female biblical heroines who did exemplary works that are recorded by the Bible’s narrators. The Bible itself is full of instances in which women rose to leadership positions that could be modelled to create a theology of women leadership that helps women shift the needle in spiritual leadership. Queen Esther saved the Israelites from their enemies, Deborah was a judge who ruled Israel, just to cite a few.

The Jesus of the Bible suggests that women are much more than the weaker sex. Women are messengers of God and the gospel and prophetesses of the resurrection story. Women were the first to declare that Jesus has risen, women were the deacons who supported and led the early Christian church. The church, as well as theologians, must begin to reimagine a women-centred theology of human flourishing that lifts off the heavy burdens placed on women by both church and society.

Jesus Christ modelled for us a theology that is women-centric, a theology of solidarity and affirmation for women. Jesus refused to normalise the treatment of women as inferior, as insignificant voiceless people. Instead he treated them with respect and dignity, frequently stopping to listen to their cries and concerns, affirming their voices and right to be heard in a way to suggest that their voices and opinions mattered to him.

The narrators of the Bible portray Jesus as a man who was at home in the company of all women – mothers, widows, prostitutes, bleeding and menstruating women, daughters, sisters, grandmothers. He, for example, stepped forward in a crowd of mourners to speak with the widow at Nain and called her son back to life in Luke 7: 11-17. He healed a woman who had been crippled for 18 years, laying his hands on her in the temple saying, “Woman, you are free”. And he did that without drama. He left her feminine dignity intact. There was no reeling on the ground, no fainting, no melodrama, no violent slapping. It was just a kind gentle touch that restored her health and dignity. He told her to go. That she was free from the burden of disease and disability. He set her free from crippling disease and restored her dignity, taking away her stigma and burden. He did not violently push her to the ground in the manner of Pentecostal clergy who stage-manage deliverance services, creating migraine-inducing headaches and a lot of noisy drama as they outdo each other trying to demonstrate manufactured spiritual power to hapless followers.

There is a need for the church in Africa to rethink and unpack a theology of women flourishing, one that unlocks the power of women in Africa and one that would bring about a transformation in the lives of African women.

Contrast that with Jesus’s gentle and respectful touch, a total departure from Apostle James Ng’ang’a, whose deliverance theologies leave many women stripped of their personal and bodily integrity. Jesus’s touch was a touch of love, respect and recognition of a female humanity, where women are children of God, worthy of a life of health, dignity and flourishing. Jesus, a friend of women, was also a respecter of women.

When the leaders of the synagogue questioned why Jesus had healed a woman on the Sabbath, Jesus answered in a way that affirmed the woman even further. He called her a daughter of Abraham (Luke 13:16). Here is another example of a theology of affirmation, dignity and flourishing. In Jewish culture, as well as in many patriarchal cultures in Africa, girls are not very much valued. Hence, by calling this woman a daughter of Abraham (the patriarch of the Abrahamic faiths), Jesus affirmed the place of girls in the family and society. Women had never been called daughters of Abraham before.

There are many other scores of instances in which Jesus helped forge new spaces and thinking for women, engaging them, listening to their stories and needs, giving them not just a listening ear, but also voice and agency. In many of these instances, he was telling the women: I hear you, I see you, I feel you, you are important, your story is important and valid, and you deserve to live a life of dignity, health and well-being. Your humanity as a daughter of Abraham is valid and your voice matters and must be heard by all, including, the Pharisees and Sadducees and the clergy-bishops, prophets, pastors, apostles, archbishops, and that they have a space and voice in that arrangement. Jesus held affirming dialogues with women.

Consider the story of Jesus holding affirming dialogues with a Samaritan woman. In the Jewish traditions, just like in many African cultures, women’s testimonies in Jewish religious thought was not trustworthy. They were also counted alongside children because no one considered their contribution, including witness contribution, as valid or even of substance. In many Kenyan cultures, such as the Maasai and Kalenjin cultures, women were counted and equated to children and the property of her husband. But Jesus modelled a different perception of women as people who are worthy. He held respectful dialogues with women, affirming and entrenching their space in society as valid witnesses.

In all these and many other examples of how he treated women, Jesus modelled a different trajectory and narrative: a trajectory of compassion, respect, value, voice, agency and dignity. He viewed women in their totality as human beings, not as unclean and unworthy witnesses. Menstruating women were considered ritually unclean in Jewish society. Such women were not allowed to participate in rituals because they were considered unclean. Jesus affirmed their biological and bodily integrity, affirming their natural menstruating bodies as clean and worthy.

More importantly, Jesus held a moment of dialogue with such women. Women prostitutes were friends of Jesus. One oiled Jesus’s feet with expensive perfume and used her hair to wipe his feet. Women were the first people to witness the resurrected Jesus and were the last at the grave where he was buried.

Jesus helped unlock the power of women both in church and society. Can the Kenyan church, broadly conceptualised, unlock the power of women in church and society and create affirming conversations, alternative theologies of women’s dignity and flourishing? How can Kenyan Christian women use these theological conversations to create spiritual resources to reclaim respect and space and contest theological discrimination? The Bible paints a picture of Jesus Christ who was not just pro-women, but who included and recognised women’s full potential and humanity.

While we live in a heavily patriarchal culture and church polity, there are excellent lessons from Jesus’s examples to borrow from. Many women I spoke to feel invisible, unheard, objectified, disrespected, excluded. Many told me the Church no longer speaks the language of Jesus, a language of inclusion, empowerment, human flourishing, respect, dignity and voice. Jesus did not only recognize the power of women, but viewed them wholesomely and designed for them to prosper and flourish. The Church should not only include women, but must also recognise their inclusion, voice, gifts and creativity.

How can the African Church become a progressive inclusive church that puts women at the centre of a theology of care and respect? A theology that sees women’s bodies as sites of the Holy Spirit and not homes to demons? What lessons can African Christian men draw from the extraordinary life of Jesus and his relationship with women? The African Church could do better with women followers by simply listening to them and creating women-centric theologies.

The women I spoke to deeply love Jesus and as their father, brother, husband, father to their children, provider and companion. Many painted a man who would be saddened by violent husbands, deadbeat irresponsible fathers, fading partners, discriminative bosses and rogue clergy. Many believe that Jesus deeply loves them and they love him back and they want to live a life of dignity as Jesus desired for them.

Why does the church exclude women in its leadership, despite the pivotal role they play in the very life and sustenance of churches? Why is it silent in the face of so much suffering, pain and violence? Why is it not ordaining women? How can the church become progressive and radical in its thoughts and put the welfare of women and children at the centre of its theologising?

In the words of Dorothy Sayers, perhaps it is no wonder that women were first at the cradle and last at the cross. They had never known a man like Jesus – a prophet and teacher who never nagged them, never flattered them, never dismissed their voices and talents, never patronised or cat-called them. For the Christian woman, Jesus is not just the ideal friend and companion, he is also the one who has their backs.

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The author is a lecturer and researcher in Religion and Gender Studies.

Politics

The Campaign that Remembered Nothing and Forgot Nothing

Once a master of coalition building, Raila Odinga killed his own party and brand, handed over his backyard to William Ruto, threw in his lot with Uhuru Kenyatta, ended up being branded a “state project”, and lost.

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The Original sin

A seasoned Nairobi politician, Timothy Wanyonyi had cut a niche for himself in the Nairobi governor’s race that was filled with a dozen candidates who had up to that point not quite captured the imagination of Nairobians. Some candidates were facing questions over their academic qualifications while others were without a well-defined public profile. In that field Wanyonyi, an experienced Nairobi politician, stood out. On 19th April, the Westlands MP’s campaign team was canvasing for him in Kawangware. They had sent pictures and videos to news teams seeking coverage. But that evening their candidate would receive a phone call to attend a meeting at State House Nairobi that would put an end to his campaign. Before Tim made his way to State House, insiders around President Uhuru Kenyatta told reporters that Wanyonyi was out of the Nairobi governor’s race.

Wanyonyi’s rallying call “Si Mimi, ni Sisi”—a spin on US Senator Bernie Sanders’ “Not me. Us” 2020 presidential campaign slogan—distinguished him as a candidate who understood the anxieties of Nairobians. “They were looking for someone who would see the city as a home first, before seeing it as a business centre,” one of his political consultants told me. But the Azimio coalition to which Wanyonyi’s ODM party belonged was very broad, with several centres of power that didn’t take into account—or maybe didn’t care about— Nairobi’s political landscape. Wanyonyi’s candidacy was hastily sacrificed at the altar of the coalition’s politics. Former President Uhuru Kenyatta, the coalition’s chairman, had prevailed on Raila Odinga, its presidential candidate, to essentially leave Nairobi to Kenyatta’s Jubilee Party in exchange for ODM picking the presidential candidate.

That was the only consideration on the table.

However, it was a miscalculation by the coalition. Azimio failed to appreciate the complex matrix that is a presidential election in Kenya. While the top ticket affects the races downstream, it can be argued that the reverse is also true. It is ironic that Raila Odinga, a power broker and a master of coalition building who was running for presidency for the fifth time, was choosing to ignore these principles. His own ascension in politics had been based on building a machine—ODM—that he used carefully during every election cycle. Yet in this election he was killing his own party and brand. The Azimio La Umoja coalition party was built as a party of parties that would be the vehicle Raila would use to contest the presidency. However, the constituent parties were free to sponsor parliamentary candidates. It sounded like a good idea on paper but it created friction as the parties found themselves in competition everywhere. To keep Azimio from fracturing both itself and its votes, the idea of “zoning”—having weaker candidates step down for stronger ones, essentially carving out exclusive zones for parties—gained traction, and would itself lead to major fall-outs, even after it was adopted as official Azimio policy in June.

However, beyond the zoning controversy, Wanyonyi’s candidacy served as a marker for a key block of Odinga voters—the Luhya—assuring them of their place within the Azimio coalition. Luhya voters have been Odinga’s insurance policy during his last three presidential runs. With Nyanza and the four western Kenya counties of Kakamega, Bungoma, Vihiga and Busia in his back pocket, he would be free to pick up other regions. Odinga claimed 71 per cent of the Luhya bloc in 2017 but this time, western voters were feeling jittery about the new political arrangements.

There is also another consideration. The Luhya voting bloc in Nairobi is also significant, and Odinga had carried the capital in his previous three presidential runs. The Nairobi electoral map is largely organized around five big groups: the Kikuyu, Luo, Luhya, Kamba, and Kisii. For the ODM party, having a combination of a Luo-Luhya voting bloc in Nairobi has enabled Odinga to take the city and to be a force to reckon with.

However, it appeared that all these factors were of no importance in 2022. So, Tim Wanyonyi was forced out of the race. He protested. Or attempted to. Western Kenya voters were furious, but who cared?

Miscalculation

The morning after the State House meeting, a group calling themselves Luhya professionals had strong words for both Odinga and Azimio.

“We refuse to be used as a ladder for other political expediencies whenever there is an election,” Philip Kisia, who was the chairman of this loose “professional group” said during a press conference that paraded the faces of political players from the Luhya community. The community had “irreducible minimum” and would not allow itself to “to be used again this time.” Other speakers at that press conference—including ODM Secretary General Edwin Sifuna—laid claim to what they called the place of the Luhya community in Nairobi. The political relationship between Luhyas and Luos has not been without tensions; in the aftermath of the opposition’s unravelling in the 90s, Michael Kijana Wamalwa and Raila Odinga fought for supremacy within the Ford Kenya party. Wamalwa believed the throne left by Jaramogi Oginga Odinga was his for the taking. However, Odinga’s son, Raila, mounted a challenge for the control of the party, eventually leaving Ford Kenya to build his own party, the National Development Party (NDP). The Luhya-Luo relationship was broken. Luhya sentiment was that, having been faithful to Odinga’s father, it was time for Wamalwa to lead the opposition.

These old political wounds have flared up during every election cycle, and Raila Odinga has worked for decades to reassure the voting bloc and bury the hatchet. This time, however, he was different. He didn’t seem to care about those fragile egos. After the press conference, a strategist in Odinga’s camp wondered aloud, “Who will they [Luhyas] vote for?”

The next 21 days were to be pivotal for Kenya’s presidential election. Azimio moved on and introduced Polycarp Igathe as their candidate for Nairobi. A former deputy governor in Nairobi who had quit just months after taking office, Igathe is well known for his C-suite jobs and intimate links to the Kenyan political elite. His selection, though, played perfectly into the rival Kenya Kwanza coalition’s “hustlers vs dynasties” narrative which sought to frame the 2022 elections as a contest between the political families that have dominated Kenya’s politics and economy since independence. The sons of a former vice president and president respectively, Odinga and Uhuru were branded as dynasties while the then deputy president claimed for himself the title of “hustler”.

These old political wounds have flared up during every election cycle, and Raila Odinga has worked for decades to reassure the voting bloc and bury the hatchet.

But, William Ruto’s side also saw something else in that moment—an opportunity to get a chunk of the important Luhya vote. Ruto first entered into a coalition with Musalia Mudavadi, selling their alliance as a “partnership of equals”, and then followed that up with the offer of a Luhya gubernatorial candidate to Nairobians in the name of Senator Johnson Koskei Sakaja.

Meanwhile, Wanyonyi’s half-brother, the current Speaker of the National Assembly, Moses Wetangula, was a principle in Ruto’s camp. Up to this point, Wetangula had struggled to find a coherent message to sell Ruto’s candidacy to the Luhya nation. But, with his brother being shafted by Azimio, Wetangula saw a political opening; he quickly called a press conference and complained bitterly about the “unfair Odinga” whom he said the Luhya community would not support for “denying their son a ticket to run for the seat of the governor of Nairobi”. His press conference went almost unnoticed and it is not even clear if Azimio took notice of the political significance of Wetangula’s protestations.

Azimio had offered their opponents an inroad into western Kenya politics and Ruto wasted little time trying turn a key Odinga voting bloc. With Sakaja confirmed as the Kenya Kwanza candidate for the Nairobi governor’s race, Wetangula and Kenya Kwanza made Western Kenya a centrepiece of their path to presidency. Tim Wanyonyi was presented as a martyr. The Ford Kenya leader took to all the radio stations, taking calls or sending emissaries, to declare Odinga’s betrayal. In the days and weeks that followed, William Ruto would make a dozen more visits to Luhyaland than his rival, assuring the voters that there would be a central place reserved for them in his administration. In contrast, on a visit to western Kenya, Raila Odinga expressed anger that an opinion poll had shown him trailing Ruto in Bungoma. “He is at nearly 60 per cent and I am at 40 per cent. Shame on you people! Shame on you people! Shame on you!” he told the crowd. He would eventually lose Bungoma and Trans Nzoia to William Ruto.

To be sure, Odinga won western Kenya with 55 per cent of the vote, but William Ruto had 45 per cent, enough to light his path to the presidency. He would repeat the same feat in Nairobi and coast regions, traditionally Odinga strongholds where he would have expected to bag upwards of 60 per cent of the vote. Azimio modelling had put these regions in Raila’s column but Kenya Kwanza took advantage of the mistake-prone Odinga. And wherever Odinga blundered, Ruto mopped up. As Speaker, Wetangula is today the third most powerful man in in the country. Yet just four years ago, he was an Odinga ally who had been stripped off his duties as a minority leader in the Senate by Odinga’s ODM party. At the time he warned that the divorce “would be messy, it would be noisy, it would be unhelpful, it would not be easy, it would have casualties”. It was the first of many political blunders that Odinga would make.

Unforced errors

Looking back, Odinga’s 2022 run for the presidency had all the hallmarks of a campaign that didn’t know what it didn’t know; it was filled with assumptions, and sometimes made the wrong judgment calls. By handing over his backyard to Ruto and choosing to ally with President Uhuru Kenyatta, Raila ended up being branded a “state project”.

In 2005, Odinga had used the momentum generated by his successful campaign in a referendum against Mwai Kibaki’s attempt to foist on the country a bastardized version of the constitution negotiated in Bomas to launch early campaigns for his 2007 presidential run. However, this time, as the courts hamstrung his attempt to launch the BBI referendum, Ruto was already off to the races, having begun his presidential campaign three years early.

“He is at nearly 60 per cent and I am at 40 per cent. Shame on you people! Shame on you people! Shame on you!”

With the rejection of constitutional changes, which were found to be deeply unpopular among many Kenyans, Odinga was finally in a strange place, a politician now out of touch, defending an unpopular government, a stranger to his own political base. The failure of BBI as a political tool was really the consequence of Odinga’s and Kenyatta’s inability to understand the ever-changing Kenyan political landscape. Numerous times they just seemed to not know how to deal with the dynamism of William Ruto. He would shape-shift, change the national conversation, and nothing they threw at him seemed to stick, including, corruption allegations. For a politician who created the branding of opponents as his tool, Odinga had finally been branded and it stuck.

Bow out

In the final day of the campaigns, both camps chose Nairobi to make their final submissions. Azimio chose Kasarani stadium. It was, as expected, full of colour, with a Tanzanian celebrity musician, Diamond Platnumz, brought in to boot. Supporters were treated to rushed speeches by politicians who had somewhere else to be. Azimio concluded its final submission early and the speeches by Odinga and his running mate, Martha Karua, weren’t exactly a rallying call. It was as if they were happy to be put out of their pain as they quickly stepped off the stage and left the stadium. In contrast, Ruto’s final submission was filled with speeches of fury by politicians angered by “state capture” and the “failing economy”. Speaker after speaker roused the audience with their defiant messages. They ended the meeting an hour before the end of IEBC campaign deadline. A video soon appeared online of William Ruto sprinting across the Wilson airport runway to catch a chopper and make it to one final rally in central Kenya before the IEBC’s 6 p.m. campaign deadline.

Pictures of the deputy president on top of a car at dusk in markets in Kiambu were the last images of his campaign to be shared on social media. Ruto won because he wanted the presidency more than Odinga and was willing to work twice as hard as both Odinga and Kenyatta.

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Politics

Lagos From Its Margins: Everyday Experiences in a Migrant Haven

From its beginnings as a fishing village, Lagos has grown into a large metropolis that attracts migrants seeking opportunity or Internally Displaced Persons fleeing violence.

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Lagos From Its Margins: Everyday Experiences in a Migrant Haven
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Lagos, City of Migrants

From its origins as a fishing village in the 1600s, Lagos has urbanised stealthily into a vast metropolis, wielding extensive economic, political and cultural influence on Nigeria and beyond. Migration in search of opportunities has been the major factor responsible for the demographic and spatial growth of the city as Lagos has grown from 60,221 in 1872 to over 23 million people today. The expansion of the city also comes with tensions around indigene-settler dynamics, especially in accessing land, political influence and urban resources. There are also categories of migrants whose status determines if they can lay hold of the “urban advantage” that relocating to a large city offers.

A major impetus to the evolution of modern Lagos is the migration of diverse groups of people from Nigeria’s hinterland and beyond. By the 1800s, waves of migrants (freed slaves) from Brazil and Freetown had made their way to Lagos, while many from Nigeria’s hinterland including the Ekiti, Nupes, Egbas and Ijebus began to settle in ethnic enclaves across the city. In the 1900s, migrant enclaves were based on socio-economic and/or ethnicity status. Hausas (including returnees from the Burma war) settled in Obalende and Agege, while the Ijaw and Itsekiri settled in waterfront communities around Ajegunle and Ijora. International migrant communities include the Togolese, Beninoise and Ghanaian, as well as large communities of Lebanese and Indian migrants. The names and socio-cultural mix in most Lagos communities derive from these historical migrant trajectories.

Permanent temporalities

A study on coordinated migrations found that, as a destination city, Lagos grew 18.6 per cent between 2000 and 2012, with about 96 per cent of the migrants coming from within Nigeria. While migration to Lagos has traditionally been in search of economic opportunities, new classes of migrants have emerged over the last few decades. These are itinerant migrants and internally displaced persons.

Itinerant migrants are those from other areas of Nigeria and West Africa who travel to work in Lagos while keeping their families back home. Mobility cycles can be weekly, monthly or seasonal. Such migrants have no address in Lagos as they often sleep at their work premises or in mosques, saving all their earned income for remittance. They include construction artisans from Benin and Togo who come to Lagos only when they have jobs, farmers from Nigeria’s northern states who come to Lagos to work as casual labourers in between farming seasons (see box), as well as junior staff in government and corporate offices whose income is simply too small to cover the high cost of living in Lagos.

While people from Nigeria’s hinterland continue to arrive in the city in droves, the wave of West African in-migration has ebbed significantly. This is mostly because of the economic challenges Nigeria is currently facing that have crashed the Naira-to-CFA exchange rates. As a result, young men from Togo, Ghana and Benin are finding cities like Dakar and Banjul more attractive than Lagos.

Photo. Taibat Lawanson

Photo. Taibat Lawanson

Aliu* aka Mr Bushman, from Sokoto, Age 28

Aliu came to Lagos in 2009 on the back of a cattle truck. His first job was in the market carrying goods for market patrons. He slept in the neighbourhood mosque with other young boys. Over the years, he has done a number of odd jobs including construction work. In 2014, he started to work as a commercial motorcyclist (okada) and later got the opportunity to learn how to repair them. He calls himself an engineer and for the past four years has earned his income exclusively from riding and repairing okada. Even though he can afford to rent a room, he currently lives in a shared shack with seven other migrants.

He makes between N5000 and N8000 weekly and sends most of it to his family through a local transport operator who goes to Sokoto weekly. His wife and three children are in the village, but he would rather send them money than bring them to Lagos. According to him, “The life in Lagos is too hard for women”.

Since he came to Lagos thirteen years ago, Aliu has never spent more than four months away from Sokoto at a time. He stays in Sokoto during the rainy season to farm rice, maize and guinea corn, and has travelled back home to vote every time since he came to Lagos.

 

The second category of migrants are those who have been displaced from their homesteads in Northern Nigeria by conflict, either Boko Haram insurgency or invasions by Fulani herdsmen. The crises have resulted in the violent destruction of many communities, with hundreds of thousands killed and many more forced to flee. With many who initially settled in camps for Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) dissatisfied with camp conditions, the burden of protracted displacement is now spurring a new wave of IDP migration to urban areas. Even though empirical data on the exact number of displaced persons migrating out of camps to cities is difficult to ascertain, it is obvious that this category of migrants are negotiating their access to the city and its resources in circumstances quite different from those of other categories of migrants.

IDPs as the emerging migrant class in Lagos 

According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, two of every three internally displaced persons globally are now living in cities. Evidence from Nigeria suggests that many IDPs are migrating to urban areas in search of relative safety and resettlement opportunities, with Lagos estimated to host the highest number of independent IDP migrants in the country. In moving to Lagos, IDPs are shaping the city in a number of ways including appropriating public spaces and accelerating the formation of new settlements.

There are three government-supported IDP camps in the city, with anecdotal evidence pointing to about eighteen informal IDP shack communities across the city’s peri-urban axis. This correlates with studies from other cities that highlight how this category of habitations (as initial shelter solutions for self-settled IDPs) accelerate the formation of new urban informal settlements and spatial agglomerations of poverty and vulnerability.

While people from Nigeria’s hinterland continue to arrive in the city in droves, the wave of West African in-migration has ebbed significantly.

IDPs in Lagos move around a lot. Adamu, who currently lives in Owode Mango—a shack community near the Lagos Free Trade zone—and has been a victim of forced eviction four times said, “As they [government or land owners] get ready to demolish this place and render us homeless again, we will move to another area and live there until they catch up with us.”

In the last ten years, there has been an increase in the number of homeless people on the streets of Lagos—either living under bridges, in public parks or incomplete buildings. Many of them are IDPs who are new migrants, and unable to access the support necessary to ease their entry into the city’s established slums or government IDP camps. Marcus, who came from Adamawa State in 2017 and has been living under the Obalende Bridge for five years, said, “I am still managing, living under the bridge. I won’t do this forever, my life will not end like this under a bridge. I hope to one day return to my home and continue my life”.

Blending in or not: Urban integration strategies 

Urban integration can be a real challenge for IDP migrants. Whereas voluntary migrants are often perceived to be legal entrants to the city and so can lay claim to urban resources, the same cannot be said about IDPs. Despite being citizens, and despite Nigeria being a federation, IDPs do not have the same rights as other citizens in many Nigerian cities and constantly face stigmatisation and harassment, which reinforces their penchant for enclaving.

The lack of appropriate documentation and skillsets also denies migrants full entry into the socio-economic system. For example, Rebekah said: “I had my WAEC [Senior Secondary school leaving certificate] results and when Boko Haram burnt our village, our family lost everything including my certificates. But how can I continue my education when I have not been able to get it? I have to do handwork [informal labour] now”. IDP children make up a significant proportion of out-of-school children in Lagos as many are unable to get registered in school simply because of a lack of address.

Most IDPs survive by deploying social capital—especially ethnic and religious ties. IDP ethnic groupings are quite organized; most belong to an ethnic-affiliated group and consider this as particularly beneficial to their resettlement and sense of identity in Lagos. Adamu from Chibok said, “When I come to Lagos in 2017, I come straight to Eleko. My brother [kinsman] help me with house, and he buy food for my family. As I no get work, he teach me okada work wey he dey do.”

The crises have resulted in the violent destruction of many communities, with hundreds of thousands killed and many more forced to flee.

Interestingly, migration to the city can also be good for women as many who were hitherto unemployed due to cultural barriers are now able to work. Mary who fled Benue with her family due to farmer-herder clashes explained, “When we were at home [in Benue], I was assisting my husband with farming, but here in Lagos, I have my own small shop where I sell food. Now I have my own money and my own work.”

Need for targeted interventions for vulnerable Lagosians

“Survival of the fittest” is an everyday maxim in the city of Lagos. For migrants, this is especially true as they are not entitled to any form of structured support from the government. Self-settlement is therefore daunting, especially in light of systemic limiting factors.

Migrants are attracted to big cities based on perceived economic opportunities, and with limited integration, their survival strategies are inevitably changing the spatial configurations of Lagos. While the city government is actively promoting urban renewal, IDP enclaving is creating new slums. Therefore, addressing the contextualised needs of urban migrant groups is a sine qua non for inclusive and sustainable urban development.

“I am still managing, living under the bridge. I won’t do this forever, my life will not end like this under a bridge. I hope to one day return to my home and continue my life”.

There is an established protocol for supporting international refugees. However, the same cannot be said for IDPs who are Nigerian citizens. They do not enjoy structured support outside of camps, and we have seen that camps are not an effective long-term solution to displacement. There is a high rate of IDP mobility to cities like Lagos, which establishes the fact that cities are an integral part of the future of humanitarian crisis. Their current survival strategies are not necessarily harnessing the urban advantage, especially due to lack of official recognition and documentation. It is therefore imperative that humanitarian frameworks take into account the role of cities and also the peculiarities of IDP migrations to them.

Lagos remains a choice destination city and there is therefore need to pay more attention to understanding the patterns, processes and implications of migration into the city. The paucity of migration-related empirical data no doubt inhibits effective planning for economic and social development. Availability of disaggregated migration data will assist the state to develop targeted interventions for the various categories of vulnerable Lagosians.  Furthermore, targeted support for migrant groups must leverage existing social networks, especially the organised ethnic and religious groups that migrants lean on for entry into the city and for urban integration.

*All names used in this article are pseudonyms

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It’s a Nurses’ Market Out There, and Kenyans Are Going For It

Nurses are central to primary healthcare and unless Kenya makes investments in a well-trained, well supported and well-paid nursing workforce, nurses will continue to leave and the country is unlikely to achieve its Sustainable Development Goals in the area of health and wellbeing for all.

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It’s a Nurses’ Market Out There, and Kenyans Are Going For It
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Nancy* is planning to leave Kenya. She wants to go to the United States where the nursing pastures are supposedly greener. I first met Nancy when the country was in the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic that tested Kenya’s healthcare system to breaking point. She was one of a cohort of recently graduated nurses that were hastily recruited by the Ministry of Health and thrown in at the deep end of the pandemic. Nancy earns KSh41,000 net with no other benefits whatsoever, unlike her permanent and pensionable colleagues.

When the then Labour and Social Protection Cabinet Secretary Simon Chelugui announced in early September 2021 that the government would be sending 20,000 nurses to the United Kingdom to help address the nursing shortage in that country, Nancy saw her chance. But her hopes were dashed when she failed to raise the KSh90,000 she needed to prepare and sit for the English language and nursing exams that are mandatory for foreign-trained nurses. Nancy would also have needed to pay the Nursing Council of Kenya KSh12,000 for the verification of her documents, pay the Kenya Medical Training College she attended KSh1,000 in order to get her exam transcripts, and apply for a passport, the minimum cost of which is KSh4,550 excluding the administrative fee. Nancy says that, contrary to then Health Cabinet Secretary Mutahi Kagwe’s disputed claims that a majority of applicants to the programme had failed the English language test, most nurses simply could not afford the cost of applying.

Of the targeted 20,000 nurses, the first 19 left Kenya for the UK in June 2022. But even that paltry figure represents a significant loss for Kenya, a country where the ratio of practicing nurses to the population is 11.66 per 10,000. The WHO considers countries with less than 40 nurses and midwives for every 10,000 people to not have enough healthcare professionals. Nearly 60 per cent of all healthcare professionals (medical physicians, nursing staff, midwives, dentists, and pharmacists) in the world are nurses, making them by far the most prevalent professional category within the health workforce. Nurses offer a wide range of crucial public health and care services at all levels of healthcare facilities as well as within the community, frequently serving as the first and perhaps the only healthcare provider that people see.

Kenya had 59,901 nurses/midwives in 2018, rising to 63,580 in 2020. Yet in 2021, Kenya was proposing to send almost a third of them to the UK to “address a shortfall of 62,000 in that country”.

The growing shortage of nurses in the UK has been blamed on the government’s decision to abolish bursaries and maintenance grants for nursing students in 2016, leading to a significant drop in the number of those applying to train as nurses. Consequently, the annual number of graduate nurses plummeted, reaching the current low of 31 nurses per 100,000 people, below the European average of 36.6 and half as many as in countries like Romania (96), Albania (82) and Finland (82). Facing pressure to recruit 50,000 nurses amid collapsing services and closures of Accident & Emergency, maternity and chemotherapy units across the country, the UK government decided to once again cast its net overseas. Established in 1948, the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) has relied on foreign healthcare workers ever since staff from the Commonwealth were first brought in to nurse back to health a nation fresh out of the Second World War.

The UK government’s press release announcing the signing of the Bilateral Agreement with Kenya states that the two countries have committed  “to explore working together to build capacity in Kenya’s health workforce through managed exchange and training” and goes as far as to claim that “with around only 900 Kenyan staff currently in the NHS, the country has an ambition to be the ‘Philippines of Africa’ — with Filipino staff one of the highest represented overseas countries in the health service — due to the positive economic impact that well-managed migration can have on low to middle income countries.”

It is a dubious ambition, if indeed it has been expressed. The people of the Philippines do not appear to be benefiting from the supposed increase in capacity that the exchange and training is expected to bring. While 40,000 of their nurses worked in the UK’s National Health Service last year, back home, according to Filipino Senator Sonny Angara, “around 7 of 10 Filipinos die without ever seeing a health professional and the nurse to patient ratio in our hospitals remains high at 1:50 up to 1:802”.

Since 2003 when the UK and the government of the Philippines signed a Memorandum of Understanding on the recruitment of Filipino healthcare professionals, an export-led industry has grown around the training of nurses in the Philippines that has attracted the increased involvement of the private sector. More nursing institutions — that have in reality become migrant institutions — are training nurses specifically for the overseas market, with the result that skills are matched to Western diseases and illnesses, leaving the country critically short of healthcare personnel. Already, in 1999, Filipino doctors had started retraining as nurses and leaving the country in search of better pay.

It is difficult, then, to see how the Philippines is an example to emulate. Unless, of course, beneath the veneer of “partnership and collaboration in health”, lies the objective of exporting Kenyan nurses with increased diaspora remittances in mind – Kenyans in the UK sent KSh28.75 billion in the first nine months of 2022, or nearly half what the government has budgeted for the provision of universal health care to all Kenyans. If that is the case, how that care is to be provided without nurses is a complete mystery.

Already in 1999, Filipino doctors had started retraining as nurses and leaving the country in search of better pay.

For the UK, on the other hand, importing nurses trained in Kenya is a very profitable deal. Whereas the UK government “typically spends at least £26,000, and sometimes far more, on a single nurse training post”, it costs only £10,000 to £12,000 to recruit a nurse from overseas, an externalization of costs that commodifies nurses, treating them like goods to be bought and sold.

However, in agreeing to the terms of the trade in Kenyan nurses, the two governments are merely formalizing the reality that a shortage of nurses in high-income countries has been driving the migration of nurses from low-income countries for over two decades now. Along with Ghana, Nigeria, South Africa and Zimbabwe, Kenya is one of the top 20 countries of origin of foreign-born or foreign-trained nurses working in the countries of the OECD, of which the UK is a member state.

Faced with this reality, and in an attempt to regulate the migration of healthcare workers, the World Health Assembly adopted the WHO Global Code of Practice on the Recruitment of Health Personnel in May 2010. The code, the adherence to which is voluntary, “provides ethical principles applicable to the international recruitment of health personnel in a manner that strengthens the health systems of developing countries, countries with economies in transition and small island states.”

Article 5 of the code encourages recruiting countries to collaborate with the sending countries in the development and training of healthcare workers and discourages recruitment from developing countries facing acute shortages. Given the non-binding nature of the code, however, and “the severe global shortage of nurses”, resource-poor countries, which carry the greatest disease burden globally, will continue to lose nurses to affluent countries. Wealthy nations will inevitably continue luring from even the poorest countries nurses in search of better terms of employment and better opportunities for themselves and their families; Haiti is on the list of the top 20 countries supplying the OECD region.

“Member States should discourage active recruitment of health personnel from developing countries facing critical shortages of health workers.”

Indeed, an empirical evaluation of the code four years after its adoption found that the recruitment of health workers has not undergone any substantial policy or regulatory changes as a direct result of its introduction. Countries had no incentive to apply the code and given that it was non-binding, conflicting domestic healthcare concerns were given the priority.

The UK’s Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) has developed its own code of practice under which the country is no longer recruiting nurses from countries that the WHO recognizes as facing health workforce challenges. Kenya was placed on the UK code’s amber list on 11 November 2021, and active recruitment of health workers to the UK was stopped “with immediate effect” unless employers had already made conditional offers to nurses from Kenya on or before that date. Presumably, the Kenyan nurses who left for the UK in June 2022 fall into this category.

In explaining its decision, the DHSC states that “while Kenya is not on the WHO Health Workforce Support & Safeguards List, it remains a country with significant health workforce challenges. Adding Kenya to the amber list in the Code will protect Kenya from unmanaged international recruitment which could exacerbate existing health and social care workforce shortages.”

The WHO clarifies that nothing in its Code of Practice should be interpreted as curtailing the freedom of health workers to move to countries that are willing to allow them in and offer them employment. So, even as the UK suspends the recruitment of Kenyan nurses, they will continue to find opportunities abroad as long as Western countries continue to face nurse shortages. Kenyan nurses will go to the US where 203,000 nurses will be needed each year up to 2026, and to Australia where the supply of nursing school graduates is in decline, and to Canada where the shortage is expected to reach 117,600 by 2030, and to the Republic of Ireland which is now totally dependent on nurses recruited from overseas and where working conditions have been described as “horrendous”.

“Adding Kenya to the amber list in the Code will protect Kenya from unmanaged international recruitment which could exacerbate existing health and social care workforce shortages.”

Like hundreds of other Kenyan-trained nurses then, Nancy will take her skills overseas. She has found a recruitment agency through which to apply for a position abroad and is saving money towards the cost. She is not seeking to move to the UK, however; Nancy has been doing her research and has concluded that the United States is a much better destination given the more competitive salaries compared to the UK where nurses have voted to go strike over pay and working conditions. When she finally gets to the US, Nancy will join Diana*, a member of the over 90,000-strong Kenyan diaspora, more than one in four of whom are in the nursing profession.

Now in her early 50s, Diana had worked for one of the largest and oldest private hospitals in Nairobi for more than 20 years before moving to the US in 2017. She had on a whim presented her training certificates to a visiting recruitment agency that had set up shop in one of Nairobi’s high-end hotels and had been shortlisted. There followed a lengthy verification process for which the recruiting agency paid all the costs, requiring Diana to only sign a contract binding her to her future US employer for a period of two years once she had passed the vetting process.

Speaking from her home in Virginia last week, Diana told me that working as a nurse in the US “is not a bed of roses”, that although the position is well paying, it comes with a lot of stress. “The nurse-to-patient ratio is too high and the job is all about ticking boxes and finishing tasks, with no time for the patients,” she says, adding that in such an environment fatal mistakes are easily made. Like the sword of Damocles, the threat of losing her nursing licence hangs over Diana’s head every day that she takes up her position at the nursing station.

“The nurse-to-patient ratio is too high and the job is all about ticking boxes and finishing tasks, with no time for the patients.”

Starting out as an Enrolled Nurse in rural Kenya, Diana had over the years improved her skills, graduating as a Registered Nurse before acquiring a Batchelor of Science in Nursing from a top private university in Kenya, the tuition for which was partially covered by her employer.

Once in the US, however, her 20 years of experience counted for nothing and she was employed on the same footing as a new graduate nurse, as is the case for all overseas nurses moving to the US to work. Diana says that, on balance, she would have been better off had she remained at her old job in Kenya where the care is better, the opportunities for professional growth are greater and the work environment well controlled. But like many who have gone before her, Diana is not likely to be returning to Kenya any time soon.

*Names have been changed.

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