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AND GOD RESTED ON THE SEVENTH DAY: Faith as a tense truce in an African reality

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AND GOD RESTED ON THE SEVENTH DAY: Faith as a tense truce in an African reality
Photo: rawpixel on Unsplash

When I was growing up in rural western Kenya in the mid-80s, my father, a Seventh Day Adventist (SDA), imposed Adventism upon us like a colonial identity card. He was an Adventist because his mother was an Adventist. That part of western Kenya was under intense competition between the Catholic, Anglican and Seventh Day Adventist churches. The Seventh Day set up a stronghold in central and south Nyanza regions with churches in every corner of the community. We were expected to carry this spiritual card around for many reasons. One was to inspire some sort of righteous pride, to show that we were better than others, mostly Catholics and non-believers, though Catholics were the other main Christian denomination in our community. We were being trained in denominational politics, that even though we were worshipping the same God as Catholics, we were different, more sanctified. Unlike them, our bodies were free from impurities like tobacco and alcohol. And that was not all. Coca-Cola and coffee were prohibited; soya was touted as the best alternative (but you could only find soya in shops in Nairobi).

My mother protested the Seventh Day Adventist church and its restrictions. She did not understand how eating cold food on Saturdays made anyone holier; she always prepared hot food. My father protested but grudgingly ate it all the same. Also, my mother had no personal vendetta against Coca-Cola. She drank it and made us drink too. My father frowned but couldn’t do much. He was always a minute too late, just as we were putting down empty bottles. In addition, my mother was ambivalent to religion; she was raised in a big traditional family where religion was a pastime and not a primary way of life. My father should have also protested a long time ago. My uncle too. Both are polygamists. Being polygamists, the church never accepted them the same way they accepted the church. As a teenager, I could partake in Holy Communion, but my grandfather, father and my uncle – grown men with much more social status than I – could not. They joined other men, mostly polygamous, in grudgingly walking out of the church during Holy Communion. In my mind, I didn’t think that polygamy, per se, made you a good or bad man. There were very good polygamous men – loving, caring and responsible. And there were bad monogamous men, who abused their families every day.

Deeply entrenched polygamy in our community was the elephant in the room in our local church. Most men seated in the pews were in polygamous families. Our church relentlessly depicted polygamy as barbaric and backward. I have always asked myself why my dad continued in this church that was seemingly subjecting him and fellow polygamous men to emotional abuse every Saturday. He later even embarked on a project to build a big church sanctuary closer to our home. Why would my father, and African people in general, join and support churches that deeply conflicted with their traditional way of life?

The Seventh Day church did not have formal method, or doctrine, to accommodate traditional practices of Africans they had come to teach about Jesus and salvation. This is was not a democracy where the heathen communities had a vote. The church’s intention was clear- convert as many as possible and to grow into a dominant, influential force. My father and polygamous men in the community accepted that the church was way more powerful than they, and that by joining it they could access some social power in a rapidly changing world. The church also accepted that these polygamous men were difficult and would not easily change their ways. The pastor seeming to have recognized this contentious issue, prayed fervently about everything but skirted around it.

For the first nineteen years of my life when I attended Seventh Day Adventist church, I never heard a pastor mention the word polygamy by name during sermons. They would preach strongly against adultery without mentioning polygamy. It was not lost to any person paying attention that lust and adultery, in the context of this Christian worldview, was the first step towards polygamy. Within this complex social set up, there was some sort of unofficial truce around polygamy- this truce would only be broken during Holy Communion when polygamous men would leave the church. Women must have viewed themselves as winners in this struggle between their men and the church. This was one of the few occasions when they would get a seat at the table and partake in a ceremony that their husbands could not. The men protested silently- most would skip church on days when Holy Communion would be served. My father would also often talk of David and his son Solomon as some of the famous men in the bible who married multiple wives. This contradiction in the bible must have been a source of consolation to my father and many men in my community.

In the 1980s and 1990s, during the early era of HIV/AIDS, there was a visible rise in televangelism and miracle healing, and a corresponding increase in the number and prominence of traditional healers and medicine men in our community. Public prayers were being made for all these throngs of young men and women dying of this incurable disease. Privately, African traditional medicine men and women were sought to appease whichever spirits had brought this curse to the people. Mainstream churches vigorously preached abstinence and riled against contraceptives, while in the dead of the night, when the church was officially asleep, traditional healers were brought into homes to prescribe final rites for the dead. Some of these rites included “corpse cleansing” through sexual intercourse with the dead in some communities.

This perpetual conflict between traditional spiritual practices and Christianity has always been a source of both personal and communal conflict. I remember when my uncle Ben was sick, strangers would visit ostensibly to “pray for him”. I knew these people were not Catholics or Seventh Day Adventists. I could tell they were traditional medicine men and women. Sometimes they would stay for days, and I would hear my grandmother telling her fellow women from the church that these medicine men were distant relations who were visiting. I could tell she appreciated the inadequacy of the Christian God in these difficult situations, but that she still struggled with that reality. I saw in her eyes the guilt of resorting to traditional medicine when she had lost faith in the ability of the Christian God to heal my uncle Ben. This was deep in rural Kenya, yet she did not dare be free in following the traditional practices of her people. I have come to learn that this personal struggle, both mine and hers, were a manifestation of years of calculated and successful emotional blackmail to the individual and community by missionaries.

One of the enduring impacts of Christianity in my life was the image of white savior. This image was thrust on my young mind through the powerful sermons on Saturday by our local pastor. The sermons always ended by him commanding us to “fall at the feet of the cross” and “obey”. Obedience would ensure blessings and prosperity. This image of falling at the image of a white male has always overwhelmed me. It struck me even more later when I was living in the United States, where white superiority is always hanging over black and brown people’s heads like a dark cloud.

I recently came from a trip to South East Asia and had a chance to experience a deity that wasn’t in the image of a white savior. I was struck by the images of massive statues of Buddha that resembled the local people. They were in all shades of brown, dark brown and sometimes black. Having lived in the USA for almost four years now, I was puzzled by this free colour continuum of Buddha statues. I made note of this and asked my hosts and friends who were surprised by my observation. They had never made similar observations. The differences, they said, came down to design and material used to make the statues of Buddha. There were no subliminal racial messages of superiority and inferiority in these statues. I apologized and let them know that I live in environment where race permeates every fabric of the society.

This experience introduced me to a unique reality that most Africans who are Christians have never had – the reality and the power of having a God who resembled the locals, who looked like the local rickshaw driver, beggar, teacher and doctor, hit me very hard. It brought back memories of the many times my father struggled to contort reasons to reassure me and my siblings that as much as the Christian God had very explicit Caucasian features, on the inside, he looked like us, Africans. And that before this God, all races were equal. I was always confused by this halfhearted assertion. I felt like we were always struggling too hard to impress the Christian God and we all fell short.

I have started thinking of how powerful and relatable it would be to have a God whose image members of my community would relate to. This would perhaps empower and inspire many people, including my son, whom I am not sure how to introduce religion to. How can I read him a Bible that has been used to control my people for generations without feeling a repulsive guilt? No, I cannot. I am rebelling against everything peddled with a white supremacist agenda. I have decided against that. That is why I struggled with thoughts of taking him to my grandmother’s church in Kenya. I decided against this church that refused to accept my father.

But then again, I have to ask myself, which is this African deity I am seeking? Moreover, where is this deity? Is it possible to reconstruct and empower all the traditional African deities destroyed by colonizers and missionaries? In addition, can our communities be empowered to find strength in their old ways of thinking?

This is the space and personal conflict that the entry of Christianity suspended me, and my community, into, and we are still grappling with it. Sometimes the presence of the local Seventh Day Adventist church in my community feels like an ever-present symbol of domination. But sometimes it looks like a space that offered my grandmother sanctuary and gave her meaning about life, and also gave women their own social status as Holy Communion-partaking believers. I want it to work for us, but I know I hold no vote, and I doubt my community has the power to reshaping practices and doctrines we feel do not align to the traditional values of my community. This faith has always been – take it or leave it. But I think we need something else.

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Norbert Odero is a Kenyan author, writer and scientist based in the USA.

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Reflections

Shule Bora, Bora Shule?

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Shule Bora, Bora Shule?
Photo: bill wegener on Unsplash

On the second week of January 2019, Form 1 students reported to their various secondary schools. From news reports, a number arrived in high spirits, jovial and excited to be living their dream. But the faces of many more betrayed them – the students seemed tense and glum, their parents deflated and even angry.

Many of these anxiety-ridden parents and children were struggling with the ‘disappointment’ of being ‘called’ to a school that they thought was not up to their standard or expectation.

Most of us grew up with the idea of joining a national school or at least the big name (formerly) provincial schools. Ask any student getting to the end of primary school where they would like to go to high school, and the answers are usually the same; Alliance, Starehe, Kenya High…it’s embedded so deep into our psyche that it seems nowhere else is good enough.

Our children live, breathe and eat ‘Shule Bora’ – a good school – and the disappointment when they don’t make it either due to bogus placements or low scores is heartbreaking. Even a child whose average score is a respectable 340 – 350 out of 500 (a 70% average across all subjects) is pressured by parents, teachers, and society to work harder or they won’t get into a ‘good school.’ We hope against reality that they will make it to a good school, even when their grades throughout primary school suggest that barring a miracle, they won’t make the cut. So we pressure our children with tutoring, promises and threats to get those grades to a 90% average, waking children up at 4am to get cramming, do more test papers, because high marks are the most important thing. Critical thinking is never in the picture. And for those in private school, aren’t we working so hard to pay private school fees to give them the best chance at a big name school?

I have been a tutor, and am not surprised when I see a student confidently give the answer to a certain question not because they understand it, but because they have seen it before in another exam paper. We know, and they know, that questions are always repeated, and this is what will give them that extra mark to get to Mang’u or Maseno. We all want to brag that our child is somewhere renowned.

Aged just 14 years on average, our children get into an exam room and take a test that will determine the course of their lives. If they get into a good school, we assume that the children will have a secured future. The reality of their future as frustrated and unemployed graduates is a hurdle to tackle when they get there, not right now. But what does a ‘good school’ mean? It seems our definition is a national school, with a long history, or that one which consistently performs well during KCSE, which produces many A grades, and facilities are good. Everything else like bullying, mental health, or the politics in the school doesn’t matter as long as ‘ni Shule Bora’.

The rest are ‘Bora Shule’, the type of schools that we have made our children believe are not worth it. Hearing of a student from a ‘school we have never heard of’ top the exams in Form Four is not enough motivation to appease parents to accept schools they have ‘not heard of’. To place their faith in their children’s abilities alone is never a good thing, children need the backing of the big name school, the Shule Bora type, to ensure proper success. We flippantly tend to say “Kama mtoto ni bright, atapita tu wherever they go” or “I know a girl who went to a *small name school* and she came out with an A” to soothe other parents, knowing quite well we ourselves would never take the ‘Bora Shule’ advice, because we know that where one goes in Form One matters. It matters because all the way back to the colonial period, this country has always excluded the majority and privileged a tiny elite. That is why we fight tooth and nail, paying bribes and trampling over each other to secure places for our children in the schools we want. Can you imagine how fat the pockets of many secondary school principals were this past festive season?

Sometimes, Nairobi middle-class parents have a prejudice about a school on account of its distance away from the city. I remember getting my form one acceptance letter and even though it was from an old colonial period national school, I was terrified because the school was not a national school located around Nairobi or at least Central Province. Those around me discouraged me from going there with remarks like “utawezana huko?” and “haki ni mbali.”

Coupled with the fact that I didn’t get my top choice, these remarks fueled my dislike for my chosen school. I arrived in Form One bitter and distraught, and spent my first year hoping for a transfer simply because the school was far from the city, which made it a ‘Bora Shule’ or bad school in my eyes. What a shame, but I didn’t know any better.

Take a moment and consider why we should be cautious over what we deem are good and bad schools. Imagine Child A goes to a ‘good school’ and the parents are happy, excited and proud. She is pleased to be in her dream school, but although they produce many doctors, lawyers, CEOs and engineers, the school has a reputation of hidden bullying. And I’m not talking about that hazing where Form Ones are told to sweet-talk a hockey stick or collect darkness in a cup. The kind of hazing here is so bad that many students develop anxiety, depression and all kinds of psychological disorders that go unaddressed. You hear news that a child has committed suicide, and when you go to the school, it is your own daughter who spent two terms in school dreading each opening day. You as a parent don’t understand how this happened. You all worked so hard to get there. School fees was always paid, shopping was done, your child lacked nothing. The school is renowned, discipline is high, your child was doing fine academically and you were foreseeing another success at the end of high school. Suddenly this tragedy brings your lives to a halt.

Or consider Child B who goes to a ‘bad school’ where their parents spend their time complaining about everything (perhaps justifiably so), from the facilities to the performance. They are constantly looking to transfer their child, and Child B feels worthless and develops low self-esteem because he didn’t get into a better school. They hate themselves, the school, and everyone. Tragedy strikes when Child B starts a fire in his dorm room and innocent students accompany him to his death. As the parents, you are told is how undisciplined your child was but it doesn’t matter now because they are dead and gone. He seemed fine to you. You don’t understand how it happened.

The point is, our reverence for national schools and the few non-national schools that perform well academically is so high that with our children absorbing everything we say about them, they develop the idea that they must go there or else their lives are over. The number of parents I have seen asking strangers online about schools their children have been called to is worrying. The questions are usually about the performance of the school and the location, accompanied by an anxious comment like “Now how is my daughter supposed to go to such a school.” Judgment has already been passed about the school even before they get an answer to the question.

A few years ago, in an effort to increase the number of children going to national schools, the government increased the number of national schools from the original 17 to over 100. When this move was announced, it came with the promise of millions of shillings to upgrade infrastructure. This was supposed to take care of the problem of the cut-throat competition in getting into a national school.

However, the bid to provide each child with a place in secondary school seems to be promoting the ‘Bora Shule’ idea. As long as your child has a place, what more could you want, the government seems to be asking. We have provided more national schools in the counties, what more do you want? We are turning all the Bora Shule into Shule Bora with these new classrooms and new perimeter walls, what more do you want? What is the difference between the old and new national schools, aren’t they both national schools now? In response, parents are saying it’s all right for each child to have a place but you can’t fool us, we still want the Shule Bora. Sticking the name National to a school doesn’t automatically turn it into one. Throwing money at them to improve facilities will not either.

Dear parents, if you are content with the school your son or daughter is in, you need to reflect on how your words influenced where your child is heading. Were you pestering them to make sure they get into that ‘good’ school? Are you certain that they will have a wholesome experience in secondary school or are you satisfied only because of the potential academic success? As you are out there hunting for a Shule Bora for your child for whatever reasons, you need to reflect too. You are searching high and low because you think your child deserves a better school, better than the Bora Shule they have been called to. What do you really know about the school you are fighting so hard to get for them? Or is there no time for that, you will let the kids figure it out later? And dear GoK officials, as you are re-branding schools as national schools, do it as if it was your own child who would be going there. We know you are doing it in a superficial manner because your own children will never set foot there. How shameful!

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Reflections

I Know It Was The Blood

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I Know It Was the Blood

“…in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has… broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.” Ephesians 2:13-14

I was a graduate student at Yale when increasingly graphic and disturbing images of unjust deaths of young black men and women began to filter through the news feeds and our social media timelines, and soon the outrage I felt left me with no choice but to take to the streets in protest. I participated in marches and press conferences decrying these unjust deaths at the hands of police who had sworn to serve and protect.

But these deaths also struck a deeper chord for me as a pastor, as I wrestled with the theological consequences of blood spilled on the streets while I stood robed in white in front of a congregation with a cup and cracker on the first Sunday of each month. There, we would joyfully sing words from the spiritual “I know it was the blood for…one day when I was lost, Jesus died on the cross…”

Those songs always took me back to my formative years at Acklin Chapel, our quaint church in rural Berkley, Alabama, where corn or cotton surrounded three sides of the church. It was here where crucial moments in my spiritual formation as a child had taken place, and there was no greater Sunday liturgically than High Day or the first Sunday, where we monthly celebrated the sacrament of Holy Communion. Though our ritual was informed by our C.M.E. liturgy, it was brought to life by our singing of hymns and spirituals that brought together the seasoned saints and anxious adolescents, and bridged the gap between the learned and the illiterate. (The Christian Methodist Episcopal (C.M.E.) Church is a historically African-American denomination within the broader context of Methodism).

I can hear the voice of my great-grandmother who I eulogized at that church sing out with chords that the angels themselves could not reproduce, singing songs like “Down At The Cross Where My Savior Died” and “There Is A Fountain Filled With Blood, Drawn From Immanuel’s Veins”. I hear her words declare with a rhythm that captured the cadence of freedom which could only be learned in the throes of oppression – I know it was the blood, I know it was the blood, one day when I was lost, Jesus died on the cross, and I know it was the blood for me. The church would rock as we reasserted our knowledge of the atoning power of Jesus’ blood.

I took this confidence and declaration with me to college, and even after four years of a faith-shaking experience in religious studies at Vanderbilt University, I may not have been able to say I know it was the blood, but I could still say – I’m pretty sure it was the blood.

However, after a couple of years of theological training at Yale, the best I could say was – I think it was the blood.

My doubts were informed by thinkers like Delores Williams and Walter Rauschenbusch, who had exposed the unfortunate link between violence and notions of salvation. I could only say I think it was the blood because the idea of substitutionary atonement logically centers the most vulnerable to carry crosses for the sins of others. The idea of substitutionary atonement portrays Jesus as an innocent person murdered for the sins and vices of others. It glorifies the death of a blameless victim in the service of guilty offenders. Unfortunately, this logic does not remain on a cross but very often trickles into other relationships, where the powerful guilty can scapegoat their sins on the guiltless vulnerable. This idea, popularized by 11th century thinker Anselm, became exceedingly unconscionable.

Thinking on such things would ordinarily not be a problem, for if we do nothing else in divinity school, we think. However, this was to confront me even more glaringly on my first Sunday at the church I was pastoring, when I heard those same songs that we would sing, but my ears were freshly open to how bloody and violent those songs were. Then as I handed the shot glass of grape juice into withered fingers of senior saints and placed the cup into the hands of smiling children, I heard myself adding to the bloody chorus, declaring, “ The blood of Christ, shed for you.”

The violence of bloodshed seemed unavoidable, but I wondered: must we valorize the cross and bloodshed in this way? The cross represents the state-sponsored execution of a peace-seeking, love-sharing, justice-imagining, revolutionary Jewish preacher from Nazareth named Jesus. How is state-terror against an innocent man turned into something worth singing about joyfully? I grappled with this – and I simply could not find an answer.

But perhaps we can implement a strategy that the author of Ephesians does in our passage, which does not focus on the violence that shed Christ’s blood, but rather views the blood as the aggressor that acts violently against the systems that separate us. Christ through his blood destroyed the wall of separation, abolished the decrees that divide, and at the very cross, killed hostility itself.

My theological training led me to believe that we focus too much on Jesus’ death at the hands of sinful humanity than on his life and ministerial vision. Often we emphasize the blood that Jesus shed in isolation, and forget the work he did to bring people together.

This was no trivial matter for the communities that read the letter to the Ephesians, which circulated among many churches in Asia Minor. This letter was written when there was a demographic shift in the early Christian church, when the movement that had begun primarily among Jewish people had now become a mixed and largely Gentile church.

What threatened that church is what threatens our church today. It is a failure to preserve unity in diversity. For that challenge, the author of Ephesians offers a solution in the blood of Jesus, because it levels the playing field and tears down the walls between us. In the same way that it unites Jews and Gentiles who had differences according to traditions and customs, it can unite us in spite of our differences. If the blood could overcome what separates circumcised Jews from uncircumcised gentiles, certainly it can unite that which separates Baby Boomers from Millennials. Surely, it can overcome underpaid women and employers who see no need to change. It can overcome the barrier between migrant refugees seeking safety and nations of the world that callously shut the door, and certainly I believe it can overcome fanatical followers of Donald Trump and the rest of us sane people!

The passage explains how the blood serves as a call to work to create a new humanity, where we are all one in Christ. And it calls us all to emulate Jesus and do the hard work of growing together into a spiritual dwelling place for God.

What makes this blood so powerful? We can see in v-13 and 14 that the author views the blood and the flesh of Christ interchangeably. Thus the reason why the blood is powerful is because of the flesh – the sarkos – it resided in. The Old Testament in Leviticus declares, “the life of the body is in the blood”. Therefore the blood is filled with power because the life of Jesus was filled with power. To that end, Jesus’ life-blood, his power, was demonstrated more in living, than it was in dying. And therefore Jesus’ blood is capable of bringing together those who are separated because Jesus lived that type of life in the flesh.

I now see that his life-blood flowed when he was born in Bethlehem. It flowed when he stood in solidarity with sinners. It flowed when he embraced the marginalised. It flowed when he preached peace to the prisoners. It flowed when he healed the hands of the hopeless. It flowed when he fearlessly indicted Empire. It is the life he lived that forced him to suffer an improper trial by a jacked-up judicial system. It is this injustice that pressed the precious life-blood out of those veins on Calvary’s hill. But God does not allow separation to have the last word. And so God raised him on the third day, and it flowed again when he delivered the deathblow to death itself, as the Scriptures say.

When we reassess how we view the blood of Jesus, the ritual of communion or the Eucharist becomes a moment for us to recommit ourselves to living the type of peace-seeking, love-sharing, and justice-orienting life that Jesus lived through his life-blood. And as we drink the cup, we can be reminded to pour out ourselves, not so that we can function as somebody else’s doormat, but so that we can militate against the imminent forces of destruction that suggest that the lives of the vulnerable don’t matter. This sacred meal was Jesus’ last one on the earth before his final stand of courageous resistance, and as we emulate Jesus’ struggle to bring God’s reign into the world, it might be our last meal on earth too. But that is no reason to despair, because after the last meal, God has the last word.

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Reflections

The Making of a Fatherless Nation

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The Mathare Social Justice Centre (MSJC) office is located off Juja road in Nairobi’s Eastlands. It is situated in a single-storeyed building planted right at the edge of Mathare Valley. The building stands out in contrast to the sea of tightly packed shanty dwellings with rusty brown tin roofs dissected into two parts by the congested Mau Mau road running through the bottom of the valley. Dark grey smoke rises from the valley depths and one catches a glimpse of the murky waters of the Mathare river flowing parallel to the busy throughway. Visitors are primed to see ruins and depravation, but residents speak of its beauty. A Rastafarian man named Jah Driver told me to think of Mathare as a chocolate city, and in a phrase, that captured the essence of Mathare’s complex sensory qualities.

On this Saturday morning, I had joined a group of resident ecological justice activists behind the Mathare Green Movement for a reflection session at the MSJC office. The group comprised of young men in their 20s. The discussion revolved around the colonial roots of Kenya’s environmental segregation policy that rendered low income neighbourhoods like Mathare deprived of tree cover.

In an attempt to share context using my personal experience living in rural Kenya, I started talking about the role of my father in grounding my environmental consciousness. I then picked on one member of the group to share his experience of the same. “ I don’t have a father,” he retorted. His delivery was deadpan. “Never knew him, never met him”. His tone forced me to quickly check my assumptions and I asked around room, “How many of you have fathers living at home? We are in a safe space, just put up your hands.” Hesitantly, starting with a single hand, a third of the room of about 30 people raised their hands, as if ashamed of the privilege of knowing a father. It was a sobering moment.

Wangui Kimari, the participatory action research coordinator for MJSC, described Mathare to me as a “ghetto of women”. The centrality of the mother in Mathare is undisputable, in fact single mothers have sustained Mathare for over eight decades of its existence. It is the mothers who run Mathare, and their sons sing praises to the resilience of their mothers. In the quest for social justice and dignity, Mathare’s mothers continue to lead from the front, determined to keep their boys alive in a social system that normalizes extrajudicial executions of young men in the poorer sections of Nairobi.

There is no shortage of men in Mathare, but rarely do we ever hear any reference to the fathers of Mathare, or any collective of men that is organized around the principle aim of fathering in the manner that distinguishes the mothers of Mathare.

Having a father present through most of my early years was a privilege I took for granted. Not only that – my biological father was a father to many others. Even though he passed on when I was a teenager, he had done enough to shape my outlook. He was a committed to his family, career and life journey, living with absolute purpose in his role as a caregiver and provider. I do not remember a single conversation about what it meant to be a man, or what I had to do to prove I was a man. He just led, kept his word and lived up to his obligations the best he could. During my father’s funeral in 1989, fathering stood out as the true measure of his success – towering above his career accomplishments and material possessions. It is the greatest inheritance he left behind for his six children.

Nearly three decades since his passing, I still have a mental picture of the functions of fatherhood – and it is everything my father embodied. I had assumed this was the norm until I started meeting adults who had never known what it was to have a father who was present; this was by no means limited to neighbourhoods like Mathare. Many, from diverse socio-economic backgrounds, only had the one mama called the baby’s daddy, the sperm donor, or at best their mother’s husband. In 1999, I embarked on a career as a newspaper columnist for the Saturday magazine of the Daily Nation, penning a column titled “Mantalk”, that focused on the subject of evolving African masculinities. I maintained the column for a decade and the topic of responsible fatherhood kept recurring, juxtaposed against the rising prominence of single mother households. I was fixated on the nuclear family as an ideal and it informed many of my biases. The men who did not show up for their children, I dismissed as spineless for failing to grasp the importance of fatherhood. The mothers who insisted on living without a father in their children’s lives were misguided, I concluded.

Even after getting acquainted with scores of people who only knew of absent, emotionally removed, or abusive fathers, I still blamed the victim for allowing themselves to be defined by their past. This was the late 1990s, as powerful external agencies pushed neoliberalism and corporatisation of the local economy across Kenya. During this period, we also witnessed a frontal assault on patriarchy by the third wave of feminism that celebrated individualism and sought to dismantle gender role stereotypes. Men felt under attack, caricatured as beneficiaries of a power structure in society that granted them control over women. The debates on shifting gender roles became a fixture of popular culture and trickled down to the individual level.

My generation, the Xers born between the mid-60s and early 80s had morphed into the first generation of men to be confused about their roles in society. We had been socialised into pre-colonial African culture and religiously assigned gender roles, but many of us found ourselves at odds with the emerging feminist consciousness. Women’s autonomy and participation in the workplace had upset the gender status quo, challenging the patriarchial logics of control and separation by men. The main misunderstanding stemmed from the inability see the patriarchy system as distinct from individuals living within it, and so the issues collapsed into conversations about individual choices and solutions.

The cultural marital obligations gradually succumbed to modern Western ideals of romanticism. Short-lived marriage unions characterised by displays of opulence followed by divorce became common. But the structural issues at play – obscure to many – was that the tough economic conditions post-Structural Adjustment Programmes, meant a significant portion of working-class and even professional men could no longer secure positions of authority based purely on their ability to meet the financial obligations of the family. The perceived crisis of masculinity was blamed on radical feminism driven by the proliferation of women empowerment programmes. In hindsight, it was also the failure of neo-liberalism to deliver jobs for a growing population, mismanagement of the political economy locally and the global financial crisis that all converged to have adverse effects on the family unit, and this exaggerated social constraints.

A culture of checking out and abandoning responsibility became normalised, showing up in the rise of deadbeat fathers. They were no societal consequences for absent fathers in urban individualised spaces. This phenomenon graduated into a full-blown lad culture that continues to arrest grown men into extended adolescence, refusing to live up to the obligations of fatherhood.

Today, we often hear about the frustrations of ‘the boy child’ as a reaction to the empowerment of ‘the girl child’, but little about the crisis of fatherlessness. Worldwide statistics state that the absence of fathers has a profound effect on the psychological development of boys. The question of fatherhood has received extensive attention in North America and Western Europe. Three American presidents – Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama – recognised fatherhood as a serious social problem and addressed it as a matter of policy.

The memoir Dreams of My Father by former US President Barack Obama tackles the search for acceptance and identity that many men seek today. The young Obama traveled from Chicago to his biological father’s village in Nyangoma, Kogelo in search of answers. He would find resolution standing over his father’s grave in tears, overwhelmed by the intensity of the moment. He writes about finally realising who he was at that moment, and how his entire life trajectory, his struggles and birthright, were connected a small plot of earth where his father hailed from. In finding closure, he found emotional release, and vowed to break the cycle of his own past to become a better man.

Obama’s legacy of a post-racial society as America’s first black president failed. Nonetheless, Obama’s most underrated legacy as president has been as father-in-chief. His own experience informed his choices and his exceptionalism is measured in the public devotion and commitment to raising his two daughters in the White House. Obama was not afraid to speak about the issues driving Black America’s alarming fatherhood crisis and became a model father figure embraced by the world.

According to the US Census Bureau, children who grow up without fathers are five times more likely to live in poverty and commit crime, nine times more likely to drop out of school and 20 times more likely to be jailed. They are likely to run away from home, become teenage parents, suffer abuse, drop out of school, use drugs or get divorced. This correlation of absent fathers and youth delinquency does not necessarily imply causation – indeed, racism and structural inequality could explain both family breakdown and the glaring social problems of crime, drug abuse and the like.

Even though these are statistics from the US, that reality lives with us in Kenya. The Kenya Demographic and Health Survey (KDHS) report in 2014 stated that nearly half (45 per cent) of all children in Kenya do not live with both biological parents. The death of father accounts for only 5.3 per cent of households; 22 per cent of children in Kenya live with their mothers while their fathers are alive and live elsewhere.

A widely quoted pan-African study in 2012 by Canadian sociologists Prof Shelly Clark of McGill University and Dana Hamplova from Prague’s Charles University and Institute of Sociology reported a 60 per cent probability of a single motherhood for a Kenyan woman by the age of 45. The factors attributed to birth outside marriage and the break up of the marriage union. Kenya has one of the highest levels of children living without their fathers in the home in Africa. The evidence of this on the incidence of crime, poverty drug abuse, teenage pregnancy and school drop-outs is less clearcut than in the US – a recent World Bank working paper actually showed that poverty was falling fastest in Africa in female-headed households. But this perception certainly provoked conversation on the same – I chronicled all this in the Mantalk column and the discussions it stirred up, both in the newspaper pages and in the wider society.

The trend in the public discourse is to blame the victims, the abandoned children and shame the single mothers who struggle to raise them by weighing them on a morality scale. Fatherhood is still not a social policy issue in Kenya. President Uhuru Kenyatta has taken no public positions on responsible fatherhood . We hear talk about teenage pregnancy and the crisis of single parent homes without putting the spotlight on a father who absconded his responsibility, and how this contributes to recurring social problems. No taskforce has been created to advocate responsible fatherhood and non- profit-organisations disproportionately dwell on women empowerment programmes. The advocacy vacuum has been filled by a growing number church-based men’s programs. The Man Enough programme founded by Nairobi pastor Simon Mbevi is one such programme tackling the contemporary masculinity crisis of identity through mentorship programmes grounded in Christian values. The Kenyan Anglican Men’s Association ( KAMA) is another attempt to spur male leadership in community life in keeping with a biblical mandate.

But the the spread of such programs is often undermined by the credibility of the church leadership, and on a particular view of divine fatherhood that complicates, rather than empowers, responsible earthly fatherhood – and that abets political dysfunction. Kenyan politics has traditionally enjoyed a marriage of convenience with religion. Hiding behind church mandate, savvy politicians exploit the reverence of the father figure in Kenya’s socio-religious psyche for political expendiency. Father is a title used to refer to God in Christian theology, hence God the Father.

In several Kenyan churches, the politician usurps the father figure characterization as the material provider. The colonial missionary fathers arrived as god-ordained and usurped the role of societal fathers. Christian missionaries exercised power over a community of converts and effectively curtailed the influence of existing traditional leadership structure in the Kenyan colony. Monotheists modelled god as the male parent, and therefore the father of the family becomes the divine representative on earth – and the right extends to the paternal ruler of the modern state.

The principle of the Father of the Nation thus exploits Christian metaphors of the All Mighty, All Knowing, God The Father, who rules over his underlings. The political positioning of heads of state as Fathers of a Nation is a tool of statecraft. Nations are founded by a confederation of leaders, but the state can only allow the glorification of the singular, visionary great leader.

Using this same religio-political maneuvering, the Kenyan presidency has made a case for the head of state to be revered as the exalted father of a nation. If Kenya’s first President Jomo Kenyatta was the Father, then Uhuru Kenyatta becomes his begotten son Kamwana. President Moi was Baba wa Taifa ( Father of the Nation) and an entire generation grew up consuming his well-crafted veneer of holiness, and living in complete denial of the contradictions and excesses of his 24 year reign. Former Prime Minister Raila Odinga’s designation as “Baba” reverberates divine destiny with the biblical reference of Joshua’s conquest of Canaan during the 2017 presidential campaigns.

We are socialized to obey our fathers without question, and by the same token, we must obey our leaders who by the order of societal hierarchy become the father of fathers. The citizens must submit to God the father and his earthly representatives – our political fathers – and remain beholden to the sovereign leader in his human form.

In a majority Christian nation of Kenya, the Bible enjoys more social legitmacy than the constitution, and the political godfather who wields Scripture becomes part of the extended narrative of the heavenly revelation. After all, leaders are “chosen by God”. The function of faith, in this context, is not to question the deific authority, and this thinking reinforces the myth of the father (divine, political, and domestic).

In reality, the Fathers of our Nation are more often than not tragic hero figures consumed by hubris, drunk on power, and entrapped by personality flaws. The result is the persistent violence and brutalization of a nation of children who might dare to challenge their legitimacy. The State as the Father in Kenya has effectively been absent and abusive. The figure of fatherhood in our society has been defined by fragility of the masculine head, determined to retain symbolic political power and status at the expense of the family unit.

These tensions at the individual level play out on a national stage in form of leadership at a complete loss with the functions of fatherhood. They demand rights but shun the responsibilities that come with that right. The greed for power without accountability is behind the social, political and economic despondency that marks Kenyan life. Fatherhood is not respected but rather feared as a personifaction of oppression of innocents under their jurisdiction.

The children of this nation have therefore had to come to terms with the father as a fantasy figure surrounded by myth, and are fated to bear the generational burden of the sins committed by their fathers.

The late Myles Munroe, Bahamian evangelist and author, preached that fatherhood is the ultimate work of men. This is a truth that cuts across all spiritual traditions. Our nation can no longer ignore the social dynamite of fatherlessness, and the reconstruction of a broken society rests on the value men place on fathering.

It is time for a national discourse on the value of fatherhood.

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