Looking for my religion


Cristo Negro, Portobelo, Panama
IMAGE/Adam Jones/Flickr

The power of having a god who resembles us.

When I was growing up in rural Kenya, my father, a Seventh-day Adventist (SDA) imposed Adventism upon us like a colonial identity card. My father got it from his mother. We had to carry it around to show that we were better than others—mostly, Catholics and non-believers. We were being taught denominational politics—that even though we were worshipping the same God as Catholics, the latter had their shortcomings. Unlike them, our bodies were free from the impurities of tobacco and alcohol. Alcohol was prohibited. Coke and coffee were prohibited while soybean was touted as the best alternative. Soybean was alien to us at this point. It was always imported and sold in shops in Nairobi. Coffee and tea were abundantly available from local farmers.

My mother protested SDA and its restrictions. Having grown in a big traditional family where religion was a pastime and not a primary way of life, she was ambivalent about religion. My dad should have also protested, long ago. My uncle too. The church never accepted them the same way they accepted the church. Both are polygamists. As a teenager, while I could partake in Holy Communion in the SDA, my grandfather, father and my uncle could not. They joined other males, mostly polygamous men in grudgingly walking out of the church during Holy Communion. I was too young to understand this form of punishment from an all loving God. I have since come to understand that this was a form of rigidity with which foreign religions and cultures arm-twisted cultures they perceive as inferior into subjugation.

Deeply entrenched polygamy in our community was the elephant in the room at our local church. Most men seated in the pews were heads of polygamous families. By depicting polygamy as barbaric, the church imported foreign values to our community as well as created tension within families through emotional blackmail of polygamous males. Of course, many women like my grandmother found polygamy an oppressive institution and missions such as the SDA that prohibited polygamy, gave women an alternative to build nuclear families and a safe space for personal development. Nonetheless, I continue to wonder why dad continued with this church, later embarking on a project to build a big church closer to home. Also, what motivates communities in Africa to continue with churches that deeply conflicted with their ways of life?

In the early 80s and 90s, during the early era of HIV/AIDS, there was a visible rise in televangelism and miracle healing. There was also a corresponding increase in the number and prominence of traditional healers and medicine men. While prayers are made in public for all these throngs of young and women dying of these incurable diseases, privately, African traditional medicine men and women were sought to appease whatever spirits that had brought this curse to the people. Mainstream churches blind to the reality of HIV/AIDS continued preaching against contraceptives and abstinence while in the dead of the night, when the church had fallen asleep, traditional healers were brought to prescribe final rites for the dead. I remember attending public gatherings where community leaders accompanied by health practitioners would discourage people from my community from performing any rites involving sexual practices to the dead in an effort to curb the spread of HIV.

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. I could also sense her personal struggles with it. The guilt in resorting to traditional medicine when she had lost faith in the ability of Christianity to heal my uncle Ben. We were deep in rural Africa, yet she did not feel free to follow the practices of her people.

Africa is a country for more

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