The Country Where Obama Didn’t Go

President Obama has been to Ghana, where he offered strong words of warning and encouragement to the African continent. By going to Ghana instead of Kenya, his father’s home, he made a direct rebuke to Kenya. I am sure that Kenyans felt it, painfully.
Last year Kenya experienced terrible carnage after a close election was declared in favor of incumbent president Mwai Kibaki. I was there January through March of this year, and I talked to many about the thousands who died and the hundreds of thousands who had to flee for their lives. I saw many buildings that had been burned out by marauding gangs, and I interviewed those who suffered harm and those who tried to help. The situation is peaceful today, but when I asked whether tribal violence could break out again, nobody said “No” with any confidence.
Few in Kenya expected violence to break out. Many told me that such carnage violated every idea they had of Kenya’s peaceable national character. They had long congratulated themselves on being different from other African nations. Then, suddenly, they weren’t.
I have been living in or visiting Kenya for 30 years now, and I cannot remember a more difficult time. Ordinary people express huge frustration with their leadership. Kenya has had more or less horrible government throughout its history, and one could even make the case that the current government is less horrible than those that preceded it. But it is still horrible, and people are frustrated in an unprecedented way.
Those in government appear to have no idea that they can or should respond to those frustrations. They are the most tone deaf collection of politicians I have ever seen. Rather than posing as leaders of reform, they scold those who criticize them. It’s very odd, because any politician who could convincingly set himself up as opposing business-as-usual corruption could get substantial support. But the old habits of politician-as-big-man apparently overwhelm any thought of change. (The one interesting exception is a woman, Martha Karua. Unfortunately she will probably never be forgiven for strongly backing Kibaki in the electoral power grab.)
The angle that particularly concerned me was the role of the church. People both religious and irreligious were quick to blame it after violence broke out; and church leaders accepted the criticism as valid. The National Christian Council of Kenya even issued an apology for the failure of church leadership.
You have to understand that Kenya is among the most Christianized places on earth. It reminds me of the Bible Belt fifty years ago, only more so. People go to church. Whether they take it seriously is another matter—but there is almost universal respect for pastors, priests and houses of God. The church is highly visible and religion is pervasive.
Not that the church uses its influence in public life very often. It is generally content to stick to preaching and teaching along traditional lines, not rattling many cages. In the months leading up to the abortive election, churches went along with the general excitement. Politicians came and spoke from their pulpits on Sunday morning, asking for prayer. In some cases the pastors openly endorsed them, declaring as a word of prophecy that God had anointed so-and-so to lead. More often, the endorsement was unspoken but perfectly clear.
Almost no churches warned against tribalism. The post-election violence was almost entirely tribal, reflecting the reality that voting had been almost entirely tribal. The election became one tribe (the Kikuyu) against everybody else. So when Kikuyu politicians stole the election (as nearly all observers who were not Kikuyu believed) the outrage expressed itself against Kikuyus, whether they were political or not. Later on, some Kikuyus organized reprisals.
Once the violence broke out, churches were quick to repent. Within 24 hours, 50 pastors from all different communities in Eldoret, the center of violence, began meeting to pray and strategize a response. In Nairobi, pastors took only two days to do likewise. Christians seemed to grasp immediately their role as peacemakers, and churches took leadership in providing refuge to those whose lives were in danger, as well as aid to those who had lost everything in the riots.
But when I asked pastors whether churches would be better prepared for tribal politics the next time—the presidential election comes in 2012—none seemed sure that anything would change.
This is because in most communities, politicians and pastors have a symbiotic relationship. Churches offer politicians access to people who don’t attend political rallies. And politicians offer churches money. Typically when churches raise money for, say, a new building, they hold a meeting where people make donations. Politicians nearly always take center stage, because they have cash and they are willing to hand it out for future favors, just like godfathers.
After making a sizeable donation to a church, a politician has insider status. He or she can count on being given the pulpit during a Sunday morning visit. During election season this entrée matters in a country as religious as Kenya. When a politician gets recognized as a Big Man in church, that neutralizes questions about his corrupt deals, his multiple women, his dubious morality. If the pastor considers him good enough to preach on Sunday morning, the church member can surely feel justified in voting for him.
Very few churches in Kenya—indeed in Africa, I believe it’s true to say—stand above these kind of doubtful alliances.
This is all mixed up with tribalism. Most churches have members from just one community. Even those in urban areas that mix communities often have one tribe as their main constituency.
And almost all politicians function not so much as their community’s representative as their community’s champion. “He may be a scoundrel, but he’s our scoundrel.” He can be counted on to fight for the interests of the tribe.
So tribe, church and politician line up together. That leaves the church without any independent status. Like it or not they are a tribal church, and a politicized tribal church. To change that would mean saying no to big financial gifts and no to the Big Man in their community—a very difficult thing for any Kenyan to do.
You think this is strictly African? Think of the church in the South during the era of civil rights.
This corrupt tribal governance is ruining Kenya. The government is being run mostly for the benefit of the politicians, and they manipulate the support of common people through tribal identity—with an assist from the church of their choice. It led to many deaths and much woe in the 2007 elections.
I’ve taken as much joy as anyone from the reality that Christianity is now a global religion, with its center of gravity in Africa, Asia and South America. Europe and North America are joined by a vital, enthusiastic, multiplying church in the South.
But if the center of gravity is implicated in bloodshed and corruption, and is closely tied to the worst governance on the planet, that’s a strike against the Christian faith.
For Muslims, one of the deepest trials must be to look around at Islamic states and see how little they have to offer. If Islam is such a great religion, then why does it produce so little that anyone values in civic life? The same barb might be turned against Christians: at your center of gravity, where Christian faith is growing and Christian influence is pervasive, what have you got to show?
If Christian pastors worked in concert to end tribalistic politics in Kenya, such politics would end. Pastors have that kind of influence. However, they would have to join hands across community lines to shake up what feels like a very natural arrangement working within their own tribes. It’s not clear that they have the vision to do it.
The genocide in Rwanda, coming in a highly Christianized nation, was incomprehensible. Many have asked, why didn’t faith make a difference? If Kenya falls into more bloodshed, its deep tradition of evangelical mission won’t seem very compelling. I am praying that the Kenyan church will wake up to the seriousness of its responsibilities.

For those who are particularly interested, I’ll publish a detailed report in the next week on what I learned from my interviews in Kenya.


Tags: , , ,

8 Responses to “The Country Where Obama Didn’t Go”

  1. Richard Nash Says:

    “This corrupt tribal governance is ruining Kenya. The government is being run mostly for the benefit of the politicians, and they manipulate the support of common people through tribal identity…”

    Although the situation here in the US isn’t nearly as severe, I am concerned that we are moving in that same direction. Our politicians number one goal is to get in office and stay in office, and then to get more of their own party into office. The good of the country as a whole isn’t their primary concern. Although we’re not split up by tribal identity, we have our own “tribes”; our special-interest groups, some of which are racial, some gender-oriented, sexual preference-based, or whatever. Seeing the kind of destruction that comes in a society where the rule of law does not prevail should serve as a warning to us (to US).

  2. lynn cohick Says:

    thanks Tim for your unromantic view of Africa, specifically Kenya. we were living outside Nairobi at the time of the election, and we saw the tribalism first hand, and some very frightened Kenyans as well. African Christians have much to teach me at every level, and I hope I can support them well as they struggle through the issues of tribal identity and politics and their life in Christ.

  3. Pete Lundstrom Says:

    Tim, thanks for you clear, concise thoughts about Kenya’s basic troubles. What are your top recommendations for books that will broadly introduce an innocent like me to Africa in general? I have Martin Meredith’s “Fate of Africa” in hand, but would prefer something less like a history text and more like David McCollough, B Tuchman, et al. Nick Gourevich’s book about the Rwandan massacre was helpful in many ways. Thanks for any recommendations you can offer.

    • timstafford Says:

      Pete…. I don’t honestly know of a book I would recommend. Others are welcome to weigh in! I’m sure there must be some good ones, I just don’t know them.

  4. Wendy Prudhomme OMeara Says:

    I recommend “Fishing in Africa”. Its out of print now, but you can get a used copy on Its very good, written by a journalist who covered much of the violence of the 1980s in Africa and also a good friend of ours. I also recommend “King Leopolds Ghost”. Although its about Congo, its a window into a much more general problem and gives insight into the aftermath of colonialism. Some friends have recommended “The State of Africa” but I can’t personally comment on that one. For stories about the humanity of Africa, read “The Shadow of the Sun” by Ryzard Krazinsky.

    Tim, I agree with some of what you say in this post, but disagree with some as well. We were living on the coast of Kenya during the violence. I’ll put more detailed comments when I get a minute to breathe…

    You can also check out what we wrote about the experience on


    • timstafford Says:

      I’ll look forward to your thoughts on Kenya, Wendy. And thanks for posting the list of books. I would add Imperial Reckoning. I thought the British were more civilized than the Belgians (as in King Leopold’s Ghost) but Imperial Reckoning made me rethink that position. It helped me understand the Kikuyu sense of their position better.

      I plan to post this week based on interviews with (mostly) pastors in Kenya.

  5. Elaine Says:

    Now it seems that the international media recognizes that Kenya was snubbled. I tend to think he went to Ghana because of the slave issues–and certainly this will not be his last trip to the continent.

  6. FollowerOfHim Says:


    I found your blog via iMonk just now on a link to a prior post. In any case, this is a fascinating post — like yourself, I think the emergence of the Global South’s Christianity will be one of the more important developments as the century progresses. I had not, however, thought much about the down sides of its uneven development as you have layed out above, but will do so more in the future.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: