“Those who died earlier were lucky.”
COVID-19 has fundamentally disrupted life, perhaps especially so in rural Kenya! This statement above, from an aging grandmother in Mumias, Western Kenya, captures this disruption. And where spiritual succor is needed most, it is harder to get. The pandemic has made it impossible for this elderly lady, a member of the East African Revival, to attend the monthly revival fellowship at the Cathedral in Mumias, because, as in many other places, the Kenyan government has announced the closure of churches as part of a set of interventions intended to contain the spread of COVID-19.
In Psalm 137, the Jewish exiles wept by the waters of Babylon. Similarly, this lady now looks back with nostalgia to the good old days of fellowship. With COVID-19 disrupting worship, she envies the dead.
Although COVID-19 is a global pandemic, its impact and responses vary in different religious, cultural, and economic contexts. In what follows, I reflect on how various religious groups in Kenya are negotiating their self-identity in the context of the pandemic.
To the vast majority of the people in Mumias, Kenya, initial news of the pandemic seemed distant, only relevant for those in far-off China or perhaps for the richer folks of the world. However, with the announcement that the first case of the coronavirus had been detected in Kenya, many were terrified at the potential damage of the pandemic to our comparatively impoverished populace, where hospitals are few and ill-equipped, and the doctor-to-patient ratio is one to 16,000. People were terrified at the possibility of a lockdown in a context where a mother going out for a day to help weed maize for a neighbor who is “better off” determines whether or not food will be on her table, or where hundreds of young people drive bodabodas (bicycle taxis) for a living, earning at most approximately seven U.S. dollars per day.
By May 29th, the number of those infected in Kenya stood close to 1680, with more than 58 fatalities. The number of recoveries was reported as 421. Infection is increasing with each passing day. In addition to suspending public worship, the government has placed a curfew across the country, requiring people to be in their homes between 7 p.m. and 5 a.m. Counties with especially high infection rates have been further “locked down.”
Anglican Canon Professor John Mbiti made the famous statement that “Africans are notoriously religious.” God, known in the local vernacular as Nyasaye, serves as a point of reference for every aspect of life, and is invoked even in mundane activities such as setting off to sell wares at the market. In Kenya, the economic and religious impacts of government measures have been fairly intertwined.
Churches are not only places for worship; they are symbols of the sacred within the community, sustaining social stability. They affirm the existence of community in compelling ways and are revered even by avowed atheists. During times of calamities and scourges (olumbe), people run to churches for refuge.
Thus, the closure of churches has disturbed the religious sensibilities of the people of Mumias. Here, churches close only after defilement by forceful break-ins or other forms of impurity. When this occurs, the bishop follows a liturgy to re-consecrate the building, accompanied with much singing and dancing.
People look forward to worship every Sunday. And even those who do not frequent worship services appreciate the important social role of churches. Typically, adherents stay on after formal worship, chatting and planning community events. In some congregations, men roast meat outside the church building after services, for purposes of fellowship and fraternizing.
For members of the East Africa Revival, worship is not restricted to Sunday services. Members of the Revival meet monthly to listen to the Word preached, to pray, to hear general notices (emibasu) or to be informed (Nuru) about the conditions of sick or dying members. All these socio-cultural underpinnings of the place of assembly in physical sacred buildings have been challenged with the advent of the coronavirus.
In Western Kenya, funerals serve a cardinal social cultural function. They are moments to bid farewell to a member of the family or community and usher them into the afterlife with dignity. People are not invited to a funeral; they simply turn up because it is a social expectation. Funerals provide avenues to express solidarity and cement relations.
The ministry of health now allows no more than fifteen people to attend a funeral, and directs that the ceremonies be undertaken with speed. “We now bury our people as if they are animals,” were the words of one aged man, struggling to come to terms with the new government restrictions.
As a result, we are increasingly witnessing “private funerals.” Death and funeral announcements now specify the nature of the service: “It will be by invitation alone,” or “Funeral service will be limited to members of the family,” and so on. Others are choosing to “live stream” the funeral services for the benefit of those who may wish to follow. The brevity of funeral services is something totally new to many people in Western Kenya.
Cherished social gestures are also under fire. Also challenged in our society is the place of symbolic social gestures. A physical handshake is highly valued and is expected in any encounter. One extends a hand in greeting to everyone, friend and stranger alike. Failure to greet in an “appropriate way” is anti-social. Presently, it is no longer possible to express this sign of hospitality and friendship, though this injunction is especially difficult to enforce among the rural people of Mumias. I overheard one old man say, “Let us die, but we must greet each other!”
The pandemic especially affects the livelihood of poor Kenyans. People depend on going out to scavenge for a livelihood day by day. Those who rely for their income on hawking, selling fish, or operating small retail shops have been badly affected by the bans on meeting in markets and by the curfew, which severely restrict vital trade. A lockdown is a real danger to their very existence. And in this new framework, they also encounter the brutal force of the police. In some cases, death has resulted from police action intent on enforcing the restrictions. At the same time, the privileged few, especially politicians with huge salaries funded by the public, can afford to be indoors and exercise social distancing, while others meet all their needs.
The scourge has affected pastors as well. In most Anglican parishes, priests depend for their income almost entirely on the Sunday offertory. Online giving is entirely new and almost impossible to practice in rural settings where people lack internet access or smart phones. Our churches have no financial endowments to sustain their respective ministries in the absence of the Sunday offerings.
Thus, as a result of the closure of Sunday services, churches have lost their revenue streams. This impacts ministries, as pastors cannot reach out in practical ways to help those in need or undertake other ministry-related operations. It also impacts pastors existentially, as they cannot feed their families or pay for medical expenses and other bills.
The “smaller,” rural-based Pentecostal-charismatic churches with limited operational structures, networks, and budgets have been the hardest hit by the closure of places of worship. Due to a combination of adherents with modest means and a strong emphasis on the prosperity gospel, COVID-19 has dismantled their theological foundations and claims. The theology of a God who heals as presented by these groups has especially come into a negative spotlight.
COVID-19 has assaulted popular theology in many other churches as well, especially in the understanding of a God who is loving and all-powerful. The pandemic has given opportunities to the irreligious to bash religious belief and practice.
But all is not gloom. It is from crises of this nature that faith communities discover and unleash their latent potential and change the course of history permanently.
Though deprived of certain resources, churches are making fresh use of others in response to the pandemic. The Bible is deployed to encourage and assure people of God’s presence in this crisis. Psalm 23 with its depiction of God as a shepherd is especially poignant in our largely agrarian culture where pasture and grazing animals are commonplace. The promise of protection in “the valley of the shadow of death” now takes on even more pointed meaning.
Religious leaders have published statements urging adherence to safety guidelines while also affirming the sovereignty of God in these unprecedented circumstances.
Although public worship has been suspended, God is still invoked, even by politicians, including President Uhuru Kenyatta, a Roman Catholic, who in the early days of the pandemic rallied the nation to public prayer.
Several features of social life also provide a safety net as the pandemic’s effects deepen and should be celebrated. Kenya’s strong communitarian spirit enables responses to our neighbors’ needs. Our religious heritage enables belief in God even in the direst situations. Our largely rural environment maintains families spread out from each other.
We have also seen inter-religious solidarity as people representing both Islam and Christianity have come together to reflect, pray, and explore ways of acting together. Thus COVID-19 is challenging religious prejudices which often afflict communities.
Social media is emerging as a lifeline for staying connected. Church leaders are learning to deploy social media to reach out to members. In the Anglican diocese of Mumias we are, without any prior training on ministry through broadcast, now transmitting our service live on a local radio and television station. Several priests are now live streaming their services. But this is not easy; the vast majority of Kenyans in the villages have no access to internet or to tech gadgets. The elderly, especially, cannot access social media, posing a challenge to intergenerational communication. Churches cannot rely on online outreach alone.
Family-based home fellowship groups are increasingly becoming key for prayer, Bible study, and pastoral care. Priests in our diocese are partnering with the fellowship leaders to keep connected with the Church and support the continuing work of the church financially.
Muslim scholars in Kenya have now instructed that remains of faithful be buried without carrying out the ritual of washing (Ghusl) or the alternative ritual of Tayammun, where purified sand or dust would be used instead.
But religious change also comes with resistance. When the Muslim holy month of Ramadhan was approaching, Muslims appealed to government to loosen curfew hours to allow Muslims to pray at their Mosques at the appropriate times. This was flatly refused by the Minister for Health, Mr. Mutahi Kagwe, arguing that this would open doors to the spread of the virus.
Several Pentecostal church leaders have moved to court, asking to be allowed to continue church services. Other religious leaders have been arrested and charged in court for disobeying health protocols. The response of the religious groups to COVID-19 has been far from unanimous.
In profound ways, COVID-19 is disorganizing cultural and religious practices in rural Kenya. Always dynamic, these practices are being mobilized creatively to address common challenges, laying aside residual long held biases and embracing new possibilities.
The pandemic will significantly re-shape the meaning and practice of culture and religion in the foreseeable future. We should expect more utilization of social media in the future, as religious leaders are learning how to deploy it in the present. Faith healers and prophets will have a harder time in mobilizing adherents in the post-COVID period. But others will still find relevance in new ways! Religious leaders will appreciate more the privilege of the gathering of believers, which for some, was an entitlement. Pastoral care is likely to become more efficiently done.
COVID-19 opens our eyes profoundly to the limits and possibilities of religion and culture in rural Kenya.
The Rt. Rev. Dr. Joseph M. Wandera is the Anglican Bishop for the Diocese of Mumias, Kenya.