The Academy Award winning Out of Africa, with Meryl Streep and Robert Redford, gives visual cadence to the beauty of the majestic landscape of East Africa. While too slow in pace, its cinematography captures what is so beguiling about that land.
One cannot wander in a four-wheeled drive across its mara mashe grass-lands—as the sun pushes up over the eastern skies, and as one peers for lions, elephants, giraffe, water buffalo, and deer of many varieties making their way for an early morning drink—and not be in awe.
Kenya, a protectorate of England early in the European colonization of Africa, became one of the earliest countries of Protestant mission activity. As a boy sitting wide-eyed in our church mission’s conference, I couldn’t get enough of this land, as told by Ernie Francis and others. Names such as Kikuyu, Luo, Nubian, Mau Mau, and Jomo Kenyatta became familiar to me. To preach in Kenya many years later was for me a dream come true. As I stood in the famous Valley Road Pentecostal Church in Nairobi, I recalled the many who had travelled from Canada as missionaries to what was as romantic a place as a young prairie boy could dream about.
Today realism hits. We sit in gridlocked traffic as hell-bent drivers maneuver for a meter of advantage, at times riding paved roads, but then shockingly jarred by roads rougher than most Saskatchewan farmers have ever had to navigate. Cheek by jowl are skyscrapers of money managers, universities, and corporate headquarters. And nestled nearby is Kibera, the largest slum in Africa, estimated to be home to upward of a million and just a few kilometers from downtown Nairobi. Congested, shanty upon shack, here in east Africa Kenya is a vital key to Africa’s future.
Like all African countries, its matrix of tribes, customs, and dialects make sense only if one has lived most of life in and among its many peoples. The subtlety of language differences, be they verbal or bodily, can make or break a conversation. In a recent visit I thought that by sitting in the back seat of a car I was honoring my African colleague by giving him the seat next to the driver. My generous gesture backfired. As a white man, my sitting in a rear seat made it appear that the driver was my chauffeur. Which brings us to Kenya’s political quagmire which is more slippery than running the dirt roads of the Rift Valley in a blinding rainstorm.
In its recent, first-of-a-kind, referendum on the African continent, a national government was elected. The incumbent president, Uhuru Kenyatta, is the son of its founder Jomo Kenyatta and named by his father “Uhuru,” a Swahili name for “freedom.” The EU monitors elections and, while expressing concern at the intimidation and irregularities in the election, it praised the process in Kenya for its transparency. Even so the loser contested, and the Supreme Court declared the election null and void and ordered another to be held this fall.
My long love affair with this East African country and my fascination with its political intrigues took an added twist when I was invited, in the late 1990s by then President Moi, to jointly conduct a public ceremony at Scott Theological College; the government had decided to confer degree-granting status. What is historic and without precedent was that Moi, who followed the revolutionary Jomo Kenyatta, was an evangelical. He inherited the office in 1982 and served as president until 2002. This was years before there was any expressed interest by evangelicals in matters of public leadership.
Moi was raised in the African Inland Church, a conservative evangelical community founded by a Western mission agency whose interest was manifestly in evangelism. In his Kenyan African Nationalism (1986), a blueprint of his views on leadership, Moi concludes:
These, I have found, are the three essential ingredients in the consolidation of nationhood. From my African origins, through my Christian conversion and then during my political profession, all three have recurred – peace, love, and unity. These are the principles by which I have lived and acted all my life. I know no other trio: from them stems all else, justice, equity, comradeship, parity of treatment, etc.
Alas, his presidency didn’t earn accolades for its Christian values. Criticized during his time in office and in his post-presidency, he was viewed by many as an autocrat. As a Kenyan, Moi reflected views rooted in the social and political structure of an Africa dominated by tribal identities and expectations, and by traditional tensions. For Moi, balancing power between the dominant and mostly Christian Luo and Kikuyu tribes, and the mostly Muslim Digo and Swahili tribes, required skill and a fine sense of self-preservation.
He was given quite an assignment in following Kenya’s founding warrior President, Jomo Kenyatta, who had pressed Great Britain to leave and had consolidated a new nation under his charismatic influence. In time Kenyatta handed off power, leaving a new, complicated, and confusing tribalized state to the control of an immature and quite unprepared political class. For good or for ill, the evangelical community was engaged with civil authority and no longer able to stand aside and simply point a finger at others. Addressing the challenges of this public sphere divided the Christian community and evangelicals in particular. Kenyan evangelicals were a petri dish in the grand experiment of public square engagement.
In a country where 83 percent is Christian with evangelicals in a majority, this coming re-election matters. Not only is Kenya geographically vital in the arresting presence of the Christian claims in the face of Islamic onslaught from the north and east; but also its experiment in bringing into line corruption while modeling good governance will show to African colleagues how one might fairly lead. This matters for the continent and especially for the witness of those who call themselves by the Servant from Nazareth.
Brian C. Stiller is Global Ambassador of the World Evangelical Alliance.