Kenya Rising: The Growing Kenyan Church Responds to the Challenges of a Young Democracy

By Sweas, Megan | U.S. Catholic, March 2009 | Go to article overview

Kenya Rising: The Growing Kenyan Church Responds to the Challenges of a Young Democracy


Sweas, Megan, U.S. Catholic


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"Our mother, Kenya, we love you so much; we need you again," sing the students at St. Joseph Freinademetz Primary School in Ruai, outside of Nairobi, the capital of Kenya.

In early 2008 Kenya abandoned her children. When violence broke out following the contested December 27, 2007 election, about 1,150 people were killed and 300,000 displaced. For three months students weren't in school. Homes, farms, and businesses were burned to the ground, and the economy ground to a halt.

Young people set up road barricades around the country, demanding tolls from passersby and attacking people of the wrong tribe. In the Diocese of Kitale, three altar boys wouldn't let their own parish priest through one barricade.

"All of them were Christian of some sort, but it didn't prevent them from killing one another," Bishop Maurice Crowley of Kitale says of the perpetrators of violence in Kenya, which is about 33 percent Catholic and 75 percent Christian. "The blood of tribalism runs thicker than the water of Baptism."

The Catholic Church is growing faster in Africa than anywhere else in the world. From 1900 to 2000, the church grew from 1.9 million to 139 million Catholics in sub-Saharan Africa, according to National Catholic Reporter's Vatican correspondent John Allen, who has dubbed 2009 "the year of Africa."

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Still, across the continent the church has found itself enmeshed in ethnic and political violence, whether aiding victims in Congo and Darfur or turning a blind eye to the Rwandan genocide. The situation in Kenya didn't disintegrate into full civil war or genocide, a miracle Crowley attributes to "the intervention of God."

The international community helped resolve the political conflict, but the intervention of God's people in Kenya, who work to combat tribalism and reduce poverty, certainly brings hope to this young country. Today children are back at school, singing of peace and patriotism.

Just 45 years old, Kenya is still building its democracy. Likewise, through the past year's turmoil in Kenya, the global church is learning how to best support people in the developing world, where two-thirds of the world's Catholics now reside.

The more things change

To American observers the last Kenyan election might look familiar at first: increased interest in national politics; a wave of new, young voters; and a candidate campaigning on change. The main challenger, Raila Odinga, played up his connection to then-U.S, presidential candidate Barack Obama, whose father was part of the same tribe as Odinga, the Luo. The American and Kenyan elections, however, differed markedly.

President Mwai Kibaki and Odinga were allies, leading a coalition of opposition parties, until Kibaki was elected president in 2002. When Kibaki was declared the winner in 2007 by a small margin, Odinga called the election rigged, and violent clashes broke out around the country. Pressure from the international community led to a power-sharing agreement, with Odinga becoming the prime minister. Noting fraud from both parties and "general incompetence" by election officials, the Kreigler Report, the official investigation of the election, found that its conduct "was so materially defective that it is impossible.., to establish true or reliable results."

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The Waki Report, commissioned to investigate the post-election clashes, says business leaders and politicians encouraged violence. "These were systemic attacks on Kenyans based on their ethnicity and their political leanings," it reads, countering the belief that the protests were spontaneous.

Kenyans believe their tribe's candidate must win the presidency for them to access resources, the Waki Report says. Kibaki's tribe, the Kikuyu, is the largest and seen as the most politically and economically powerful tribe, generating resentment among the country's other 41 ethnic groups.

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