The Church in Kenya: Balancing Colonial and Local – Cynthia Holder Rich

cynthia holder richKenya made the news – even international news in the US – because of terrorism. In April 2015, gunmen claiming membership in Al-Shabab stormed Garissa University College, killing 150 people, most of whom were students. This followed a well-publicized attack on a shopping mall in Nairobi, patronized by many Westerners, in which more than 80 died. Both of these events held the eyes of the world for weeks and helped continue the idea and image of “Africa” as a violent, scary place of primitive passions and incomprehensible emotions and motives. “Africa” made the US news because of events occurring in a country (one of the 54 which are part of the continent) of more than 50 million people who speak perhaps 70 languages and live according to a great variety of cultural norms, values, and religious beliefs. As at other moments, “Africa” made the news when events there fit the script.

We arrived in Nairobi in June 2015 to visit institutions of the church, to find that many others who had been scheduled to come to Kenya, and specifically to visit the capital city of Nairobi, had cancelled their plans. Everywhere we went, Kenyans thanked us for coming, for not postponing or shutting down our visit altogether. On our visit to Amboseli National Park, staff of the lodge daily expressed gratitude; bookings had gone way down after the Garissa attack – even though Amboseli is far from Garissa.

The church in Kenya is marked by hierarchical and patriarchal patterns, a gift from colonists and missionaries. There are more powerful and less powerful tribal groups, who can trace their respective histories to particular approaches by early missionaries and mission sending agencies – that is, those who have power today, and those who do not, sound echoes of 19th century mission and colonial enfranchisement or disenfranchisement. One of the areas where the legacy of this history quickly becomes evident is in the role of women in the church.

We met with the Rev. Peter Kaniah Kariuki, General Secretary Rev Peterof the Presbyterian Church of East Africa. While women in the PCEA can be ordained to the ministry, very few women have ascended to top posts in congregations or the greater church. Speaking to this, Rev. Kaniah stated, “Doors are opening, but we are still Africans.” The coherence between patriarchal mission attitudes and patterns and cultural attitudes on the ground continue to block progress for women. The issue of women’s lack of experience, often cited as rationale for why women are not given access to top positions nor to power and voice, is an age-old trap – the very experience needed to open doors is not available to women, so the doors remain closed.

While historical patterns continue to block progress in a number of ways, the church is working to claim its identity and mission and to answer Jesus’ call to them today in ways that are coherent in the context and culture. Change is afoot in the church, and a turn to local authority and understandings has been underway for some time.

The denomination is working to start a church bank, to free up lending and make financing projects possible and more just. For many years, pastors struggling with alcoholism and chemical dependency or other personal problems were “deposted” – a lower level of what might be called “defrocking” in another context. Rev. Kaniah and the denomination are working toward the development of a Spiritual Renewal Center for pastors and other church leaders, which would offer support for health and wholeness among pastoral leaders.

Rev. Kaniah spoke of the terrorism in the country and how it was economically devastating coastal communities and churches. With most restaurants and hotels closed, employment options are much reduced and starvation is a real and present danger. He shared his analysis of the “political expediency” of terrorism – terrorism as a way of making a point or moving the ball in a political argument. In response to questions about the relationship the PCEA has with their partners, he said, “We will do and they will find us where we are.” The PCEA is not waiting for, or looking for, direction from abroad, although international funding still supports many church ministries.




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We were grateful for opportunities to visit, lecture, and preach at the Presbyterian University of East Africa, Daystar University, and Rubate Teachers College, where my doctoral studies colleague, the Rev. Dr. Sicily Murithi, serves as chaplain. 75% of the 300 students at the college are women, and these women will graduate to posts on the front lines of development work. These women and their male colleagues will be about community building and life-building in small communities across the country. Rubate is in rural Kenya, and students there struggle with issues and challenges from poverty and food security to HIV/AIDS and cultural expectations. The lack of access to internet connections and to technology for education is a real issue in rural Kenya. In many places, the facilities available for education are woefully inadequate. Students at Rubate graduate with tools that they have to find ways to use in places and spaces where there is very little.

While we saw much evidence of transmissive education, we also witnessed indigenous approaches that made sense in the context and moved teachers and students toward life and self-valuing. The curriculum takes the reality of female genital mutilation and male initiation rites into account. Approaches to work against FGM are taught and students receive training in strategies to support women and girls who have suffered FGM. Students and faculty shared with us their ideas on integrating cultural understandings into their teaching.

While we were in the country, Kenyans celebrated their day of independence – their commemoration of Madaraka, the 52nd anniversary of independence from England. Madaraka is a Swahili word that does not have a simple definition in English. It can mean power, or responsibility, or control – that is, it doesn’t simply mean “independence”, but rather refers to what one who is independent must take on. In Kenya, the people and the church are working toward madaraka, toward taking full power, responsibility, and control of their present and future. Where it isn’t given to them, madaraka must be and will be taken.

Do the church in the US, and particularly the international partner churches of the churches in Kenya, support these ends? Do we accept and support the church and the people of Kenya to take their own madaraka? How do these goals fit with or detract from our own – how does the Kenyan claim of madaraka for themselves and their future fit with or detract from the goals of our churches? Or of the US government?

How we who partner with the church in Kenya and with the nation impacts our ability to take responsibility and control of our own present and future, and has potential to build or to impair our present and future relationships. May we reflect and, where needed, may we move toward faithful change!


Cynthia Holder Rich introduced the “conversations on the current scene through a Gospel lens” of five years ago. To date, over 200 conversations on issues facing the church or the church needs to face have been hosted on the site. Over 750 scholars, pastors, leaders, and activists have participated in these conversations. This post introduces another season. Cynthia currently serves with joy, gratitude, energy, intelligence, imagination and love as Pastor and Head of Staff of First Presbyterian Church, Findlay, Ohio.


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