by Michael Mungai
Co-founder, Dagoretti 4 Kids
I grew up in the hovels of Dagoretti, an impoverished suburb in the outskirts of Nairobi, Kenya. Raised by an unemployed single mother, my two siblings and I would take turns missing school to babysit our baby brother while our mother went to work. She would be employed to hand-wash clothes in the neighborhood, till people’s gardens, or fetch water from distant sources due to constant water rationing. Despite her misfortune, she always believed that education was the best gift she could afford for us. I was an ardent student in primary school, always on top of my class. I developed a specific interest in the subject of Christian Religious Education (C.R.E).
When I was in Standard Three (equivalent to third grade in the U.S.), we were studying the biblical story of Cain and Abel. According to the lesson, Cain went to a land called Nod after he killed his brother. He got married and had a son called Enoch. Trying to understand the story better, I asked my C.R.E teacher whether Cain married his sister, because I assumed they were the only family on earth at that time. Instead of an explanation, my teacher caned my bottom and accused me of being an agent of the devil. “Who did you think you are to question biblical facts?” she yelled between thrashes. Reflecting back now, this is probably where I began questioning the veracity of Biblical literalism.
Growing older and struggling to survive, I would go to nearby evangelical churches looking for food and clothes. To receive any assistance, you had to be “born again” and regularly attending that particular church. I became “born again” more than seven times, hopping from one church to another in search of food. I found this easier than joining the Catholic Church. While opportunities available at Catholic-run organizations were better, especially when it came to education scholarships, the conditions they offered before baptism were too tedious (unless one was genuinely interested in joining, which I wasn’t).
Evangelical churches were ubiquitous in Dagoretti. You would risk walking into a church by merely walking out of your house, yet you were more likely to die from an illness before you reach the nearest hospital. Our next-door neighbor, who was a “commercial sex worker,” contracted AIDS while fending for her family. She was a single mother of five. Her friends took her to a hospital where she was put under anti-retroviral treatment. While she was convalescing at her house, my family used to help her and her children. A local pastor started coming to her house to pray for her. He convinced her that her faith would heal her if she truly believed. After a while, she stopped taking her medication. As a result, her health deteriorated and she died shortly afterwards. Her death opened my eyes to the dangers of Christian fundamentalism.
Now a few years after, I’ve seen this scourge extend to the scope of national policy, particularly in my neighboring country of Uganda. Funded and supported by right-wing American missionaries, David Bahati, an evangelical Ugandan politician, recently attempted to pass a law that sought the death sentence for homosexuals. The threat of religious fundamentalism is nothing new in Uganda; its government has been dealing with the Lord’s Resistance Army insurgency that seeks to establish a theocracy guided by the biblical Ten Commandments since 1987. The LRA, composed mainly of forced child-soldiers, has been accused of abductions, rape, sexual enslavement of young girls and murder of innocent Ugandans.
There’s a Swahili proverb that says that when elephants fight, the grass suffers. This is the case of condoms and Africa. Pope Benedict XVI’s infamous repudiation of condom use is at the expense of human lives. Africa is home to more than a hundred million Catholics who look upon the Pope as a moral authority. His declaration stood in spite of the recorded infecundity of abstinence-only programs in controlling the spread of HIV. The Pope’s view are congruous to the Catholic Church’s position when matters involving human sexuality are concerned, and the Church’s opposition to the use of contraception has elicited a correlation of large families and lower life expectancy in the world’s poorest continent.
I don’t intend to throw the baby out with the bathwater; many right-wing religious organizations deserve credit for prevalent humanitarian initiatives in Africa. But the problem with their altruism is that it usually involves proselytizing. To illustrate how Christian fundamentalists’ altruism works in Africa, it’s as easy as pointing to the popular Pirates of the Caribbean movies. One of the characters in the film, Davy Jones, finds sinking sea-men who are in despair. He offers them the opportunity to live, but under his brutal, perpetual servitude. Responding to a humanitarian crisis, e.g. famine, by “converting” the victims as you help them, would be no different. It would be predation at its best and it would violate the Kantian Categorical Imperative of treating human beings only as an end and not as a means to an end. Now I Kant (pun intended) talk about ethics without remembering that my mother’s dream of educating me was realized. Despite the odds, I now have a dual degree in Economics and Philosophy, and from a Catholic university.
In 2005, I finally met a religious-based organization that was willing to assist without prerequisites of conversion or baptism. While working with a street-children rehabilitation organization that I co-founded in Dagoretti, I met a student from Saint Joseph’s University, a Jesuit college in Philadelphia, PA. He assisted me in securing a full scholarship at the school. I am now working on a Master’s in International Marketing. When I came to the United States, I was relieved to find out that there are many religious organizations, like my university, which are committed to serve humanity without expedient agendas. We could use more of them in Africa, in addition to more secular organizations that foster reason and advance human rights, before we lose the continent to the ilk of David Bahati.