Sunday, June 20, 2010

Opiate of the Masses

Yesterday was a beautiful day. I got to go along with my friend David to sit in on a meeting with him and a major funder of his organization. It was amazing to see the application of what I’ve been learning in the classroom of the Clinton School of Public Service applied in a professional experience.  I found it fascinating to be able to comprehend and even engage in these serious discussions on such an intimate level. I helped me to realize that I have really learned a lot from my graduate experience so far and that this project is much more than my deliverables or the specific project I am working on. I’m incredibly blessed to have this experience and to be in the presence of such incredible professionals who are actually doing the work.
After the meeting, we headed off to enjoy the Nairobi Arboritum…a beautiful place that is full of flowering trees and open spaces for people to enjoy the outdoors. We had an awesome walk around the entire thing full of great conversation about life and the inner workings of the world.  Evidently, the park is a space where lots and lots of people come to enjoy their day, and wow was there a lot of people there.

One of the things that was interesting though about our walk that day, was experiencing the overwhelming number of Christian worshipers in the park.  We first encountered a group of young people who were singing Christian songs….it was beautiful and they had amazing voices. I appreciated their energy and even though I couldn’t understand the language, their smiles and sense of togetherness was truly inspiring.
 As we walked a little further down, entire congregations of people would be sitting around a tree with a preacher standing above them reading  passages from the bible. In many ways, it was a beautiful site to see a community come together…yet it was also eerily strange to see such an amalgamation of people in the middle of this park.

Walking even further along the path, the traditional service began to take a different tone.  Just beyond a set of large bushes we approached this wailing ceremony/ritual…and as we came around the corner, there were all of these people, primarily women, pressed against the earth with their heads bowed sobbing into the ground. All of them were wailing and as we passed individuals many of them were shedding tears. While a bit unusual for me, I tried giving the situation the benefit of the doubt, taking into account the experience of many women in this country from traditional homes and figured what they were shedding tears over was  maybe the trouble they face at home or within their lives.  Soon after however, my friend who I was with interpreted what they were saying for me and all of them were praying for the country in its upcoming election. They were all saying “Please God, don’t let the devil inherit this sacred ground. “ “Please God, don’t let this new constitution pass”, etc, etc.  It was SHOCKING to me, and very much like one of those Pentecostal services you see on TV back in the states.  

Even further along the path, we passed a group of children gathered around a teacher educating them on the passages of the bible, and even further along the path we saw the disturbing pockets of individuals screaming at the top of their lungs “God save their souls, I beg you to save this land, GOD you are great, GOD we ask for your forgiveness….sinners shall go to hell, etc, etc, etc”   As we finished our loop around the park I couldn’t help but think of Dante’s Inferno and all of the levels of hell that you pass through. Maybe that’s a horrible analogy for you God fearing folk out there, but at the same time I couldn’t help but contemplate the journey that it takes people to go from being one who is inspired by religion to being controlled and manipulated by it. I feel that there is such a fine line, but an important line none the less.
    With the upcoming vote on the new constitution, religious leaders, leaders who stand to gain a lot through the failure of the new constitution, are encouraging congregates to do all they can to prevent its passage. They’ve imported topics such as abortion and the Sharia courts as a reason why the constitution should not be passed, yet when you actually examine the thing…it is a very equitable document that brings fairness and equality to all. And in my humble opinion, if Christ were alive today, a document that he fully would support.
   Thus it raises an even bigger question of religions role within the lives of these people. I’m sure in many ways it has satiated the need of individuals to feel connected to something greater, especially when they face such strife as many of these people have. Yet at the same time, it is saddening to think that religion can be used as a tool of control and power in a vulnerable population who could actually use the help and inspiration to be empowered to make decisions for themselves to better their own lives rather than depend on the failing institution.
    It is these same religious folk who are trying to deter the passage of the new constitution that have also developed a homophobic cultural underground who are disgusted by something they know very little about.  A large argument against homosexuality is that it is a western import, and yet what is the import is religion itself and the homophobia that has been brought with it. 

    What I have since learned is that the average person doesn’t even comprehend what homosexuality is most of the time. Two lesbian women can be living together for years, have neighborhood friends, even progressive friends, who would still look upon them as roommates or sisters. It’s not even a question here, because people are not aware of it’s existence and the only framework that is currently there is the loud voices from the pulpits who preach in vague terms about a lifestyle that they don’t even know about themselves.

  One recent example came in an SMS exchange I had with a woman who I had met while in the city. She has been pretty sweet for the past few weeks, checking in on me and making sure I was doing well every once and awhile. I actually think she had a bit of a crush on me…she didn’t even fathom that I could be…dare I say…gay? So it came as quite a shock to her when she accused me of only wanting ass…and the following conversation took place:

Mildred: Hey what do u mean by this “Only 4 Ass”

Ryan: OMG. MILDRED! That is so sad! I would never say something like that. I am a women’s rights activist. I’m also gay. I’m sorry you got this message some how. Hope you are doing well.

Mildred: U Mean ur gay, or what?

Ryan:  yes.

Mildred: My God but y? u so handsome, serious I would never thought of smthing like that, im sorry if I bothered u then, it bcoz I thought I got a good friend, sorry.

Ryan: OMG! You have been a great friend so far! Just because I like men doesn’t mean we can’t be friends. I think you are amazing. You know, gay friends are the best friends a girl can have.

Mildred: U know I believe in God who created us human being. That’s the reason y im shocked. I don’t know what to say but, I have no choice but to respect ur way of life, I’m sorry if I was hard on u.

Ryan: Yes I believe in god as well. In many ways, the more I’ve accepted who I am as a gay man, the closer to God I have felt. I am proud to be able to accept that I am a child of God and that I was made this way. I have a capacity to love, and that is a gift. Anyway, you don’t bother me. I appreciate you very much.

Hilarity, yes! OMG YES…but at the same time, an opening to recognize that the church has a very significant role to play in the world and it is doing more harm than good in a country that could really use the assistance of Christians who actually believe in the greater calling of love and peace within the world.  I imagine very much that this present state is how the dark ages were when the church would ask for indulgences to pay for it’s quick cures to individual’s needs and suffering.

 In fact, it’s almost like today’s media. The media itself can be used for good and it can be used for evil, and it is ultimately up to us to choose which path we will take. The church here in Kenya is doing the same thing…I believe there are many wonderful and amazing Christians here who LIVE their faith and have been guided by it in many ways. For me, it is a huge reason I am here…because of my faith. But when it over steps it’s role and imposes conformity and judgment then it, in my opinion is no longer the church. And to me, it is the responsibility of more “Christians”, spiritual beings, loving children of God, to assist in confronting these elements of our world that maintain oppression and discrimination throughout the world. Even if it means, just being aware, being present, being cognizant and not being driven into an opiate state. 

For more information on the proposed constitution, please go to:


  1. I think the situation is mirrored in many other countries where people arent so 'vulnerable'.Whether its the US Christian right, the Sunni-shia dynamics Israeli Arab issues our differences get played out daily. I believe us God's children or is that another 'club'? anyway humanity has a role to understand and appreciate its diversity

  2. I agree, the process is very similar in all parts of the world... In all types of religions...the question we have enough autonomy from the religious institution to make our own decisions and values or does the religious institution gain control us and use us as it's pawns? Which is the responsible action by that institution?