Feeding off the word of God

A Christian charismatic revival is sweeping Kenya and Uganda and its surrealism is intensifying. East Africa is experiencing its worst drought and famine in decades, but the people here are thirsting for more than mere bodily fulfilment.

Each weekend, especially in Nairobi and Kampala, tens of thousands attend “crusades” at sport stadiums and public parks at which American evangelists and their equally ebullient brother and sister preachers from Africa fling hope at the masses. With eyes and mouths wide open, the starving crowds receive the nourishment of the gospel according to an assortment of dubious characters.

In Kampala, I listened to a man named Cobra, who spat the venom of a vengeful God at his ragged congregation in a dusty fall-down church. Cobra, a self-confessed murderer and robber, told how he’d “lived under the water of Lake Victoria” for the past 20 years. “Satan instructed me on how to transform myself into any animal I wished!” he hissed. Mostly, though, Cobra is a snake and the assembly of the desperate lapped his poison.

But Cobra does not rule the viper’s nest that is Uganda’s capital. That honour belongs to Peter Sematimba, infamous for broadcasting sexually explicit radio programmes. He has since denounced his former life as “bad”. At the Omega Healing Centre, Sematimba tells of how God appeared to him in a vision and revealed to him the “world, before and after civilisation, when people looked like lizards”.

Animals feature prominently in East Africa’s evangelical Christian groundswell.

In Kenya, the Right Reverend David Githii, of the Presbyterian Church, wants to destroy the images of a writhing serpent and an obese frog, engraved at the entrance to Parliament in Nairobi, because, “these symbols have been put there to enslave our MPs and Cabinet ministers to demonic faiths … The devil is controlling the House!” Given the current state of politics in Kenya, not many are arguing with Rev Githii.

Where I live, on the outskirts of Nairobi, I don’t have access to personalities of the colourful calibre of Cobra, Sematimba and Githii. But I do have Pastor Augustus Odiero of the Pentecostal Assemblies of God. I speak to the good Reverend regularly because of his propensity to blast music at all hours in a boisterous bid to force his flock to the fold.

The cacophony begins at 7.30am on a Saturday, with a drum roll that doesn’t end until 9.30pm on a Sunday. Fortunately, I’m a fan of rock music. But when the screeching erupts, I drown myself in a case of Tusker Lager and The Rolling Stones. Admittedly, Mick Jagger bleats no better than Odiero’s sheep. But, somehow, Jagger sounds fine to me. “It’s because you’re white,” laughs Odiero.

When I complain, again, about the constant noise booming from his church, the Reverend gushes: “You white people, you will never understand where religion fits into the African mind. It is all about celebration … About entertainment!” 

His favourite words are God and Money. “God loves the generous! Give money freely!” Odiero repeats 38 times during a four-hour service.

Later, the pastor enters the nearby Tibb’s Bar, where he tries to save souls among filth-stained pool tables. A man swaggers on the bloodstained dance floor. Odiero embraces him. The man, soaked in the spirit of Count Richelieu, slurs: “I goes to church because I loves the Lord!” Odiero gleans a “donation” from him. The dancing (falling) resumes. Odiero ekes the last shillings from pockets. Any and all pockets.

I ask Odiero why he seems to love money so much. He grimaces. “It’s because you’re white. You don’t understand,” he whispers as he pulls away in a brand-new Jeep Cherokee.

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