I am not a practising Christian or a right-winger. But I’m not an ostrich either, and that is the subject of this column.
As the hordes of the World Social Forum gathered in Nairobi to “end poverty” and build “another world”, two well-known televangelists announced their plans to run for president, prompting much screaming in the local media.
When I got back to Kenya from Cape Town in 2000, things in my hometown, Nakuru, were very bad. The hard-working meritocratic middle class was finished. The working class was broken. The informal sector was booming and busting. The politically connected were billionaires.
Those former headmasters and nurses who got their children out of the country came discreetly every week to collect $50 from Western Union to buy food. Interest rates had hit the mid 30s, and many hard-working small business-owners had lost everything to the banks.
A woman my family knew well had lost her home and her business—the first black-owned supermarket in Nakuru—which she had run for more than 20 years. She had lost the ability to speak and communicated in hand signals. She was a beautiful woman, had never married, and lived what she now saw as a decadent life. Now, she spent her days fellowshipping in an empty shop.
One day, driving down to town, I saw a familiar figure. A woman I had known since childhood was limping down the road towards town, carrying a very large bag on her back. She and her husband owned a large Bata franchise, which supplied school shoes to thousands of kids, including me, in the 1970s. I stopped to pick her up. I noticed that one side of her face had collapsed. She sat in the car and updated me: her son had disappeared while in Israel; her husband had left her for a young woman; she had a stroke. She lost all her money. She had found God. She was born again!
Later I found a giant new suburb just outside my hometown, built by primary school teachers, some of the worst-paid people in Kenya. They had built a beautiful safe place—small brick homes, a cow for each home, churches and safety. All of them Born Again. They had their own bank and sent their children to shiny new “academies” that guaranteed God, moral fibre and straight “A"s at less than R2 000 a term.
All this was happening while Kenya was slowly tearing itself apart: the economy in freefall, ethnic clashes looming and capital bailing out.
Safe civil space huddled around the ecstatic churches. You could build a network of people to live next to, to invest with, to play with your children—as the venomous state made it impossible for you to find safe ground anywhere. There was no written contract to trust, no government plan, institution or programme that was not gaseous; there was no ambition you could manuacture that came with step-ladder possibilities for the future.
You needed two things: a belief in possibilities that was intense enough to make the chaos bearable and a mechanism to allow you to trust and build a community you could trust. And who better to trust than somebody who has shared ecstasy with you? This is a thing you know how to measure.
And you start to build a “civil society”.
The Bible has been translated into 680 African languages. Three million copies are distributed in the continent very year. Though many people talk of “African culture”, the truth is that the Bible has been a widely used source of ethical and practical guidance and cultural reference in Africa since the turn of the century. The safe civil structures in cities like Kinshasa and Lagos now revolve around the “Born Again” movement.
There are many “Born Again” churches started by corrupt pastors who indulge in usury, and not “development”. What is forgotten is how mobile this phenomenon is. Pastors rise and fall based on trust. In the Catholic Church, a priest may be venal or useless—but his institution remains solid and self-assured, whether or not parishioners are satisfied. Among the Pentacostals, a church is only as good as its ability to provide durable rapture and trust. A church can last a year. Or 20.
If the state is a comedy and a myth, what bonds make you a good citizen? What makes you an entrepreneur with enthusiasm and hope for the future? What do you see coming for your children?
I do not see an African citizenry of good liberals coming out of this phenomenon. But I see a world being built that appears more lucid, and forward-looking, safe and reliable, than the world outside it. And this phenomenon is the fastest-growing thing on the continent. More people have come to invest in it than in Sustainable Capacity Building and Democratisation and all the plans and talk and action of the other “civil society”.
So. Should we go on playing ostrich?
Binyavanga Wainaina is the founding editor of Kwani?, a leading literary magazine in Kenya, and is the visiting writer at Union College, New York