International Council of Unitarians and Universalists

African Unitarianism

African Unitarianism a sermon by Rev. Brian J. Kiely
Unitarian Church of Edmonton  February, 2008  

Reading: From Brian Kiely’s Africa blog (full texts at  in the month of February, 2008) 

Kenya Day one
The Kenyan Airway 777 flew down the Rift Valley as night began to fade. Gradually a friendly redness warmed the eastern night sky. To the east Mt. Kenya rose from the shadows and morning mist. By the time we landed at 7 a.m. it was full daylight.  

We descended over the enormous wildlife reserve south of the city. There were acres and acres of empty space. I could see first, near a winding river, an elegant resort standing all alone. Then there was a line of fence, a roadway and shanty villages side by side with steel and cement plants. We landed easily, the graceful acacia trees silently witnessing from a distance.  

Jomo Kenyatta airport is alive with color and activity. It is cramped with 12 foot hallways but runs efficiently. By 7 a.m. the stores with food and liquor, Kenyan art products and other items were open and starting to get busy. A remarkably diverse crowd of people from white backpackers to elegantly dressed women in tribal finery pushed down the halls.  

I cleared immigration quickly. Outside I was met by our host team. We quickly loaded the car and I was ushered to the front seat where I met David, our driver, a man about my age. We all piled in to a small but serviceable old Toyota with some bags on laps and off we went. 

It was already 20 degrees and climbing as we headed west on Mombassa Road passing those same factories I had seen from the air. Hundreds of people lined both sides of the road, walking on paths and on the red dust of the shoulder. Most were on their way to work. For those going farther there were flocks of white and often uniquely decorated mini busses. They more or less follow a route, stop anywhere, pack people in as best they can and charge flexible fares. They are the cheapest form of transportation. My favourite was the one with a large NBA silhouette decal on the back window showing a stunt basketball shot. Bolted to the roof was an old basketball net and ball swaying in the breeze.  

The most obvious aspect of life in Nairobi is the people. Aside from the numbers streaming along the roadside, there are the street vendors dodging traffic and selling everything from newspapers to toys to car accessories. There are also a good number of bicycles, mostly of Chinese manufacture. Within 15 minutes we are stuck in a nasty traffic jam. Traffic cops are few and far between, stop lights almost non-existent and vehicles move in an ever changing pattern of four or five 
imaginary lanes (some on dirt shoulders) with a mixture of courtesy and courage. Closer to the city center there are fruit stands and other mini-market shanties lining sections of the roadways. All kinds of architecture are evident, some old, some new, shanties here and there. It’s all jumbled together, but it doesn’t seem messy to me. It’s more a reflection of a people who are used to either going ahead on their own or just figuring out how to get by as best they can.  

I am getting to know David, since I am in the front seat.  He patiently answers my questions, and asks many in return about global politics, Canada and a host of other topics. It’s a pleasant conversation, although everyone in the car has a lot to say about the upcoming American elections. They all like Obama with his Kenyan father. 

As we talk of Kenya’s recent violence, David says quietly, “It will be okay. We are a people used to many divisions. We talk about them. We know how to disagree and how to agree to disagree and still be friends. It will take time, but we will be okay.” 

Kenya Day eight
A week later after the conference I joined Kevin Ragira and Shem Omwombo for an outing.  We booked a taxi and headed east to Kitangela Estates where Kevin and his wife Divinah live. The 20 kilometre trip took nearly 90 minutes thanks to Nairobi’s amazing and endless traffic.  

To a westerner the word ‘Estate’ suggests something a little majestic and well to do. Kenyan Estates are, to privileged western eyes, anything but. This is an observation of difference and is not tinged with disrespect or even pity. In fact, I sense that Kenyans are happier in general than westerners. When everyone is poor, they don’t suffer from the material lust and ‘gotta have it’ that plagues the west. They do have real wants and needs (unlike me with only my imaginary ones), but beyond that they focus on family, friends and mutual support.  

Kevin’s house is off the main dirt road, down an alley, perhaps a dozen feet wide, each side lined with a solid wall of brick abodes. We push through the metal door into a meticulously clean and comfortable brick room. There are three sofas that double as beds spread on each of the other walls brightened with embroidered seat covers. This is Divinah’s handiwork.   

There is no cooking area, no washing area and no toilet or running water. There are just two rooms with a small window in each. Kevin extravagantly buys Fantas at the tiny store across the alley. He then goes and gets his sons, his nephews and a friend from school to bring them to meet me. The boys come tumbling through the door. There are formal handshakes, a little conversation, many pictures and then off they run back to class.  

Kevin and Shem then take me into the other room hidden by a curtain. It is a bare cement cube for storage and work. There are two sewing machines. This is where Divinah works. They hope to find financing to start a home based clothing business. We discuss details and agree that as a first project they should make chalice cloths for me to sell in North America. It seems that the impossibly inaccessible sum of $200 US or so would get them started. I have read about micro-loans, but this is the first time I have come in touch with the reality of what one can do. I think we can make this work.  

I hope that we will find a way to connect UU’s from around the world in some way to help make these small subsistence dreams a reality.  Nothing is set-up yet, but we’re working on it.  

I’ll close this blog this way: I know this journey has changed me, but for now the feelings, sensations and friendships are too fresh for me to venture a guess as to how that change will sort itself out. I do know it will be harder to dismiss the Third World as ‘them’ anymore. I do know I will pay attention when I hear the word ‘Africa’ from now on. I am more convinced than ever that we in the West and the North will have to be prepared to make material sacrifices in order to bring economic justice to the world. It will not be enough to simply nod when politicians protecting national interests say that their economic policies will help the Third World and that rising economies will float all boats. Instead, I believe some real redistribution of wealth will have to occur.  


What did the Congolese totem worshiper, the Kenyan Seventh DayAdventist and the Burundian Roman Catholicseminarian say to one another as they sat down for tea?? 

When did you become a Unitarian? 

I offer that rather sad attempt at humour to make a point that Unitarianism in Africa is anything but uniform in history and tradition.  Africa is a place that before European colonization was a collection of very local cultures, tribes and economies.  There had been a few empires over the centuries, but for the most part religion, language, and government remained local.  That history infuses the African continent today.  Wars are often tribally and ethnically charged as are politics, dress and culture.  Improved transportation and the explosion of mobile phone accessibility have started to expand the worldview in many African countries, especially in the cities, but the ties of tradition are still strong. Faculty members began to see those differences at work among various groups of African Unitarians at the first sessions of the International Council of Unitarians and Universalists Leadership Conference in Nairobi in February, 2008. 

A couple of points of contrast were obvious.  Unitarianism has been in South Africa since 1867 when a young Dutch Reformed minister turned his back on his church and preached the message of a loving – not wrathful- God.  Our South African congregations are also culturally Caucasian and European. 

The only other Unitarian group with historical roots is in Nigeria where the tradition dates from 1915.  There, a black Anglican Bishop, a ‘liberal and principled man’ pulled away and began holding services in Yoruba, using native instruments and writing Yoruba hymns. 

But Unitarianism in Burundi, Uganda, Congo and Kenya are pretty much brand new.  In Bujumbura, Burundi, Fulgence Ndagijimana was a fallen away Catholic seminarian.  He went to the World Wide Web and in 2003 found Unitarianism, made contact with an English minister, and on his advice gathered his own church.  In a landlocked, utterly impoverished country, 15 years after a tribal war that paralleled the Rwandan genocide, it pays to be cautious with new and different things.  Since 2004, Fulgence has quietly gathered a community of 25 like-minded people.  Their growth is limited by several factors, one of them being a lack of French worship and program resources. 

In English speaking Uganda, Mark Kiyamba also found us through the Internet.  With no language barrier and relative peace in his nation, Mark has been able to gather a congregation of 150 in Kampala.  But the Ugandan story is even more remarkable.  Seeing a need, yet having no resources, no space, and no teachers, they just went ahead and started a congregation and school for AIDS children in the countryside.  Right now they have 50 members and 450 students.  It boggles the mind. 

Congo-Brazzaville is another French speaking country.  Alaiin Yengue is an anthropologist.  Unlike other African Unitarians he did not come from a Christian background, but from an animist tradition of ancient tribal religion. In 2005, he was waiting for his brother to get off work in a Brazzaville hotel one day when he fell into a conversation with an American gentleman.  They talked about religion and there Alaiin learned about Unitarianism.  The man suggested that with our liberal views and our acceptance of paganism, it might be a bridge from the old world to 
the new in Congo.  Alaiin used the Internet (are we noticing a theme here?) and made connection with Jean-Claude Barbier the secretaire of the Assembleee fraternelle des Chetiens unitarianne in France.  The group now meets regularly and is looking to grow. 

By far the fastest growing Unitarian community is in Kenya.  In fact, it is four main communities, but all owe their discovery of Unitarianism to Rev. Patrick Magara.  Patrick is our only ordained minister in Kenya, although his ordination came from the Seventh Day Adventist tradition.  He discovered Unitarianism in 2001 and soon convinced his congregation to follow him into his new faith.  How he discovered us and the why of his conversion is a little murky.  Like most Kenyans, English is Patrick’s second, or perhaps third language.  Sometimes this gets in the way of a meaningful conversation with him, but most of us who know him suspect that the language difficulties can sometimes be a convenience. 

“Why did you become a Unitarian” earns a discourse on Unitarianism rather than the answer requested.  Other awkward questions are similarly turned aside.  That makes ICUU leaders concerned.  Certainly there are many requests for financial assistance coming from the Kenyan congregations.  We can’t help but wonder. 

But we have to balance that suspicion against the very real need and the very real efforts he and his people have made to better the quality of life of his people, and the success he appears to have had in planting our liberal faith. 
It’s hard to pin down a firm number of Unitarians in Kenya, but it is certainly over 500 in four major groups.  Five years ago there were none…Zero.  They all learned our faith from him.  Right now there is some tension between the more progressive and urbane groups and the more rural groups led firmly by Mr. Magara.  They seemed to make progress in coming together at our conference, and the ICUU is help fund conversation and reconciliation efforts.  We will have to wait and see.

The growth is hard to ignore.  Why so much growth so fast?  Kenyan Unitarians are willing to spread the word of their faith.  Some preach in market places.  Some talk to groups from other churches.  There are many cases where entire congregations have ‘converted’ to Unitarianism.  And then there is the outreach of their community social programs and schools.  Anyone can participate, but the WILL hear about our faith.  No one is forced to convert, but all who come in contact with Kenyan Unitarians will learn something about us. 

Good heavens!  Conversion? Proselytizing?  Unitarians doing that?  Amazing! 

But here’s something worth thinking about:  If their success continues, within a few years there will be more Unitarians in Kenya than there are in Germany, Canada or the UK. Wow! 

And then there are the longer term efforts on behalf of the community. 

Before the conference, Patrick kept inviting us to come to Kisii, a place close to the worst of January’s post-election violence.  “No, no!” he would say, “Kisii is safe.”  It was hard to believe.  But then we arrived and learned that for years Rev. Magara and others have travelled around Kisii province speaking to people and groups in conflict.  They are peace-makers.  When the region went up in flames, that groundwork helped preserve the local peace.  Kisii really was pretty safe. 

How to live our Unitarian Universalist faith into our daily lives is a challenge facing many in the developed world.  We may tend to do constructive work to better society, but we seldom fly a church banner when we do so.  In Kenya that separation of faith and living is literally unthinkable.  Ask the Kenyan Unitarians about their church and they won’t talk about worship or membership numbers.  Instead they will tell you about their projects: the women’s groups, the working cooperatives, the AIDS orphanages, the volunteer-run schools.  To be a Unitarian there is to be involved in the community in a faithful way.  Last week I mentioned Cyrus Itare.  He is a young man in his 20’s.  He and his wife have a one month old child.  Cyrus is unemployed (not unusual around there and not ashameful thing.)  He and his wife have taken in eight orphan children into their tiny home.  I am in awe. 

Patrick’s wife Alice Magara is an inexhaustible bundle of energy and the closes thing I have seen to an irresistible force.  She runs the Kisii women’s groups and plays a lead role in the AIDS orphans program.  The word ‘No’ barely slows her down. 

Closer to Nairobi are two other groups, one in rural Ruai and one in the city. The Ruai group week in and week out feed 100 schoolchildren a hot lunch.  And right now both groups are helping support some of the more than 400,000 people displaced by January’s violence. 
Let me stress something here.  I am not personally feeling guilty nor am I trying to engender that in you.  Nor do I think, are the African Unitarians.  They do what they do because their faith and their culture call them to do these acts of radical neighbourliness. They do it because in the face of the crises of AIDS, poverty, war and whatever else, it is impossible to remain aloof and distant.  There is safety in neighbourliness, because the person you save today might save you next week or next month.  And, of course, it’s the right thing to do.  Sure, they ask us for help.  Why shouldn’t they?  We have money.  They don’t.  In their understanding of neighbourliness, this is not greed, it’s community. 

So Unitarianism in Africa is developing as a social and community based faith.  Churches are more important for what they do than for what they think.  Faith is a thing to be demonstrated in action.  We in North America tend to think of our 
church as a place where like-minded people come together to think and explore, to seek answers and find moral support.  That is fine and noble and suited to our culture and our time.  But to state the obvious, Africa is not Canada.  African Unitarians expect their church to be a place … Well, no, they don’t necessarily expect it to be a place.  Church often happens under shady trees.  They expect church to be a community where people tied by kinship, proximity and shared need come together to find strength, hope in prayer, work opportunities and practical support like food and clothing.  The church needs to function as a social service agency first and as spiritual home second.  

It’s no surprise then that African UU ‘ministers’ are almost all lay leaders.  The Kenyans have no training beyond that gleaned from monthly meetings with Rev. Magara.  Leaders in other countries may have taken a course or two here and there, but nothing equivalent to a professional standard.  Their need for education is high.  That was the purpose of the Kenyan conference.  Our job was to provide information and to open minds beyond the limits of local tradition and the village church. 

We began with definitions of religious terms.  Many were surprised, for example, that there could be different ways of understanding words like ‘faith’, ‘god’ and even ‘religion’.  One session covered Unitarian history and theology.  Another explored conflict resolution.  We held a discussion of worship practices that raised awareness of the immense variety in worship around the world and across Africa.  My role was to discuss different kinds of church structure, locally and nationally.  

The programs were content-rich, but with a lot of room for discussion.  The excellent and focused questions from participants suggested that they were hungry for such information. 

I did not speak for long.  Instead I asked people to talk amongst themselves about how structure impacted their communities. And then we had an open conversation.  That’s when it got very deep.  Two main issues emerged.  The first was the obvious struggle ofsocial context.  Wars, poverty, AIDS,these are the soil in which our religion is finding root.  You have seen a little of how they approach these challenges. 

The second issue is also deeply felt.  Unitarianism is a new kind of religious thought in most of Africa.  But African is a collection of cultures where elders are revered and given and extraordinary amount of power.  That’s quite different where democracy and the power of ideas hold sway. Perhaps half of the tension-laden conversation dealt with how to build something new in a place where ‘new’ is often resisted.  It is a painful issue for the young ministers who are torn by their inbred respect for elders, and their passion for moving ahead with the new ideas associated with this bold religious adventure.  

For them it’s not just a matter of making change.  They must find loving answers for a difficult situation.  Right now the ICUU is working to bring the various Kenyan groups together in a facilitated conversation.  The goal is a unified national Kenyan UU organization. 
The best we could offer at the time was a North American analogy about the equality of women in our movement.  In the 1970’s, UU women came together and in gentle ways and harsh, demanded their place at the table.  That place was given grudgingly at first, but in time a new generation of ‘elder’ males grew up as supporters of women’s full equality, and the struggles eased.  We suggested that the people in the room were the elders in training.  When their time comes to assume that role, perhaps they will be the ones to share power. 

Well, these are preliminary observations from someone who has had a first and delicious taste of African Unitarianism.  My own understanding barely scratches the surface, but I hope I have made a couple of things clear:  Unitarianism in Africa is not a single thing.  It is mostly a recent planting in several diverse soils.  Some very interesting things are growing, but at best they are the shoots of a new religion.  What, if anything, may be harvested decades from now is anyone’s guess. 

Second, African Unitarianism is not a postcard of smiling faces making the best of a hard world.   There are conflicts over power and right interpretations of the faith, and conflicts over the use of scarce resources.  But in that way, they are probably most like their North American counterparts.  For now, they are like newcomers to our churches who love what they see, but who do not yet have a good grasp of the history and the issues that comprise the dimensions of our faith.  But they bring excitement and a new way of doing things that will no doubt change the face of our faith in the decades to come. 

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