Prof John Mbiti, Kenya’s most accomplished religious philosopher, wrote in his seminal book African Religions and Philosophy, that Africans are “notoriously religious.” That wasn’t hyperbole. Prof Mbiti is a global icon in the academy, and so when he writes, I listen carefully. But Prof Mbiti wouldn’t conflate human agency with God’s will, which many mortal Kenyans do.
I want to make clear what this piece isn’t about. It’s not about belief in the Almighty, or whether God exists. It’s about the things that humans can do — by themselves — to determine their own destiny. Often, we forget that we have the secular power to change our circumstances. Our religiosity, or spirituality — notorious, or not — simply isn’t enough.
Many people believe in the power of prayer. I don’t repudiate the provenance of their faith. How could I? Religious belief is so personal that it’s a most intimate matter of one’s conscience. As a constitutional scholar myself, I hold dear the inviolability of the freedom of belief or conscience. That’s non-negotiable. It’s a closed chapter that any society opens at the peril of earthly damnation. Opening that Pandora’s Box would annihilate democracy as we know it. But only a fool would argue that respect for another’s belief or conscience is the same thing as endorsing it. Nor is it an oath not to question religion, faith, or belief. If so, the society’s intellect would die.
That’s why today — which is appropriately a Sunday — I wade into these waters with caution. Let’s first dispense with matters of plain empiricism. I do so because my scholarship has revealed to me the fatalism that’s culturally incubated in most Africans. Fatalism in Africa is closely linked to the African condition. It’s not an inherent or innate matter of genetics, or biology. It’s environmental and born of the three traumas that Africans have suffered in the past 500 years — the trauma of slavery, the trauma of colonialism, and the trauma of the Cold War wrought by global hegemons.
Africans are a traumatised people. At different times, that trauma has spurred either despair, or resolve, to demand revolutionary change.
Often, Africans enlist religion to soothe and explain the despair felt because of these traumas. Religion can be used as a clutch to lean on, a comforting intervention to minimise this pain and allow one to get by the daily vicissitudes. The promise of a better tomorrow in the hereafter can allow one to endure a brutish existence on earth. The religious message of forgiveness permits humans to apologise for a cruel status quo. Asking penitents to turn the other cheek minimises conflict and makes giving unto Caesar what’s his more palatable. In this sense religion can be an opiate, a palliative that eases the grind of the everyday. I don’t connect religion to an opiate to malign it.
People who’ve been traumatised can be amenable to oppression. It’s not uncommon for an oppressed people to accept less than they are entitled to, or to magnify insignificant acts by the State, or the political class.
For example, most roads in Kenya have remained untarmacked, and impassable in the rainy season, since independence nearly 60 years ago. Most citizens lose hope the State will ever pave their roads. That’s why citizens jump for joy when finally a politician who’s looking for votes promises to pave a road. You’d think paving a road is a favour the State does for citizens. That’s how fatalism develops in the people small, or insignificant, expectations. The people are akin to State hostages.
This is how fatalism works. When something good happens, Africans are quick to thank God for the good fortune. How many times have you heard Kenyans mouth the phrase “God is good and all the time God is good.” I’ve struggled without success to make sense of this phrase. That’s because the phrase is uttered even in times of grief like a funeral.
I can understand the phrase when it’s used at a graduation celebration, or some other positive occasion. But at a funeral? Kenyans often give the credit to God when things go well but resign to fate when they go badly. You will often hear Kenyans say, “It’s God’s will” in response to a tragedy like a death.
I have no trouble giving credit to God for good tidings. Except we tend to forget, as the saying goes, that God only helps those who help themselves. No amount of prayer will help a man who weighs 250 kilogrammes win a marathon unless it’s restricted to people that weigh 250 or more kilogrammes.
My point is that human agency, our own hard work, and perseverance determine our fortunes. It’s intellectually lazy to conflate human agency with God’s will and the power of prayer. Otherwise, it seems to me that if we are willing to credit God with our good fortune, we should also give him the blame when things go awry. Let’s interrogate our fatalism.
Makau Mutua is SUNY Distinguished Professor at SUNY Buffalo Law School and chairman of KHRC. @makaumutua.