It is not news that in North America and Europe the traditional church no longer possesses the smothering authority it used to wield over the people. A well-educated, economically secure, well-fed population doesn’t look to the skies for solace.
Look around if you happen to visit. You see magnificent, old churches whose pews are growing increasingly empty or have completely emptied in some places. Decades-old stone buildings that once served believers have been converted into apartments or bars.
A weaker church there has left more room for a more autonomous and more assertive individual, who answers only to his conscience, not to the conscience of his pastor.
Only in societies where humans are insecure and less free, as in Kenya, does the church still hold sway.
Pop-up evangelists are everywhere here, reaping from the scourge of urban purposelessness, flourishing at the expense of the liberties of others, cosy in the shield provided by the cultural taboo against criticizing “people of faith”.
Pick any of Nairobi’s satellite towns, for example. The setting is virtually identical.
On a narrow slice of earth, wedged between a rising block of apartments and yet another unfinished building, sits a makeshift church: wooden frames, a tarpaulin cover, a gravel floor, plastic chairs.
It is easy to fill the seats. The city’s burgeoning working-class suburbs are teeming with idle, underemployed masses, “souls” diminished by the consequences of our parochial politics and always vulnerable to manipulation.
The new-age “crusaders” (a mix of frauds and the truly committed) were at it again one recent Friday night near where I live. Their two giant loudspeakers rivalled those you might see at outdoor secular concerts.
The tall black boxes sat by the entrance to the “church”, their fronts facing not the worshippers inside but the “unbelievers” outside, many of whom are inclined to plug their ears. It is overkill, and I have learnt that there is a special word for these pop-up extravaganzas — kesha.
The singing and dancing went on until sometime after 4am, long after the nightclubs on the town’s main thoroughfare had gone silent! Drums, guitars, keyboards, songs with repetitive lines — a discordant misappropriation of the sounds and rhythms of the secular world for a spiritual end.
The pop-up church has become so much a part of our daily lives that few of us notice it or question the vanity of its presumptions, even when it clearly intrudes on the freedoms of others, including the right of others to be left alone.
Granted, this phenomenon is not peculiar to Kenya, but Kenyans do it with a special crude conceit. There can’t be many places in the world where people go to church at night and stay up all through it singing and dancing with guitars and loudspeakers and keeping everyone awake.
If you are not accustomed to hearing the incessant wailing of gospel songs inflicted on you day and night — in matatus, in supermarkets, from behind your house, even in pubs! — it will make you conclude that Kenyans are in some kind of perpetual collective mourning.
Where else in the world can one find public transport vehicles adorned with in-your-face religious icons and messages and whose drivers play non-stop, ear-splitting worship songs without any concern about passengers’ feelings?
There is an implied great spiritual emergency in Kenya. We can see all around us the obsessive frenzy, this resignation to the pull of the imagined world beyond earth where death and grief are supposedly non-existent.
Great masses of Kenyans are seeking to escape the here and now, though logic says the here and now should matter more. It is remarkable that millions are drawn to an ideology that has largely been abandoned by the cultures that gave it to us.