Tuesday, 30 July 2013

SINGING A STRANGE SONG IN THE LORD’S LAND?

The story of Daniel, Shadrack, Meshach and Abednego is one my all time favourites. It still speaks as eloquently to us today as it did in the 6th Century BC. In 605 BC, King Nebuchadnezzar invaded Judah and took captive the best and the brightest young Jews.

In Daniel 1, we are told that the King ordered his aide to bring in Israelites of noble birth, "young men without any physical defect, handsome, showing aptitude for every kind of learning, well informed, quick to understand, and qualified to serve in the king's palace. He was to teach them the language and literature of the Babylonians." They were also assigned food and wine from the king's table.

Looking at our society today, one notices an uncanny resemblance to King Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylon. While ancient Babylon was a geo-political super power, modern day Babylon is a metaphysical reality. In the same way that ancient Babylon took captive the Hebrews, alienating them from their homeland and attempting to impose its godless values on them, modern-day Babylon also seeks to alienate us from who we truly are, spiritually and culturally.  Babylon’s strategy, both in ancient and modern times, has always been to alienate us from our true grounding in order to integrate us into serving the system; eventually turning us from human beings into human doings.

Notice who was targeted by Nebuchadnezzar, young Israelites of noble birth, young men without physical defect, handsome, showing aptitude for every kind of learning, well informed, quick to understand. Modern-day Babylon still targets us mostly while we are still young and impressionable, especially through advertizing and peer pressure. It is no wonder that hardly anyone lights up their first cigarette in their thirties or forties. Babylon still looks for young people without physical defect or, more accurately, it sells us the myth of physical perfection as an end in itself without paying any attention to the need to cultivate inner beauty. It targets many who are of above average intelligence because they are easier to persuade through flattery that they are self-sufficient, not needing God, family or community to get by. Sharp minds who, once alienated from foundational values, are then easy to integrate into becoming highly paid slaves, but slaves nonetheless, of the system.

Notice the five things that ancient Babylon sought to change in the Jewish captives in order to alienate and integrate them. First, by taking them captive, it changed their home environment. They were removed from everything that was familiar to them in order to disorient them and make them vulnerable to the plans and schemes of Babylon. In the same way, modern day Babylon seeks to change the homes of our children, not by taking them away physically, but by keeping their parents too busy to notice what is going on right under their noses, and by the invasion of the media, especially television, which is a window through which Babylon spews forth its warped worldview straight into our living rooms.

Second, Babylon sought to change the young Hebrews’ language. The language we speak is an essential part of our identity. Conquering civilizations always prioritized the imposition of their own language upon the conquered peoples. Many have criticized Ngugi wa Thiong’o for his crusade to promote African languages and even write in his native Gikuyu. These critics do not bother to seek a deeper understanding of his anguish at watching African languages continue to die off and being replaced by the dominant languages of the colonial master. I remember when we were young children growing up in Thika in the 1970s, we were very impressed by our Nairobi-based cousins because they could only speak in English and could not utter a work of Gikuyu. To us, being unable to speak in one’s mother tongue was the mark of ultimate progress. How misguided and brain-washed we were! But ufnlike my cousins, my first language was Gikuyu, followed by Kiswahili. I did not start speaking English until Standard 4 and even then, very haltingly. Yet, interestingly, I ended up doing better in my English and Literature exams than my cousins and I believe both my written English and Kiswahili are at par if not better than theirs. 

Modern day Babylon continues to challenge our identity through attacking and ridiculing our own languages and promoting foreign languages. It is also affecting the way we communicate with each other. These days I can hardly understand what young people are saying because they are allowing themselves to lose their ability to communicate clearly in a language that is intelligible beyond their own small circles. Older people are not much different; men and women hardly talk to each other anymore. Babylon seems to be winning the battle in alienating us from one another through our inability to communicate.

Third, Babylon sought to change the young Hebrews’ Literature. I find myself wondering what kind of books our young people are reading these days. For a long time, I had bought into the myth that Kenyans generally don’t read. But I found out more recently that Kenyans are readers, but by and large, the books that we read are self-help books that tell us how to do things, give us formulas to make money, or to fix our marriages, without really challenging us to think. Many of us rarely read books that help us to imagine a better society and to challenge the status quo. Our leaders don’t read either, and that is why they have such few new ideas about how to take our society forward. And because they don’t read, they also don’t write, and so they die off with their ideas and experiences without passing any lessons on to the next generation. And so we are left to make the same mistakes as a society over and over again.

Last year I took a class at Daystar University on African Politics and Political Thought taught by Dr. Wandia Njoya. We were exhilarated as we wrestled with the ideas of Franz Fannon and Amilcar Cabral, Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Miceere Mugu, Kinyanjui Kombani and Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, Steve Biko and Chaik Ante Diop. We studied the causes and consequences of the Rwanda Genocide and the Molo clashes; we engaged with Jaramogi’s contention that Kenya had not yet achieved Uhuru and we agonized with Frantz Fannon’s ‘The Wretched of the Earth’; and we followed closely in the lives and anguish of four young men mercilessly uprooted from their village by ethnic clashes in Kinyanjui Kombani’s ‘The Last Villains of Molo’. The class was meant to help us better engage with our politics ahead of the 2013 General Election. It had been widely advertized months in advance. It was open to all. But in the end, only ten of us ended up enrolling.  Which brings me back to the question, what kind of literature are we reading, and how is it helping us to think our own thoughts, to challenge the status quo and to prevail against Babylon?

Finally, Babylon sought to change the young captives’ diet. They were to eat choice food and wine from the king’s table. Next to air and water, food is the most basic of our human needs. I remember when I was growing up we didn’t have much money as a family. Our everyday food consisted of Githeri for lunch and Ugali and Cabbage for supper. Meat was a rare visitor on our dinner table, perhaps once a month, if that! For many years, we took uji without sugar for breakfast. Chapati and rice would be seen just once a year on Christmas Day. Indeed before I was old enough to count dates and months, I would know Christmas was approaching when I saw my parents buy Exe brand home baking floor in preparation for making chapatis. All that has changed now. Githeri and ugali are becoming as rare in the typical ‘middle-class diet’ as chapati and rice were in my childhood, and any meal that does not contain meat is an anomaly.

But I am no nutritionist, so I will not attempt to link these changes in diet to the alienation and integration programme of Babylon. What I do know is that in Scripture, Jesus says ‘My food is to do the will of Him who sent me.” We are also told that “Man shall not live on bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” And so, if we speak of food from this spiritual perspective, it is clear that our diet too is being affected by modern day Babylon. As a young Christian, I believed firmly in the saying ‘No Bible, no breakfast’ and that quiet time with God was to take precedence over physical nourishment.  But today I am the first one to admit that the busyness of everyday life has made it more and more difficult for me to have regular quality time with God in the study of Scripture and in prayer. And I'm all too aware that the more I stay away from my Source of life, the more I become an easy target for the alienating and integrating schemes of modern-day Babylon.

Having gleaned how modern-day Babylon seeks to have us sing a strange song in the Lord’s land, how then must we live?

We must equip ourselves to outshine and outlast modern-day Babylon in the same way that Daniel, Shadrack, Meshack and Abednego outshone and outlasted ancient Babylon. The four Hebrew boys refused to eat the choice food and wine offered to them from the king’s table and “at the end of the ten days they looked healthier and better nourished than any of the young men who ate the royal food.” They excelled in every task they were given not by abandoning their identity and core values, but by jealously guarding them and staying true to who they were. We too must ask the Lord, in the words of the old song by Andae Crouch, to 'take us back to the place where we first received Him, the place where we first believed'. In the words of the Prophet Jeremiah, we need to go back and "stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and we will find rest for our souls." (Jeremiah 6:16)

We must apply our minds to the real issues of our day through the study of wholesome literature and we must stop hiding in the comfort zone of second-rate inspirational writings. We must guard our identity by rediscovering our languages without placing them in a false hierarchy that suggests that the foreign tongue is superior to the mother tongue, and we must rediscover our ability to communicate. We must reclaim our homes from the spirit of Babylon by creating the time needed to properly parent our children and to truly enjoy each other’s company through wholesome communication without the constant disruption of the ubiquitous electronic media. And we must reject the endless but futile search for physical perfection and exchange it for finding Him who alone is perfect and in Whom alone we can find wholeness in the midst of our myriad human frailties. 

Sunday, 28 July 2013

Becoming a living sacrifice

For over two decades now, I have lived with this condition – bipolar disorder. It’s been two decades of taking pills and second-guessing my moods, two decades of working in high pressure situations while ever being cautious not to push myself over the edge, two decades of fighting for autonomy while allowing loved ones space to express legitimate concern when they felt I wasn’t being myself.

In the early days, I prayed that God would heal me, but He would not intervene – at least not in the way I expected. It was frustrating and disheartening, shaking my young faith to the core. Where was this God whom we were told had come to heal us? Where was this Lord by whose stripes we were supposed to have been healed?

But now I know that my wholeness is found not in independence from medicines and mood swings, but from learning to make an altar out of my place of brokenness. Out of realizing that in the midst of all His blessings, God left something in my life to become the place of my sacrifice, where I can smile through my tears, and so be able to declare more authentically, “I am a living sacrifice, struggling, but acceptable to the God of the broken-hearted." – Njonjo Mue, from my forthcoming Memoir, ‘Reflections of a Restless Activist.' 

Saturday, 27 July 2013

SUCCESSION POLITICS, RELIGIOUS EXTREMISM AND OTHER REFLECTIONS FROM THE ALLIANCE HIGH SCHOOL.

As Entertainment Prefect in 1986, I was part of the inner student cabinet, the top five student leaders at Alliance. At the head was our School Captain, Hardisty Lwaki. His deputy was Andrew Kiragu. These were supported by the three of us – Adongo Adeya, the Games Captain; Palmer Thambu, the Dining Hall Prefect; and myself. It was never really decided what the pecking order was among the three of us, but in retrospect, I imagine that food is more important than either games or entertainment, so Palmer should have been first among equals.

From early in our year of student government, Hardisty and I had a special relationship. He was my school captain and I saw it as my role to support him and help him succeed as overall student leader. We became good friends and together we weathered many a storm. The school captain had a daily early morning audience with the headmaster to discuss the goings-on in the student community. In most cases, Lwaki would share with us, especially with me, the details of these meetings. He would also sound me out on some ideas that he was hoping to propose to the school administration. It was good to be right at the heart of the decision-making process.

But one day, we were in the process of discussing who was to be appointed the incoming Form 5 prefects whom we were to start grooming to take over from us when we left. Then during the school parade and without any warning, the headmaster announced that Duncan Mwenda, one of the most promising young men in my House, Selwood House, would be moving to Arthur House as a prefect. I was incensed. Losing Mwenda was bad enough, but the fact that my supposed good friend and confidant, Hardisty, had advised this move and kept it from me was more than I could stomach. What’s more given the nature of our close relationship, how would I ever convince my house captain and other housemates who also had high hopes for Mwenda that I was not part of this conspiracy to deny them of his talent?

At the earliest opportunity, I confronted Hardisty and made him know just how betrayed I felt. “Why would you do this behind my back?” I asked, unable to hide my hurt. “We had to do what was best for the school,” He simply declared. “And Arthur just didn’t have enough talent.”

On that day, I learned an important lesson in leadership. No matter how close you get to the seat of power you should never lose sight of who really wields the power. In this case, it was the school captain, not me. I was a mere trusted advisor and though he had been gracious enough to seek my advice and confide in me in the past, he was by no means obliged to always do so. I also learned that there was usually a bigger picture that may not always coincide with my own narrow interests. I wanted to keep Mwenda in my own House because I knew his value to Sellwood, yet the school as a whole would benefit from a fairer distribution of leadership talent. Mwenda went on to become a superb House Captain for Arthur House

From then on, the boundary lines between the school captain and I were better defined. He continued to seek my analysis and views on diverse situations, but I always knew that it was his call to make in matters pertaining to the general welfare of the student population. We made a good team and remained good friends even upon leaving Alliance and going our separate ways.

This team work was to be sorely tested in the days ahead. Sometimes during Second Term of 1986, waves of extreme religiosity hit the school as well as, we were to find out, other high schools around the country. Certain students, claiming special visitations from the Holy Spirit, started skipping class and other scheduled activities on the pretext that they were praying. They also started aggressively and indiscriminately confronting other members of the school community threatening fire and damnation if the rest of us did not see the error of our ways and “get saved”. As the term progressed and mock exams approached, the issue threatened to get out of hand and the authorities seemed to be paralyzed as to what to do about it.

The student leadership held several crisis meetings but we never did resolve how to confront the situation, especially since some of the more respected of the Christian community and teachers seemed to support this new wave. Several times, members of this group confronted me telling me to get saved and I rebuffed them offhand.

Then one Saturday evening, during a Talent Show at the Alliance Girls High School, some of this group took it upon themselves to lecture some of the girls about the way they dressed during a fashion show leaving the girls quite distressed. The following Saturday, this group interrupted an entertainment programme to tell us judgment was at hand and we needed to repent. After a couple of other incidents, I decided this had gone far enough.

One Thursday evening during announcements preceding supper in the dining hall, I sounded a strong warning that I would no longer tolerate people interrupting our entertainment programmes in the name of passing on messages from God. As I was making the announcement, one of the young men, who was a fourth former but quite big for his age, stood up from the Livingstone House table and started menacingly towards me. I could see him from the corner of my eye and I was tempted to take off in the opposite direction. But I knew that the time had come to stand up to these fanatics.

“SHUT UP!” he screamed, huffing and puffing like a steam engine train going uphill. “We did it!!!” He looked like he would strike me down and I was terrified, but I stood my ground long enough for the other prefects to come and drag him out of the dining hall. I continued with the rest of the announcement and reiterated that the student leadership would not allow a few people to hold the whole school at ransom with their peculiar brand of disruptive religion. The Rubicon had been crossed. The following morning, the boy who had made a spectacle of himself was duly suspended and the headmaster announced a crackdown on religious extremism that probably saved the school from a complete breakdown of order.

Up to the point I decided enough was enough and confronted the growing menace of religious extremism, it was clear that few of the leadership were willing to bell the cat. This often happens when it comes to religious matters in Africa. We are a very spiritual (some would say superstitious) people, you see, and few leaders want to entertain even a remote possibility of angering the gods and inviting divine wrath upon themselves by questioning religious practices.


But we must recognize that while freedom of worship is important in any democracy, we live in a diverse society and leaders cannot sit by as one religious group forces its particular faith down the throats of others. I am a committed Christian myself, but if I was to serve in government, I would regard it as my solemn duty to safeguard the right of every religious group to practice its faith without fear of intimidation or persecution. These are lessons I learned early during my days in student leadership at Alliance. We need to build an inclusive society where all religious communities can co-exist side by side and enrich each other’s lives as they learn to share this beautiful country we all call home.