Pastor Victor Kanyari and the questions around the African Soul

I have to confess that I thoroughly enjoyed the whole Kanyari scandal. I laughed at the memes on twitter and made jokes about ‘panda mbegu 310’.

I had never trusted ‘miracle churches’ but  I was not aware of the lengths that people could go to manufacture miracles. I was uncomfortable about the way Kanyari treated his staff- in my pedestrian opinion, it was classic controlling behavior- one minute lavishing praise, the other, humiliating them by making them kneel down before him, do his laundry and literally call him ‘daddy’.

This kind of treatment, to me, is very good for breaking down people and molding them into whatever you want them to be. Ask anyone who has been in an abusive relationship. It’s not about stupidity.

Kanyari himself was worrying- it is rare (at least for me, in my fantasy world,) to see someone who can lie with so much conviction and not show a single ounce of remorse, even after being caught red handed. Nothing in his body language showed any doubt, any hint that he may be lying. It is like he believed his own lies. In short, I don’t think that Kanyari is a clever business man. He is a psychopath.

However, this is not about Bro Kanyari.  I that we have missed the point a little bit when we start blaming Kenyans wholesale for their stupidity and love of quick fix solutions. This is about what Kanyari’s success could tell us about the state of religion and society in Africa today (in a non judgmental way I hope)

Like about:

1. Economic collapse and religious zeal: According to many people, the reason that Kanyari was able to get away with his madness was because Kenyans are stupid, gullible and have a tendency to take short cuts. And combined with Kanyari’s business acumen and flair for marketing, well, they got what they deserved. This is assuming that what is happening here is unique to Kenyans.

it is not. Let us look at Zimbabwe, and what they are currently dealing with:

‘Prophecy has become central to Zimbabwe’s social and economic transformation. There is probably more money circulating in churches than in banks…gospreneurs are milking dry the poor through unorthodox magic disguised as prophecy…’ (full article here)

Okay so that means that Kenyans are not uniquely gullible to magical prophets who wash feet and turn water into blood. So what is going on? Zimbabwe went through a brutal economic collapse because of Comrade Bob and his radical policies. Previously, Zimbabwe was a country where the social systems worked, at least for a large enough number of people- you could go to a public school and expect a reasonable education. Hospitals had medicine. Civil servants did their jobs.

Then, almost overnight, it all went away. And suddenly, Prophets selling holy water appeared on every corner. Crusades promising untold wealth (for a fee) were happening every weekend. Hard work could no longer cut it. Suddenly, Zimbabweans needed divine intervention and demon banishing prayers to put food on their tables.

Smart people like to quote Karl Marx, that, religion is the opium of the masses. But I often feel like it is used in a slightly patronizing manner. (In a ha ha look at those dumb f*cks and how much better I am than them kind of way) Magical miracle church empires are sweeping across Africa- filling a massive void created by weak social systems and insecurity . What I am saying is that religion can be the last hope for people who have nothing else to lose. When all the systems around them are broken beyond repair. And that sucks.

2. The meaning of Christianity in Africa: There is a quiet battle of sorts going on today in the African Christian circles.Conservative churches are fully aware of the enormous popularity of prosperity gospel- of which, Kanyari represents a crude form, with other uptown churches manifesting a more sophisticated version (if half the church service is dedicated to praying about success and/or admiring others for their miracle blessings, followed by buying motivational books and dvds about LIVING THE LIFE YOU WANT NOW by BROTHER PASTOR J at your swanky Church library…then, yeah, maybe dig up that Bible and look up what Jesus said instead…)

Conservatives may be losing this battle.

That their quiet messages of love, humility and compassion is being drowned out by the chorus of prayer for wealth and prosperity TODAY (and if not, VANQUISH THE DEMONS MIGHTY FATHER!!). The conservatives are on to something- does this new breed of religion, often based on cult of personality and focused on success TODAY and NOW through prayer, really have anything in common with the actual principles of Christianity that were set out in the beginning? (Full critique of how prosperity gospel is hurting Africa)

This leads us to ask the question, what are people looking for in religion? If you believe the scholars, then it is about following the teachings of Jesus. About reading the bible. About finding a moral compass that will help you live your life in a way that allows you to go to bed without a heavy conscience. Is that what we are hearing in the most popular churches today?

I have talked about the alienation I felt while attending Catholic mass, and feeling like the rituals and processes were simply not meant for me. I can imagine that many people, despite having a super religious upbringing, turn away from Christianity because it just does not make sense to them.

It turns out that Christian scholars have been debating this for a while- what it means to be Christian, and African. Christianity and ‘African religions’ gelled because both believed in a single supreme power.

However, that is where the similarities ended. And where the miracle workers like Kanyari stepped in, with their demon bashing and pin-removing antics. Christianity is no longer dictated by foreign rituals and European mythology. Christianity is being owned by Africans, Latin Americans and other people of the south. But it is a confusing process. What to add in and what to leave out?

And, what if it changes so much that it becomes unrecognizable? What if it slips down into worship of ‘false gods?’ This debate could be healthy, and it might produce something that will become more tolerable to more people (on the pain of admitting that the Word of God is actually malleable, hence threatening the entire religious institution and being forced to admit that there is more than one path to righteousness.)

3. Religion and human psychology: Our analysts are aghast- how is it possible that, after the exposé, Kanyari’s church might even be growing? How dumb could people possibly be? This can be easily explained by a theory called cognitive dissonance. 

‘ we have a powerful motive to maintain cognitive consistency can give rise to irrational and sometimes maladaptive behavior.According to Festinger, we hold many cognitions about the world and ourselves; when they clash, a discrepancy is evoked, resulting in a state of tension known as cognitive dissonance. As the experience of dissonance is unpleasant, we are motivated to reduce or eliminate it, and achieve consonance (i.e. agreement)’

In short, the human mind cannot tolerate conflicting ideas beliefs or emotions, and responds either by outright denying the information, or in the case of conspiracy and cult religious movements, taking it as evidence that in fact you are right and everyone else is wrong, hence allowing self to double down on original beliefs.

Religion is particularly prone to this because no-one can really prove or disprove anything, and our religious beliefs go to the very cores of our identities. It can produce some pretty bizarre results- not just in Kenya, but around the world (Some crazy cults from all over the world).

Already we have seen fake miracles disguised as the work of the Lord. We see greed disguised as prosperity. We see psychopathy disguised as leadership and brilliance.

I do not think we should dismiss the followers of Kanyari (and other ‘disciples’ of mighty prophets) as stupid and gullible. I think we should remember that,  as a society we are only as strong as our weakest members.

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