Jommo Kenyatta, in his book, ‘Facing Mount Kenya’, has a lot to say about Gikuyu traditional religious beliefs:
No individual may directly supplicate the Almighty…In the ordinary way of everyday life there are no organised prayers or religious ceremonies such as ‘morning and evening prayers’. So far as people and things go well and propser, it is taken for granted that God is pleased with the general behavior of the people and the welfare of the country. In this happy state there is no need for prayers. Indeed they are inadvisable, for Ngai must not needlessly be bothered. It is only when humans are in real need that they must approach him, without fear of disturbing him and incurring his wrath…Further, in our linguistic illustrations, we have: ‘Ngai ndegiagiagwo’, literally, ‘Ngai must never be pestered.’ This is a saying much used in Gikuyu. It has wide implications. In the first place it implies that even if a terrible calamity, such as the death of a child, should befall a man, his attitude must be one of resignation, for people know that Ngai gives ad has the power to take away. The man is not left hopeless- for Ngai may restore his losses- another child may be born to him.’
I bring this up because traditional beliefs are often discussed in the most simplistic terms. We all learnt in school that the Gikuyu pray facing Mount Kenya, where Ngai resides, and that the Mugumo tree is sacred and that sacrifices are made when there is a drought. It fits well into the general narrative about Africans as backward people with quaint and/or bizarre customs and traditions, but not world views, philosophies and other aspects that make a proper culture. It is also, I suspect, the reason that cultural studies never really dig into ‘African culture’. Africans are relegated to Anthropological studies instead.
This all started because I found myself signing up for the Mavuno Church ‘Mizizi’ programme. I had heard great things about it and I was willing to take a go. The promise of wiping away your old self and transforming into the super you is deeply appealing. (Look at the number of self help books available, the cults around vegeterianism, paleo, veganism and all the rest are testament to this deep need we all have too).
So I signed up and I was willing to listen and learn.
Except that my stubborn brain could not unlearn everything it has decided about how the world works. It could not unsee all the diverse spiritual practices imprinted in India and France and Sicily.
So of course I started picking away at the logic that was being fed to us. Unfortunately it was easier than shooting fish in a barrel.
What struck me the most was the seeming shallowness of the message. For example, our instructor told us that it is important to pray always. To pray if we have had a stressful day and we need to rest. That God will work a miracle and we will get a break.
Really? The Alpha and Omega, the creator of the universe (in seven days, mind you), the dispenser of justice and mercy, he who parted the Red Sea and brought down the 7 deadly plagues to free his chosen people, will work a miracle so that you can rest after a tiring day? This is what should drive my faith?
Then I read a book (SELF HELP shoot me please) that strongly suggested that no matter one’s intellectual inclinations, something still drives us to believe in something outside of ourselves. That man needs faith, and man needs religion. Prayer is meditation and meditation helps calm the nerves. Brain waves literally change and you enter a state of hypnosis that some would call the holy spirit, others would call being in touch with the universe and others would call opening the soul to demons.
It’s not just this version of Christianity that promises you a hotline to God with every little crisis that you face that sells this message. The Secret and many other self help books work on the same principle. That if you will something, the universe will realign to meet your needs.
So you are in a full parking lot and you visualize an empty parking space near the entrance (because walking that extra 500 meters would absolutely destroy you) the universe realigns so that you can get a parking space right at the entrance.
They ignore (or downplay) the second part of visualization, which is actually you getting up and doing something. And the fact that the most accessible miracles sound very similar to random chance.
Is this really what we are becoming? Is this how we want to use the power of God/ the Universe? To get parking spaces and to rest at the end of the day? How is this different from basing your life choices on Buzzfeed personality quizzes developed by bored interns? Or from getting life advice from Cosmo?
Are we looking for God or for meaning or are we simply looking for magic? Is this why charlatans like Kanyari can get away with their madness? Is this the reason that we allow overly tanned pastors with suspiciously white teeth to flood our social media with meaningless platitudes?
I am not condemning religion. I am upset that the same cheap psychological tricks are being used to take advantage of people in need of hope and reassurance and a kind word by both the ‘religious’ and the ‘self help’ gurus out there. I am upset that instead of Mark Twain’s reminder that,
Habit is habit, and not to be flung out of the window by any man, but coaxed down-stairs one step at a time
All we get is BELIEVE IT AND IT WILL BE TRUE. And if it isn’t then it’s because you don’t believe enough.
Because that is what we are looking for, really- to be better people, to lead better lives, to be inspired and to be inspired. To actually mean something. And of course, to be immortal.
They all cheapen our struggles. They make it seem like , instead of dealing with the very human fallacies we have each been gifted by our parents, we just don’t believe enough in the snake-oil that’s currently in vogue and that the answer is in believing harder. Harder and harder until it finally works. And if it doesn’t work, guess what, believe harder.
I don’t know. But it seems to me like the Gikuyu, apart from being deeply fatalistic and very pragmatic, were onto something with their concept of God.