Monday, 11 February 2008

Kenya Day 6

We are nearing the end of our ICUU Leadership Conference and the end of my time in Kenya, so this posting will focus on some of the differences I have observed here about how we understand and practice Unitarianism. (Apologies to my Universalist and UU friends. In Africa the name is Unitarian).

Ok well, first, one cultural observation: Mobile phones.

I thought North America was swimming in cell phones. I thought I was coming to a ‘third world’ country. (Experienced travellers know where this train of thought is headed). It is fascinating to see that in Africa where poverty is so rampant that everyone... EVERYONE has a mobile phone. Most poster advertising concerns mobiles. Every second store and booth sells phone cards , inexpensive phones and prepaid mobile time. And I must note that the one pay phone at our guest house never has a dial tone.

Of course this mobile revolution makes sense. It is the way the people here are able to communicate in a nation where landlines are few and far between and expensive to boot. Mobiles are cheap, effective and convenient. They bring a new freedom. Perhaps the explosion of this ease of communication both helped spark the recent violence, and helped provide the massive internal and international peaceful response to the violence. How many violent actions in the past in this continent have gone unnoticed because no one far away heard of the unrest?

My colleague, Rev. David Usher pointed out the other day that Samuel Morse (Morse code), Alexander Graham Bell (the telephone) and Tim Berners-Lee (the World Wide Web) each sparked a revolution in communications...and all were Unitarian. I guess that’s really not a surprise. It is an unspoken principle in our liberal and questing faith that the more pathways of communication we have, the more information to we have, the better and more peaceful the world will be.

And I suppose that this brings me to the most interesting thing I have learned about Unitarianism in Africa.

In the weeks before the conference, Rev. Patrick Magara kept inviting us to come to Kisi, a place very close to where the worst violence took place. “No, No,” he would say, “Kisi is safe.” It was hard to believe. But then we came and discovered that for years Rev. Magara and others from the Kisi Unitarian congregations have travelled around the region speaking to people and groups having conflicts with one another. They have a history of peace-making. When their region went up in flames, that groundwork helped preserve the peace.

How to live our Unitarian Universalist faith into our daily lives is a challenge for many westerners and northerners face. We tend to go through our lives not announcing our religion to the world. In Kenya that kind of separation of faith and practice is literally unthinkable. Ask the Kenyan Unitarians about their church and they won’t talk about worship or membership numbers. Instead they will tell you about the projects they do: the women’s groups, the working cooperatives, the orphanages, the volunteer-run schools and so on. To be a Unitarian here is to be involved in the community in a faithful way. Take my new friend Cyrus Itare. He is a young man still in his 20’s. He and his wife have a one month old child. He is unemployed (not unusual around here and while problematic, not a shameful thing). Oh, did I mention that he and his wife have taken eight orphan children in their home? I am in awe.

The last major difference between Kenyan Unitarians and the ‘first world’ UU’s concerns the topic of growth. It’s hard, exactly to say how many Unitarians there are in this country, but it is certainly over 500 in over 40 congregations. Five years ago, there were none... Zero.

Why so much growth so fast? Kenyan Unitarians are willing, eager to spread the word of their faith far and wide. Some preach in market places. Some talk to groups from other churches. There are many cases where entire congregations have ‘converted’ to Unitarianism. And then there is the outreach of their community programs. Anyone can participate, but they WILL hear about our faith. No one is forced to convert, but few who come in contact with Kenyan Unitarians will walk away not knowing something about us.

Good heavens! Conversion? Proselytizing? Unitarians doing that? Amazing.

But here’s something worth thinking about: If their success continues, within a few years there will be more Unitarians in Kenya than in Germany, Canada or the UK. Wow!

And now, the commercial: These folks are growing fast and are hungry to learn. I mentioned in Blog post 5 that they snapped up a suitcase full of books on our tradition. Perhaps we could look around our churches and communities for Unitarian and Unitarian Universalist books that haven’t been read for awhile. When I get home, I will start to explore how best to get those books to Africa. PLEASE DON’T SEND ANYTHING YET. Past experience has shown that a mailed book stands little chance of reaching its destination. But if you think you have a few books to contribute the cause, write to me personally ( I will keep track and then in a few weeks (more likely a few months) I will contact you about next steps.



1 comment:

Rev. Iva Fiserova said...

Dear Brian,
many warm thanks for your regular and poetic writing to bring us closer to how you are all doing in Kenya. Be so kind and tell our sisters and brothers from Africa that Czech Unitarians will read about the conference in their Prague church monthly. I am looking forward writing that contribution and meanwhile sending our love and thoughts full of respect to your work. Thank you for establishing new Unitarian connections with struggling churches in Africa.
Blessings to all of you,
Rev. Iva Fiserova