How Religious Inequality Can Harm Health and Environment

inequality has impacted kwale kenya kaya elders

Religious inequality has been inflicted upon African Indigenous Religion (AIR) faith members in Kenya’s Sacred Kaya Forests. These communities still suffer today as a result of the early Christian missionaries’ doctrine of religious exclusivity. Because of religious discrimination, non-Christian members were appallingly ostracized and economically penalized. Also as a direct result, the sacred forest groves of their ancestors have mostly disappeared, or deteriorated sadly.

It is a regrettable tale of inequality, but with a hopeful ending. The Christian Church is now turning to interfaith dialogue after recognizing the error of past ways. UNESCO has also lately designated 11 of the remaining sacred groves as World Heritage sites, and slowly the wounds of religious inequality are healing.

This is a welcome change for members of the AIR, according to the work of  Dr. Tsawe-Munga wa Chidongo, an ordained minister of the Methodist Church of Kenya. In his excellent book, Exploring Dialogue: Reflections on Christianity’s Mission and African Indigenous Religion, Rev. Tsawe-Munga illuminates a history of inequality in a dark corner of Earth once covered with sacred Kaya forest groves. It is the ancestral home of Tsawe-Munga’s people, the Mijikenda.

The Mijikenda People and Their Sacred Kaya Forests

The Mijikenda, or “nine tribes,” are actually nine distinct groups of people. They live in the southern region of coastal Kenya, near the border of Tanzania on a 50 km-wide strip of land stretching north for roughly 350 km.

Spreading out over 200 km along the coast, the Sacred Kaya Forests consist of many separate forest sites. Within these forest are the remains of many fortified villages, known as Kayas, of the Mijikenda people. Constructed in the 16th century, the Kayas have been abandoned as home sites since the 1940s. They are, however, still revered as sacred sites, being burial grounds for their ancestors, and the site of frequent religious rituals.

image (This, and top image source: Destination Kwale)

Health Is Justice and Peace With Nature, Humanity, and Divinities

To the Mijikenda, health is wholeness. It affects the whole community of man, being related to all his activities, and all relationships. Tsawe-Munga quotes a Muduruma woman elder of the Mijikenda:

“For us Mijikenda, ‘uzima wa lalo (health) is all inclusive; it is individual as well as corporate. It concerns our crops (cash crops and food crops), our animals (wild and domesticated), our sacred forests (makaya) and our rivers. It concerns being in harmony with divine spirits and with our neighbors.

“Thus, health for us is justice and peace with nature, humanity, and divinities. By practicing these religious basics, the community stays out of diseases and its leaders practice good governance which promotes and cares for nature.”

Environmental Protections Ensure Healthy Lives

Tsawe-Munga notes the 1995 study among the Mijikenda by Celia Nyamweru, recognizing that the Mijikenda have always sought to protect their land in order to ensure healthy living. It is to the land that they look for their future inheritance, as the foundation of economic survival. Rules for protecting the environment of the Kaya were strict; for example, no fire was lit in the forest without permission. Replacement trees must be planted elsewhere, when clearing land for farming. Fines could be levied for abusing or “sinning” against the land.

Nyamweru perceived that the land and Kaya forests are considered religiously important for the health of the Mijikenda community because they are the homes of the cosmic spirits, wild animals, and birds. She understood that land and forests are sacred places of worship for the Mijikenda, providing their basic food and water needs, materials for building homes and herbal medicines.

image(Image source: WWF, UK)

Christianity Takes Root in Unsustainable Soil

Imagine the Christian missionaries’ arrival into this enlightened environment. Attempting to extend Christendom into Africa, European Christians arrived in the 16th and 19th centuries. For the Mijikenda community, the second wave of Christianity took root, albeit in unsustainable soil, in 1844 with the arrival of the Church Missionary Society in coastal Kenya.

During this period, reports Tsawe-Munga, the AIR world-view was dishonored; its beliefs and practices were described as “darkness” and its followers were condemned. The missionaries operated under the premise that theirs was the one and only truth, and that all other religions were accordingly wrong and unreal. In this poor, unsustainable dirt, religious inequality began to grow like an invasive weed from the root of Christianity in Africa.

Families Divided Along the Fault Lines of Faith

The early Mijikenda Christian converts were regarded as “always in the light” (watu wa nuru). Those who rejected Christianity were “people of darkness and Satan” (watu wa giza na shetani), cursed to enter the eternal fires of hell. This point of view was reinforced with the scriptural doctrine, “All things work well for those who believe and there is no condemnation for those who believe in Christ.”

After putting the stamp of God’s approval on wholesale condemnation of non-Christians things quickly went from bad to worse. Health troubles within the Mijikenda community were broadcasted as the result of their evil resistance to God’s plan for their salvation. Condemned and ostracized, the Mijikenda were carelessly perceived as suffering from God’s righteous punishment.

Soon the cracks in the community appeared, as Mijikenda familes found themselves divided along the fault lines of faith. The newly-converted Mijikenda Christians adopted the exclusivist behaviors of their new mentors, scorning further participation within their “heathen” community, and refusing all offers of dialogue. Their rejection of the offer was seen by tribal elders as jeopardizing the health and well-being of the entire Mijikenda community. Religious inequality had successfully propagated itself into the Mijikend community.

image (Image source: Destination Kwale)

No Framework for Reconciliation

For this reason, among others, Tsawe-Munga says the Mijikenda Christians were soon considered “perpetrators” of health problems by persistently resisting community decisions and scorning indigenous religious morals. However, political and governmental tides shifted in Kenya in favor of Christianity. Religious inequality became legislation in the land. Laws were written to prohibit or severely limit AIR practices.

Indigenous communities, suffering economic oppression heaped on top of religious inequality, have found themselves reduced to a pitiful minority. With no framework for reconciliation, the Mijikenda population has widely dispersed. Their continuity as a vital community, responsive to the total environment in which they once thrived, has been unjustifiably prohibited. As the health of the community has suffered, so has their environment. Kayas in the sacred forest groves have been abandoned, forests have declined, and mining is destroying the surrounding landscape.

Religious Inequality Is Directly Responsible

Religious inequality is directly responsible for the social rift that has become widespread in present-day Kenya. The remaining indigenous adherents among the Mijikenda find themselves living in anxious poverty among disparaging community members. Religious inequality challenges and damages the physical and mental health of the people, especially in the face of continued oppression. It challenges and damages the environmental integrity of the beautiful landscape God created.

I feel religious inequality must be terribly disappointing and offensive when viewed through the Eyes of God.

A Great Swell of Hope Is Surging

However (stop here a moment and take a deep, cleansing breath), tides are always turning on the Earth, and for the Mijikenda people, the tides are coming in. Inspiration sometimes arrives in the bleakest moment and this is one of those times. A great swell of hope is surging around the entire globe lately, in the form of enlightened consciousness. From the back pew to the raised pulpit, and from the top management to the grassroots, interfaith outreach among religious communities is trending globally. The weight of oppression on the scale of religious inequality is decreasing.

Recently, religious organizations have begun reaching out to one another in the true spirit of interfaith dialogue. The World’s major faiths are taking a long, hard look at the failure of religious exclusivism. Top level decisions for authentic, ground-level cooperation among faiths are being implemented all over the world. Interfaith Peace Prayers, and interfaith environmental activities are clearly on the rise. Here at EdenKeeper.org, we specialize in keeping you informed about the exciting interrelationships between religious faiths and all of God’s Creation.

image (Image source: CISA)

“One Finger Can Not Kill Lice”

According to Dr. Tsawe-Munga, the church leaders in Kenya have finally adopted a new understanding of health. In an attempt at merciful reconciliation, it is finally understood, and now being taught, that equal access to food, water, adequate infrastructure, and economic, physical, and collective security are essential. Likewise, meeting such needs as love, acceptance, and respect are also equally essential.

Also, an interfaith education program will be initiated in schools, and offered for adults, as well. This will help improve the understanding that dialogue between Christianity and AIR has become an urgent necessity, especially in light of the deteriorating community health conditions. Hopefully, with renewed community continuity, combined with UNESCO’s welcome support for the sacred Kaya forests, the Mijikenda will once again thrive in a state of “uzima wa lalo” (all inclusive health).

In spite of all the conflict within their community, Tsawe-Munga notes that the idea of engaging in a dialogue with people of other religions is still viewed favorably by the Mijikenda indigenous members. They hope that with one common voice they might overcome issues affecting their health and well-being. Their religious philosophy is that “one finger cannot kill lice (chala chimwenga kachivunza Tsaha). Unity (“umwenga/udugu”) is needed.” He says this phrase is commonly used among the Mijikenda, meaning that “a community can only remain a community if people are united.”

I think it might also means that religious adherents, their practices, and their beliefs should be respected equally.

image (Image source: Destination Kwale)

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This article is written for and dedicated to the topic of #Inequality, the theme of this year’s #Oct16 Blog Action Day.

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About the Author

Aisha Abdelhamid (Birth-name Kathleen Vail) is a freelance lifestyle and environmental science writer currently living in Vancouver, BC. Her interests include environmental conservation, climate science, renewable energy, faith-based environmental activism, sustainable economics, corporate social responsibility, creative lifestyles, and healthy living.