Wednesday, 24 June 2009

Unitarian Expansion in Africa

Unitarianism is not simply present in developed areas of the Western world. For example, it has long been established in the Khasi Hills of North East India, a set of villages where chance meetings led to local establishment of Unitarian churches in opposition to Welsh Calvinists and is decidedly not Christian in understanding (nor Hindu). As for Africa, there were four Unitarian churches in South Africa (from 1857) and two in Nigeria (1919).

The same as India has happened again recently in Kenya, especially in the tea growing Kisii District, in central Kenya west of Nairobi, and this development extends to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The nature of this Unitarianism in Africa (but not in India) is biblical literalist, as were the first English ideological Unitarians that revived old Presbyterian chapels and built many of their own. So there is strictly one God, Jesus is their brother, all are sons of God and preaching is from the Bible and straight off the page. The Old Testament is honoured.

Such Unitarianism is local, and defines itself against what is seen as foreign oversight of missionary churches, and it is polygamist by choice, but preaches against domestic violence (in Kisii men often gather to smoke while women labour) and the common practice of clitoral mutilation. It will oppose the government as necessary and addresses poverty through developing education and health-welfare projects. Some women see Unitarianism preaching equality rather than being told to obey as in other churches. They have opposed abortion and homosexuality, incest and rape. Central Unitarians have preached against alcohol.

There is a radical Unitarian development in Kampala, Uganda, which consists of the local middle class and has a lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender group. Like the others, it has to concern itself with orphans and runs an orphanage.

Rev. Patrick Magara is the local founder and responsible around Kisii, and is called Bishop, overseeing now at least several dozen congregations, and the son of one wife Theresa oversees other congregations. Women can lead worship and his second wife Alice leads a congregation. Magara came from the Seventh Day Adventist tradition and was General Secretary of the East African Christian Alliance, a grouping of biblicist denominations. In 1999, it sponsored him to study for two years at a non-denominational seminary in Philadelphia. He met a Unitarian Universalist in a shop and contrasted the description of Unitarian Universalism with the way he perceived Africans were treated by his own denomination. He like the idea of freedom of worship, was questioning his own beliefs and liked the idea of God in each person. Back in Kenya that personal contact was lost but he went to his Post Office to read about Unitarian Universalism on the Internet. Since then he can't use a donated computer of his own because he can't afford electricity, though he owns a number of houses and supports wives and offspring.

Magara decided to become Unitarian and his pastors followed him. Support from the UU has to respect the autonomy on the ground, and money is for projects for investing in self-sustaining business and avoids dependency. Many projects are local and hand to mouth, reflecting the number of orphans and the situation with AIDS.

This is the area of Unitarian Universalist Council of Kenya (UUCK). There is a second cluster of Unitarian churches near Nairobi among the Samburu and Masai, the area of the Kenya Unitarian Universalist Council (KUUC). Some of this includes coffee growing. This latter central area can be linked to a sense of development among the tribes and modernisation provided by association with churches. It stresses multi-ethnicity at a time of conflict, with a tag line 'One day, one tribe, one people'. It works with the western Unitarians under the KUUC.

In this case John K. Mbugua heard that Unitarianism stresses the equality of people under God regardless of religion, and that set him going regarding organising this approach to religion.

In both the west and the centre, Unitarians meet in houses and shops as few can afford churches. What makes the difference is the information that exists on the Internet, and thus the non-proselytising Unitarianism is being read about and self-generated on the ground.

This summary derives from an article in UU World by Scott Kraft. He also provides the Flickr photos.


Brad Evans said...

Unitarian expansion-well, if you're almost zero, it's mathematically impossible for you to do anything but expand, isn't it?
Wonder how much longer it will be before "plural marriage" gets touted as a "human rights/diversity" issue in the west?

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

The issue is not simply about from zero. It is that Unitarianism was seen as entirely Western and developed, was the pinnacle of Protestant achievement (I don't subscribe to this approach at all). Chance meetings (as with India - where Unitarianism in the NE is populous, and in Mumbai) and now the Internet suddenly mean it comes from apparently nowhere. Notice how, though, it is biblically literalist, and relates to modernisation as it did when biblically literalist in England.

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

Oh come on, many people find ways to have multiple relationships either honestly and dishonestly. The one to one simply allows for easier honesty and a growing into one another. There are good grounds for preventing incest, and prevention is a human rights issue: when brothers and sisters don't grow up together with no taboo and can't resist the attraction, the results are usually tragic in some sense, and the rest is usually abuse.

Erika Baker said...

does plural marriage denote consecutive marriages or polygamous marriages?

As Tobias Haller pointed out on his blog, there's nothing genuinely mutual in polygamous marriages, they usually involve one man having sexual relations with two wives, but the two wives are not equally married to each other.
The marriage is directional, not circular.

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

You get the same thing in Tibet, where two men are married to one woman. It is directional, and done for resource reasons, and a family is behind it. And they send one male off to the monastery. The woman doesn't get to exercise the power that the single man many wives does.

None of these have the mutuality of one to one.

Then there is polyamoury, where to be closed at least two must be bisexual for it to be comfortable, which is unlikely: the trouble with polyamoury is it tends to have lines outward, and so too many new people get introduced! Again it requires levels of confidence and knowing, and these get replaced by power instead (a central served character).

So I can never see a rational situation where some sort of civil ceremony would include more than two, if we are talking about the state providing means for social stability, and anything else is just a private arrangement.

In the end it is education and equality that will curtail these African polygamous marriages.

These two women mentioned, Theresa and Alice, have different roles, but Alice seems to have her own working life. Nevertheless, she runs a congregation whereas it is the son of Theresa who oversees many. Not quite equal, is it?

Brad Evans said...

What do the guys do without wives? Must be a lot of lonely men out there. Polygamy is primitive.

Erika Baker said...

I wouldn't say that polygamy is primitive. That judgement arises only because our society sadly tends to view every adult relationship only with regard to its sexual content.

In societies were women had no social and economic standing of their own, polygamy was a creative way of ensuring their protection and survival.

The question is whether it is still needed to fulfill that role today, or whether the structures of the societies who still practice it could be changed to render it unnecessary.