Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Dependency, Harambees and the Struggle for Christian Stewardship in the Orthodox Churches of Kenya

This was originally a chapter I wrote for a book on Stewardship in Kenyan Churches.  When the publisher who undertook to bring it to publication decided I should broaden my focus to all of Africa, the specifically Kenyan chapters were orphaned and needed a new home.  This one I published last year in a small Orthodox Journal based in South Africa.  Because I am speaking this weekend at a big clergy conference in my diocese, I thought it might be useful to excavate it from the forgotten mines of old academic journals and attempt cheerfully to restart a necessary conversation.

An Orthodox Church building in Kenya funded by well-meaning American donors

    Pharos Journal of Theology ISSN 2414-3324 online Volume 98 - (2017) Copyright: ©2017  Open Access- Online @ http//:

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Dependency, Harambees and the Struggle for Christian Stewardship in the Orthodox Churches of Kenya 

Dr. Joseph William Black Deputy Dean, Makarios III Patriarchal Orthodox Seminary,  Nairobi, Kenya, Senior Lecturer, St. Paul's University,  Limuru and Nairobi, Kenya 


The Orthodox Churches of Kenya, like many other mission churches globally, have long struggled with the issues of dependency, enabled by years of over-generous foreign financial and material support and exacerbated by a strong cultural inclination to appropriate the levers of various patronage systems a means to get ahead relationally, financially and politically.  Dependency and patronage have increasingly become the default posture when it comes to Orthodox individuals and their Churches with respect to how they perceive and handle their financial needs.  Churches have also increasingly made use of indigenous ways to raise financial support, known locally as harambee.   Harambees are widely seen as culturally appropriate ways to raise money when the need is beyond the means of the organization or even individual.  They are often the most successful means that Churches can adopt to push major projects forward such as buying property or constructing the church building.  However, while harambees may be culturally appropriate, in the case of Kenyan churches in general, and Orthodox Churches in particular, harambees enable the Churches and their leaders to sidestep the fundamental issue plaguing their parishes, which is a complete absence of New Testament and early Christian principles of stewardship and discipleship.  When the previous patron can no longer pro-vide the financial support the Church needs, harambees become the new patron that enable the Church to move ahead.  The Church and its members thus never have to address their own lack of stewardship, responsibility and Christian discipleship.  The fundraising targets may all be met, but the Churches remain crippled by ongoing attitudes of dependency.  This article explores the dynamic of dependency and patronage afflicting Orthodox Churches in Kenya, critiques the preferred financial solution of harambee, and challenges Orthodox Christians to take their calling as stewards and disciples seriously as the only way to escape the slough of dependency that, unless addressed, will ultimately consume them.

Keywords: Dependency, deprivation, harambee, stewardship, Kenya


St. Barnabas Orthodox Church is an underprivileged Orthodox parish in a remote corner of Kenya about 45 kilometres from the capital city Nairobi.  The parish has a sad history of mismanagement and corruption on the part of an earlier parish priest.  The most recent priest has struggled with the legacy left by his predecessor, a legacy seen most clearly by the church members’ unwillingness to give to support the church’s ministry or to cover the priest’s salary.  When asked, the members say simply that it’s the bishop’s church and so it’s the bishop’s responsibility to pay for whatever the expense might be.  As a result, the priest and his family live in poverty in a Nairobi slum and the church building is literally falling apart.  There were no serviceable toilets at the church, and the priest decided that, for the sake of the faithful, they needed to construct toilet blocks for people who were otherwise were having to walk to a neighbor’s outdoor toilet.  The priest scheduled a harambee and made use of all of his personal and professional contacts to ensure that many people would come and help raise the money so the church could have toilets.  The harambee was

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scheduled for after Divine Liturgy on a certain Sunday.  And on the day, many people from surrounding Orthodox Churches came, as did many local politicians, and even the Bishop himself.  Many made significant contributions.   The members of the parish were there as well, but their contribution amounted to little more than a few hundred shillings (a few US dollars).  The harambee was very successful.  Enough money was raised to build the toilet block and also to make repairs to the fence surrounding the church property.  But the parish still believes it’s not their responsibility to cover any of the costs for the church.  The priest continues to scramble to come up with basic supplies such as prosphora (communion bread) and wine.  He pays out of his own meagre resources to buy porridge to feed the children a supplemental meal on Sunday mornings because he noticed that many of the children in the community are hungry.  The parish has not lifted a finger to help feed their own children.  And the parish continues to say that it’s not their responsibility to pay their priest.  And he continues to live in a Nairobi slum, somehow making ends meet by working as a gardener.1

The parishioners of St. Barnabas Church obviously have many issues, but they are right about one thing.  There was a time when funding from generous overseas patrons came to the Bishop enabling him to fund many aid projects and to assist the construction of many Church buildings, as well as provide salaries for priests and workers across the country.  As one might imagine, this had a depressive impact on the amount of monies Churches were able to raise in their weekly offerings.  ‘If the Bishop has the money to pay for everything, why do I need to do anything?’ was a common and understandable sentiment.  Foreign donors were solicited to help ‘poor Africans’ and to do for them what they were not able to do for themselves, or at least that was how matters were often understood.

In recent years, overseas funding has all but dried up, and the Orthodox Church has experienced an unprecedented crisis in funding the various programs and maintaining the various salaries and ministries.  Increasingly local parishes have been forced to step up and take on responsibility for things like salaries and for funding their own programs and projects.  This, of course, has not been a bad thing.  What is telling, however, are the ways local parishes have adopted to respond to their new financial realities.2

Kenyan Orthodox Christians and parishes have been nothing if not resourceful in finding ways to fund salaries, ministries, buildings and projects.  Although some Orthodox parishes are relatively wealthy and some individual Christians have been successful and are prosperous, the vast majority of Orthodox Churches and the people who attend are resource-challenged.  Orthodox Christians and their leaders tend to follow their Protestant neighbors in viewing success in terms of both numbers of attendees as well as relative material prosperity.3  Almost every Orthodox leader has in mind what a successful and prosperous parish will look like, in terms of physical plant, in terms of provision for the priest, in terms of ministries sponsored by the parish.  As is the case with many other Christian traditions, there are not a few Orthodox Churches in Kenya that have begun with services under a tree.  As soon as is possible, a small building with tin or mud wall sides, and a tin roof might be constructed (in the 20th century such buildings might have been made of mud and sticks with a thatched roof).  The ultimate goal for the congregation would be the construction of a permanent structure made of stone with a concrete floor and tin or even a tile roof.  Each step
 1 The story related actually happened.  The names and location have been changed.
 2 For an early treatment of many of the issues surrounding stewardship in African contexts, see John R. Crawford, ‘Stewardship in Younger Churches: Observations and Caveats From an African Perspective’ in Missiology: An International Review IX:3 (1981), 299-310.
3 See for example,  Peninah Jepkogei Tanui, Dominic Omare and Jared Bogonko Bitange, ‘Internal Control System for Financial Management in the Church: A Case of Protestant Churches in Eldoret Municipality, Kenya’ in European Journal of Accounting, Auditing and Finance Research, 4:6 (2016), 29-46, especially the description of the context, 2933.

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along this path seems prohibitively expensive for any congregation, but especially for those who live in the rural areas. 

Although the Orthodox claim to be the original Church and to have best preserved the Traditions of earliest Christianity, with respect to their posture towards money and church offerings, they are not much different from any of their non-Orthodox friends.  Whether rural or urban, whether former mission church or new style Pentecostal, Roman Catholic or Protestant or Orthodox, the process of acquiring funds is remarkably similar across the country.  Because many of these projects are perceived to be beyond the reach of the local membership, the crucial part of any fundraising effort in Kenya is to find outside donors with the means to help.  These outside donors might be wealthy individuals in the local community.  They might be denominational leaders such as bishops or mega-church pastors, they might be politicians who are prominent on the local, regional or even national stage.  The goal is to create an event that brings the people who have resources together with the people who have the need.  And Kenya has developed the perfect, culturally appropriate way of doing just this.  It is called Harambee.

Harambees and Kenyan fundraising 

Kenyan author MacMillan Kiiru defines harambee as ‘a collective effort which means pull together.  It is a strategy for pooling resources of a community together in order to carry out a community project that meets the needs of all community members.’4  Kiiru sees harambee as ‘a built-in provision for self-reliance for the individual and the society’ embodying community ideals of ‘mutual assistance, joint effort, mutual social responsibility’ and community independence.5  Kiiru’s enthusiasm for harambee, given that he is writing a book for Christian leaders on fund-raising, is an indication of how thoroughly the philosophy of harambee has permeated Kenyan Christianity.  Alternatively, Mbithi and Rasmussen view harambee as an attempt at ‘bottom-up’ development to meet local needs which improved self-reliance by making use of indigenous resources and by enlisting popular participation.6

Harambee has its origins from Kenya’s coastal Swahili-speaking people, who used the word ‘halambee’ to mean ‘Let us all pull together.’7  It expresses ideas of ‘mutual assistance, joint effort, mutual social responsibility, community self-reliance’.8  Harambee was used as a rallying cry by the first president of Kenya Jomo Kenyatta to unite Kenyans for the hard work of forging an independent nation after the long and bloody struggle against the British colonial regime.  Most ethnic groups in Kenya have their own version of harambee.  The basic idea is that of coming together as a community to assist a neighbor with work on their shamba or in building a home or in some other special project.  Harambee was also used in funding or providing labor for building special projects such as schools, clinics or churches.  In rural parts of Kenya, harambees can still be used in these ways.  But in the cities and towns, harambees have increasingly become fundraising events, enabling the community to come up with the money, or at least the next instalment, that enables them to progress on a particular project.

 4 MacMillan Kiiru, How to Develop Resources for Christian Ministries (Nairobi: Uzima Publishing House, 2004), 49.
5 Kiiru, How to Develop Resources for Christian Ministries, 49.
6 Philip M. Mbithi and Rasmus Rasmusson, Self Reliance in Kenya: The Case of Harambee (Uppsala, SW: The Scandinavian Institute of African Studies, 1977), 9.  See also 146-163.
7 Kefa Chesire Chepkwony,  ‘The Role of Harambee in Socio-Economic Development in Kenya: A Case for the Education Sector’ (unpublished paper, 2008), 4.
8 Mbithi and Rasmussen, Self Reliance in Kenya, 13.

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Harambees have proven to be an effective tool for local community development.9  Individuals who themselves would be considered poor use the opportunity of a harambee to pool their resources to accomplish a goal that might otherwise seem impossible.  Harambees also bring together disparate portions of the same community, sometimes even of different ethnic groups, and unite them for a larger purpose than their own community’s interest.  Participation of individuals, as Mbithi and Rasmussen note, ‘is guided by the principle of the collective good rather than individual gain’, described as ‘enlightened community and collective self-interest’.10  Kenyans are rightly proud of how this indigenous method of pulling together and pooling resources has been put to use to further development in the wider community and in the nation itself.

Unsurprisingly, Christian churches have made use of the fundraising power of harambee to fund their own building projects and ministry programs.  Church buildings whose construction was funded by one or a series of harambees are everywhere.  And on any given Sunday even today, harambees will be taking place in multiple churches across any given area.  And given that a harambee has proven to be a good opportunity for a politician or for a candidate to be seen, as well as to be seen as being generous, a local harambee, even one sponsored by a church, will often have invited politicians or other local leaders in attendance whose presence and contribution make a splash that’s noted by all in attendance and goes far towards ensuring that the organizers will meet their goals.

Harambees are simply a fact of Kenyan fundraising, and they are often the main strategy that is used by many Kenyan churches to fund projects.  The purpose of what follows is not to criticize harambee as a fundraising tool and a means of empowering a local community to accomplish more together than they could have ever done as individuals.  Instead in the rest of this article I wish to discuss implications of both the patronage and dependency culture and the pervasive practice of harambee in in so many of Kenya’s Orthodox Churches, in view of the Christian calling to be stewards, both as individuals and parishes.

Churches in Kenya 

By whatever measurement one chooses to use, the vast majority of Kenyan churches across the denominational divide are poor.,,.

To read more, follow this link:

And then, after you've read it, I'm happy for your feedback, pushback, thoughtful reflection, thoughts on a way forward....

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