A Discussion with Agnes Abuom, Executive Committee, World Council of Churches

With: Agnes Abuom

July 3, 2009

Background: Agnes Abuom is a leading figure within African ecumenical circles and, increasingly, within global faith institutions. This discussion between Dr. Abuom, Katherine Marshall, and Thomas Bohnett took place in Accra, Ghana, on July 3, 2009 and highlights Dr. Abuom's experiences with political, ecumenical, and peace movements. She recounts her early years growing up in Kenya and her “faith biography.” Involved from her girlhood in both religion and politics, by the late 1990s she was actively engaged in Africa-wide leadership in the WCC and with the Council of African Leaders. In recent years she has been a central figure in deliberations on conflict in the Horn of Africa, bringing together Muslim and Christian leaders. Dr. Abuom addresses issues of women’s roles in religious contexts but also in African politics, highlighting the need to bridge the gap between political leaders and religious peacebuilders. Religious leaders, she argues, have very little knowledge about the tools available to them through the state or even about how the government as an institution functions. Engaging in advocacy programs is most meaningful if those involved understand well the structure of the institutions in play.

Can we start with some background? How did you start on the path to your WCC leadership role?

To begin at the beginning, I was born in the Nandi Hills, in Northwest Kenya. My mother was a community development worker. I have four brothers, I’m the only sister. I began school at the local mission school. Then, when my mother had to go for training, I went to a mission boarding school, an Anglican school run by Canadian missionaries, starting in Form Four. Then I went to an Anglican high school, on the outskirts of Nairobi. I joined the University of Nairobi. I had wanted to study medicine when I was young but could not stomach the dissection! I was interested in studying law at university, but ended up focusing on education there.

My university years were a tumultuous period in Kenya, with strikes and uprisings around 1975. I became very much involved in student leadership and in politics, to an extent that I did not finish my course and indeed was later forced to leave Kenya.

At the University of Nairobi, I also became actively involved in religious organizations. It began with the 1975 World Council of Churches Assembly . You will remember that WCC was forced to move the Assembly from Jakarta to Nairobi, because of political issues. I had just been chucked out of university, and went to work for the Assembly newspaper, so I was immersed in those events.

The 1975 Assembly was a weird meeting in many ways. All the world’s secret services were in Nairobi, and so were the liberation movements. There were strands and tensions around Marcos, Korean politics, and of course South Africa, Rhodesia and the UDI. All of the global political tensions of the time were played out. The trial of A.. McIntyre was taking place. Professor xx, from Syracuse was supporting the UDI, which was a central topic at the time. European churches were very much involved in channeling funds to anti-Apartheid movements.

So religion and politics were both there. And I was involved with both!

And how did you end up in Sweden?

It was really a political decision. Because of my involvement in Kenyan politics, as a student and a religious leader, I got embroiled in controversy. We had campaigned, in 1974, for members of Parliament; one, who was my friend, was arrested (in 1976). I thus became a target also and had to leave the country. I had met a Swedish journalist while I was working for the WCC Assembly newspaper, and she and the editor of a Nairobi newspaper offered to help me. I arrived there in February, 1976.

I then had to decide my next move. I had the option of continuing in the British system, because a teacher from Nairobi University had arranged a place in Southampton, or staying in Sweden and follow the Scandinavian system. I decided to leave the British system. The Church of Sweden was ready to support me, and the university was free except for maintenance. So I learned Swedish, continued my education there, and finished my degree.

I was then appointed by the Swedish mission to work as a youth worker. That took me to Geneva for three years. I worked with the World Council of Churches, on youth education.

And then I went back to Sweden, to the University of Uppsala, and finished my Masters and doctorate in philosophy, development studies and history.

What is your “faith biography?" How were you introduced to religion?

I grew up in an ecumenical home. My mother was Protestant, and my father was Catholic. And I went to church schools. My mother comes from a Christian home and she passed on her faith to us. My father is a first-generation Catholic. He went to the Catholic school and went later to a protestant school, though he was, by his choice, Catholic. He was a half-orphan, raised by his mother’s sister who was Catholic, and so he decided to support her.

Both my grandmothers were Protestant, one Anglican, the other Pentecostal. My maternal grandmother who was Pentecostal became a Christian at a very young age. She refused to be circumcised, and was ostracized for this at the time. She went on to become a pillar of faith in her community, bringing her sisters along with her. She was the founder of many churches.

My faith journey is rather interesting. I was coming of age in the time of leftist thinking, and to combine leftist thinking and faith was not easy. The churches were often uneasy with socialism and many in the leftist political movements rejected religion. But I was able nonetheless to combine my leftist sense of justice and my faith. Later on, I found that they strengthened each other. My ideas about social justice were very much informed and strengthened by my faith. In this I was inspired by and drew strength from the example of my grandmother, the faith leader, who broke through ethnic and cultural barriers, refusing female genital mutilation and moving in new directions. She was even excommunicated for taking churches across boundaries.

It was difficult for me to see the socialist reflection as the only vision of social justice. The new man is stronger in the Bible than in Marx and Engels. Even in Uppsala, I was striving to find a good combination of both. I was very active in the Lutheran church there, and at the same time very active in African groups, working for the liberation of South Africa and working with leftist refugees from Southern Africa. I had also bridged the two worlds while I was in Nairobi as a student, for example as part of the Christian Council. So my faith remained strong despite my socialist beliefs.

What happened after you finished your graduate studies in Sweden?

An important turning point was a 1986 presentation on resource sharing that I gave at a large WCC conference in Escorial. This was one of the historic moments for the WCC, as they reflected on north-south resource sharing. Then I went for the WCC to Sudan to look at the huge, cross-border operation involving refugees from Ethiopia and Eritrea. Then I spent two years in Zimbabwe, because my husband was finishing his Ph.D. I worked there for two years as a tutor.

We returned to Kenya in 1989. Not long after we returned, in September 1989, I was incarcerated for being part of a movement against Moi. Therefore, because of the political situation, I could not go and teach at the university, as I had intended. The church asked me to be a part of the justice and peace commission. The bishop felt that it was necessary, for my own security, for me not to be high profile and to be working under the wings of the church. I was given the task of managing the national office of development.

I was officially supporting the justice and peace commission but was actually working most of my time with the national development office of the church. In the mean time, I was doing a lot of other things, together with the bishops, in the struggle for democratization. Thus I stayed through with the church throughout.

In 1991, as part of the struggle for justice, we put together the first civic education program in sub-Saharan Africa. It preceded even the well-respected Monitoring Program for Civic Education in South Africa. We were working with a small NGO, which expanded over time.

Sam Kobia was the General Secretary of Kenya’s Council of Churches at that time. We moved with that program and we expanded it to train eastern and southern African councils on civic education. We became a model for others who were putting together similar programs. We did not see many results until 2002, but it has become a national program in 2007. We had basket funding from the WCC Development and Justice branch. It expanded over the years to include Hindus as well as Christians.

How were you related to the Churches during this period?

My ecumenical work is very much rooted in my church in the national context in the struggle for justice, as well as service delivery. We came increasingly to be advocates who raised questions about the government’s programs and about the ways in which they were being implemented.

Part of my early work involved convening all the church development leaders in a diocese to look at the development plans of the government to see how they related with our own development programming. We also had a long experience that I found in place of a development partnership process that involved the Canadians, the Americans and the Kenyans. The Canadian Church had particularly good ideas but unfortunately few resources so they did not last long at the table.

Then in 1998 I was a delegate to the Harare WCC Assembly, and there I was elected as the president for Africa. That meant that I was on the Executive Council, and also became an advisor for programs. The journey goes on! In the meantime, I was asked to serve in the WCRP, and particularly its Council of African Leaders (which is more active in Africa than WCRP itself).

So we were working along dual channels, through ecumenical and interfaith institutions and initiatives. I seek to link them and help them build on each other.

How did you get involved in peace processes?

I have been involved for many years, particularly in the Horn of Africa. Part of my job is to bring Muslim and Christian leaders to the table. A high point was a large meeting was in February 2007, where we brought the senior muftis, and senior bishops, to Dar Es Salaam, with the aim of a real reflection. Before that we had convened Muslim and Christian leadership separately.

What are the respective roles today of WCRP, the Council of African Leaders, and Ishmael Noko’s Inter-Faith Action for Peace in Africa (IFAPA)?

In many respects it is the same group of religious leaders who are involved in all three. As I see it, not only do they rely on the same leaders, but they have basically the same vision, the same kind of thinking about peace. It is at the leadership level that they are facing some challenges in defining their respective roles.

What I see a need for African leadership to come together. It’s as I said, the same leaders, it’s just when it comes to the whole continent, we focus very much on relationships between Muslims and Christians. And I think this was an inevitable development, because remember, these are the only two continental bodies. We haven’t had any significant interfaith structures to build on. There was a Program for Christian Muslim Relations, an old program that started in the late 1950s, but it was more about coexistence. When it comes to a multi-faith platform, it is these two that have emerged.

ACRL, created in Abuja in 2003, sees itself as an African group that is developing its own structures. WCRP was really seen as a foreign organization. WCRP has been instrumental in creating religious councils, but basically has no real infrastructure on the ground. They have suggested that IFAPA join them, but Noko, with IFAPA, has no wish to join anyone.

It’s not a hostile relationship, but it’s not a fully functioning relationship.

How is the WCC responding to the transformation that the rise of the Pentecostals represents?

At the 1998 Harare WCC assembly, there was a proposal for a forum that would address the changes taking place in the churches in Africa. That is what has birthed the Global Christian Forum, which met in Nairobi in 2007. It included the full spectrum, from the ultra conservative to the ultra liberal. It was hosted by the World Council of Churches, and Von Becker. This development reflects the WCC’s recognition that there is a need to broaden the ecumenical space, to look to new forms and approaches to ecumenism in the new century, to look at ecumenism afresh.

As all these families met in Nairobi in November 2007, they discussed the common challenges to Christian faith. Here, organic unity is not an issue. It reflects an interesting development, because it’s taken on a lot of different interests. It is a loose platform for engagement, discussion. However, it has not yet been thought of as a structure or institutions.

How far are you engaged in this process?

I’m not part of it, but I think it’s an important development. In order to break the old archetypes, the stereotypes against each other, the Christian families must get together. They must learn how to relate to Muslims and not just become phobic the way they often are, or very antagonistic. They need to get to understand what are the issues affecting Christian communities internationally. The charismatics are very much involved in social gospel work, in fact overtaking traditional churches. There are new ways in which Pentecostals are addressing issues. We may not like it, but the populations respond to them.

The kind of institutional, ecumenical framework of the traditional WCC has found it very difficult to handle proselytization, especially in eastern Europe. However, in Latin America, Pentecostals really are fully engaged with the WCC and are a major factor. Most of them are either associate members or members. That’s already a reality in the global south which you can’t underestimate. We see that local ecumenism is thriving based on issues. They are together on HIV, on human security, humanitarian disasters. It is active on the local level, even if it is not, yet, at the higher level.

You mentioned human security. What does that mean to you?

When I talk about human security I’m talking about conflict, peace, as in Kenya recently.

Can you tell us about TAABCO, one of your official homes?

TAABCO is a resource organization formed 10 years ago by a group of professional Christians. Our concern was, how do we reach out to NGOs and to FBOs so that they can manage change? We recognized that the country was undergoing social transformation, as we come out of a dictatorship into a more liberal situation. Our concern was, to accompany, facilitate, to equip civil society NGOs to cope with external and environmental changes. There was a government NGO coordinating body, and it played an important role. And there was CORAT, but it was focusing on churches. We wanted to reach out to NGO s from a faith perspective.

Internal governance is a major issue for civil society and NGOs. Whether there are financial systems, management systems, HR systems, integrated systems. There is a need to look professionally at the effectiveness of service delivery, to equip NGOs with these systems. And there is a vital need to look at the relationship with partners and donors. One of the things we brought into the discussion was the ways that northern and southern NGOs work together. Very few African NGOs come out to talk openly about the host of issues that arise in these complex relationships.

There is a sense in which they fear to bring the issues to the table, because they fear they will lose the money.

I know of one lady, who was doing fabulous work, and she couldn’t break through to this particular donor. This donor didn’t want to understand her, even though I made a major effort to present to her the perspective of the local NGO. I was told that the lady gave up the NGO, shut it. She wasn’t breaking through, and neither could we. We took our knowledge and presented it as a narrative, and played this back to the donor. And they wouldn’t accept it.

In another case, we tried to take young people and give them questions, and wrote to the partners, and said, go listen and document. We hoped they would listen. Those were European NGOs. It seems to be very difficult to change the pattern of relationships.

We heard a lot about this, from ECHO, and the dutch NGOs. They are very aware of the issues. Are your thoughts on the challenges to partnerships still those you presented at the Alliance of Religions for Conservation (ARC) meeting in London in 2004?

ARC is much more willing to hear the perspectives of southern NGOs than most organizations. The gap in understanding is a major challenge still.

You must be one of the real pioneer women in your field. How do you see women’s roles in your areas of work and your passions?

Yes indeed! In the beginning I was often alone. Of six Kenyans expelled in 1976, I was the only woman.

In the area of peace, we don’t have many women, but we have a few. For 10 years, with some Dutch funding, we have been trying to bring more women into the process. This is vital because . as long as we talk with religious leaders in the male gender, we don’t penetrate fully. In the peace process, we must develop parallel women leaders who can then come to the table, skilled and equipped to be a part of the debate.

What we are finding is that professional young women are going into the development agency life, not the peace work. The women of faith network is a good avenue to bring out genuine workers for peace. Because the narrative changes when the women are at the table.

When you bring the women to the table, you get a totally different narrative. It is not only experiential but the solutions to conflict are different. We saw that, for example, in the Acholi area of Uganda. That is one of the visions we have in the Horn, to bring women to the table.

The second area that needs emphasis is women politicians. There are some good examples. The Congo is one, and there are quite a number of women MPs in Rwanda also. We intend to have women Christian parliamentarians to reflect on peace.

Violence in families, in private space, is a critical and growing issue. As those countries have moved from war zones to the private space, you can see the increase in violence. It’s vital that policymakers see that.

There is a recent sensational study on Kenya. It documents an extraordinary level of violence against men, especially in Central Province. Why? It is linked to the social understanding of men’s roles. The women are very open about it. They say that the men are chewing chat, They come home stinking drunk, so there is not even that human relationship. They are useless even as husbands. The women say, he is now like a child. Because children when they misbehave must be disciplined, we must discipline the husbands. And the men who are most beaten? The pastors and lawyers! I can imagine why for the pastors, since they are constantly on the circuit in the name of visitation. But the lawyers? I don’t have an answer yet. We need to investigate.

This violence in the homefront, is not only confronting Kenya. It is a crisis situation. It is sensational. But the message is that violence is no longer a privilege of the men. The women are becoming frustrated and taking it out on the other spouse.

How are you spending your time? How engaged are you on WCC work?

The WCC Executive Committee meets about twice a year. TAABCO is managed by someone else, and I have space there. My office is there, but I don’t manage it, and I also don’t do much consultancy. Most of my time is on the home. TAABCO is funded by Norweigan Church AID, Bread for the World Germany, CWS. It has not had much funding.

I have two daughters. My second daughter finished high school and is waiting to go to college in the fall. My first daughter is in Australia; she is an IT person, and recently she has been doing fundraising for UNHCR. My husband used to be with the ECA in Addis, but he retired recently. He is now writing most of the time. It is me who is now trotting around these days!

What do you think will be the next chapter for WCC?

A real potential exists, though these days there is more focus on interfaith work than on ecumenism, both in Africa and globally. The efforts on infrastructure and institutions are much more focused on interfaith institutions. Ecumenism tends to be focused more on specific issues, but there is not a clear profile of what these might be.

The WCC could still play a role in democratization issues. That is what is going on in Latin America. This is an area where there’s been a lot of collective memory to support the faith movements. The issue of unity remains; than can’t afford to fight on mundane issues. For them to be credible, vis-a-vis power, they have to speak. I see it from my own national context. The moment we lost collective voice, the credibility of government plummeted.

Some of the issues that WCC needs to focus on are climate change and the governance question.

And then reengineering the organization. 60 years down the line, the old lady needs a face lift. That’s part of the internal governance problem. Internal governance is weak in the CSO sector generally, and that is reflected in the WCC. It’s not enough just to have structures in place. There needs to be a clear driving force behind those structures.

What are other issues that you are focusing on today as you look at Africa, and at faith?

If the Christian church is to be credible in the future, at least in Kenya, the leadership has to be seen to have integrity. If you run your structures from an ethnic perspective, that cannot be achieved and the institutions cannot work. To this end we need to work on systems that are operational. When priests and bishops have challenges, they need to address them head on. Only thus will the Church be able to speak authoritatively. The failures of the churches to overcome these challenges, and their weaknesses both of systems and relationships, are why they failed Kenya during the crisis. There’s a clear agenda there.

This is not the place to go into the NGO sector. Some are genuinely moving on and many simply are floating downstream. What is critical is that there has not been sufficient engagement with NGOs around corruption. There, few NGOs are really involved It’s been mainly FBOs and in particular the Christian church.

We are in the process, in Kenya, of restoring and retrieving our identity after the violence. The saddest thing, which we have not discussed here, is that politicians now have the ability to compromise faith communities. They have understood clearly that the churches have legitimacy, they have power, that politicians cannot contest. And so politicians divide them, through ethnic lines or through resources. That is where the capacity of religious leaders needs to be increased because they need to understand the workings of politicians. They have in the past not understood power dynamics within the political frame. And when the politicians deal with them, they think they are dealing with them like they deal with everyone else. The religious leaders have not understood politicians or politics.

The churches also need to understand the working of the state machinery. Religious leaders have very little knowledge of the working of the state. We try to help them understand the working of the budget; how does a ministry function? It’s very basic, but very important. Unless someone helps his bishops understand the ministry, they will have trouble.

There is where we need to focus, just to conclude, if we are going to engage in advocacy in the future. If we are going to make service delivery meaningful, we need to understand the politics, the structures, and the way they work.

There are challenging times ahead. Christians have monopolized in the past, but that is changing. In Kenya, I think in the whole of East Africa, you have a new and dynamic, educated Muslim leadership. It’s not the old imams; these are educated, prolific speakers, articulate. Muslim women are coming up too. In the meantime, the Christian community needs to look at its own formation, because otherwise they will not be able to be a part of the discussion.

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