A Discussion with Agnes Abuom, moderator of the World Council of Churches Central Committee
November 18, 2014
Background: Dr. Agnes Abuom’s career and leadership in the Anglican Church and various global ecumenical bodies serves as testimony to her passion and persistence. Her diligence—mixed with kindness—earned her the distinction of the first female and first African moderator of the World Council of Churches's Central Committee in November 2013. Crystal Corman met with Dr. Abuom in Nairobi on November 18, 2014 to get an update on her work (compared to WFDD’s 2009 interview). One year into a seven-year term, Dr. Abuom is seeking to make her mark. Specific to Kenya, she discusses the need for ethics in education, improved interfaith education, and the importance of role models for youth. As Kenya strives for stability, she also speaks of the persistence of gender-based violence as well as interfaith efforts to build social cohesion and peace.
Please tell me more about your new role at the World Council of Churches.
I was elected last year in November in Busan, Korea as the moderator, the chair, of the World Council of Churches. The role carries a lot of demands. In terms of representation, I have speaking engagements to member churches in different regions. I’m balancing that with my own professional life and my family life. It’s an interesting combination!
This role comes towards the end of my career, but I will serve as moderator for the seven-year term. I’ve been asking myself, “What is it I want to leave as a mark of my leadership?” I have come in at a time when the ecumenical movement is a reflection of the national churches, but where leadership has no clarity of voice or of messaging. At the same time, churches are heavily engaged in a lot of action to improve livelihoods, to bring peace. So, what does that mean and how do you give voice? There are many actors.
And gone are the days where the church, in particular, had the privileged position. Now you have women’s movements that speak on issues; we have youth movements; we have political organizations.
Second, what is it that we [WCC] can contribute to the global debate? A lot of our language has been taken over by bilateral, multilateral government, and government structures. For example, in the ‘70s we talked a lot about participation. If you look at our documentation from the ‘80s, it was about justice. As I reflect I believe that our language and faith voices are behind many concepts and terms that are common in today’s development landscape. We must continue to promote issues of values that ensure universal dignity of all, as this is still lacking. So yes, our language has been taken over. The issue of human rights and equality of all is accepted. But, behind these concepts, we don’t see the tenets or the value system undergirding this, which would really propel this in the twenty-first century.
Does education have a role to play in teaching values?
Education is a very clear entry point to promote values. In the past, our education system was very value-based. It was concerned about the formation of the total human person. Now, we lack a component of that human person and instead the focus is more on the intellect. But intellect alone, knowledge alone, book knowledge alone will not deliver a nation. We have to struggle with the Kenya government to make sure that the values that are in Chapter VI of our constitution on integrity are also part and parcel of our education: values of patriotism, values of love, values of peace, values of unity. They must be ingrained in our education curriculum.
In my opinion, we are at a loss as a country if we do not tackle this issue and create a commission on national cohesion and integration as a separate entity, working on infrastructure. What system would guarantee that for the nation? It is the education system, because every child will go through that system.
On the other hand, notice that the Muslims have a kind of parallel system so that before ordinary classes, the child may go to a madrassa. In the morning, they start with their madrassa, where they are drilled in their faith and values. Christians don’t have that, and this is why the church is very unhappy with the proposed education bill. We have contested it because first, it denies the church ownership of schools. Secondly, it has watered down that spiritual part of the human, the soul of the person. I think the faith communities all agree people have to be nurtured holistically in their faith, in the technical education, but also in their relationships.
Our schools are producing products that are very individualistic and thinking about professions. These graduates are not looking at horizontal relationships, and they are not looking at their relationship with their God—in terms of a curriculum where you derive the universal values that create a human being and enable that being to be in relationship with others of diverse beliefs and cultures.
Some Kenyans talk of “peace with diversity." Are you saying education would help with this?
Yes. There would be peace, because it starts with respecting and understanding the other, really believing in their dignity as a human being. And if the other person respected me as well, accepting that we can coexist peacefully with our diversity—because in that diversity, there is richness—there are contributions we bring to the table that are important. Together we make the whole.
Who are the key actors engaged in interfaith in Kenya today, especially those addressing peace and social cohesion?
The Interreligious Council of Kenya (IRCK), headed by Dr. Kuria, is the primary convener for faith communities. The other platform for interfaith that looks at issues of social cohesion is Ufungamano [Open your hands]. This was formed by those that were not very comfortable at IRCK and preferred to meet outside at a place called Ufungamano, a famous student center that was built by Catholic and National Council of Churches for Students. This center has become a place where ideas and processes are born. For example, that is where the process for constitutionalism was promoted and prepared by the interfaith leadership. So, Ufungamano is a very historic place.
Recently the Kenyan government signed a memorandum of understanding with the religious leaders. It’s called Pamoja [together] in Pursuit for Peace and Security, and the idea is to engage religious leaders because we have seen extremism intensify since 2009. Recruitment of young people is a pretty obvious priority; study shows clearly that youth are recruited at fifteen and by age nineteen they are in the front lines [of extremist activities]. This indicates that recruitment starts as young as 10, when they are just at madrassas. We’ve seen scenarios of intercultural, interreligious conflicts, particularly along the coast and in the northern part of the country, both the northeast and the northwest. Within the nation there are also simmering tensions of differing natures, depending on the location.
Religious leaders were quite active and vocal on issues of peace in the past; do you see a change today?
Unlike the ‘80s, early ‘90s, the religious leaders in Kenya today are not as strong. You don’t see a voice that speaks with authority to the whole nation. Actually, there is noone across the board that speaks with authority. We don’t know why this is, whether they are just absorbed with internal arrangements. This could be the case because when you look at the Muslim community, they are dealing with their own internal contradictions. There are extremists who are also killing themselves and their own leaders. When you look at the Christian fraternity, you have this “plant the seed“ prosperity group that is completely going off track in terms of the core message, and leadership succession has not been the very best in terms of preparation.
Why are church leaders not well prepared or trained in Kenya?
There has not been adequate preparation, and what ails society is also ailing religious communities. Today in the church in Kenya I see ethnicity and regionalism dividing people. The current crop of leaders wish to do good, but they’re not very well equipped. They’re not very well exposed, unlike the previous generation that was committed, was selfless (more or less), and was concerned about society. We have a generation—or 10 years actually—where most Christian leaders are concerned about their own livelihood.
The economy of the church or the structuring of the church has not been very proper. That has impacted its voice. Instead, what we hear is radical voices; Makaburi who was killed in Mombasa and very conservative voices on the other side promoting self-protection are saying, ‘Well, if they’re bombing us, we should also arm ourselves.’ I think that’s the challenge we have. So, there is a lack of voice(s) with integrity who can speak to the nation from the religious circles.
What role does formal religious education play in this lack of national leadership?
I think you cannot continue to provide theological education the way you did 10 years, even 20 years ago. Today we are in a context that demands leaders to broaden their scope of knowledge, particularly on social issues. Secondly, interfaith issues have changed. It’s only recently that St. Paul’s University began to offer a course on interfaith, and I don’t know the extent of that course. So that goes to show you that lack of interest or training. On the other side, the Muslims have very little formal training on Christianity. This results in a pastor or a sheikh who is not well prepared for the current situation; they know so little about the identity of the other. If you then come into a political context where politicians thrive on abusing and misusing religion and ethnicity and regionalism, these same religious leaders are ill equipped.
In what areas are interfaith dialogue actors doing well? And what are the challenges?
It is still at an early, nascent stage. In my experience of interfaith work, in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, we began with an attempt to understand the other religion through dialogue; what does each religion stand for and who are they? We then sought to move beyond just understanding when we talk about interfaith relations and peaceful coexistence. Instead, we use interactive dialogue where you seek to work together on issues of common concern; you seek to collaborate in nation-building as patriots. In my opinion, we have not reached this part. In Kenya, we are still at the very preliminary stages, teaching Christians about Islam and Muslims. We have yet to go to the more critical step.
What is interesting, however, is that there are issues that automatically lend themselves to this interactive community dialogue and engagement. These issues include conflict and issues of development, such as land, etc. As devolution grows, I think one of the facilitating instruments will be the county governments, because they have brought issues closer to the people. The religious leaders in each county will have to address the issues specific to that county. If that is where religious leaders engage, then perhaps that begs the question what becomes of the national Christian leadership.
How does a religious leader gain respect to speak for a larger community?
You have spokespeople within faith communities. For example, the Muslims have the Supreme Council of Muslims (SUPKEM), which has a chair, but do they speak with the support of the others? What about the Hindus? There are religious minorities, including the African traditional religions, which are rarely represented. How are the traditional religions contributing to peaceful coexistence? This is important in regions like northwest Kenya in Turkana and Pokot, also the Marakwet tribe. In those areas, there are very few who are Muslims and even fewer Christians. This means you will easily miss that component in the discussion if you only turn to Christian and Muslim leaders. Even at an event yesterday, people narrowed down basically to Christian-Muslim relations because of current tensions and the fact that both are expansionist in nature.
Even within Christianity it’s very difficult to select a leader to speak for so many. They face a challenge of structures and even capacities of engagement. They can engage at a very micro level but perhaps not even at county level. It’s a bit problematic.
The World Council of Churches works with “mainline” churches; what about the African Instituted Churches? How do you see them involved in development and peace?
I’ve been working on a study on the role of the church in socio-economic development; it’s a comparative study of African Instituted Churches and the mainline churches. I’m asking myself, “What is their motivation, their theological standpoints, on the issues of development? Are they the same? Are they different? Are positions there? Are they articulated? What approaches do they use in development?” I’m looking at the sectors of interventions in which they are engaged. Are some churches in particular sectors and not others and why are others dominant? There has never been a study comparing African Instituted Churches with the mainline churches. And African Instituted Churches are not funded externally. So, my hypothesis and my assumption is that their approach is local solutions to local problems, very micro, but also innovative.
Let me give you some examples of innovation. We have a case in Nairobi where an AIC church has found methods of dealing with disasters in the urban setting in a much more effective and efficient way than even our own mainline churches. If the member of the African Divine Church passes away, they have a kiti [chair] where they will organize everything. It’s like semi-insurance to make sure they accompany this family: they prepare to bury this person, after burial they cater for the transport and other expenses. This doesn’t happen in our mainline churches. To me, that is a social intervention that is very critical—and it’s very innovative. But what is it that has made that? It is the context within which they operate—urban, informal slum dwellings. They are low-income people, and so they have some innovative ideas for addressing their immediate emergency needs and long-term needs.
Are all these churches acting independently? Are they connected or organized in any way?
They have an organization that is an equivalent of AACC—it’s called the OAIC. Actually, the National Council of Churches has given scholarships to the AICs to attend seminaries and have more training.
Most AICs have family leadership, so it’s handed over from father to son or father to wife. In a church recently, the membership is contesting such inherited leadership. Is there a theological underpinning for this, which AOIC can draw from? In my opinion, the more democratic the society becomes, the more they will also require this of their religious structures—particularly the church. This is going to be an interesting issue to follow because it still contributes to their understanding of leadership and how then they contribute in society.
How do you see things for women in Kenya’s religious spheres? Are there any new changes?
I think there is a major change. From the Christian perspective, I think the issue of women in ministry is no longer an issue because you have quite a number of women ministers and pastors. In the Catholic Church, we need to recognize that the sisters also hold quite high positions in the institutions, such as at the university. They may not be priests standing up to lead mass, but they hold key positions and remain the pillar of the church, so to speak.
Where I’ve seen a marked difference is in the growing number of senior women leaders in the evangelical network. There are quite a few! We don’t have a parallel development in the mainline churches. We celebrate Canon Rosemary Mbogo, the NCCK chair. We have seen more women attending synods, etc. I think there is an appreciation of the need to honor women, but the churches and faith communities are challenged by the constitution’s goal that women should comprise one-third of MPs. Women’s representation came up yesterday during a panel where I was the only woman among seven men. So, there are challenges to honor the gender representation, particularly that one-third.
An issue that has become a real thorn in the flesh is violence against women in all forms and at all levels. As much as gender-based violence has been talked about, it has not found adequate support in the religious structures, in terms of leadership. So my campaign, at this stage, is to get it at the table of religious leaders so that they carry it and run with it. As long as it remains an activist agenda or a female agenda, it does not get the policy decision, the action support, or the condemnation it needs.
Gender-based violence is a scandal in terms of our engagement as church leaders. It is going on under our noses; it is right in the church—not only in the society, it is in the church. This is a big hot issue that the church or the faith communities must begin to address.
I don’t know how serious it is in the Muslim community, but definitely it is there. We know it’s a societal crisis as we speak. And when we talk about gender, we are also aware that there are men who are faced with violence from women. In Central Province the levels of alcoholism and drugs among young men is very high. And therefore, since they are unable to exercise their responsibility, the men are then beaten by their spouses.
Do you think that there are enough discussions going on with men about gender roles and family dynamics between men and women?
Not yet. AACC this year put in place a program on family and gender justice, and they recruited a lady from Cameroon as a positive step, recognizing the challenges and the dynamics. Now, some Anglican Churches and the Kenya Anglican Men Association are working precisely on this topic with a curriculum called “Man Enough." They just had a workshop for the diocese. They are going to hold a national workshop in Mombasa at the beginning of December.
I think those of us who worked on gender have slept on the job. We slept on the job, because we never addressed positive masculinity—until it became a challenge. We were more concerned to lift up the status of the women and their awareness because they were on the receiving end, so to speak. But right now, to even be able to maintain those relations and to enable the empowerment of the women, the man has to be “man enough” which means positive masculinity. It means life partnership in society.
We slept on the job and the issue of men came up in the ‘90s. The women we were training in women’s empowerment and gender roles came to us very clearly saying, “Look, you have trained us and we are equipped. But how about our men?” We did very little with a few interventions here and there on men but scattered.
How can male leaders in the church engage with gender issues—not just “women’s” issues?
The first place we need to really engage is with men of the cloth. These men are very important in terms of the image they give, and also what they do. If the church leadership was to project positive masculinity—be “man enough” then it is easy to filter and to parcel it to young people, to families. They will then see the priest and his or her spouse living differently. They walk differently compared to the other.
Male leaders in the church must be role models. Christianity has always modeled alternatives: breaking away from sins like stealing, being unfair to one’s wife, etc. I think if we went back to the revival model, we would see men and women who looked at each other as a brother and a sister—rather than a hierarchy of husband over wife.
How does financial instability play into gender-based violence or power dynamics in the home?
Linked to this gender-based violence—on both sides—is the economic dynamics. That’s where development comes in. How do you address a family where roles have changed drastically, particularly in terms of economics. The woman was often raised believing and understanding that men ought to provide for a family. Today, she may be better educated, particularly the middle class and the working class in Kenya. She has a good job, as does her husband (but obviously salaries are different).
When it comes to the Christian community, counseling is in short supply and there is a gap in terms of content: How do you counsel young men and women before marriage on financial management and stewardship of their resources? The landscape has changed in Kenya. It’s no longer that a woman can expect her husband to bring home everything. What if tomorrow he’s out of a job, but she still has a job. Is she as responsible, and is he emotionally, mentally prepared for his wife to be the provider? Because it’s one thing for the woman to accept this responsibility, but it’s another thing for him to be mentally and emotionally prepared. And many of them suffer.
What can be done to help men and women adapt to this new economic reality in Kenya?
There is a need for programming to help the men. Some women also need this support, because it’s not correct to think that because your husband is not providing, he stops being a husband or a father to the children. Neither does it mean that when he stops providing, he ceases to exercise his responsibility of rearing the children. There are other roles in the family. So this whole issue of changing roles as a result of economic empowerment processes—or disempowerment—creates a lot of negative dynamics and contributes heavily to the violence, emotional, physical, and mental, that is a problem. We are seeing a lot of mental health issues, including depression and it is tied to gender expectations.
How do you see youth coping with unemployment?
We need to prepare young people to know that in this generation and this economy, formal employment is not a given. You have to find something to do so that you can create your own job. Some young people are doing it. Our education system still talks of these “white collar” jobs. It still expects people to be employed after graduating; it still thinks that the man is the one who is going to provide culturally. And yet, the reality on the ground is that this young graduate might well sell second-hand clothes—he can still become a millionaire and provide—but he sits there thinking, “I can’t do that. That is for standard drop outs.” But clever ones see business as a bridge into future jobs.
The gap we have in education is that we don’t have sufficient technical schools to equip young people with the skills and competencies that can really provide for the market. We have seen a loss of village polytechnics and the attempt so turn every institute into a university has denied such practical training. And it has actually created a big gap—because we need technicians. I need an electrician. I need a plumber. In fact, today if I call a plumber, I can see he is teaching himself through trial and error! We need mechanics.
What other gaps do you see for youth?
For young people the main mode of communication is social media, and that means there is a major gap between them and their parents. Most parents are analog so the most they can do is use a telephone and do Mpesa transactions. But their children are on social media doing all kinds of things. When you expect parents to support their children in passing on knowledge, you find that the technological innovation has surpassed the parents, and yet, they still have a world to share with their children! Too often parents feel inferior as a result of this. Because of this technological gap, many parents feel shy to speak to their children.
It’s important, even for basic things. Not all Kenyans will have a smart phone, but in general, there will be a phone somewhere in the family, even the most poor. Generally, they would afford a cheap phone.
What innovation or entrepreneurial spirit do you see from Kenyans?
I see especially young people being innovative. As an example, I listened to a young man talking about hydroponics—a new method of farming. He was speaking to us as religious leaders (Anglicans). This young man started small but now he’s expanded to Uganda. So, we have a lot of innovation and spirit of enterprise in the country.
What we need really is a better link between political leadership and the religious leadership. Political leadership only wants to exploit the youth in political violence and does not really want to organize youth to think or act politically. Religious leaders have not quite caught up with this innovation, so we are left with a small business community that then supports the young people. The political class is more interested in votes. But modern business is important and exciting. This is the angle we would like to see more developed so that young minds find their way.
In your opinion, what gives youth hope for the future?
I think role modeling has been very critical. I see people like Loroupe going back to Pokot and doing peace marathons there. As a runner from that area, she got into peacebuilding and can go back to encourage others. That gives the girls a lot of hope that it is possible.
The other thing that is perhaps hopeful for Kenya is that there is a lot of support for young people. If you look carefully at the ministries, there is really an effort to bring in young people. Of course, the older generation resists. For example, a minister recently said, “At 60 years old and in government, you should give way and become a consultant.” I agree with this. Become a mentor, and mentor the young, because we have such a youth bulge that we can’t afford to keep them discouraged. We have to keep the hope. We have to keep them engaged.
Who are some role models that come to mind?
To encourage the youth, we have to tell the stories of where we have come from. Some people have come from very simple beginnings. Yesterday, I heard a touching story of a very successful Massai man—who is Christian—speak of being raised by a Somali Muslim family. It’s a good story that shows that it is possible to coexist. It is possible to support somebody of a diverse nature; they can be who they are, even if different from you.
I was telling my nieces and nephews about the youngest member of Parliament in Kenya who is 26 years old. This young man came from an area with poor education options, but when he finished campus, he didn’t have a job so he decided to be a volunteer teacher. He taught in four schools. It is amazing what he did in four schools within a short time. With his help, the region is now sixth out of nine (before it was last). Because he volunteered, the people elected him to Parliament at that young age, because he is so committed to the wellbeing and improved livelihoods of the people.
That is a narrative that a lot of graduates can learn from. After finishing school, they can’t find a job but they can support a school to teach; they think it is nothing. But you have to have a vision. This young man is in Parliament. He’s the youngest, and he was just a volunteer teacher. He can tell a story to others who may be sitting waiting for jobs. He also has a vision for his community in terms of improved education.
You mentioned devolution and how it will bring issues closer to the people. What is your opinion of devolution for Kenya?
Devolution has been an agenda for Kenya since independence. It’s been tossed around by politicians, but at the end of the day Kenya has realized that effective participation of citizens is best when the government structures and the services are closer to the people. Gone are the days when somebody had to travel from Mandera to come and get a passport in Nairobi.
Devolution is sometimes misunderstood, but it is really how you bring the structures of engagement, of development, of decision-making closer to those that are affected by it and who need to impact it. I think eventually we will get there. The biggest challenge—which we never anticipated—is the expenditure that devolution would cost. Seven counties are not few.
The culture of limited accountability is still a matter that we have to sort out. This is where religious leaders must and should engage in awareness creation: capacity enhancement of communities for advocating for their rights and exercising their responsibilities. Without this, we’ll end up with a sense of devolved elite from the national to the county with the same culture and the same style of leadership.
We can see the profiles of the counties now changing. You can see which governors are committed—and their interests. It’s easy to see who cares for the people and who is just buying time. Unfortunately, at the last election many people did not understand the difference between a senator, a member of parliament, a member of county assembly, etc. This resulted in literally choosing men and women who are like the previous regime. We haven’t done enough, but we have three years to engage communities in teaching, “By the way, do you know what an MCA (member of County Assembly) ought to be doing this work as part of the portfolio?”