by Otieno Sumba
The newly beatified Sister Irene Nyaatha Stefani may hold a Gikuyu name dearly given to her by the community she lived and worked in, but she is not Gikuyu, Kenyan, African or Black. This holds true for many of the other Catholic saints, blesseds, and venerables that earned their halos by the historical receptiveness of Africans for charity, mercy, healing or saving. Indeed, as Edward Andrews puts it, they might as well have been “visible saints, exemplars of ideal piety in a sea of persistent savagery” in any colonialist ideal.
Daniel Comboni, one such specimen, is quoted to have selflessly said “Either Africa or Death” (in Italian O Nigrizia, o morte– notice Africa’s Name). According to Wikipedia, he went ahead to develop a “plan for the rebirth of Africa” after a vision in 1864 in Rome, which echoed his mantra, “save Africa through Africa.” Still very coincidental that the saint planned to save Africa in 1864 and the colonial conquest came so quickly, at least according to that story. So, following coincidence (and not trusting Wikipedia), I go ahead and Google who the patron saint of Kenya is.
I am curious.
The first place I find myself is answers.com. I stumble upon William Howe, rated “expert answerer” by the website’s users. His credentials:
“Born a Catholic and have never wavered in my faith in over 70 years. I had 12 years of Catholic education in my youth – both primary and secondary schools. I went on to teach science and theology in a local Catholic school for 13 years and, although retired, I continue with ministries in the Church. I have a large personal collection of genuine relics of Jesus Christ and many saints and use them to teach younger generations about the lives of the saints. My ministry has a website about relics and how to detect fake relics.”
William Howe´s answer: “I can find no patron saint for the country of Kenya.”
However, I disagree. I think Kenya has a patron saint. His name is St. Coloniality. I took the liberty of writing a short biography:
There are many contested accounts about the life of St. Global Coloniality. One such account postulates that St. Global Coloniality (named colonialism at birth) was born on the 26th February 1885 to a German father; Otto Von Bismarck and an unnamed Portuguese mother. It was a complicated pregnancy and the saint´s parents had been in an out of a hospital since November 1884. At the early age of 6 years, Coloniality was brought to Africa by his parents who were interested in mission and explorative work alongside other activities in Tanzania, Namibia, Cameroon, Mozambique and Angola because of their lifelong desire to evangelize distant lands. He grew up into his parents cause, and continued their work in many other African countries. Due to a tropical sickness, Coloniality is said to have fallen into a coma in early 1957 in Ghana. His helpers however continued his work on the continent, carrying him along. He died in Kenya in 1963. Many other countries claim he died in their countries, naming different years such as 1968 (Mauritius), 1975(Angola) and 1976 (Seychelles) and have produced certificates to confirm their claims. The name Coloniality stuck after his death, he is said to have commonly signed off with this name instead of his true name colonialism.
Coloniality was instantly venerated by faithful in many countries, which to this day have huge congregations swearing allegiance to colonialist religions. Many children have been named after colonialist Saints and a few convert Africans have even been canonized for readily dying for religion.
Coloniality easily translates into what the Swahili would refer to as ukoloni mamboleo. It is the persistent power of a bygone era of colonialism that continues to transcend our lives, it is:
“…one of the specific and constitutive elements of [a] global model of capitalist power. It is based on the imposition of a racial/ethnic classification of the global population as the cornerstone of that model of power, and it operates on every level, in every arena and dimension (both material and subjective) of everyday social existence, and does so on a societal scale
Anibal Quijano 2000
Colonialities of power exist in the worship of white people at airports, coffee chains and at your favorite beach hotel in Diani. It is the security personnel at various locations who – seemingly hypnotized – let the white person in front of you glide through security and then go ahead to churn out the contents of your bag and basically polish their dysfunctional metal detectors on your clothes. It is the ease of access to various hotels in Nairobi when one has a white person in tow, the sudden busybody-ness of receptionists when a white person walks in.
Colonialities of being happen when we proudly wear Coloniality on and in our heads, either as magistrates with a white horsehair-wig of unmatched awful flagrance in a court of law or when we would rather bear the brunt of the Nairobi sun under a straight hair weave or a wig than leave the house with our hair “undone”. We consider time honoured Maasai garb backward and traditional, yet run to Maasai market when our white friends visit to show them “our culture”. We watch, unbothered as Kikoi was almost turned into a British trademark, and LaLesso appropriates our dear Leso into unrecognizable pieces of patterned cloth. We resign to Coloniality, play into the roles created for us by the colonialists; Karen-Blixen-Country, Safari-Country, Kibera-Slum-Tours-Country, good-athletes-country.
Colonialities of knowledge include being taught that Mt. Kenya was “discovered” by Johann Ludwig Krapf and Johannes Rebmann in a public, government financed school. That the history of Kenya began in 1900 and that there is little else before that, that the Mau Mau were thugs and brutes who killed indiscriminately, and that wearing locked hair links you to similarly shifty underground groups. That the british “granted” us independence out of the goodness of their hearts. Coloniality is the fact that no british official, military or civilian, has ever been investigated or prosecuted for the massive atrocities that happened in the suppression of Mau Mau; including the use of concentration camps and in their best days, the imprisonment of upto 71,046 Kenyans (without trial, in what would have been an illegal court anyway) in December of 1954.
Kenya and Britain have done brilliant job at covering up colonialism, throwing a blanket of collective insomnia over millions of people a mere 50 years after the biggest atrocity in Kenyan history was committed. At independence the reconciling “father of the nation” referred to the Mau Mau as “a disease which has been eradicated and must never be remembered.” In 2006 we rebelled, we dared to remember Kimathi Waciuri (aka Dedan), erected a statue on Kimathi street and then instantly forgot again, our insomnia punctuated only by monotonous Mashujaa Day celebrations.
Religion continues to be a breeding ground for Coloniality in all its forms, particularly Christianity. Catholicism in Kenya remains under the tight grip of hegemonic structures straight out of the early centuries. The higher up the hierarchy you go, the less Africans you find. Nevertheless, the Kenyan Catholic church has managed to appropriate a few things here and there since 1970, prior to which holy mass had to be said in Latin all over the world. See:
“The Catholic Church has a dignity far surpassing that of every merely human society, for it was founded by Christ the Lord. It is altogether fitting, therefore, that the language it uses should be noble, majestic, and non-vernacular”.
Pope John XXIII, 1962
This cultural-imperialist practice of belittling languages marked unworthy of the ears of the Lord was accompanied by strictly set liturgical practices. Singing, drums or dancing in the Kenyan Catholic church were unheard of before the 1970s, where chants in Latin were the norm.
Religious imagery within Catholicism is another ready site for colonial reproduction and literal worship of everything white. I am yet to come across black religious relics, such as a black statue of Jesus on the cross or the Black Madonna in a Catholic church in Kenya, let alone a picture. Hardcore Catholics would consider it blasphemous to even think about a black Jesus or Mary.
Back on the real internet we find pictures of Sister Stefani in Kenyan news with the newspaper features hailing her selfless charity. One picture shows her posing piously, with the typical lonely acacia tree and orange African sunset combo that can be found on the covers of countless African and Africa-themed novels and movies in the background. The second shows her semi-ascending into heaven in flowing white robes, with a group of stunned black faithful looking up to her in awe.
My problem is not Sister Stefani, Christianity or religion per se, my problem is no longer even the white savior industrial (or religious) complex that is ubiquitous in the “development´\” discourse. My problem is the culture of silence and complacency, the lack of agency in the face of such brazen assaults to black consciousness, spirituality, intelligence and dignity. We are so hypnotized by religion that we will let a pastor touch a woman’s breasts in public and say amen! We will watch a pastor train people to give false testimonies and still “sow a seed” to finance his new Range Rover.
Colonialism was a form of imperialism based on a “divine mandate” and designed to bring “liberation” in all its forms – spiritual, cultural, economic and political – by sharing the blessings of the Christ-inspired civilization of the West with a people suffering under “satanic oppression, ignorance and disease.” The entire missionary enterprise was therefore part of the machinery of Western cultural imperialism. Today, Coloniality is based on a “divine mandate” to bring prosperity, it is the sharing of a gospel of Christ-inspired capitalism with a people suffering under poverty, ignorance and alienation. It is the beatification of a white saint in our country, and the subordinate status that black people/spirituality is accorded within in the Catholic Church. We cannot reverse history, and religion has since become a strong pillar for many of us, but I think that we need to own our spirituality, to claim ownership and take ownership, regardless of which religion we are in.
Otieno Sumba is a fledgling post-colonial Political Scientist who –as a former catholic- finds the little picture of a black Madonna hanging over his door highly empowering. Twitter: @_Otieno_