A lot has been said about religion in Africa, and how Africans are so addicted to spiritual and magical beliefs. There has been an overwhelming focus on the manifestations of religious fervour in Africa. Unfortunately, very little attention has been paid to how religions spread including the ways and means that foreign religions have managed to gain traction in the region. There is little information regarding the strategies that religions employ to get Africans to convert and change religions. Attributing the spread of different religions in Africa to gullibility is simplistic and ignores important aspects of this phenomenon. It overlooks what religious organisations do – and continue to do – to get Africans to change their religion.
The assumption that Africans are inherently religious provides no proper insight into how religions that once were unknown in the region, have over the centuries succeeded in replacing or sidelining indigenous belief systems. Put differently, the claim that Africans are notoriously religious as Mbiti noted has not adequately explained the pervasiveness of Christianity and Islam on the continent today. So it has become pertinent to ask: how do religions – to be exact foreign religions – grow, spread and continue to make inroads in the region?
To highlight this critical perspective, this piece describes the Free Eye Camp program, an event that the Hindu Council of Kenya (HCK) organised in November 2017. By describing this poster, the piece shows that the need mechanism drives the growth of religion in Africa. It argues that religions spread in Africa because religious organisations target the needy in the African communities. They stage events that aim to satisfy people’s health, educational, political, social and economic needs.
By targeting the needy, organisations present their religions in a very positive and compassionate form to the people. They make their religions appear attractive and appealing. It is important to note that the need mechanism as discussed in this piece is not peculiar to Hinduism in Kenya or to the Hindu religion in general. Elements of need mechanism can be found in other missionizing ‘world’ religions such as Christianity and Islam-that are trying to gain ground,
grow their membership and followership in various places across the world.
Hindu Council of Kenya: Their Mission
The Hindu Council of Kenya is an umbrella organisation of Hindus in Kenya that promotes the interests of Hindus in the country. Hinduism is a minority religion in Kenya and has been trying to gain more followers in the country. According to the 2009 census, there are about 53,000 Hindus in Kenya. However this number is disputed and is believed to be much higher, and up to 200 000. The website describes HCK as ‘A non-commercial organisation aimed at serving the Hindu community living in the Republic of Kenya in East Africa whose mission is to bring together all organisations representing various Hindu sects domiciled in Kenya and work towards strengthening Hindu culture and propagate the Hindu way of living which is based on the principles of tolerance and peaceful coexistence’. In other words, the HCK is a missionary organisation that is committed to promoting Hindu identity and religion in Kenya.
HCK has contributed to growing the social standing of Hinduism in Kenya. Formerly, Hindus in Kenya had been identified in the voters’ register as non muslims, but HCK lobbied and got the government of Kenya to reverse this policy and recognize Hinduism as a religion in Kenya. In accordance to its ‘service to the Hindu community’, HCK is assisting in developing a syllabus on Hindu religious education. It has also supported school feeding, water and sanitation programs, and other social welfare programs.
Free Eye Camp: Medicines and Medical Services For ‘Free’
The Kisumu branch of the Hindu Council of Kenya organised the Free Eye Camp at Uzima University Campus in Kisumu on November 19, 2017. The event was organised to deliver ‘free’ medicines, eye cataract surgery, reading glasses surgery. The poster of the event noted that ‘Doctors from Sabatia Eye Hospital’ would be offering their services at the event. Friends Church, a Christian missionary outfit, manages the Sabatia Eye Hospital. From the poster, there seems to be no indication of any underlying motives. The Free Eye Camp appears to be a magnanimous gesture from the Hindu community to cater for the medical needs of the people.
As stated on the poster, the Eye Camp services were for free. That means the organisers, the HCK paid for the services. So the beneficiaries would not be paying a dime for the medicines that they would receive. They would not be paying for the medical examinations, the cataract surgery, and the reading glasses. Many people across Kenya suffer various health challenges and are unable to address them due to financial difficulties. For instance, a pair of reading glasses depending on the ‘strength’ of the glasses costs between sixty to three hundred dollars and a cataract surgery costs much more. But the HCK is providing these medical services for free.
Kenyans’ reaction to the Free Eye Camps
Unsurprisingly, many people across Kenya view the Free Eye Camp positively. The poster that advertised the program has elicited positive reactions from online users. One Kenyan described it as a ‘great initiative’. Another commentator articulated the greatness of this program: ‘While politicians remain fixated on who should take the loot, faith communities are busy doing what they must DO!’. In a related comment, another Kenyan underplayed the religious agenda behind the Free Eye Camp program because according to her, ‘Muslims, Christians, and Hindus will benefit from this noble exercise’. Still another Kenyan concurred and said: ‘I find this a noble thing to do. Extend a hand to societal needs when need be. Isn’t that what humanity is about?’ (Emphasis mine)
From the comments, Kenyans largely regarded the Free Eye Camp as a humanitarian project without any hidden agenda. One Kenyan noted: ‘The Hindu society has been doing this for as long as I can remember and it’s always been a good thing because they reach out to the most unable of our society with these kinds of services…do good and let your deeds speak for you. You will always remember that person who did you good and their god might just be as selfless. You might easily forget words that were said to you if they were not accompanied by a deed of compassion’.
Indeed, Kenyans who have eye problems would turn up in throngs to the venue to access these free deliveries of treatments they may never afford otherwise. Blinded by the benefits, the attendees may end up embracing Hinduism; or at least they would speak glowingly of the HCK without paying attention to its Hindu religious and cultural agenda. Attendees may also overlook the ulterior motives and mission of the organisation and lack a clear understanding of the basic teachings of the Hindu religion such as the caste system. In fact, someone made a comment regarding the Hindu caste system: “I also met a Ghanaian who converted to Hinduism. And I asked: If you convert to Hinduism, can you choose your caste and can it be Brahman for starters?”
This is a question that the people of Kenya should seriously consider. Kenya is a free society and Kenyans are entitled to change their religion or beliefs. At the same time, the people of Kenya need to pay critical attention to the Hindu caste beliefs. Caste system is a practice that dictates the social and religious life of the people. It divides Hindus into four main groups: the Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras, with the Brahmins at the top and the Shudras at the bottom of the social hierarchy. The Dalits or the untouchables are considered outside the caste system, the outcastes. The Hindu caste system is a discriminatory and obnoxious practice that sanctifies social inequality, enslavement and degradation of human beings. Caste violence is a recurrent phenomenon in contemporary India. Kenyans should not allow such harmful religious beliefs and practices to gain ground in their society.
Providing ‘free’ services to the needy in the society is one of the ways that outsider religions such as Hindiusm have been marketed in Africa. Religious agencies extend a helping hand to persons who are in desperate need, targeting vulnerable persons who are not in the position to critically examine and explore their underlying intent and motives. Religious organisations present these missionising events as if they are strictly humanitarian and meant to address the needs of the people. However, the programs are part of the strategy to get converts and grow religious followership. Like HCK, agents of foreign religions have employed this strategy for centuries in promoting their interests. Christian and Islamic agencies have erected schools and hospitals where they provide ‘free’ educational and health services.
How the spread of Hindiusm and other faiths has impacted Kenya
These religious services have had a profound impact on Africa’s religious demography. Today, religion in Africa is an assorted tapestry, a competing spectrum of colours, a variety of hues. The range of religious forums open to Africans to use and exploit continues to grow. Agents of foreign religions have altered –and continue to alter- the African religious landscape using their growth strategy, the need mechanism.
Missionary agencies present their religions in ways that needy Africans find difficult to resist or reject.
Some Africans end up abandoning their ‘traditional’ religions and converting to these foreign religions.
Africans, who benefit from their ‘free’ Eye, ‘free’ Ear, and ‘free’ Nose camp programs end up converting. They switch to these service-providing religions and start worshipping these service-providing gods. Even though some of those who benefit from the services or their relatives and friends do not always end up embracing these religions that foreigners introduced, they would at least reckon with these ‘caring’ religious formations and whatever they stand for.
Many people adopt religious dispositions that enable them to affiliate and disaffiliate, and be able access the free services of any religion that cares to extend a helping hand. This is how the need mechanism that religious agencies use contributes to the spread of religions in Africa.
Leo Igwe is a human rights activist and the founder of the Nigerian Humanist Movement. He was the Western and Southern African representative to IHEU, the International Humanist and Ethical Union. He can be reached by email HERE.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.