Unitarian Universalism emerging in Africa

My cousin Nancy, another lifelong Unitarian Universalist, is currently based in Nairobi, Kenya, doing research. About a month ago I got an email message from Nancy asking if I knew of any resources for people wanting to start a Unitarian Universalist congregation. While living in Nairobi, she had met some Kenyans who were interested in our liberal faith.

I did some quick research for Nancy and discovered that the International Council of Unitarians and Universalists (ICUU) was already making connections with emerging Unitarian Universalist groups in Africa:

In recent years there has been a growing interest in Unitarianism in… African countries. New fellowships have been established in Bujumbura, Burundi and Brazzaville, Congo…. More recently there has been a growing interest in Unitarianism in Kenya and Uganda.

With these factors in mind, the ICUU Executive Committee decided recently that ICUU President, Rev. Gordon Oliver of Cape Town, South Africa, should visit Central Africa to meet with Unitarians and Universalists in Nigeria, Uganda, Kenya, Burundi and Congo (Brazzaville). This visit is scheduled to take place from 19th March to 5th April 2007.

The purpose of this visit is to explore the culture and vigour of Unitarian and Universalist groups in Africa, to explore with them their needs and goals, and to move toward development of strategies for support, self-sustainability, and growth.

Link to full notice. Even as I write this, Gordon Oliver is touring central Africa meeting with these groups.

Now I find myself engaged in email correspondence with Nancy and ICUU officers, and learning quite a bit about emerging Unitarian Universalist congregations in Africa. As you would expect of our liberal faith, these emerging congregations are not the result of proselytizing, but the result of Africans discovering liberal religion on their own.

If you’d like to read more about the emerging Unitarian congregations in the Kenya countryside, click the link below to read a report by Janice Brunson, a United States Unitarian Universalist who has recently visited Africa. In a few days, I plan to post another report from Janice about her contact with the two Unitarian congregations in Nigeria, one of which has been in existence since 1915.

If your congregation is looking for a unique partner church relationship, you will be especially interested in reading more.

Janice Brunson has given me permission to reprint the following report on new Unitarian congregations in Kenya:

Unitarians in southeastern Kenya

We had to leave by 8 a.m. in order to make services at two different congregations. Arrangements had been carefully made the night before. People were anxiously awaiting our visit.

It would be the first visit ever by a “masungu” to either congregation, part of the growing Unitarian Universalist community in southeastern Kenya. The group is currently seeking membership in the International Council of Unitarians and Univeralists.

Rev. Patrick Magara, now called Bishop, and wife Alice “planted” their first UU congregation in 2001, in the small village of Etono, in Kisii District, two hours from the City of Kisii. There are now 12 congregations and eight groups that are not yet large enough or active enough to be considered congregations.

The people are poor, yet as Unitarians who believe in one God, they see their Unitarian duty as caring for some 600 children orphaned by AIDS, mediating family diputes in a region where wives are regularly beaten and children mistreated, and providing medical care in a huge region that has no doctors or functioning clinics.

A bone-jarring ride

We finally get arway at 9 a.m., already an hour behind schedule. We pile into the old, beat up, filthy cab of an abused mini-truck that looks like it has seen many road mishaps. There is seating for eight on benches along either side of the cab. Over 20 of us pile in, including Randi, a UU from Los Angeles, and Fulgence, president of the only UU Fellowship in the small African country of Burundi. They will catch the public bus in Kisii for the grueling six hour drive to Narobi and then home.

We arrive at the bus stop two jaw-jarring hours later. Rural roads here are little more than scraped earth, seriously rutted by regular rains that errode the earth, carving ditches and trenches.

In Kisii I must stop at the VISA machine. Money vanishes at an astonishing rate, because nobody else has any. The truck and driver alone will cost $100 today and then there is food, gifts to those we are visitng and a thousand other incidentals nobody can predict.

A new Unitarian congregation in Kebirigo

Now we are off again, to the first congregation. It is the newest, located in a small, very rural village called Kebirigo. Several months ago Bishop Magara’s eldest son, Justin, initiated a mass conversion from Pentacostal speaking-in-tongues-and-writhing-on-earthen-floors, to Unitarianism, offering a single God and hope.

The road to Kebirigo is mean, deteriorating with each mile until it becomes impassable. We walk the final distance, meeting Sampson at the top of high rolling hill. A path leads into the exquisite valley below, a patchwork of manicured, lush fields. Kisii Region is noted as the backbone of Kenya because tea is grown here and it is a primary exports. Traders and government officials have grown wealthy from tea harvests but the people who grow and pick the tea make a paltry 10 cents a kilo for their labors.

With Sampson leading the way, the old Reverend, the even older white woman and a host of others begin the trek downward. It is raining but it lets up before we are badly soaked. The narrow trail is muddy, slippery and rutted. An hour later we reach the community center, constructed of mud bricks with paneless windows.

Excitement is high even though everyone is hungry after waiting three hours for the tardy visitors. For most, it is their first view of a white woman. An abbreviated service is led by Justin, the Bishop speaks about hopes for a future school, Dominic, a physician who chairs the UU Medical Program, talks about the hope of a mobile clinic, Alice talks about her Alliance for Women and how they are raising money, the “masungu” says we are brothers and sisters in religion.

A wet ride to Encharo

Then the hike back up the hill in intermitent rain. At this point the old battered truck is looking better and better. It is now mid-afternoon and we are suppose to be at the second congregation by now but first, another drive which is far worse than the previous ride. At one point the road is entirely washed away so we backtrack but the truck cannot make it up the muddy hill. We all get out and hike. We nearly arrive at the next stop but the truck can go no further. We walk.

Encharo is a Unitarian Universalist village, a huge congregation that was started in 2004. They proudly show off their building effort, an open air framework of poles with a tin roof. There are crude benches and a table.

The sun is sinking. People are starving but their hunger does not dim their excitement. Children sing in English, elders beam with pride. Again, an abbreviated service and then a walk to a nearby house in the pitch black for a meal of maise and greens.

Back to Rev. Magara’s house

It is now pouring. We climb back into the truck for a final drive over a little used, horribly rutted and mud-slippery road to Justin’s home where a second meal awaits us. This is definilty the worst. The truck is unable to climb muddy hills. It slips off the road on curves. Men in their Sunday best climb out and right us. Cab windows fly open. Rain pours in. We bounce off one another, bang against the cab walls and ceiling, and are deafened by the howling wind. Twice the motor dies and once it requires a helping hand under the hood.

Later, when we are safe in a bed, my bedmate Alice shouts out in her sleep. The next morning she says she was dreaming of the ride. The Rev. Magara and I joke about dropping dead from the beating our bodies took. I am limping from way too much banging about; my sandals have disintegrated.

The morning is exquisite. The rain has cleaned and the land is clean and fresh, the fields alive with greeness. The family we are staying with is well off. They have a cow, goats, chickens and ducks grazing in the emerald yard. They offer us sweetened milk tea and then we are off, headed for Kisii and then Etono. It is another grueling four-hour, bumpy ride but there is no rain. Only flat tires. The old truck has become a chariot, carrying us home, the driver a saint. We made it!

While Unitarian Universalists in the Kisii District are extremely poor, their strong assets are hope and care which they shower on anyone in need, UU or not. They daily live their pledge of “love, peace, justice and unity.”

For more information, contact Janice Brunson via email: janicebrunson AT cox DOT net

If your congregation would like to help support African Unitarian Universalist projects, please contact Janice via email, and she will tell you how to send checks. She reports: “Each African congregation has a banking account that requires two signatures. All contributions will be closely monitored and you will be told exacly what your money buys.”

Janice also points out that “A tour is underway in early fall: ground cost US$1995, includes two UU services, one each in Kenya and Burundi, the Rwanda gorillas, a Kenyan safari and much more.”

1 thought on “Unitarian Universalism emerging in Africa

  1. Jaume

    Thanks for your post on Africa and the ICUU. It is true that this recent emergence of groups, which join historical groups in Nigeria and South Africa, is a grassroots movement, and that the ICUU is very interested in monitoring and nurturing these native initiatives. I also recommend that American UUs coordinate with the International Council in their sending “help” to Africa, so that we wealthy Westerners do not spoil these groups with greed for easy dollars pouring down on them. People have good and generous hearts, but caution, coordination, and long-time planning and nurturing are very important.

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