A few weeks ago, the government of Kenya initiated a polio vaccination campaign after an outbreak was reported in one part of the country. One those evenings, media broadcast an encounter between health officers and members of Kanisa la Mungu (Church of God) in Nakuru county, an encounter of spirited resistance to the vaccination exercise. They claimed it is not God’s will for them or their children to take medicine. They rely on prayer and faith for divine protection against sickness. A newspaper also featured a more ominous account of Kavonokya movement where a number of children died from curable ailments. Their parents would not take them to hospital because their religious beliefs prohibit them. Who are these churches? Are they a stain on the landscape of the thriving African Christianity? What place do they have in the 21st century?
The “white garment or brightly colored churches” are among the least understood churches. They appear as a rather eccentric sight on Sunday mornings as they dance to the beat of drums in white, purple, blue or some other bright garb. Some set base at any open ground and hold a worship service. Their decrepit church structures are a more common sight in informal settlements. Kalu notes that there is a huge variety of them throughout Africa, but the familiar names are Aladura in Yoruba, meaning “the praying people”, the Abaroho in East Africa, meaning “people of the Spirit”, Zionists in South Africa, Sunsum Sore in Ghana, meaning “spirit worshipers”. “AICs”, representing “African Indigenous or Initiated or Instituted Churches” has become their descriptive term. What distinguishes them from other Christianities is embrace of certain elements of African culture, ritual practices, prophecy, apparent possession by the [Holy] Spirit and use of symbols; much of this is based on a privileged reading of the Old Testament.
According to theologian John Pobee, AICs have represented one of the cutting edge dynamics of the shift in gravity of world Christianity from the global north to the global South. From the middle of the 20th century, AICs attracted spirited research from many quarters. Significant works included Bengt Sundkler’s Bantu Prophet’s in south Africa; John Peel Aladura: A New Religious Movement Among the Yoruba; Harold Turner, The Church of the Lord Aladura among many others. More recently (2001), Allan Anderson has referred to the AICs as an African Reformation in his book by the same title. He sustains an argument that AICs have contributed significantly to the growth Christianity in Africa.
For one, they have the longest history of indigenous innovation. They were the earliest to question missionary Christianity’s depiction of African culture. They sought innovative answers from the Old Testament on matters of ritual cleanliness, polygamy, rites of passage, use of symbols, relationships to ancestors and other issues. Long before theologians talked of inculturation, indigenization or contextualization, AICs affirmed that one could be both an African and a Christian. Kalu argues that AICs and Pentecostals are bedfellows, although the latter tends to criticize the former because of their embrace of aspects of African culture. He sees both movements for their innovative emphasis on the pneumatic dimension of Christianity, at once affirming the African primal worldview and biblical work of the Holy Spirit; it is only their approaches that tend to differ. Their differences notwithstanding, AICs are to Kalu the precursor of the current vibrancy of Pentecostalism.
Although academic research on them has fizzled, they persist as a feature of African Christianity. They are significant for their numbers. At the beginning of the 20th century, Pobee notes they were about 42,000. By 2000, there were 54 million. Current, The Organization of African Initiated Churches (OAIC) estimates that there are about 60 million AIC members throughout Africa. But they are also significant for another reason: They are found among the poorest of the poor in slums and rural areas.
A couple of months ago, the president of Kenya, Uhuru Kenyatta whose religious roots are Catholic, participated in two noteworthy ceremonies of one of the larger AICs in central Kenya, the African Independent Pentecostal Church of Africa (AIPCA). One was the inauguration of Spiritual Leader Rev Amos Kabuthu. Flanked by government dignitaries, the President asked the church to complement the work of the government in building peace and unity. The other event was in opening Theological College of the AIPCA church. It sounded a bit like an oxymoron to mention AICs and theological college in the same breath, but AICs are adapting to the needs of the Mission of God in changing times.
The OAIC (http://www.oaic.org/) is the umbrella organization that is helping these churches find their footing in 21st century Africa. OAIC seeks to strengthen beliefs that simultaneously affirm Africanness (the vision of the founders), while leading them to develop more mainstream evangelical theology centered on the cross of Christ and deeper engagement with scripture. To this end OAIC networks the churches and also seeks to reduce tensions with other forms of Christianity. They do this through theological training of AIC church leaders. OAIC is also mobilizing AICs to engage sociopolitical realities. They conduct workshop among AIC church communities to raise awareness issues of inequalities and political injustices. One important initiative concerns healthcare, where they train church communities to integrate their beliefs with modern medicine. As their members tend to come from the poorest of the poor, they also equip communities to start projects that can improve livelihoods.
CWC hosted Rev Nicta Lubaale to give a public lecture at on AICs at Africa International University. In his concluding remarks, he called on mainstream Christians and theologians to acknowledge the biases that have evolved around AICs. These have isolated them as “the other”, God’s less favored sibling of African Christianity so to say. There are two choices: we could bemusedly spectate their altercations with the modern world. Or perhaps like the president of Kenya with the AIPCA, it is time to call a truce to our biases, sit at a round table and open the gifts that each brings to the Mission of God in Africa.