By Lukoye Atwoli
Sunday Nation 16 February 2014
Last week I was forcefully reminded by a friend of mine that Kenya is
a secular state that is proud of its freedoms enshrined in our hallowed
constitution. This happened in the context of the riots and
demonstrations that beset the lakeside city of Kisumu over what the
demonstrators argued was an attempt to erect a satanic monument in the
centre of the city.
According to news reports, a group of
businessmen who happened to subscribe to the Sikh faith had commissioned
a monument to commemorate a hundred years of the community’s presence
in Kisumu. The county government allegedly approved the project and the
businessmen commissioned a local sculptor with instructions about the
message they intended to convey.
It is in fact said that the
construction of the monument continued openly, and nobody took any
notice of it until a band of religious zealots linked its presence to
some environmental phenomena going on in Kisumu at the time. They
quickly determined that the monument was satanic and had to be
demolished before fire and brimstone rained on the city.
protests and demonstrations, culminating in a very public “lynching” of
the figure. The Sikh businessmen eventually removed the image “in order
to avoid further trouble”. The ensuing debates took on a shrill
tone, with some commentators equating the Sikh religion with
devil-worship, and others tarring all Kenyans of Asian origin with the
same “devil-worshipping” brush.
is the genesis of the assertion that Kenya is a decidedly secular
state, and no religious symbols must be allowed to occupy public spaces.
that hold this position are a variegated collection, so it would be
unfair to accuse all of them of the same sin, so to speak. There are
those who have always held this position, and are against any display of
religious symbols or rituals in public spaces. They are against
prayers during public functions, religious services or symbols on public
property or display of the same by public officers.
section of this group, though, only discovered their indignation at the
desecration of Kenya’s secular nature when the “satanic” symbol was
hoisted in the “Christian” city of Kisumu. This is the
hypocritical bunch that organise religious ceremonies in public schools,
open public functions with prayers, teach religious studies in schools
(often no more than proselytising ventures), and have no apologies
peppering official speeches with praises for their deity. They
remain oblivious of the feelings of others, and their secular
sensitivities are only aroused when a competing faith gains prominence
with some assistance from officialdom.
We must make up our minds
in this country on whether we are a truly secular state, in which case
religious symbols and rituals should be banned from all public spaces,
or a multi-religious society in which all religions are given equal
space in the eyes of the state. The second option is difficult to
maintain given the multiplicity of religious claims, many often
contradicting others, that would inundate the state under those
circumstances. The default, then, is for us to bolster our secular credentials and ban all religious expression in public spaces and functions.
conclusion, one must note that the sponsors of the Kisumu sculpture
have vehemently denied any religious connection to the work, making its
take-down all the more ridiculous.
Dr Atwoli is a consultant psychiatrist and senior lecturer at Moi University’s School of Medicine. firstname.lastname@example.org