Pentecostalism in Kenya
16 May 2019

Pentecostalism and Alternative Paths for Self-Accomplishment in Kenya

Yvan Droz, Senior Lecturer in Anthropology and Sociology at the Graduate Institute, and Yonatan N. Gez, PhD alumnus of the Institute and a member of the Martin Buber Society of Fellows in the Humanities and Social Sciences at HUJI Jerusalem, are among the authors of a chapter on Pentecostalism and self-accomplishment in Kenya, published in Religion and Human Security in Africa (Routledge). As they explain below, they find that while neo-Pentecostalism and, to a lesser extent, vigilantism are two new social institutions offering the frustrated youth alternative paths to adulthood, both are underpinned by a backwards-looking, neotraditionalist ethos of self-accomplishment. 

What motivated your interest in the passage from youth to adulthood in Kenya?

Yvan Droz. To obtain the much-coveted status of socially recognised accomplishment, one must pass through a crucial process of coming of age – the passage from youth to adulthood. And yet, throughout the world, scholars recognise that this passage increasingly entails a crisis. Within fast-changing societies, the youth are torn between systems, and, finding old paths for attaining adulthood to be inaccessible, they are attracted to alternative options. This quest for alternatives to the mainstream “ethos of self-accomplishment” is in no way new, and we ought to recall that some alternatives already existed in precolonial societies. In Kenya, Kikuyu people who were unable to meet the requirements of the conservative, dynastic ethos could try to attain self-accomplishment through one of two alternative paths: firstly, they had the “trailblazing” option of starting afresh by clearing new, “virgin” territories on the frontier, and secondly, they could embrace a militant path of engaging in violent raids, a practice that goes back to precolonial times. Each of these paths is based on a particular understanding of how success can be achieved: it may be inherited (conservative dynastic path), created through individual effort (alternative trailblazing path), or appropriated by the use of force (alternative militant path).

You use the term “ethos of self-accomplishment”, and in your chapter you write that the notions of ethos and local morality are “useful receptacles” for examining and mapping the current crisis of self-accomplishment in East Africa. What exactly do you mean by that? 

Yvan Droz. Societies around the world develop unique sets of values, moral codes and aspirations, which we may term “local morality” or “local ethos”. By that, we refer to repertoires of values that are incorporated, implicit and potentially contradictory, expressed in practices or social representations and informed by a structured pool of principles for action, felt to be legitimate and recognised as just. Explicitly or implicitly, an ethos would offer ideal images of what it means and what it takes for a person to be recognised as successful and fully accomplished. To be an accomplished person and to command a high level of respect, a person must acquire both “worth and wealth” – that is to say, ensure prestige or symbolic capital while engaging in the painstaking accumulation of wealth (land, cattle, money, etc.) and spawn successful progeny.

What are today’s paths to self-accomplishment? 

Yonatan N. Gez. Since the 1990s, East Africa has seen substantial social, political and economic changes. Two developments in particular attract our attention as having direct bearing on the negotiation of the ethos of self-accomplishment. Firstly, we consider the rise of the neo-Pentecostal movement. Despite its internal diversity, manifested in considerable terminological fluidity – e.g. Pentecostal, neo-Pentecostal, evangelical, charismatic, Born Again – scholars underline the movement’s common features, including fundamentalist-literalist interpretations of Christianity, an emphasis on the enchantment of the world through the centrality of the Holy Spirit at church and in everyday life, and its upholding of puritan values, such as avoidance of consumption of alcohol and tobacco, consideration of debt as sinful, and insistence on honesty and good moral standing. Regarding relations between the sexes, Pentecostal values put a premium on marital fidelity, sexual propriety and modesty. But a seeming tension is immanent, for while promoting “soft masculinities”, defined by such values as sexual abstinence, family involvement and marital faithfulness, the Pentecostal movement widely endorses conservative patriarchal values of male supremacy and headship. Secondly, we note the emergence of paramilitary militias, associated with ethnic strife. Some of these groups are organised along homogeneous ethnic lines, while others draw in youth from different ethnic backgrounds. We propose that vigilante groups offer alternative – real or imagined – paths to self-accomplishment, including wealth and social respectability. Sometime these paths are framed in neotraditional concepts, whereby the youth see themselves as warriors charged with ensuring the security of their community.

Do these current paths signify new ethoses of self-accomplishment? 

Yonatan N. Gez. This is a fundamental question: To what extent should Pentecostalism and vigilantism be understood as representing new ethoses, or simply as recasting the traditional ethos in contemporary terms? Our hypothesis is that, while old and new paths and their outer manifestations of self-accomplishment may vary, their dissimilarities should not be overemphasised. Although reinterpreted and modified, the ethos of self-accomplishment within both social movements is backwards-looking, with one reimagining ethnic traditionalism (militia) and the other attaching itself to conservative ideas and a literalist understanding of scripture (Pentecostalism). Indeed, despite their stark differences, and ostensible attacks on tradition in the case of Pentecostalism, both Pentecostalism and militias can be regarded as representing a conservative, and to some extent neotraditional, ethos. Part of their legitimacy is derived from the perpetuation of traditional attributes of self-accomplishment, such as marriage and the begetting of children, the accumulation of wealth, and an attachment to conservative understandings of gender roles, which keep them recognisable according to the value systems of their prospective followers. The fact that Pentecostal marriage is monogamous and marginalises – even eliminates – bridewealth, and that vigilantism relies on physical strength and bravery rather than education and professional experience, makes these two social institutions, among others, accessible and hence appealing to the frustrated youth. 

At the same time, it is important to recognise fundamental differences between the two groups: Pentecostalism is by far the more prominent of the two. Its members declare themselves openly and proudly, and its places of worship are omnipresent across the country. Vigilante groups, by contrast, are far from mainstream. They are smaller, contested, and often clandestine and criminalised. To research and to compare members’ ideas about their respective movement would thus require substantial scholarly sensitivity.

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Full citation of the chapter:
Droz, Yvan, and Yonatan N. Gez, Carmen Delgado Luchner and Hervé Maupeu. “Pentecostalism and Alternative Paths for Self-Accomplishment in Kenya.” In Religion and Human Security in Africa, edited by Ezra Chitando and Joram Tarusariram, 114–27. London: Routledge, 2019. doi:10.4324/9780429019234-8.

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Read also Yonatan N. Gez and Yvan Droz’s just-published article (in French) “Pentecôtisation du christianisme et butinage religieux au Kenya: entre fondamentalisme et mode populaire d’action politico-religieuse”(in Canadian Journal of African Studies / Revue canadienne des études africaines), which proposes that the diversity of religious practices in Kenya undercuts the political manipulation of religion.

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Interview by Marc Galvin and editing by Nathalie Tanner, Research Office.
Banner image by Anaïs Ginoux.