The role played by the wives of heads of state in Africa has been largely ignored. In a bid to contribute to this under-researched area we analyzed the political role, influence, and activities of First Ladies in a number of countries on the continent.
We put together the African First Ladies Database to analyze the functions, roles, strategies, and agency of some of Africa’s most influential First Ladies. Our focus was mostly on southern Africa. But our research also covered East and Central Africa. We included first ladies in our database based on their proximity to the executive and other decision-makers.
Three emerged as particularly influential. These were Janet Museveni, wife of Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni; Grace Mugabe, the wife of Zimbabwe’s former president Robert Mugabe; and Denise Nkurunziza, wife of Burundi’s President Pierre Nkurunziza. All have been politically ambitious and actively supported their husbands’ rule.
Our paper addressed their political agendas, roles, influence, and accountability. We found that they were influential political actors who were active domestically, regionally and internationally. This enabled them to influence relationships and to extract political support, as well as financial gain through tenders and government funding.
Our findings raise questions about the accountability of first ladies and the transparency of their public duties and private interests. But Africa’s first ladies aren’t on their own. Similar accusations have been made against others elsewhere. For example, during the presidential tenure of her husband, Hillary Clinton was often described as interfering with White House politics and Capitol Hill decisions. Similar accusations were made against, among others, Imelda Marcos of The Philippines.
First Ladies as political activists
We found that the first ladies acted as power brokers and members of an inner circle. They actively mobilized support for their spouses. They used strategies such as their personal narratives, their country’s liberation history, religion and culture. They supported their husbands’ campaigns and downplayed, denied or simply remained silent on the failures of their husbands’ governments.
Grace Mugabe: Her political career spanned a mere three years (2014-2017) when she was elected as the President of the ZANU-PF Women’s League. This role meant that she automatically became a member of the party’s Politburo. She was successful in gaining support for her husband’s tenure as well as her own political ambitions from religious leaders, youth and the Women’s League, traditional leaders, and minority apostolic churches.
She made some noteworthy claims of support for her husband. For example, she publicly stated that even if he were to be incapacitated, Zimbabweans would vote for him because he was God-ordained.
Besides addressing religious rallies, she used nationwide “Meet the People” tours to brand herself and the President.
Grace Mugabe often welcomed and hosted foreign Heads of State and Government at her Harare home, and at State House. Her close proximity to the President gave her access to influential political networks that she exploited to buy properties and run businesses.
Denise Nkurunziza: She led the Burundi ruling party’s Women’s League (the Abakenyererarugamba). Like other African First Ladies, she used religion to endorse and support her husband’s rule. She is also an ordained Reverend.
Christians are a significant audience for the Nkurunzizas. They often hold prayer groups and wash the feet of members of the congregation. In 2017, the ruling party promoted President Pierre Nkurunziza as the “Supreme Everlasting Guide” (“Visionary”), adding to the personality cult that had been emerging around him. In 2018, Pierre Nkurunziza established Thursdays as a national Burundian Day of Prayer devoted to Christ and to fasting with prayers “without exception” for the ruling party.
Another key constituency for Denise Nkurunziza was influential women who held senior positions across the political and military spectrum.
The office of the First Lady was also used to bolster diplomatic relations between Burundi and the international community.
Janet Museveni: She was appointed as Minister of State for Karamoja by her husband in 2009. The Karamojong saw the move as a sign of the President’s affection for them.
Beyond her career in politics, she is revered by some as the “Mother of the Nation” thanks to her social outreach on maternal health.
In 2014, the Global Decency Index (GDI), invented by Decent Africa, an African fashion brand, announced that she was “the most decent African First Lady”.
Her pious, nurturing image contributes to her husband’s credibility locally and internationally.
Like her counterparts in Zimbabwe and Burundi, Janet Museveni believes that Museveni was ordained by God – as does he.
Patriarchy still rules
Despite their own political experience, ambitions and influence, we found that the three women we studied remained subordinate to the patriarchy in their societies. A few gender biases were evident.
One was in expectations of the role of the First Lady. They were expected to be spouse, mother, caregiver, and nurturer of the sick, young and elderly. Another was that the Offices of the First Lady were fully directed from within the President’s office. This meant that the flow of information about them was skewed to project as ideal woman, trophies and a trailblazer for issues stereotyped and associated with women.
In addition, none of the constitutions of the countries we examined referred to the position.
This, in our view, reflects an impression that the role isn’t important – because it is, by and large, held by women. It also undermines democratic accountability.
We believe there should be constitutional clarity and accountability – which would herald accountability – on the formal role, powers, and functions of First Ladies.
Arina Muresan was a co-author of this piece. She is a member of our team.
As many as 1,200 people living around the forests of coastal Kenya and Tanzania have turned to butterfly farming to make a living. Many of them were once loggers who now defend the forest.
Three butterfly-farming initiatives aim to conserve forests while generating sustainable incomes for local communities by raising and selling pupae to research institutes and butterfly houses in Europe and Turkey.
The most successful of the initiatives is helping to conserve the 420 square-kilometer (162 square-mile) Arabuko-Sokoke Forest Reserve in Kilifi county, Kenya, the last large remnant of a forest that once stretched from southern Somalia to northern Mozambique.
By contrast, the two Tanzanian projects are currently challenged by a government ban on wildlife exports.
KILIFI COUNTY, Kenya — If 51-year-old Hillary Thoya were to choose a lucky number, it would surely be 5,000. That’s the amount, in Kenyan shillings, the logger and carpenter turned butterfly farmer paid to secure his freedom a decade ago. And it was the same amount that assured him his newfound venture could actually sustain his family at a time when he was considering giving up.
One afternoon in 2008, Thoya was arrested by Kenya Forest Service (KFS) officers inside Arabuko-Sokoke Forest Reserve in Kenya’s Kilifi county, accused of illegally felling trees. Thoya wasn’t too concerned; he knew a small bribe would quickly secure his release and he could get back to the job of completing construction of a sunbed for a customer.
However, luck wasn’t on Thoya’s side. Earlier that month new forest officers had been dispatched to the region precisely to curb instances of bribery.
“As I was trying to negotiate for my freedom, the officer kept telling me ‘OK, OK, but let’s go discuss that in the office,’ and as soon as I got into their vehicle they drove me into the compound of a police station,” Thoya recalled.
He spent four days at the police station before his brother-in-law came to his rescue, coughing up a fine of 5,000 shillings ($50).
Thoya spent two more years dodging KFS officers in the forest before he finally stopped logging illegally and learned to farm butterflies instead, as part of the Kipepeo Butterfly Project. Today, Thoya is one of hundreds of butterfly farmers who are active champions for the protection of Arabuko-Sokoke forest.
With a smile on his face, he recently recounted the first big payment he received from his farming-group chair, which convinced him he’d made the right career move.
“I was wondering if I had made the wrong decision since I was earning approximately 500 [shillings, $5] a week. But when she sent me 5,000 on mobile money transfer I almost thought she had confused my payment with that of another farmer,” Thoya said.
Thoya’s story is common around the forests of coastal Kenya and Tanzania. Many residents, including Thoya, are members of the indigenous Mijikenda ethnic group. And like him, many have ditched illegal logging or hunting to participate in butterfly farming initiatives: Kipepeo Butterfly Project in Kenya or the Amani Butterfly Project or Zanzibar Butterfly Centre in Tanzania. As many as 1,200 farmers have participated in recent years, with Kipepeo, which is focused on Arabuko-Sokoke forest, carrying the largest number at 878.
During peak season, from March to September, Thoya doubled his luck and now earns up to 10,000 shillings each week.
Thoya said the work enabled him to set up a fish-selling business for his wife, who previously didn’t work outside the home. Together they’ve been able to educate their 10 children, some through vocational institutes.
The business of butterflies
At his family compound in Magangani village, about 8 kilometers (5 miles) from the Indian Ocean resort town of Watamu, Thoya sliced a rotting mango and sprinkled its juice on a net. He was preparing to trap his next batch of butterflies.
The current group, mostly variable diadems (Hypolimnas anthedon) in the caterpillar stage, was locked up in a netted cage outside Thoya’s house. He was waiting for them to transition into pupae so he could sell them to Kipepeo. From there they would be sent abroad to spend the rest of their lives in a butterfly house in the United Kingdom, perhaps, or Turkey.
Thoya said he wasn’t expecting much from the current batch; the brown-and-white variable diadems, rather plain by butterfly standards, sell for a mere 20 shillings (20 cents) a pupae. But he was optimistic that his next batch would include more colorful, and hence marketable, butterflies like flame-bordered charaxeses (Charaxes protoclea), stunners in black and crimson.
At the Arabuko-Sokoke Forest Reserve entrance, Thoya showed his pass to a forest officer, who signaled him to proceed into the forest.
Kipepeo is managed by the National Museums of Kenya and partners with other government agencies, including KFS and the Kenya Wildlife Service, and helps finance the farmers to start up.
“When I decided to venture into butterfly farming, I did not have any money. But after training, the project team gave me this catching net and constructed the rearing shed for me,” Thoya said as he configured his net into a funnel shape on a tree branch.
An unlucky white-and-black butterfly fell right into the net as its cohorts flitted off the branch and away. Thoya explained that the fermented mango juice attracts the butterflies, but once they feed on it the ethanol it contains makes them woozy and unable to fly.
After repeating the process on 10 trees, Thoya’s net was a scene of colorful butterflies. He was pleased by his luck: among the catch was an African swallowtail (Papilio dardanus), a.k.a. the flying handkerchief, one of the most highly priced species, at 80 shillings (80 cents) per pupae.
Thoya would bring it and the rest back home to live in a netted cage. With more luck, they would lay eggs on the orange plants inside. The eggs would hatch into caterpillars, and the caterpillars would transition to pupae he could sell to Kipepeo about three weeks after he’d trapped the parents in the forest.
“Initially I did not join because I was interested in conservation. I was just looking for an income-generating method that would not get me in trouble with the authorities,” Thoya said. “But eventually, as time went by, I realized that I can benefit from the forest and leave it intact for my children and grandchildren, who may want to benefit too.”
The farmers are divided into groups. Thoya belongs to the Magangani farming group, which is chaired by 43-year-old Mwaka Juma, the one who sent him his first lucky 5,000-shilling paycheck, a housewife turned butterfly farmer.
When Mongabay visited Juma at her house in Magangani village, she proudly showed off a sewing business she said she’d financed with butterfly money.
During the peak season, Thoya and the other farmers in the group hand over their pupae to Juma, who travels on Fridays and Mondays about 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) to Kipepeo in the town of Gede to sell her group’s produce.
Other chairpersons, like 36-year-old Dickson Mbogo of the Mkongani farmers’ group, have farther to travel. Mbogo and most of his group members live about 40 kilometers (25 miles) away from the butterfly center.
Mbogo, another former logger and charcoal trader, started farming butterflies in 2006. He said the venture helped him construct a permanent house and educate his two sisters.
“Whenever I walk back into the same forest without having to play hide-and-seek with forest officers I feel very good,” he told Mongabay. “And when I meet my former associates I try to dissuade them to stop cutting down those trees because they are putting their future generations at risk.”
Once the pupae reach Kipepeo headquarters, workers sort them according to species and health before sending them on their journey abroad. Kipepeo currently exports up to a million pupae annually to Turkey, the U.K. and Germany. According to Hussein Aden, Kipepeo’s manager, most of the butterflies are displayed in butterfly houses while some are used for research at universities and butterfly centers and others are fashioned into home décor.
The group sells colorful species like the silver-striped charaxes (Charaxes lasti) for a minimum of $2.50 a pupae, including shipping. Less colorful species like the African migrant (Catopsilia florella) sell for $1 a pupae.
According to Aden, the farmers’ collecting of wild butterflies doesn’t harm the populations, whose biggest threat is habitat loss. And maintaining a continuous supply of farm-raised butterflies would not be feasible, he said, because demand for particular species is irregular.
Butterflies as forest ambassadors
Butterfly farming is relatively new to the Mijikenda of coastal Kenya; their major traditional economic activities include fishing, farming and charcoal trading. According to Aden, Kipepeo was started in 1993 to provide an alternative and sustainable income for the 100,000 or so people living near Arabuko-Sokoke forest.
Arabuko-Sokoke is one of the only known habitats for the golden-rumped elephant shrew (Rhynchocyon chrysopygus), which sections of the local community consider a delicacy despite its being listed as endangered. About 300 butterfly species live there, out of the 871 found in Kenya.
Only 74 butterfly species, all with IUCN status of “least concern,” have been approved for farming. Customers wanting an endangered species like the Taita blue-banded swallowtail (Papilio desmondi teita) must make a special order, and the species is only available during the rainy season.
The newfound appreciation for butterflies and the forest they inhabit has spread beyond butterfly farmers, according to Aden. Since the project launched 25 years ago, he said, local communities have stopped viewing the forest as wasted farmland.
According to Nicholas Munyao, KFS’s coast region ecosystem conservator, the project is good for butterflies because it results in the protection of their habitats. And these, of course, are home to numerous other species in a variety of taxa.
“I would not say logging is not taking place in the forest,” Munyao said. “[But] it has gradually reduced, and you find that most of [the loggers] are not from the local community.”
Overtime, Kipepeo has expanded to include other forests, such as Kakamega in western Kenya, Taita Hills in the southwest, and Shimba Hills in the southeast.
To spread the conservation message among Kenyans and Tanzanians, the butterfly farming enterprises have set up butterfly houses similar to those buying their pupae. In Kenya, there’s Kipepeo’s in Gede and the Mombasa Butterfly House in Mombasa; both Tanzanian ventures, the Amani Butterfly Project in Shebomeza village and the Zanzibar Butterfly Centre on Zanzibar Island, have exhibits at their headquarters. Species on display include the red spot diadem (Hypolimnas usambara), a black-and-white butterfly with traces of yellow on its tail;the forest queen (Euxanthe wakefieldi), a brown butterfly with patches of sky blue; and Thoya’s favorite, the blue-spotted emperor (Charaxes cithaeron).
The initiatives’ success in promoting conservation has not gone unnoticed; in 2011 the Zanzibar Butterfly Centre, which aims to conserve Jozani Chakwa Bay National Park, received a SEED Award for Entrepreneurship in Sustainable Development from the U.N. And this fall Kipepeo hosted the 20thannual conference of the International Association of Butterfly Exhibitors and Suppliers, whose mission focuses heavily on butterfly conservation — the first time the conference was held in Africa.
Trouble in Tanzania
In addition to the successes, the butterfly projects have also faced challenges. In Kenya, difficulties include failing to meet the huge demand during the high season, and producing a surplus during the low seasons.
In Tanzania, though, the challenges are bigger, the biggest being the government’s banning of wildlife exports. First came a one-year ban in 2011, after alarming reports of animal smuggling the previous year. Then in 2016, the government issued a three-year ban to give it time to draft a permanent policy that would seal legal loopholes.
Amir Saidi, project manager at the Amani Butterfly Project, said the bans have slashed revenues and sent most of the 150 farmers Amani was supporting in search of alternative work.
“From 2003 to 2015 we were doing quite well,” he said. “With the ban in place we are [now] only relying on the butterfly house as a source of income, but you cannot compare the revenue generated from the butterfly house with that that was there when we were doing pupae exports.”
The Zanzibar Butterfly Centre has also ceased exporting and is now only running a butterfly house.
This March will mark the end of the three-year ban. By then Saidi said he hopes the government will have finished crafting a new export policy that will give consideration to butterfly farmers. Amani, he said, had proven beneficial in conserving forests in the East Usambara Mountains, home to a number of endemic species such as the critically endangered long-billed forest warbler (Artisornis moreaui). The ban curtailed the Amani project before staff could study how it affected the community’s use of the forest, Saidi said, but he had noticed positive changes.
Butterfly farmers speak up for the forest
Kenya’s deforestation problem is far bigger than what butterfly farming could ever address. The country lost more than 9 percent of its tree cover, equivalent to 3,100 square kilometers (almost 1,200 square miles) between 2001 and 2017, according to Global Forest Watch.
A scathing report released last April by a special task force that the environment ministry formed to investigate the country’s alarming loss of forest decried “rampant corruption and abuse of office” within KFS, resulting in widespread illegal logging.
The report led to more complaints, including allegations that a KFS officer was involved in an illegal logging racket operating in Arabuko-Sokoke. Before the release of the report, the community living near the forest had pushed for the officer’s transfer and the relocation of his office from the town of Kilifi, 33 kilometers (20 miles) from the forest, to nearby Gede, where Kipepeo is based, so the agency could keep a closer eye of the forest.
According to Abbas Shariff, chairman of the Arabuko-Sokoke Forest Dwellers Association, which promotes protection of the forest, such activism would not have been possible without the butterfly projects, which have helped the community see the importance of the forest.
“Unlike several years ago, we know that once you start messing with this forest, you are messing with our livelihood and that of our future generations,” Shariff said. “That’s why you see us dealing with anyone trying to mess us up.”
Banner image: A blue pansy (Junonia orithya), a species occasionally available through Kipepeo Butterfly Project. Image by yakovlev.alexey via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).
As long as unresolved historic injustices continue to fester in the world, there will be a demand for truth commissions.
Unfortunately, there is no end to the need.
The goal of a truth commission — in some forms also called a truth and reconciliation commission, as it is in Canada — is to hold public hearings to establish the scale and impact of a past injustice, typically involving wide-scale human rights abuses, and make it part of the permanent, unassailable public record. Truth commissions also officially recognize victims and perpetrators in an effort to move beyond the painful past.
Over the past three decades, more than 40 countries have, like Canada, established truth commissions, including Chile, Ecuador, Ghana, Guatemala, Kenya, Liberia, Morocco, Philippines, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, South Africa and South Korea. The hope has been that restorative justice would provide greater healing than the retributive justice modelled most memorably by the Nuremberg Trials after the Second World War.
There has been a range in the effectiveness of commissions designed to resolve injustices in African and Latin American countries, typically held as those countries made transitions from civil war, colonialism or authoritarian rule.
Its effectiveness is still being measured, with a list of 94 calls to action waiting to be fully implemented. But Canada’s experience appears to have been at least productive enough to inspire Australia and New Zealand to come to terms with their own treatment of Indigenous peoples by exploring similar processes.
Although both countries have a long history to trying to reconcile with native peoples, recent discussions have leaned toward a Canadian-style TRC model.
But the most recognizable standard became South Africa’s, when President Nelson Mandela mandated a painful and necessary Truth and Reconciliation Commission to resolve the scornful legacy of apartheid, the racist and repressive policy that had driven the African National Congress, including Mandela, to fight for reform. Their efforts resulted in widespread violence and Mandela’s own 27-year imprisonment.
Through South Africa’s publicly televised TRC proceedings, white perpetrators were required to come face-to-face with the Black families they had victimized physically, socially and economically.
There were critics, to be sure, on both sides. Some called it the “Kleenex Commission” for the emotional hearings they saw as going easy on some perpetrators who were granted amnesty after demonstrating public contrition.
Others felt it fell short of its promise — benefiting the new government by legitimizing Mandela’s ANC and letting perpetrators off the hook by allowing so many go without punishment, and failing victims who never saw adequate compensation or true justice.
These criticisms were valid, yet the process did succeed in its most fundamental responsibility — it pulled the country safely into a modern, democratic era.
Similarly, South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission was not designed to take South Africa to some idyllic utopia. After a century of colonialism and apartheid, that would not have been realistic. It was designed to save South Africa, then a nuclear power, from an implosion — one that many feared would trigger a wider international war.
To the extent that the commission saved South Africa from hell, I think it was successful. Is it a low benchmark? Perhaps, but it did its work.
Since then, other truth commissions, whether they have included reconciliation or reparation mandates, have generated varying results.
Some have been used cynically as tools for governments to legitimize themselves by pretending they have dealt with painful history when they have only kicked the can down the road.
In Liberia, where I worked with a team of researchers last summer, the records of that country’s truth and reconciliation commission are not even readily available to the public. That secrecy robs Liberia of what should be the most essential benefit of confronting past injustices: permanent, public memorialization that inoculates the future against the mistakes of the past.
U.S. needs truth commission
On balance, the truth commission stands as an important tool that can and should be used around the world.
It’s painfully apparent that the United States needs a national truth commission of some kind to address hundreds of years of injustice suffered by Black Americans. There, centuries of enslavement, state-sponsored racism, denial of civil rights and ongoing economic and social disparity have yet to be addressed.
Like many, I don’t hold out hope that a U.S. commission will be established any time soon – especially not under the current administration. But I do think one is inevitable at some point, better sooner than later.
Wherever there is an ugly, unresolved injustice pulling at the fabric of a society, there is an opportunity to haul it out in public and deal with it through a truth commission.
Still, there is not yet any central body or facility that researchers, political leaders or other advocates can turn to for guidance, information, and evidence. Such an entity would help them understand and compare how past commissions have worked — or failed to work — and create better outcomes for future commissions.
As the movement to expose, understand and resolve historical injustices grows, it would seem that Canada, a stable democracy with its own sorrowed history and its interest in global human rights, would make an excellent place to establish such a center.
Supporters of opposition presidential candidate Felix Tshisekedi celebrate at his headquarters in Kinshasa, Thursday Jan. 10, 2019. Supporters of Tshisekedi took to the streets of Congo’s capital, Kinshasa, Thursday morning to celebrate his win in the presidential election, that was announced by the electoral commission. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)
Congo is on the brink of its first peaceful, democratic transfer of power since independence in 1960 after the Constitutional Court on Sunday confirmed the presidential election victory of Felix Tshisekedi, although questions remain about the result.
Tshisekedi, son of the late, charismatic opposition leader Etienne, is to be inaugurated on Tuesday.
Congo’s 80 million people did not appear to heed runner-up Martin Fayulu’s call for non-violent protests, and African neighbors began offering congratulations.
Shortly after the pre-dawn court declaration, opposition leader Tshisekedi said the court’s decision to reject claims of electoral fraud and declare him president was a victory for the entire country.
“It is Congo that won,” Tshisekedi said, speaking to supporters. “The Congo that we are going to form will not be a Congo of division, hatred or tribalism. It will be a reconciled Congo, a strong Congo that will be focused on development, peace and security.”
Supporters of his UDPS party celebrated in the streets of Kinshasa.
The largely untested Tshisekedi faces a government dominated by Kabila’s ruling party, which won a majority in legislative and provincial elections. The new National Assembly will be installed on Jan. 26.
However, Tshisekedi’s victory was rejected by rival opposition candidate Fayulu, who declared that he is Congo’s “only legitimate president” and called for the Congolese people to peacefully protest against a “constitutional coup d’etat.” If Fayulu succeeds in launching widespread protests it could keep the country in a political crisis that has simmered since the Dec. 30 elections.
The court turned away Fayulu’s request for a recount, affirming Tshisekedi won with more than 7 million votes, or 38 percent, and Fayulu received 34 percent.
The court said Fayulu offered no proof to back his assertions that he had won easily based on leaked data attributed the electoral commission. It also called unfounded another challenge that objected to the commission’s last-minute decision to bar some 1 million voters over a deadly Ebola virus outbreak.
Outside the court, Fayulu and his supporters have alleged an extraordinary backroom deal by outgoing President Joseph Kabila to rig the vote in favor of Tshisekedi when the ruling party’s candidate did poorly.
“It’s a secret for no one inside or outside of our country that you have elected me president,” with 60 percent of the votes, Fayulu said. He urged the Congolese people and the international community to not recognize Tshisekedi as president.
Congo’s government called Fayulu’s statements “a shame.”
“We consider it an irresponsible statement that is highly politically immature,” spokesman Lambert Mende told The Associated Press.
Many worried that the court’s rejection of Fayulu’s appeal could lead to more instability in a nation that already suffers from rebels, communal violence and the Ebola outbreak.
“It might produce some demonstrations, but it won’t be as intense as it was in 2017 and 2018,” when Congolese pushed for Kabila to step aside during two years of election delays, said Andrew Edward Tchie, research fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
The African Union said it had “postponed” its urgent mission to Congo planned for Monday after it noted “serious doubts” about the vote and made an unprecedented request for Congo to delay the final results.
Some neighbors, notably Rwanda, worried about violence spilling across borders from Congo, a country rich in the minerals key to smartphones around the world.
The AU statement notably did not name or congratulate Tshisekedi, merely taking note of the court’s decision. It called “all concerned to work for the preservation of peace and stability and the promotion of national harmony.”
A number of African leaders congratulated Tshisekedi, including the presidents of South Africa, Kenya, Tanzania and Burundi. The 16-nation Southern African Development Community, after wavering in recent days with support for a recount, called on all Congolese to accept the vote’s outcome.
Tanzanian President John Magufuli, in a post on Twitter, said that “I beseech you to maintain peace.”
In this Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2018 photo, journalist and author Shady Lewis Botros poses with a copy of his book, “Ways of the Lord,” in London. The new Arabic-language novel, the author’s first, explores the lives of Egyptian Christians, dealing with discrimination but also a Church aligned with a state seeking to control them. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)
Shady Lewis Botros says his recently published novel — “Ways of the Lord” — can be broadly viewed as an attempt to answer one question: What it’s like to be a Christian in Egypt?
The answer, given in stories narrated by the book’s chief character, is complex and often disheartening. It’s giving your children neutral names that don’t identify them as Christians in hopes they’ll have a sporting chance of progress in the mainly Muslim nation. It means facing baseless but dangerous charges of spying for Israel at time of war. It means turning off the lights at home and gathering the family in one room to escape the attention of a Muslim mob on the street.
Beyond entrenched discrimination, the Arabic-language novel explores what the author says is the victimization of Egypt’s Christians by a “politically engineered harmony” between the state and their own church, seeking to control their lives.
“Ways of the Lord” is a rare example of an Egyptian work of fiction whose primary characters are Christian. The result breaks stereotypes that many of the country’s Muslims hold about their minority compatriots. But it also turns the look inward, dispelling the secrecy surrounding the ancient Coptic Orthodox Church — the predominant denomination in Egypt — and addressing its controlling practices and its rivalries with smaller churches.
“Most Coptic literature is about the discrimination or oppression Christians endure with a dose of rights advocacy. That’s understandable but that is also about as far as it goes,” Botros told The Associated Press in a telephone interview from London, his home of 13 years. “This work introduces Egyptians to the reality of Copts as a people who are not always praying, singing hymns and waiting on every word from the church. The novel opens the world of Copts to both Copts and Muslims.”
The novel, the author’s first, takes on added relevance because the Coptic Church leadership has adhered closer than ever to the government. It’s an alliance that gives the community a measure of protection but has raised questions over its independence and has drawn the wrath of Islamic militants, who have over the past two years killed more than a 100 Christians in attacks.
The church’s unity is also being tested, partially over calls for it to modernize some of its rigid rules, like those governing marriage and divorce. The killing in July of the abbot of a monastery, for which two monks are on trial, has led to soul searching about the practices of monasticism, traditionally a cornerstone of the church’s identity.
The novel tells the story of a young Christian man in Cairo, Sherif, who has abandoned the church. He’s in a relationship with a German woman, but to marry her he must first get a church document. So he goes to his neighborhood priest each week for interviews that turn into confessionals.
Sherif relates a series of tales to explain to the priest why he never comes to church. He tells of his family’s past rebellions, like a grandfather who left the Coptic Church because the priest would not baptize his newborn child before her death.
As a young man, he says, he hopped from one Christian denomination to another to explore his identity. His father is cynical about his spiritual search, telling his son, “Generally, they are all con artists.”
The confession sessions with the priest are one of two plot tracks running through the novel. The other follows Sherif’s political activism, which lands him in trouble with the police. His one hope to escape jail time is to marry his girlfriend and go to Germany, but in the end, the girlfriend returns home. He spends a year in jail for a white-collar crime he did not commit.
“Sherif was painted as a character in crisis and that’s not just on account of being a member of a minority, but rather as someone facing an existential crisis over his problems with the church and the state,” said literary critic Ahmed Shawqy Ali.
The novel ends with Sherif surrendering to the powers that crush his rebellion. Jobless after losing his government engineering job, he survives on a small income from doing little jobs for the church, while telling his stories to whoever will listen. “The ways of the Lord are strange and tough to understand,” Sheriff says of his return to the church’s embrace.
Botros said the book’s “fatalistic” ending “shows that, in a place like Egypt, religious minorities like Christians don’t have many choices.”
The church presents itself as the protector of Egypt’s Copts, and many in the community adhere to it fervently.
“The church is a peacemaker that is in harmony with everyone, from the ruling government and civil society groups to al-Azhar,” said a church spokesman, Boulis Halim, referring to the top Muslim institution in Egypt. “We cannot deny that there are shortcomings in some respects, especially the social field, but that will evolve going forward.”
But critics say the interests of individual Christians get lost under the church’s communal leadership.
Kamal Zakher, a Christian who is one of Egypt’s top experts on the Coptic Church, said the church has become a “hostage” to the government for safety, particularly since the rise of Islamic hard-liners starting in the 1970s.
It and the government leadership deal with each other directly, but “they have all forgotten that ordinary Christians deal on daily basis with bureaucrats who, like everyone else, have been influenced by that Islamic revival,” Zakher said.
Karoline Kamel, a researcher on church affairs from the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, said the novel’s main character is not typical of Coptic youth, who in large part associate closely with the church. But she said the novel gets the theme of control right.
“The church’s protection is focused on itself as an institution, as walls and buildings regardless of what happens to Christians,” she said.