Clergy divided as Kenya moves to save forest, evict 40,000 settlers

Clergy divided as Kenya moves to save forest, evict 40,000 settlers

Anglican archbishop Jackson Ole Sapit speaks in Nairobi on May 19, 2016. RNS photo by Fredrick Nzwili

NAIROBI, Kenya – When forest rangers arrived at Mau Forest Complex in June to evict thousands of illegal settlers, frightened villagers started moving out.

Villagers sought refuge at churches, schools and trading centers as smoke billowed from their homes, which were razed in the exercise. Churches, schools and crops have been burned in a clearing process that government officials say will save the main water supply.  

Amid the mass clearing, clerics have been pulled into the controversy. Some religious leaders support the evictions, saying they are key to protecting the forest complex as a God-given heritage and an essential ecosystem. Other leaders are opposed, saying the evictions are inhumane.

More than 40,000 farmers and herders have been targeted in the mass eviction. They have been occupying 146,000 hectares (about 360,000 acres) of the 400,000-hectare (988,000-acre) forest land in a section known as Maasai Mau. They had bought pieces of land in what some church leaders describe as politically driven purchases aimed at influencing voting patterns in the region.

Some have lived in the forest for more than 30 years. But with visible massive destruction of the forest and river sources, the government is now forcing residents to move. Concerns include how removal of trees and brush has exacerbated erosion, increased soil in riverbeds and put them at risk of running dry. Communities downstream depend on the rivers to supply drinking water, including for livestock and wildlife living in refuge parks.

In the eviction process, large-scale tea farms have also been shut. Owners have been ordered to let the crop grow into bushes. Some 7,000 residents have been evicted this summer as the government reclaimed 12,000 hectares from them.

Jackson Ole Sapit, the Anglican archbishop of Kenya, told Religion News Service he supports the evictions. He said the forest is a holy ecosystem that must be saved at all costs.

“If we don’t preserve it now, we will soon see communities suffering serious water shortages, and even wildlife and livestock,” he said. “This is very urgent.”

According to Sapit, the forest is home to many rivers that serve important bodies of water,  including Lake Victoria, Lake Natron and the River Nile.

The forest “gives life to the Mara River, which is the lifeline of the wildebeests migration, one of the wonders of the world,” said Sapit, referring to the phenomenon in which 1.5 million wildebeests, zebra and antelope make a circular tour between the Serengeti game reserve and the Maasai Mara in Kenya in search of greener pastures. “Killing forest will kill the wildebeest migration.”

Others agree the government is taking necessary steps.

“I think the evictions are a win-win situation for Kenyans — including the settlers,” said the Rev. Charles Odira, a Catholic priest and a conservationist. “It may take time to restore the forest, but in the long run the action will prove very beneficial for the country.”

Kenya’s government has ruled out compensation for forest residents, saying that they settled there illegally. The residents have to look for alternative land to settle or return to their original homelands. Some have been surrendering land title deeds, which government officials claim are fake.

According to Hassan Ole Naado, deputy secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Kenya Muslims, most of the settlers are innocent citizens who were duped by racketeers to purchase the forest land.

“The racketeers used their influence and power to swindle these people. The authorities should pursue them (instead),” said Naado.

An aerial view of Mau Forest and neighbouring tea estates in western Kenya on Oct. 7, 2017. Photo by Patrick Sheperd/CIFOR/Creative Commons

While the evictions have widespread support in Kenya, some church leaders have raised a red flag. They say they are not opposed to the conservation of the water supply, but they argue the evictions are cruel.

Paul Leleito, a retired bishop of the African Gospel Church, said government authorities have failed to follow a steering commission’s recommendations to clear the area by marking the forest border, determining land ownership and using resources to support residents who are forced to leave.

“My concern is they have enforced the evictions without a proper prior warning,” said Leleito. “Many of those affected by eviction have no shelter and are living in the open where (they) suffer cold nights. Some of them are sick. Children are not going to school.”

Leleito urged the government to give evicted residents time to plan their departure.

“For now, the people should be allowed to harvest the crops they had planted in farms,” said Leleito. “This is not happening, and the crops are likely to go to waste.”

Meanwhile, clerics are warning politicians not to use the evictions to score political points, which they fear is dividing the local communities. Sapit suggested that the forest should be fenced in to prevent future encroachment or illegal settlement.

“We need to look at the greater good and encourage the government to protect the environment,” said Sapit.

The Mau Forest in western Kenya. Map courtesy Google Maps

Kenyan churches demand HIV test for couples wanting to marry

Kenyan churches demand HIV test for couples wanting to marry

by Fredrick Nzwili

NAIROBI, Kenya (RNS) Some Kenyan churches are demanding premarital HIV testing before weddings, a trend activists warn is infringing on the rights of people living with HIV and AIDS.

For some, it’s a quiet matter, with the couples privately told to check with a doctor or a clinic, but for others an HIV test is a mandatory requirement before the couples are joined in marriage.

Recently, some Pentecostal and evangelical groups have demanded strict adherence to the requirement, while Roman Catholic and most mainline Protestant churches tend to be less strict.

“The practice has become entrenched in many churches,” said Jane Ng’ang’a, coordinator of the Kenyan chapter of an international network of religious leaders living with HIV/AIDS. “While it is agreeable to advise a couple to take the test, our concern is the demand for a disclosure of the status is against the law. The challenge is that most church leaders do not know the law.”

During the past decade, new HIV infections in the largely Christian country have risen faster than in any other in sub-Saharan country, according to a study by the Global Burden of Disease collaborative.

Last year, over 1.8 million Kenyans were living with the HIV virus, which, if left untreated, can lead to AIDS. Nearly 39 percent of those were using life-prolonging antiretroviral drugs, a rate below the regional average rate of 43 percent.

Ten years ago, the country passed a law banning HIV tests as a precondition for marriage. The law warns against breaching confidentiality and disclosing individual statuses without consent.

But Ng’ang’a said the network was recently alarmed after it found out that some churches were breaching confidentiality after receiving the tests.

“Some tests were kept in open files that could easily be scrutinized by anyone,” she said. “We see this as a new form of stigma and discrimination for those with HIV and AIDS.”

The clergy who demand the HIV tests say they are driven by a desire to protect their members from HIV and AIDS. They say the church needs to help nurture healthy families and prevent divorce, disease and death.

“A HIV test is mandatory for any couple planning to wed in our church,” said the Rev. Solomon Mwalili of the Free Pentecostal Fellowship in Kenya. “I think it’s for general good — for the two involved and the family they plan to raise.”

Pentecostal pastor James Kyalo of the Machakos region, 40 miles from the capital Nairobi, said his church demands two HIV tests: the first when the couple seeks to start the wedding process; then six months later.

He said the church members have never protested or complained about the requirement.

Some pastors say couples should know the test results if they plan to rear children. Once they know they are infected, for example, they can seek advice from doctors on how to care for themselves and how to live in the community.

The Rev. Patrick Lihanda, superintendent of the Pentecostal Assemblies of God, said that when one of the couples is HIV-positive, they do not ask the couple to split, but instead advise them how to live together.

“HIV is a reality and we cannot bury our heads in the sand,” said Lihanda. “When we find out that one of couple is infected, we counsel them and marry them. I think that’s the best thing to do, since they are in love.”

The Rev. Wellington Mutiso, an official with the Baptist Convention of Kenya, said many Baptist churches do not demand the test, since most couples have already engaged in premarital sex before the church wedding.

Like Baptists, mainline churches find the demand for the test discriminatory and an obstacle in the fight against the epidemic.

“A certificate or a test is not important for us, since anyone can contract HIV,” said Anglican Bishop Julius Kalu of the Mombasa Diocese. “The virus does not also mean one cannot live a full life. Even in cases of HIV, the couple can still live together.”

(Fredrick Nzwili is an RNS correspondent based in Nairobi)

Are We There Yet?

Are We There Yet? for urban faith

The team members from Chapel Hill Bible Church prepare for their missions adventure in Nairobi, Kenya.

Round Trip, Christianity Today International’s new documentary-style DVD and curriculum about the lessons and adventures of short-term missions trips, can be boiled down to these three maxims:
1. Humankind is made in the image of God.
2. We have a lot in common that we may not be aware of.
3. There are things that others can teach me.
In expounding upon these themes, Round Trip offers Christian leaders and laypeople vital wisdom and guidance on a ministry ritual that is becoming an increasingly standard part of contemporary church life.