Report from Kenya –My Take on the FWCC World Conference of Friends –May 3, 2012

Being Salt and Light – Friends living the Kingdom of God in a broken world

While the history of humanity can be seen as a succession of divisions and conflict, it can  also be seen as a history of ongoing  attempts to overcome our divisions and  attain unity. The  work of the  United Nations, Friends’ international peace work, the  intergovernmental panel on Climate Change,to name just  a few, are recent international examples of this.The African Great Lakes Initiative’s AVP, HROC, and  mediation work happening right now here in Kenya, Rwanda and  Burundi is another – which, to my mind, is some of the  most important work Friends are doing  right now.   It is a privilege to be here to witness it.

                        From Presentation by Thomas Owen, Aotearoa/New Zealand Yearly Meeting


For aweek I have been attending the FWCC World Conference of Friends at Kabarak University in Kenya, about a four hour drive from my house. This report includes my observations of the conference. The purpose of the conference was to bring all kinds of Quakers from all over the world to come together and interact. About eight hundred and fifty Quakers from forty-two countries came. A few were unable to come. In one African yearly meeting where the General Secretary has been in office for thirty years and is opposed by most of his membership, he refused to endorse dissenting members of his yearly meeting to come, a requirement. In another case I heard of an African woman who gave her fees to her General Secretary and rather than register her, he “ate” the money as they say here for “embezzlement.” Burundi Yearly Meeting sent about fifteen delegates, all men except one woman, Alexia Nibona from the Friends Women’s Association.


The conference was conducted in English, French, Spanish, and Swahili. I would estimate that about half of the attendees were from Africa. Naturally there were lots of Kenyans including many who had not registered, but paid day fees. This overstretched the capacity of the site, particularly on the first few days. There were also large delegations from Burundi and Rwanda. Considering the distance there were also substantial delegations from Latin America. Then there were a few each from such places as Nepal, Hungary, South Korea, and Japan,


The trick, of course, was to get this diverse group to interact. I think that the Conference accomplished this. The main vehicle for this was the daily one and a half hour “home group” which occurred every day. These groups were intentionally diverse. My group had about fifteen members and my leaders were from Kenya and the Netherlands and had Kenyans, a Rwanda, one from South Africa, the leader from the Netherlands, and a few Americans. Ironically the fact that the dining hall could not accommodate all the crowd encouraged this interaction. You could not find a seat next to your buddies from your yearly meeting so you had to sit wherever you could find an open seat. Then to be polite you had to introduce yourself to whomever was sitting at the table with you.


The only other comparable conference that I attended was the Friends United Meeting Triennial in 2002 in Nairobi. In that case the equivalent of the home groups did not work. They were too large as I had about forty in my group and the purpose was never explained so that the Kenyans didn’t understand what the purpose was and didn’t return after the first day. The result was that the Triennial remained divided with the Americans and Kenyans usually forming separate groups.


Perhaps this success could be best illustrated by a story told by Sandy Grotberg from Chambersburg Meeting. The fourth day was one for excursions. A group of about a hundred went to Lake Bagoria. The fees for the park was different for Kenyans, East Africans, and foreigners. The park wanted the three groups to go separately into different buses because they it would be easier to collect the divergent fees. All the World Conference delegates refused to be divided in this way and the park people had to back down.


A more substantive event was when Friends from Guatemala and El Salvador asked Joseph Mamai, Chairman of the Friends Church Peace Teams, to describe the peace work that we are doing in Kenya.


My tread group, Quaker Peacemaking around the World, on the first three days allowed each person seven minutes to describe his/her peace activities and those of their meeting. I actually had too many participants as over 35 ended up coming. This was because there really weren’t enough thread groups (a mini-seminar where participants would cover a specific Quaker related topic). The issue of lynching of thieves and others in Kenya was the most dramatic part of my thread group and I’ll be making a full report on this in the near future as I think that is a major, but neglected concern that Friends ought to be addressing.


Naturally there had to be controversy. The homosexual issue was expected. Friends for Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual, Transgender and Queer Concerns in the United States, like ten or twelve other Quaker groups, sent an epistle to the Conference. All these epistles were posted on the wall outside the main auditorium where we met. On the fourth day, someone tore down this epistle. The next morning after the opening worship and reflection on the theme, Liz Gates from Lancaster Meeting in the US and clerk of the conference committee, came to the podium and said that Friends where breaking her heart with this act of hate and violence. She was aware that there were strong differences in opinion on the subject as well as many others, but that everyone was a child of God. When she finished, most of the white folks clapped vigorously, while most of the Africans didn’t clap.


The next night ZabronMalenge, the General Secretary of the Friends Church in Kenya, the organization that unites all the yearly meeting in Kenya together, announced a short meeting at the end of the evening presentation by Nancy Irving, the outgoing General Secretary of FWCC. As a member of Lugari Yearly Meeting, I felt I had a right to attend and so I did. The meeting was in Swahili and essentially Zabron said that the Kenya Church knew where they stood on this issue (i.e., homosexually is sinful), but they should not let this incident destroy the conference. The Friends Church in Kenya would take up this issue at their next meeting in June and then would forward theirstatement to the yearly meetings. He asked if this was acceptable and there was agreement.


Then one man got up to speak to the issue and the women began to murmur. When a second man got up to speak, all the women walked out in protest. As they were going out, I heard them say such comments as “Why are we discussing this issue as we know it exists?” with the attitude that this was really no big deal. “Why should this be a concern to us?” “We know that some of these men are gay.” Unfortunately, the June meeting will be attended primarily by men and the few women, as is so common in the world, will be intimidated into silence. This confirms my observation that the grassroots Friends in Kenya are not particularly interested in the homosexuality issue since the women have much more pressing issues such as domestic abuse, poverty, and gender discrimination.


This then led to the opportunity to discuss the issue in the home groups. I asked a number of people what happened in their home group. My home group and one other that a participant related the details did not discuss the issue. At the other extreme one home group was almost completely destroyed by acrimonious debate. In the others, the topic was brought up and discussed respectfully. A number of the informants commented that they were surprised how open many of the Kenyans – particularly the women and younger men – were. A number of Kenyans felt that homosexuals should not be excluded from church as is the current policy. In some cases, they did feel that they should be allowed to attend in order to realize their “sinful ways.” I heard about one group where an American woman indicated that her daughter was a lesbian. In this case the Kenyans were sympathetic as family relationships clearly were of higher importance. One person told me that none of the Kenyans had ever met even one openly gay or lesbian. Their concept was the male prostitute in Mombasa living off tourists who come in on cruise boats. My conclusion from this incident is that there are opportunities in Kenya for dialogue on the issues of homosexuality.


The other major controversy of the World Conference could easily have been avoided. Without consultation with others, nor even information to the participants, the Local Organizing Committee invited former Kenyan President, Daniel arapMoi, to address the conference. I had heard that some people objected that the conference was being held at Kabarak University since it was owned by Moi and he is called the “Chancellor.” Moi ruled for twenty-four years during a time of decline of most of the major institutions in Kenya, high levels of corruption, and denial of basic human rights. People were assassinated, tortured, demonstrators such WangariMaathaiwere beaten. This lead to what Kenyans call the “second revolution” in the bid to oustMoi regime. Unfortunately the Kenyan Church was one of the significant backers of the Moi regime. With pride they speak of how Moi came to lead successful fundraisers at Friends International Centre on Ngong Road, Offafa Friends Church, and others. So in this respect it was not surprising that the Local Organizing Committeeinvited him. This, though, led to the highlighting of the Kenyan Quaker Church complicity in the excesses of the Moi regime.


I have been at many meetings in Kenya were the topic of the stagnation of the Kenya Friends Church is discussed. In every one of these discussions, one of the topics mentioned that is harming the church is the involvement of the Friends Church in secular politics. There are four members of the Kenyan parliament who are Quakers, three of them ministers. All come from heavily Quaker constituencies and they actively court the Quaker vote. Naturally those who support another candidate are going to be disenchanted with the Church. Is the Church viable when the only method of obtaining large donations is when politicians come to furdraising events and contribute a large sum in order to “buy” the votes of the attendees?


I had heard that Moiwas being invited before the conference and I sent an email to those concerned that I did not think this was a good idea and that the reaction from some of the Quakers used to opposing their governments might not look favorably on his attendance. I did not know what they might do, but I thought some might walk out or even stand with their backs to him when he spoke. I said that I would boycott his presentation.


At lunch on the day he spoke, three of the Quaker male hierarchy approached me as if I were leading some kind of revolt over his presence. I told them that in Europe and the US, Quaker peacemakers followed their own conscience and I did not know what they might do nor could I in any way influence them. I reiterated my prior statement (which at least one of them had received) that I would boycott the talk myself.


Perhaps as a result of this, his appearance was almost a secret as most of the participants had no idea he was coming – it was not on the conference schedule – and they wondered why one door to the auditorium was being blocked off. The session started as planned on weaving together the threads of the conference. Then Moi and about eight men – some I assume were body guards – came in. Everyone stood up when he walked in and there was a lot of honoring using of titles such as saying “your excellency.” I heard that he made uncontroversial remarks. When he left, people stood up again.


What was the reaction? I noticed that a few others also boycotted his talk. One person told me that he walked out. Others refused to stand when he came in. One person told me she refused to stand when he came in, but stood when he left because she was happy to see him go. After he left, I entered in the auditorium to be apart of the proceedings. One person got up and spoke at length at how the Quakers had lost their “salt and light” by overthrowing the Quaker testimony on equality during his appearance. As I talked to a number of European/Americans/Australians, etc., they all felt uncomfortable about the situation. Some did not know about the history of Moi regime, yet still felt uncomfortable. Others were uncomfortable because they were so surprised by his attendance. Still others totally rejected the oppression of his regime.


I myself boycotted the talk. I got myself a chair and had a meeting for worship by myself in a vacant tent close by the auditorium. I prayed for those who had died, been tortured, imprisoned, and suppressed during his regime. I also prayed for those who died because the collapse of the medical system, those who did not receive appropriate education, the roads that were run down into potholes, and government institutions which became sources of enrichment for those who embezzled their funds.


This is my take on the FWCC World Gathering.