Orthodoxy in Kenya (Part I)

Feb 4, 2008 by

Christ crucified, Kenyan OrthodoxyIN 1922, a young woman named Hadley Richardson thought she would surprise her husband, who at the time was in Switzerland on assignment as a war correspondent, by bringing to him almost all of his fiction-all unpublished-from their Paris apartment.  It turned out a surprise all right, but not the sort she intended. While her train was still stationed in the Gare de Lyon, she briefly left the compartment to buy some mineral water. On returning she found that the valise-which contained not only the manuscripts, but also the carbon copies, duplicates, etc.-was gone.  In hindsight the traumatic loss seems only appropriate, even fortuitous, for that young writer-Ernest Hemingway-who would develop a ‘less is more’ credo and whose mascot, if we might ascribe him one posthumously, may as well have been a scalpel.

For this month’s essay I had intended to write about my experiences shadowing the Orthodox Archbishop of Kenya as a journalist for two weeks last July through Nairobi and Western Kenya as he toured a group of Cypriots (on their yearly “Holy Mission” to Kenya) around Orthodox churches, schools, orphanages and clinics that they had helped finance. But when I sat down to write I realized I’d unwittingly discarded or lost all of my notes.  No traumatic loss of the young Hemingway variety, but still a downer. 

I could of course have made a pastiche of my newspaper and magazine articles. But the very reason I wanted to write an essay was because my reporting seemed to me inadequate-although this was partly due to limitations on content, style, tone, etc. that the newspaper form imposes-at conveying even a small fraction of my impressions and of my conflicted feelings over missionary enterprises.

All missionary work inevitably carries with it an unsavory load of historical baggage.  In numerous novels the renowned Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe has described with unsentimental but scorching starkness the destructive effect of Christian missionaries upon tribal culture, while the Western practice of “Christianizing the savages” through invasion and bloodshed will not soon be forgotten by those being Christianized (to take one example, President McKinley justified the bloody 1899 US invasion of the Philippines by explaining that the Filipinos were “unfit for government… and there was nothing left… to do but to take them all and to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them”). 

Of course, none of the sword-wielding Crusaders, the rifle-toting converters or the hooded dungeon-thugs of the Inquisition belonged to the Orthodox tradition, but one might still reasonably imagine that the Orthodox Church, with its unshakeable adherence to ancient Byzantine customs, would oppose the ‘polluting’ of its ceremonies by foreign rituals and practices.

But in Kenya, at least, that does not seem to be the case. “Actually we as a church are the ones who are keeping and encouraging the culture of the people,” Archbishop Makarios said, pointing out that even within Orthodoxy, millennia old practices from the pre-Christian era are still maintained. Archbishop Makarios of Kenya also chants in the tribal dialects as well as Greek, and he oversees the translation of the texts of the Orthodox services from Greek into the local dialect.  “For some of these tribes, this is the first time that written texts are circulating in their languages.” 

(Yes, I lifted the last three paragraphs verbatim from one of my magazine pieces.  It is probably as close as I got at expressing any of my ‘conflicted feelings over missionary enterprises,’ and it does not seem to me to be very close at all.) 

My notes for Kenya were gone, but I did still possess hundreds of photographs.  I thought at first they might serve as cannons to fire marooned neurons across the otherwise impassable synaptic gaps of my memory, but it wasn’t until I sat through a digital slideshow that I realized that-like an adult and armored Athena springing unexpectedly from Zeus’ head-my essay was already fully formed in those images that were fading in and out before my eyes.      

Any photograph to some extent reflects the photographer’s way of seeing the world.  It can tell as much about the subject who is taking it as of the object being photographed.  They do not speak with the unequivocal forthrightness of an essay in words but it is precisely their amenability to multiple interpretations that makes them all the more appropriate here.  I will try to keep commentary to a minimum, and not merely because I share hopes with that museum curator who, in Susan Sontag’s words, “in order to turn a photojournalist’s work into art, shows the photographs without their original captions.” 

Before the images, a few last words on the Archbishop of Kenya, Makarios Tillyrides, who defies the all-too-easy contemptuous stereotype of the missionary as parasitic hypocrite.  It is a testament to his authenticity that he has remained in Kenya, working without respite in its most impoverished and dangerous regions, despite enduring a near fatal case of cerebral malaria and despite having been the victim of numerous assaults from robbers, one of which even left him unconscious.  That he has not temporarily fled the country now that Kenya is wracked by ethnic violence and slipping towards civil war but instead stayed on, offering up his seminary as a temporary housing refuge for dozens of women and children who had to evacuate the Kibera slum, does not surprise me at all.


Constantine Markides

*You can see Part II of Orthodoxy in Kenya here

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  1. Anastasios Kiyonga


  2. Ruika L

    Was just browsing your site and thought I’d start from the essays part. Even with topics as interesting as psychotropics and hygiene, I chose to start with religion as i spotted this piece related to Orthodoxy in Kenya, which reminded me of a good friend of mine doing development work there right now – she’s from the States but greatly enthusiastic about Kenya, working as a Kenyan Constitutional law specialist on women’s leadership and community outreach, and geared more towards Constitutional Law, politics, immigration/refugee, and foreign policy particularly involving East Africa. I know this post was written more than 4 years ago, but here are some thoughts:

    1. It’s always interesting to read essays about religions in foreign countries. I myself just came to the States 5 years ago for college – moving from the largest country in East Asia, where topics like religion, philosophy, and ideology were rarely discussed during middle and high school, attending college in the States was not only a turning point but also an eye-opening experience when it comes to learning about religion, particularly in this country. The learning keeps going on every day, although working in the professional service industry doesn’t help me because of course there are countless lenses through which one could learn about this world, and business, although important, is just one of them.

    I’m very curious about how your travel and writing along the way have changed your view of the world.

    2. As a writer, do you also have the habit of always bringing a pen and a piece of paper with you wherever you go, just to jot something down whenever inspired or possible?

    3. “in order to turn a photojournalist’s work into art, shows the photographs without their original captions” – Great quote. Art is an interactive process for both the artists and audience to engage in a constant exploration of meaning. Just as musicians and actors on stage, listeners and audience also perform.

    4. Ever thought of adding a subset of “music” under “Essays”? Granted, it’s nearly impossible to write about a piece of musical performance, or the emotional experience of listening in general, but since you write for Rolling Stone, would love to read some music-related pieces.

    Thanks for reading!

    • Thanks for reading and for the detailed comment, Ruika. In response to what you asked:
      1) How has my travel and writing changed my view of the world? I wouldn’t know how to begin to answer that. All I can say is how has it not?
      2) I think it was William Burroughs who, when asked how he could prove he was a writer, pulled a pencil out of a pocket. Of course, it’s not enough just to carry one around. You’ve got to use it too. I do carry a pen and either a scrap of paper or a pocket-sized notebook with me but don’t make use of them nearly enough.
      3) I don’t use captions because I don’t like how the text distracts from the photo (just watch people in a museum: before even looking at a painting their eye goes straight to the caption in hopes of some guidance on how to view and judge the artwork, something I’m guilty of it myself). Well, that and because I’m lazy.
      4) I’ve thought about putting a music heading eventually there but not for writing about music but for putting music. I like to play (mostly harmonica & piano) and would like to spend some time composing and recording. I do have an Essay somewhere up on the website about the Diatonic Harmonica that I wrote as part of my Masters degree. Just found it: http://www.fourthnight.com/2008/09/diatonic-harmonica

      Glad you’ve enjoyed some of the posts!


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