Orthodoxy in Kenya (Part I)
IN 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at the time was in Switzerland on assignment as a war correspondent, by bringing to him almost all of his fiction-all unpublished-from their Paris apartment.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.
*You can see Part II of Orthodoxy in Kenya here
- Orthodoxy in Kenya (Part II)
- Why Baghdatis Matters: The Importance of Being Cypriot
- Three Months in the Life of the Cypriot National Guard
- The View on America