Faith, and Mary Akatsa

The evangelist is a diminutive, throaty Baluhya woman in a peasant’s headscarf, with high cheekbones and a penetrating gaze. Mary Akatsa operates in a large, fenced-off compound constructed of wooden poles, polythene roofing and mabati sidings, in the heart of the dusty and crowded Kawangware slums, which in terms of urban squalor is better than some but certainly no picnic. It’s a bizarre and occasionally raucous hybrid of missionary-flavored Christianity and traditional African spirituality, with pounding drums, faith healing, and a holy war against evil witchcraft.

My first personal experience with this local legend proved a disappointment.

Just yesterday she called me out in front of her devoted minions, a hyperventilating throng of more than a thousand people, including cripples, philanderers, philanthropists and petty thieves. While discussing my interest in starting a group home for street children, I had too-casually mentioned to Eddie Kamau, one of her closest disciples, that I might be seeking donations from my own family. This, Akatsa translated to her believers, meant that my mother was a “millionaire,” and I had already agreed to buy a piece of land next to her in fertile Kinangop, so that she and I could start this project together to help the poorest of the poor. This is all good and blessed, she assured her followers. I would stay near her the rest of my life, heaven sent. Like all visitors called up to receive her personal blessing, I was then instructed to run up and down the isle through the chanting, hand-clapping crowd while the drums beat frantically. I noticed that one of the drummers was yawning, perhaps exhausted from this three-times a week, ten hour-long gig… it was a strange scene...

To be fair, that is why I went to see her in the first place—hoping that she might be interested in some level of collaboration. And I did express some interest when Kamau insisted that he could sell me a plot of land in Kinangop for a decent price. Whether her exaggeration was a standard evangelical strategy that Akatsa had picked up from the European benefactor the local media has reported her to be dating, I'm not sure. Nevertheless it was disappointing to find out through personal experience what one could only suspect. Against logic, I had been holding on to the remote hope that Mary Akatsa the Philanthropist was for real, even though it had been reported in the papers that Jesus had actually once made a personal appearance in Kawangware. Witnesses were reported to have verified the momentous visitation, though the validity of this event was called into question and met with derision by many, with claims that it was actually a Sikh imposter in a turban.

Nevertheless, Akatsa provides plenty of solace and salvation to her followers. Faith healing is her specialty. I witnessed a few impressive incidents, including what appeared to be a woman's heart, exposed through a gaping, festering, malodorous abscess in her chest. No miracle cure ensued, though the unfortunate soul took great comfort from the attention she received. And Akatsa is undeniably entertaining. Indignant righteousness, flamboyant gestures and proclamations excite her indigent followers. A favorite crowd pleasers is the shaving of the heads of disloyal wives. Likewise, her audience howls with delight as she admonishes an adulterous man, yelling that if he "keeps using that thing, it's going to be cut off!" In a fit of temper, Akatsa might pick up a stone and threaten to brain one of the ladies in her chorus who isn't singing with enough enthusiasm. This happened as I stood next to her, self-consciously clapping my hands to the music.

Weeks later I returned to Kawangware after receiving a telephone message at my office from Eddie Kamau. After disembarking from the matatu and walking the last mile into the red-dirt heat of the slums, I was met by Kamau who took me aside and assured me that everything was being taken care of, that his brother who was also there was going to sell me two acres, "right next to Mama." When I asked him the cost, he dismissed the subject with the kind of suspicion-arousing remark I've grown used to hearing from Kenyans in land deals: "Don't worry about that. As long as I'm there, we'll take care of it." So I let it slide, not mentioning that I had specifically told him two acres was more than I could afford, another sign that my new associates were doing more planning and talking amongst themselves than listening to me.

Her open-air compound was filled when I finally arrived in mid-afternoon. Akatsa was busy exorcising demons, and I thought it better to just leave. She spotted me heading for the exit, and signaled for me to go to her house to wait. I called her over, interrupting the festivities, and asked her for a better time to meet. She rushed Kamau and I into a small, unlit room. With a hushed, husky voice she spoke with fiery eyes, imploring me to come see her on Friday at 3:00. She tried to leave to go back to her crowd, but Kamau insisted that she say a quick prayer for us. I was told to kneel on the dirt floor. In the shadows of that tin-roofed room, away from the partially muffled noises of beating drums and general excitement, she began praying earnestly in Swahili, touching me on the head and shoulders at every point of accentuation. Kamau followed Akatsa's brand of African Christianity, clapping his hands softly in rhythm, murmuring "ashindwe!" (to be defeated) deflecting any potential evil spirits that might undermine our plan.

Discounting the slim likelihood that something good will come from all of this, my hopes are all but dashed. Similar past encounters have lifted me beyond the naive mzungu who can be easily taken advantage of. To quote my long-time friend Chege, the illustrious, storytelling drinker of the deadly local brew chang'aa, whose resume includes ivory smuggler, squatter on government land, one-time caretaker of our home in Rironi, and currently employed as an askari (watchman) at Wilson Airport:

"I'm not so fool!"