KIAMBU, Kenya (WOMENSENEWS)--Back in 2005, when Sarah Palin was mayor of the tiny Alaskan town of Wasilla, nobody made much of a visit from a Pentecostal pastor by the name of Bishop Thomas Muthee from the somewhat larger Kenyan town of Kiambu.
Scores of African men and women of the cloth routinely travel to the better heeled nations of the world, bringing along the credibility of a continent of congregations that have had their share of brushes with war, famine and disease on a biblical scale. U.S. churchgoers hear how righteousness might prevail against the starkest of evils in faraway Africa. They might even be inspired to make a donation to support a pastor's work there.
It was one of these ecclesiastical visits that brought Muthee to speak at the Wasilla Assembly of God in 2005, when he asked God to protect Palin "from every form of witchcraft." He was speaking as a man who had already made his name around the world as a champion fighter of witches.
Palin was then a candidate for governor, but it wasn't until she rocketed to prominence as the Republican vice presidential nominee that the bishop's protective prayers drew public notice. Videos of the blessing circulated on the Web while critics compared Muthee's brand of religion to the fiery sermons about race from Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the former minister of Democratic candidate Sen. Barack Obama who became a political liability.
In June, before she joined the national race, Palin credited Muthee's blessing with her election victory while addressing her congregation. "He said, 'Lord, make a way and let her do this next step,'" she said. "And that's exactly what happened."
Saved Town From Mama Jane
In a video produced in 1999 by the Sentinel Group, a Christian research and information agency based in Lynnwood, Wash., the Kenyan pastor relates the story of how, in 1989, he saved the city of Kiambu from the clutches of crime, car accidents, speakeasies and even late-night discos by driving a particularly formidable witch called Mama Jane out of town.
"We have not had a single accident since," Muthee said in one widely published sermon. "In fact, since that woman moved out of Kiambu, the entire atmosphere has changed. Whereas people used to be afraid to go out at night, now we enjoy one of the lowest crime rates in Kenya."
Muthee claimed that police rescued Mama Jane from a lynch mob at the time, and then whisked her away for good after gunning down a pet python they mistook for a demon.
But some residents of Kiambu were somewhat skeptical of Muthee's claims.
Not least among them is the herbalist Jane W. Njenga, a pastor with the African Mission of Holy Ghost Church, who is best known as Mama Jane.
She says she didn't own a pet python and she's never left her compound, located about a half-mile from Muthee's immense new church. Last week Women's eNews spoke to her there, next door to the Superkid Solid Foundation Faith in Every Footstep daycare center just off Kiambu's main street.
"If I am bad, why haven't people attacked me?" Njenga says, in the first interview she has given to the media. "Why haven't they burnt this building down? That is what people here do to witches."
Eleven elderly Kenyans, mostly women, were burned to death in May after locals accused them of being witches. Thirty houses were also torched. Witchcraft is often blamed here for personal misfortunes, including the death of a child, HIV-AIDS and even crimes like cattle rustling, rape and murder.
Awakenings in a Growing Town
Located amid some of the finest farmland in all East Africa, Kiambu, once the site of grim colonial work camps, is now jammed with young rural migrants in search of urban dreams. They rent rooms and compete for jobs as security guards, teachers or civil servants in the neighboring cities of Nairobi and Thika.
Amidst the influx more than 500 churches have sprung up, provoking some skepticism as to their altruism among longtime residents.
"If you want to get rich very fast, just start a church," says Jane Karande, a 46-year-old community health worker who was born here.
Karande admits car accidents have dropped since 1989, but, like many, she attributes that more to paving the main road and adding speed bumps than to Bishop Muthee's arrival on the scene. In the 20 years Karande has spent volunteering to distribute HIV-AIDS medicines and setting up centers for orphans and at-risk children, she hasn't gotten much help from clergy.
"We don't have any support from churches," she says. "Except maybe the Catholics."
Behind a marketplace full of women selling potatoes, tomatoes, spinach and maize off of burlap mats, an administrator at the freshly built offices of Muthee's Word of Faith Church explains that the bishop is in the United States, though he won't say where.
Across the street workmen heft cinder blocks high onto the walls of the church, which will seat 4,000 people when it's completed.
On the other side of main street Mama Jane Njenga's premises have a rundown feel. Scattered about the pocked lot outside Njenga's modest office are a stained bathtub, a caved-in outhouse, two haphazard strings of laundry, an old well with a rusted crank, a few shy schoolchildren and a church only slightly bigger than a tool shed.
"The only miracle Muthee has done is to chase away Mama Jane," she says with a booming laugh. Robust and topping six feet in the trademark shiny white robes of her church, Njenga is undeniably still in town.
Photos Bear Witness on the Wall
Njenga points to old photographs along the wall of all the people she says she has healed. In one of them, she cradles a newborn baby in each arm.
"The mother was barren until she came to me," says Njenga, who never had any children of her own, though she raised many.
Angela Wambui, 34, is one of them.
"She has so many adopted children, she educated us, fed us," Wambui says. "There are over 30 or 40 orphans, so many, even now there are some who are still there."
Another, a mechanic in Kiambu, has even worked on Muthee's car, Njenga says.
At a tailoring shop a couple miles from the center of town, Agnes Muchaba, a member of Muthee's congregation, says that not all of Njenga's children came willingly. More than 20 years ago, she says, Njenga promised to cure Muchaba's brother-in-law of mental illness in exchange for his first-born child.
Four years after the child was taken to Njenga, the man's condition continued to deteriorate, and the family finally brought the child home.
"Since Bishop Muthee came, the powers of Jane diminished," Muchaba says. "He talked about Jane openly, saying she was a witch."
Njenga denies she ever took a child as payment. But she does remember being called a witch.
"When Muthee came, he took a loudspeaker into the street and he told people to pray for seven days that I would die," Njenga says. "If I was not known in the town, I could not have survived even to put my children through school."
Zoe Alsop is a freelance writer based in Kenya.
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