On May 6, 2022, Catherine Mutuku was found lying dead on her bed at Nyayo Estate in Nairobi. Her relatives had earlier on reported to the police that she was missing.
She had not been answering phone calls or returning missed calls. She had not been seen in public for days.
At one point, her mobile went off after draining power. According to an early report from the detectives, Catherine had locked herself at her home to fast and pray.
She had a marked register in her bedroom that showed that she had been praying and fasting since May 18, 2022. The police suspected that the 78-year-old had died out of starvation.
Catherine is not the first woman in Kenya to die under the yoke of religion. In December 2021, Grace Waithera died at a church in Shanzu where she had gone to seek prayers after she was diagnosed with chest pains and high blood pressure.
She had travelled from Nyeri to seek Evangelist Ezekiel Odero’s prayers at New Life church. After camping for two days at the church’s verandah, Grace was found dead by members of the public.
These two unfortunate cases peel off the mask on the ugly side of religion that not too many people are willing to talk about: the side that has turned thousands, if not millions of people, into religious fanatics and cultic followers. The majority of these are women.
Data from the Pew Research Center shows that around the world, 83.4 percent of women say they identify with a religion, compared with 79.9 percent of men. This means that there are about 100 million more religiously affiliated women in the world than men.
Whereas not every religious follower is a fanatic, there are some women within religion who will readily shred their dignity to the point of losing their lives in the name of their church or pastor.
Religious fanaticism and spirituality among women cuts across education, social class and career. David Muriithi, the Bishop at House of Grace church says that women are more spiritually sensitive than men.
“Women have always been more religiously inclined than men. The ratio of women and men who devote themselves to church is 60:40,” he says.
In 2021, Bishop Muriithi was exposed of having an affair and sued for child maintenance by Judy Mutave. Judy alleged that the two had met at a club and she was aware that he was a married church leader. In his defense, Bishop Muriithi offered to pay Sh. 10,000 in monthly child support.
In Kenya, the Pew research titled ‘The Gender Gap in Religion Around the World’ shows that Kenyan women (Christians) are 14 times more likely to attend religious services per week than Kenyan men.
These women are also 16 per cent more likely to attend weekly worship services than men. Among the most important things in life, Kenyan women single out religion as very important.
“Muslim men and women are about equally likely to view religion as very important to them. This changes among Christian men and women, with women recording higher rates of allegiance to the church than men,” the research says.
The high level of allegiance to religion women portray will range from acute fanaticism such as fasting to the point of death to subtle dedications such as insensible financial donations and blind obedience to pastoral leadership.
Carol Wanjiku, a devoted church member at JCC Parklands and the CEO of Kenya Sunrise Eco Energy, says that women believe and trust more quickly when it comes to issues concerning religion and God.
“It is true that we are quick to believe, especially where faith and God are the subject matter. Some of us, though, are so quick that we believe without taking intelligent perspectives into account,” she says.
This quickness to believe reflects the high number of churches mushrooming at nearly all corners of the country, which are mainly dominated by female attendance. But this is not a fresh phenomenon. Bishop Muriithi says that since the genesis of religion, women have always had the upper hand.
“The Jewish culture was heavily patriarchal and as a result, more men got mentioned in the holy book than women. But women have always won the battle of religious numbers and loyalty,” he says. “It is the women who stuck with Jesus up until resurrection. It is the woman whose sensitivity told out the devil at the Garden of Eden.”
This loyalty to religion has at times been a double edged sword. It has exposed many women to religious exploitation. A few moons ago, a popular Nairobi pastor asked her followers to fundraise millions for her top of the range Toyota Landcruiser.
In return, she prophesied that they would end the year with their own Landcruiser ‘V8s’. In a pledge of loyalty, her followers dug into their pockets but none of the women owned a V8 upon the maturation of her prophecy.
In other cases, says sociologist Nathan Gachoka, this blind loyalty has left many women struggling financially because they feel obligated to pay a percentage of their monthly income to their pastors.
“This phenomenon is more prevalent among Christianity where members are obliged to pay up to 10 per cent of their earnings to their religious leader. You find that out of a salary of Sh. 50,000, a follower will pay up Sh. 5,000 to her pastor regardless of how financially constrained she is,” says Gachoka.
He adds that over time, these acts become ingrained into a follower’s behavioural non-negotiable obligation even though they might have serious ramifications on the wellbeing and quality of life of that individual.
“Since women are more religious than men and have more emotive attachment, they are also more prone to be easy bait,” he says.
There are also instances where women’s religious loyalty has bordered on psychological brainwashing.
In March 2019, controversial prophet David Owuor was placed at the centre of a multi-million property dispute by the family of Jane Muthoni Njagi. The family accused Owuor of brainwashing Ms. Njagi and taking over her multi-million properties in Westlands, Nairobi.
The properties included Dove Court Apartments situated along Raphta Road in Muthangari, a posh residential home situated at Riverside Drive, and a series of top of the range fuel-guzzling vehicles that were being used by Owuor’s bishops. Dr. Owuor had also allegedly turned some of her property into the head offices of the Repentance and Holiness Ministry.
The family also said that Owuor’s proxies had gained access to Ms. Njagi’s bank accounts and assumed so much control that she could not transact or withdraw money without the presence of one of Owuor’s representatives.
Ms. Njagi allegedly no longer had key personal documents such as a national identity card in her possession.
Her family said that these documents had been confiscated by Owuor’s church when she joined the ministry about ten years ago.
The family accused Owuor of taking advantage of Ms. Njagi’s dementia problem to acquire and control her wealth. But Owuor’s lawyer Kimani Watenga denied these claims and said that Ms. Njagi had voluntarily made the resolution to appoint Lily Macharia as her manager. Ms. Macharia was a close follower of Owuor.
He also said that Ms. Njagi had retired from her legal practice to serve the Lord after her son was healed from dyslexia by the self-proclaimed prophet. “As a thank you, Ms. Njagi dedicated her Riverside Drive home to the church for Bible study,” Mr. Wetanga was reported by the media.
Whenever cases of religious exploitation pop up, the big question is always how an educated, career woman would be so ready to willingly give her entire wealth and resources to the church and her pastor.
But Ms. Wanjiku says that she can do anything for the church as long as she believes God said so. She however considers the consequences her actions will have on her life.
“When it comes to giving money, I will only give what I can afford and not necessarily what I am asked to give. If I am serving time in church, I’ll stay as long as my personal life such as marriage and job are not affected,” she says. But for others, nothing can stand between them and their religion.
In June 2021 for instance, Joshua Nalem’s marriage hit the rock after his wife decided to marry the ‘holy spirit’ in West Pokot. Her wedding to the ‘holy spirit’ was conducted by Albert Rumaita of the Anglican Church Makutano, who said that the world might be coming to an end.
One of the reasons why the show of allegiance sometimes beats logic is the way women are naturally wired.
“Women are naturally wired to be emotional. They approach religion emotionally. But some of these emotions are not based on knowledge. They go overboard,” says Bishop Muriithi.
Some preachers who know how emotional women get towards religion take advantage and exploit them. “This is why we have a lot of emotionally inclined preaching that is devoid of content,” he says. This has also sexually exposed many women.
In September 2014, a pastor at the ACK Pumwani church was busted engaging in sexual activities with a female member of his congregation at a restaurant situated along Thika Road. In his defense, the pastor claimed that he had gone to the lodging to pray and intercede for the woman.
In February of the same year, a pastor with the Kenya Assemblies of God was caught pants down with a church member in Karatina. The church member had approached the pastor in search of marital counseling.
Desperation and gender power differences are also factors. “In most societies, women are disadvantaged when it comes to gender power and privilege. Men control more money, more wealth and assets, more socio-economic and political power than women,” says Dr. Phil Zuckerman, a sociologist and the author of What It Means to Be Moral: Why Religion Is Not Necessary for Living an Ethical Life.
This leaves women feeling discriminated against, helpless, and unworthy. Some of the life solutions some pastors claim to offer have seen women result in desperate attempts to fix their marriages, get kids, and even get men to marry them.
In 2010, for example, thousands of Kenyan women fought and shoved at the gates of the KICC as they scrambled to get anointing oil from Nigerian pastor Chris Ojigbani.
The anointing oil was supposedly formulated to give them husbands. Dozens of women then went on the stage to proclaim that they were already receiving marriage proposals via their cellphones from potential suitors.
Ms.Wanjiku says that when in total desperation, a woman will do anything her pastor asks her in order to get a solution for her situation without questioning.
“She will give him astronomical amounts of money if that’s what he says will save her marriage or even her body if he claims that’s what it’ll take for her to get a child,” she says.
The need to appease pastors has left many relationships on the verge of break up. Take Zack Kimani who has been married for two years now. He is contemplating separation due to the nature of the relationship that his wife has with their pastor.
“We cannot discuss anything without her invoking the name of the pastor. ‘Let me ask the pastor; pastor said; I’ll tell pastor; what will pastor think about this and that; she’s all about the pastor!’” he says. Zack says he is fed up with the kind of respect and attention that his wife shows their pastor but doesn’t accord him.
“It is very insulting when she moves me and allows him to sit on my favourite seat whenever he comes around. That’s my throne as head of the family!” he says. His wife is a business development manager at a Nairobi-based fast moving consumer goods distributorship company.
This phenomenon is not limited to urban areas alone. In Kenya’s rural areas, stories are awash of pastors getting kingly treatments from their women congregants.
In fact, hilarious tales are told of how women congregants beat eggs and prepare chicken wings for their pastors during weekly fellowship meetings which are held at the congregants’ homesteads.
One of the most commonly deployed brainwashing tactics is the misinterpretation of biblical teachings.
“When the goal is to attain riches and respect rather than provide spiritual nourishment, teachings in the holy book will be skewed to manipulate the most vulnerable women, and to evoke fear and respect,” says Christina Chanya Lenjou, a consultant sociologist based in Nairobi.
These women are tuned to believe that they are worthless and their human weaknesses are horrible before God.
“Since they portray themselves as having powers and being closer to God in all aspects, they make their flock believe that they have to always act on their behalf. Women especially get emotionally and cognitively conditioned to believe everything the pastor says. Their individual decision making capacity is made subordinate to other quarters,” she says.
This is echoed by Dr. Zuckerman who says that while spiritual and religious practices can add value to an individual’s mental wellbeing, religious fanaticism is almost never good for any follower. “This primarily discourages any logical reasoning or scientific evidence and makes it inherently maladaptive” he says.
Ms. Lenjou further points a finger on the patriarchal model of society which demands that men provide a sense of security to their women.
“Despite the woman having high education levels and financial stability, she will still look for that male figure that will give her security. If her man fails to provide the kind of security she is looking for, she will do almost anything to get it from her pastor,” she says.
The downside, though, is that such women will hardly find true spiritual meaning within themselves. “They’ll always be inclined to believe that a man should ‘complete’ them irrespective of their socio-economic standing,” says Ms. Lenjou.