“Akinamama Model” for Promoting Human Rights in the Kenya Evangelical Lutheran Church

[1] Kenya Evangelical Lutheran Church established the women’s desk in 1993 with the first two women leaders being white missionaries from Sweden. Prior to this intentional desk formation and having female leaders, the women were led by a male who represented women in matters pertaining to their well-being and progress. It was not until late 1999 when the first Kenyan woman became hired as the coordinator for women’s programs. Initially, African leadership was met with resistance. Not so much because the women did not like it, as to the demand for ethical commitment that was less familiar with the women.

[2] A leadership history marked with issues of race and patriarchy such as this, obviously created power over dynamics that were entrenched in the lives and minds of the African women. What the new African leadership inherited was a paternalistic system that had reduced the women to mere dependants and objects of discussion. So, to ask them to take initiative as way of owning programs was rather much to ask. Programs were thought of, planned, written out and implemented for the women. On one hand, the psychological fear of not doing it right was too great for the women. On the other hand, the psychological dependency created made everyone feel well. It took much pastoral care, sensitization and education on meaning and role of ownership for the women to become fully in charge and fully own the programs. The awareness of the social impact of women’s full involvement motivated them to fully own the programs for ministry and mission in the Kenya evangelical Lutheran church.

[3] The ethical and religious demand was critical for the women to run their programs as their own. Previously, programs under their charge were handed down to them to hand down to others when it became necessary. These church programs were in women’s programs in abstraction. So, for the ethical and religious aspects to be internalized and embraced much sensitization and education had to take place among the KELC women. The religious motivation for program ownership arises out of the awareness that women embrace faith more readily. The KELC Akinamama, women have as their objectives to minister to one another spiritually through prayer, music, home visits, bible study. The notion of being ‘notoriously religious’ as John Mbiti[1] says might be said of spirituality through which women engage for personal and communal health.

[4] Sensitization and education process among Akinamama was no easy task either. The challenge faced was the lack of common language of instruction. This does not in any way downplay the two major languages, Swahili and English, in addition to ethnic language, spoken among the majority Kenyans. Rather, that many Kenyans do not speak Swahili and English both of which form the national and official languages. The third language tends to take precedence, the ethnic language which must be learned by people not of the ethnic community.

[5] Therefore, the women at KELC took it upon themselves the task of learning not only the national languages of communication, but also took up Adult Education programs sponsored by the church Women’s Desk. “Adult Education Kenya is in the process of developing its Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) Strategy for the Decade for Education for Sustainable Development (DESD).[2] Education for sustainable development in the areas of theological education, HIV/AIDS and other illness, water collection and treatment, hygiene, alcoholism and drug addiction.

[6] However, despite the lack of school education or adult education, it has been observed that the women have effectively engaged in works of hospitality and solidarity in the church and society. Home visits for the sick, those that are bereaved and mourning, those that have born children, those that are in need of physical help like the elderly. These are activities that go beyond the call of duty and in effect become or reflect the selfless nature of Akinamama, the women.

[7] The church women empower those in need of empowering like the youth and girls. It is the women who become mentors for the youth and girls in the church. Music is often used for education, evangelism and entertainment for and by women.

[8] The women consider “the experiences of women and girls and recognize the authority of female encounters with power, difference, and oppression.[3]”

[9] In employing the “Akina mama” model, the paper seeks to explore how its theory and method undergird the basic principles of human dignity and integrity in the lives of women individually and corporately.

[10] The Kiswahili term Akinamama literally refers to “the Mothers” or, “women.” In order not to perpetuate cultural prejudices and biases associated with the term “Wanawake” or “Women,” I would maintain the socially preferred corporate term of Akina mama. Embedded in this term, Akinamama, is the concept of women solidarity, as well as the solidarity with women of the rest of the community of faith. In this case, Akinamama is being in solidarity with women in Kenya, and particularly, the Lutheran women; even as they are in solidarity with one another in working for and promoting human rights.

[11] Human Rights, as women’s rights’ movement in Kenya are associated with the women’s movement of Maendeleo Ya Wanawake, Kiswahili for women’s development.

[12] The Maendeleo Ya Wanawake, had paved the way for the church’s (read, women’s) more public and intentional role in their participation in the human rights concerns. However, this is not to suggest that the church, has not been involved in human rights issues, rather, those women, as all of church, had dichotomized their public role and their private role in their Christian practice. This dichotomy is not unique to the KELC women as they, like the rest of the church, were in a religious heritage that subscribed to dualistic and tripartite view of human identity. However, Maendeleo Ya Wanawake, helped address this dichotomy of the soul /body or public/private aspects of religion as they spoke publicly in support of women’s active participation in church and society. Other ecumenical relations with the women of other churches have also contributed and influenced this public role of KELC women. The Department of Women in Church and Society (Lutheran World Federation’s WICAS) has been a great resource in training and educating women in the areas of human rights advocacy.

[13] Basic to the Akinamama model is its mission for women’s development, to lift and empower women as a means of alleviating poverty and creating a better environment and quality of life for all. For this reason, Akinamama has a forward looking vision of a society in which equality, peace, justice, and unity prevails. These human rights are God-given rights for healthy living of women and all people. The Akinamama model, in my view, aims at “ending inequalities based on gender through cultural transformation and social change.[4]” Of course, ending inequalities has to be in dialogue with patriarchy which favors the male members of society while devaluing women and keeping them in subordinate positions. This dialogue is in recognition of the social factors that contribute to the development of women’s identity. This identity of dignity and value is the result of theology, education, training and economic empowerment. In line with the Imago Dei doctrine of creation, the Akinamama model upholds gender equality that humanity is God’s the good creation in God’s image, male and female which God made(Genesis 1:27). This model stands as a reminder of human broken relationship that is in constant need of restoration and reconciliation to God and with one another.

[14] Therefore, it is clear that from its inception, the Women’s Desk of KELC had the role of developing women’s leadership and promoting activities in church and society that were more inclusive of women in line with KELC’s missional goal, intoned in John 10:10b that they may have life in abundance.

[15] The Women’s Desk continues to be the image of KELC as it works for and involved in Haki za akinamama, women’s human rights, efforts by way of education and recognition of equality and fairness or justice in matters of not only distribution of resources as in property inheritance, but also speaking out on abuses such as in violence against women and harmful traditional practices that violate women’s rights. In 2002, at a KELC Women’s national conference on Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), some women gained courage and went public about their “mutilation” status and called for the Kenya government to stop this harmful traditional practice by legislation. At the time of writing this there were no laws making FGM illegal in Kenya. There are provisions in the Penal Code pertaining to “Offenses Against Person and Health” that might be applicable. However, there have been no arrests for FGM on the basis of these provisions. In November 1996, Parliament defeated a motion to make this practice illegal. In 1982 and 1989, then President Daniel Arap Moi issued Presidential decrees banning the practice.

[16] The government prohibits the practice in government-controlled hospitals and clinics. In 1982, the Director of Medical Services instructed all hospitals to stop the practice, stating that he would prosecute medical professionals performing FGM under the Medical Practitioners and Dentists Act and the Nurses, Midwives and Health Visitors Act.

[17] In 1990, the Minister for Cultural and Social Services announced at an international seminar in Nairobi, that it was the government’s aim to outlaw this practice. The Director of Medical Services repeated this and demanded that all government hospitals and mission hospitals cease carrying out this practice. The Kenya National Family Welfare Center also abides by this directive. The government cooperates with eradication efforts conducted by international organizations and NGOs.

[18] Although there are no laws against FGM, the government is cooperating with a dynamic and broad-gauged campaign against the practice across Kenya being waged by NGOs and donor organizations. There are currently no known groups or organizations that specifically provide protection to women or girls who wish to avoid this practice. However, some churches and schools have offered occasional refuge to victims and potential victims of this practice.

[19] However, it has also been argued, and rightly so, that making FGM illegal would not stop it, but merely drive it underground and make it more difficult to control. Rather, KELC has focused its program on informing the community on the dangers of the practice. It has also developed alternative initiation rites that prepare girls for womanhood by instructing them about sexuality but without the cut as a puberty rite of passage. These alternative rites have been instituted in a number of villages with positive results.

[20] The necessity of fighting poverty, hunger, unemployment, disease (HIV/AIDS), gender inequalities and the destruction of the environment, which in turn creates conditions of poverty that has become the rallying motif of KELC, particularly the women of the church. The theological perspective attributed to these challenges has contributed to greater motivation for their handling. This social approach to Christianity gives us a new approach to church as civil society, an emerging perspective to the way women and Christians view their being Christian and citizen at once. The implications of this on ecclesiology, ministry and the doctrine of God are yet to fully unfold in the Kenyan context.

[21] However, since the Idara Ya Akinamama, Women’s Desk is core to what forms KELC in mission, vision and ministry, it helps the Kenyan church to find basis for their role in communication and collaboration in civil society.

[22] As in any model, in Akinamama are risks in terms of facing human rights violations. It is not uncommon to witness instances of violence against women for participating in the Akinamama activities and programs. So, whenever we hear of Akinamama groups, we know that we are in for serious business. I remember the wisdom I received from the older women in KELC’s Women’s Desk during my early period of work, “Kaa kitako” (sit firmly!) Mama Matulo said to me. She meant that I had to be assertive and at the forefront to women’s rights issues to safeguard against manipulation or even direct abuse. The sense of defending women rights in my work seemed to follow me all the time.

[23] There is hope now with more commitment being witnessed among Kenyan politicians and church leaders in the rights issues of women. Most of all the women in general and Lutheran women in particular, have given their commitment to this cause of human rights.

[24] However, the Lutheran church in Kenya is not new to defending human rights and, from time to time, the church has denounced general societal abuses, including the abuse of power and oppression of people. Recent post-election violence that engulfed the country is an example where Lutheran leaders took part in castigating the violence and calling on the political leaders to account for their role, and particularly, play their role in restoring peace, which came with the creation of a coalition government. Although the Lutheran contribution is only part of the many other contributions of religious groups represented in Kenya, its role shows that the church is not only aware of human rights but that it cannot keep silent in the face of abuse of the basic human rights. Now, whether the church has been public enough in propagating human rights matters remains to be seen. However, the women, who know where the shoe pinches, have become publicly engaged in matters pertaining to their humanity through the Akinamama and their principles within the church.

[25] As the Akinamama of KELC go about their yearly programs and activities of compassion and mercy, it is clear that they are part of the bigger group working for the reduction of poverty and hunger, universal primary education, promotion of gender equity and the self-determination, reduction of infant mortality, combating of HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases and safeguarding sustainable environment.[5]

[26] In conclusion, Akinamama model should be sustainable in promoting human rights in Kenya as a whole and the Lutheran church in particular. The enduring presence of Akinamama as individuals and groups offers a motif for its sustainability. For this reason, Akinamama may be viewed as space, a forum, and network, for sharing, exchange, implementation and advocacy for human rights. Its theological slant of acknowledging and living out God’s love as manifest in the Triune God, in the whole business of human rights makes it unique with a universal bearing. This is what Gary Simpson refers to when he talks of civil society:

I suggest that we imagine civil society as God’s preferential location for discerning, discovering, innovating, communicating, and enacting social moral wisdom in the contemporary global situation. This also sets the table for imagining our church communities as prophetic and sapiential public companions with the vast, spontaneously emergent, ever dynamic networks, associations, institutions, and movements for the prevention and promotion of this.[6]


Mbiti, John. African religions and Philosophy. (Nairobi: Heinmann, 1994)

McLemore, Bonnie J. Miller- and Gill-Austern, Brita L. Feminist & Womanist Pastoral Theology (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1999)

Murdock, Nancy L. Theories of Counseling and Psychotherapy: A Case Approach. (New Jersey: Pearson, 2009)

Simpson, Gary et al, Living Out our Callings in the Community. (Luther Seminary: Centered Life, 2006)

UNESCO, http://www.education.nairobi-unesco.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=2018&Itemid=177

[1] John Mbiti , a Kenyan theologian who argues that the African is notoriously religious. Mbiti argues this in his book, African religions and Philosophy (Nairobi: Heinmann, 1994) 1.

[2] UNESCO http://www.education.nairobi-unesco.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=2018&Itemid=177

[3] Bonnie J. Miller-McLemore and Brita L. Gill-Austern, Feminist & Womanist Pastoral Theology (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1999) 15.

[4] Nancy L. Murdock, Theories of Counseling and Psychotherapy: A Case Approach (New Jersey: Pearson, 2009) 381.

[5] These are the UN’s Millennium Development Goals for its 191 member countries targeted for realization in 2015 with a period of 1990 as a framework of reference.

[6] Gary Simpson et al, Living Out Our Callings in the Community (Luther Seminary: Centered Life, 2006) 20-21.