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Exporting God
by jeremy   June 9, 2003

Most Americans don't know much about international development. The US is among the most developed (or you may prefer the term "industrialized") nations in the world and most Americans view the rest of the world as places not even worth visiting. This is unfortunate, in my opinion, but this doesn't mean that I don't miss some aspects of American life now that I am living in East Africa, specifically Nairobi, Kenya. For instance, even here, after a long hard day of work I feel like relaxing and watching a little television (make that "a little bit of television;" I actually like my consoles big).

Back home in Iowa, I find that while many television programs are total crap, there are some good ones. And then there are channels, like Discovery, that I love, even if I don't enjoy every single one of their programs.

So I had heard that there is a channel in Kenya that airs programs almost exclusively from the US. I was quite excited about this. After all, while I love to watch local news and programs, I also like to be able to see my favorite shows from home. When I learned what this channel really is and saw it for the first time, I was sorely disappointed.

Let me back up a bit: Kenya has a lot in common with other countries in Africa, like poverty and insecurity. However, Kenya has matured more than many other African nations, especially in terms of democracy and a free press.

Last December, Kenya elected a new president, Mwai Kibaki. Mr. Kibaki defeated the candidate supported by the ex-president, Daniel arap Moi, who finally stepped aside after nearly a quarter-century in office. The transition to the new government has been peaceful and cause for optimism, despite a souring economy and mounting concerns over terrorism and security (the terrorism concerns depress tourism, a vital part of the economy).

The defeat of the old ruling party can be contributed in large part to the fact that the population was better informed. They were also able to publicly demand change. These demands were transmitted via free, private media, including radio, print, and television. I am generally quite impressed with the quality of the media here, particularly print. The newspapers are robust and aggressive in their reporting.

Radio here is a mixed bag. While the news and music stations are generally of a high quality, too many stations sound like their signals are beamed directly from Chicago or Los Angeles. Many of the announcers put on these phony American accents and the promotions jingles and segues sound like they were produced by Rick Dees.

Television here is also a mixed bag. Some channels are quite good. Nation TV, part of Kenya's largest private media conglomerate, produces very professional programs, especially news programs. The others, particularly those owned by the state, are lacking. If you haven't seen television programs from a developing country, let me give you a general idea. Programs range from high-quality, like something you might see on C-SPAN, to medium-quality, like something produced by college TV stations, to low-quality, like the programs made by weirdos for airing on community access channels.

But the most disturbing television in Kenya comes from the good ol' US of A. It's called "The Family Channel" and sometimes "Hope Kenya" and 24/7 airs some of the most shocking Christian-oriented programs I've ever seen. At times I am so fascinated, so terrified, by what's on this channel that I'll watch it for hours.

Most of the programs on "The Family Channel" are simply videotaped sermons, usually delivered by a firey but pasty white preacher with a southern accent. Some of the preachers seem harmless enough, like the moustachioed Texas Baptist who preaches through hilarious stories. Others, like Benny Hinn, are downright dangerous in their "teachings."

The other night I was watching and came across a white-haired southern preacher whose name I don't know. He was talking about how evil homosexuality is and what an affront it is to God. He said that homosexuality is a choice, not a state, and that homosexual acts condemn those who commit them to hell. Nothing out of the ordinary, really, for the religious right.

Then he went on to defend mixed-race marriages, saying that all people are just people, regardless of skin color. "Rip these skins off our bodies," he said, "and we are all the same." I thought to myself, "Well, at least he's not a TOTAL bigot." Just as I finished this thought, the preacher went on.

"In a room you put a black baby, a yellow baby, a red baby, and a white baby. They all do baby things. They all make the same faces." He started making baby faces and then said, "If you give a toy to a black baby, he'll take the toy and do this." He then pantomimed dribbling a ball and shooting it, like a basketball into a basket.

"If you give the same toy to a red baby, he does this." He made a whooping sound and patted his mouth with his hand, creating the stereotypical Native American war cry from old movies.

Just then my power went out, turning the television off. By the time it came back on, the preacher was on to a new topic. I was very disappointed: I really want to know what the yellow baby and the white baby do with that toy. My wife, who's from Shanghai, joked with me that the yellow baby would use the toy to open up a Chinese restaurant. We really had no guess as to what the white baby would do.

Interspersed between these preachers' sermons are short, locally-produced segments that try to turn the messages just aired into cold, hard cash. There are usually 3 presenters, an older south Asian-looking and sounding man who seems to host these segments, a young portly American man with a shaved head who reads off lists of recently "saved" individuals (Kenyans), and an African woman (who sounds Kenyan) who does commentary.

With so many televangelistic broadcasts shown on the Family Channel, do the local donations get split amongst the preachers, or do they simply go into the coffers of whatever (presumably American) entity owns the Family Channel? I wonder because at the heart of these messages is some foul intent. The only question is whether the intent is simply to enrich the charlatan preachers, or if they have something more sinister in mind?

Because in many respects, these preachers aren't much different than guys like Ayatollah Khomeini and Osama Bin Laden. We've started to see this already, with right-wing Christian terrorists killing abortion-performing doctors, blowing up gay night clubs, and the like. With the ever-expanding audience to which these dangerous men have access, the number of violent incidents is bound to multiply.

As a rule, I think religion can be a good thing. It can offer people a firm footing while navigating a life that is unpredictable and trying. Mainstream religions and their preachers offer people comfort and sound advice when they need it, as well as a forum for exercising the natural human need for spirituality. Unfortunately, there are plenty of people who take advantage of this need to create wealth and power for themselves. While the United States is busy fighting the war against terror, mostly in the Muslim world, I think we need to start looking very carefully at the terrorists' breeding ground in our own backyard.

I don't mean to be alarmist, but a world bombarded with messages of intolerance and religious absotism can only become a more dangerous place.

And all I really wanted to do was to find reruns of "Friends" on Kenyan TV.

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