Culture Profile: Kenya

Martin Munyao (Th.M., Daystar Academy of Nairobi) was a pastor and theology teacher in Kenya. He is earning his Ph.D. at Concordia Theological Seminary.
What is your research/ministry focus? I am researching the values of honor and shame in African Christian theology. My research concern is whether honor-shame is in our Kenyan theology and missiology. And if not, why?

What does honor & shame look like in Kenya? People seek their family’s honor and seek to avoid shame. In case of a shameful act one risks being rejected from the community. When one receives honor, the entire community is honored. The elderly are respected people. Justice is not pursued through punishing the lawbreaker, but by purging/excommunicating the offender to deal with shame. Life’s purpose is to harness relationships with members of one’s community. Patron-client relationship is the currency with which transactions are done to gain favors as well as give honor in exchange of favors. Some Kenyan proverbs:
  • “Better hunger than disgrace.”
  • “Old people’s speech is not to be dishonored — after all, they saw the sun first.”
  • “The key that unlocks is also the key that locks. Honor a child, and he will honor you.”
Kenyan family
Kenyan family
What are Swahili terms for honor & shame?
  • Mheshimiwa (from heshima) means honorable, or the honorable one.
  • Jina is one’s name. Naming is used to communicate honorable status.
  • Nifunike Uchi means “cover my nakedness.” For example, children are raised to conduct themselves in a manner to cover their parent’s nakedness (aibu, or shame)
What was your score on 4.0% guilt, 80.0% shame, 16.0% fear

 A story? Some years ago I worked as a local church pastor and education administrator for internet theological education by extension (iTEE-Kenya). We hosted a delegation of brothers from United States. Our conversation led to a potential partnership between iTEE-Kenya and our guests’ organization. While our friends from America insisted on the need for us to sign a memorandum of understanding (MOU) and a partnership agreement (PA), we maintained that the relationship between the two organizations should be based on mutual respect and trust. None of the parties were willing to embrace the other’s opinion and position on the matter. Eventually we had no deal.

Finally our guests concluded that we were dishonest with our part of the deal. The Kenyan hosts concluded that our brothers from the US were self imposing and acting superior, since they refusted to take our word for it. Western cultures prefer a written document or contract to establish partnerships. On the other hand African cultures trust the word of mouth. The person giving the word of promise speaks more than the spoken words. His honor or dishonor depends on the whether he/she keep his/her word or not.

How has honor & shame impacted your ministry? In my ministry in Kenya, I have found a fitting link between the pivotal values of the ancient Mediterranean cultures and the African pivotal values of honor and shame. The honor-shame saturated passages in the Bible speaks to the worldview of the Kenyan people. I have mostly preached sermons from the gospels since they are full of ‘from honor to shame’ status transposition stories. For example, Jesus’ healing and feeding miracles, public teachings, beatitudes, parables, and interaction with sinners and Pharisees penetrate the heart of Kenyans more than any other parts of the Scripture. During my earlier ministry days I could not understand why my audience in Church could not understand the gospel explained in legal terms with an emphasis on forgiveness of sins. Even though a number of people became Christians out of my guilt-innocence laden messages, they did so out of respect for me as a pastor. I learned about honor-shame, and hence started to explain sin as shame, and salvation as being honored by God.

Advice for newcomers to Kenya? Three aspects of Kenyan culture are important to understand: sin, communication, and hospitality. Do not to be surprised by the absence of any sense of guilt for sin. Even though sin is shameful, it doesn’t hurt deeply as shame caused by that particular sin. Also, what you see from the surface level might most likely be very cosmetic. Hence during conversations with people, agreement might actually mean be disagreement. Disagreement with a visitor is considered rudeness. Hence for example a student may agree with the lecturer even when he is actually in disagreement. Quiet often, meaning is hidden in what is not being said. This is because Kenyan cultures tend to be more indirect. Kenyan cultures are extremely hospitable. Refusing to be served with a meal can potentially ruin a good friendship. Accept what you are given, even if you don’t need it. And accepting a gift is conferring honor and acceptable to the giver.

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photo credit:, USAID  

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3 Comments on “Culture Profile: Kenya

  1. Absolutely excellent to read your Kenya honor/shame summary here Martin! May it contribute to more thought being given to the honor/shame values in the African worldview and the consequential realities in everyday life…..and to the ministry of the gospel on this great continent being more relevant and heart impacting.

  2. Martin: I agree this has been one of the best presentations on Honor-Shame that has been posted. It comes with good illustrations that apply the understanding of shame in the Kenyan culture.

    Your comments on presenting the gospel with the concepts of shame and honor do make sense. In other occasions it feels like people are forcing the concepts to make the points but not this time.

    I have really enjoyed this blog, keep up the good work.

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