Video: The Kingdom of Holy Women: Pentecostalism, Sex and Women’s Bodies in an African Church

April 3, 2019

Damaris S. Parsitau, 2018-19 WSRP Visiting Associate Professor, delivers the lecture “The Kingdom of Holy Women: Pentecostalism, Sex and Women’s Bodies in an African Church,” which is based on five years of ethnographic research carried out at the Ministry of Repentance and Holiness, a new and controversial Pentecostal church based in Kenya.

Her book-in-progress explores the Ministry’s aims to control, discipline and objectify women’s bodies as sites of tensions and erotic desires that make women responsible for the sins of others and their supposed failure to enter the anticipated Kingdom of God.




CATHERINE BREKUS: Welcome, everybody. If we could all get ready to take our seats, welcome to the last public lecture for the Women's Studies and Religion program for this year. We have had a wonderful series of lectures. And I'm very happy that we're going to be ending on a strong note. I have a signup list here. If you are interested in being on our mailing list for next year, please add your name. 

So it's my pleasure today to introduce Damaris Parsitau. My name is Catherine Brekus. I am taking Ann Braude's place this semester while she's on leave. Rumors are that she spends her time going to very interesting lectures and hiding in the corner where no one can see her. 


So it's been my pleasure to be working with this group of faculty fellows this year. Professor Parsitau is a senior lecturer in the Department of Philosophy, History, and Religious Studies at Egerton University in Kenya, where she also serves as the director of the Institute of Women, Gender, and Development Studies. Professor Parsitau is an expert on gender and religion who has published many articles about women in neo-Pentecostal and Charismatic movements in Kenya. 

The founder of Kenya Women Rising, the Youth and Transformational Leadership Development program, and Let Maasai Girls Learn, she is also a tireless advocate for women's education and women's rights in Kenya. Her project at the WSRP this year, the Kingdom of Holy Women, Pentecostalism, Sex and Women's Bodies in an African Church, explores the intersection between Pentecostalism, women's bodies, and sexual purity. We are especially honored today to have Professor Parsitau's son here from Kenya. 


DAMARIS PARSITAU: Thank you. Good afternoon. Thank you for coming. First things, thank you, Ann Braude and Catherine and Tracy for all your support. Thank you my fellow RAs for challenging me and for being here this afternoon, my students, who actually really helped me write some parts of my book-- they really challenged me a great deal last semester when I was teaching them on religion gender and sexuality in Africa-- and lastly, my son for coming 22 hours in the air to be here today. Thank you. That's my lastborn child. 

Yeah, so let me begin by saying that, for the last 15 years, I have been researching on African and Kenyan Pentecostalism and its intersection with gender. But in the last six years now, I have been researching on the intersections or between Pentecostalism, women's bodies, and sexuality, in the Ministry of Repentance and Holiness, that one there, which is founded by self-proclaimed prophet David Edward Owour, a very highly educated man, who is having a huge impact on women followers in his church. 

With this case study, I demonstrate, using extensive ethnographic material, how the teachings and beliefs and practices of his church not only aim to control and discipline women's bodies and sexuality, but portray them also as sites of tension and locales for sexual scene and death. More importantly, I show how his teachings not only map themselves into women's bodies as sites of patriarchal surveillance and policing, but that women's bodies also become sites where cosmic authority for highly specific commandments regarding how women dress and comport themselves are regulated and policed, as we will see in a short while. Consequently, women's bodies are policed, regulated, disciplined, and marked as sites of death and sin, and the reason why men will not get into the kingdom of Heaven. 

And I know some of the things I'm going to say are quite disturbing, and I apologize in advance. Consequently, I argue that such teachings, beliefs, practices, and teachings, as well as male authority of our women's bodies, intimate lives, aim to create a holy kingdom of women, pure girls, and moral regimes that put women's bodies at the center of an erotic economy where patriarchal ideals are used to objectify and control women's bodies. Welcome to my lecture. 


So on the screen is my research outline. But before I go to that, I would like to just give you a bit of background about Kenya, where my research is located. Kenya is in East Africa, and Kenya is roughly the size of Texas. It has a population of about 50 million people. We speak English and Swahili. English is our language of business and Swahili is our national language. And we have a host of other languages, other ethnic dialects, that we speak. 

There has been a number of surveys. So you can see the map of Kenya. I just wanted to draw attention to the fact that Nairobi is the capital city of Kenya, and is the only capital city in the world where there's a national park where giraffes and elephants roam around. So you're welcome. I'm a representative of the Kenyan government, so I'm selling my country this morning. 


So there has been a number of religious surveys that have been carried out on Kenya, and I just want to speak about them very briefly. One of them is the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life survey, which was undertaken in 2006. And what it shows is that Kenya is a Christian majority with a small minority of Muslims, at 11%. But the most important thing that I want you to note there is that traditional African belief systems is just a mere 1.6%, yet it informed the world views of nearly everybody in the country, which is interesting, as a result of colonialism and the spread of Christianity that has created that kind of impact on African traditional world views. 

Then there was a survey, also, that was undertaken by the Kenyan government where, in 2009, when every 10 years the Kenyan government carries out a survey on housing census, a general census to determine the population of the country. But this time, in 2009, they carried out a question, what is your religion? And they were able to collect data about religious affiliation in the country. And that information you can see there. 

But may I say that these statistics have always been contested. There's always the politics of statistical contestations, because everybody wants to believe that they constitute a higher majority. So the Muslims have actually refused to accept these statistics, because the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life Survey puts them at 11%, and this one puts them at 4.3%. And so there has been that. Pentecostals, too, have rejected these statistics, because they think they're the majority in the country. The truth of the matter is Protestants and Catholics are the big majority. 

Then the attorney general, in 2006 and 2007, came out complaining in a meeting where he met religious leaders, that the registrar of societies was not able to cope with demands for registration of churches. He explained that 8,000 churches had been registered in 2007. 6,000 were pending registration, and that 100 applications are filed every month. That tells you how much demand there is. 

But something to note there is that, he said that, even though all churches request for registration, the majority of the churches that were seeking registration were of Pentecostal and Charismatic inclinations. And since we are talking about gender and sexuality, it's important to note that Kenya is 90% homophobia, according to the Pew Forum and 2012 survey. 

When we get to my research methodology-- so I'm an ethnographer. So ethnography is my main research methodology and has informed my research for a very long time. But for this particular research, I have been involved in two huge research sponsored by the John Templeton Foundation through the Nagel Institute on the Social and Political Impact of Christianity in Africa. That was between 2016 and 17, and terminated about the end of 2017. 

And I was researching among scholars from South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Kenya on the gender impact of Pentecostal Christianity in Kenya. That came to an end. Then 2018, 2019, I'm now involved with the African Theological Advance Project, again, sponsored by the John Templeton Foundation. And I'm advising groups in Ethiopia, Uganda, Tanzania, and Kenya. And all of them are researching on various aspects of Pentecostal Christianity. 

So my research site in Nairobi, the capital city of Kenya the Rift Valley, Nakuru specifically is where I live. And this is the foundation of the Ministry of Repentance and Holiness. Actually, I live next to the park. So when they have huge revival gatherings, which we call crusades in Kenya, my house is really affected by that. And Western Kenya, so much of the bulk of membership of the Ministry of Repentance in Holiness are concentrated around those three research sites. 

So my research methodology, for this particular book project, I utilized ethnography mainly participant observation, because I participated in terms of crusades-- thankfully, it's next to my house most of the time, every month. I can't tell you the number of crusades that I have attended since about 2010. I have also participated in pastors' conferences and women and youth conferences, and collected a huge coterie of data for this particular project. 

And I took over 70 interviews with members, nonmembers and ex-members. Right now, there's a lot of controversy concerning this data. And there is a huge number of breakaway people who are giving so much information about this ministry that it's shrouded with so much mystery and so much that's not known by the outside world. 

And these interviews took place in crusades. So whenever there is a huge religious gathering, women, particularly, arrive at the center of the crusade for about a week and come there, waiting and praying and wailing and repenting and waiting for their prophet to come. That is the time when I actually really get to carry out some of the interviews. But I've also done interviews in homes, offices, and coffee shops. Where I work, there's a huge number of academics, professors who are members of this ministry. Don't ask me why, but they're there. 

Then I have lots of media material. The church publishes its own magazines. They have a radio station, so I have all these gory images of people who are healed. And they're published in newspapers. They have a radio station. Every someone that is preached by Prophet Owour is uploaded on YouTube, and you can check that. Very disturbing messages, but they are all there. And they have a very, very well-constructed website, where almost everything that you need is there. 

But he also offers live TV interviews, radio interviews, and Kenyan newspapers. Like the last one month has so much information about him. And I have a coterie of all that in my house and here. And of course, I use content analysis. I was able to think through this data using content analysis of the materials that I gathered. 

But throughout, I wanted to prioritize and give voice to the women that I'm writing on. I wanted to bring out their voices. So throughout my interviews, I made sure that whatever the-- I prioritize their voices. They told me so much about their lives, why they joined this ministry, how they got in, what they get from that ministry. And I followed these conversion stories, piecing together their lives and struggles and dilemmas. 

But of course, I'm guided by current debates and challenges in the study of religion, gender, and sexuality. In particular one book that has been very important to me, which was pointed by one of my colleagues, is Tradition in a Rootless World. And I'll explain that later. But throughout, I wanted to also ensure that how I'm interpreting my data is coming out from these women's voices. 

Now, let's get to the mightiest, mightiest prophet. So that handsome guy is Prophet David Edward Owour, an interesting figure in the Kenyan social and political scene. He was born in Kenya of a very humble family of nine children. He is very smart. He went to school and earned a PhD in molecular genetics from Ben Gurion University in Israel. Israel is very important to him. Whatever he says, the prophesies, even how he wants to look like, how he wants to dress, how he speaks, he images himself as actually a Black Jew from Kenya. And he wants to be perceived that way. 

So you can see him at the lab in Chicago. He worked in Chicago. He did his post-graduate training in Chicago. And then 2004, he abruptly left America and came to Kenya. And it's just recently that I learned that he's a fugitive from the law. That he actually sexually assaulted a woman in the lab, drugged her, and then he seems to have run away to Kenya. And so you can see that image when he comes to Kenya. And you see the transformation from the lab to that image. 

I'm not getting that-- yeah, this one. And the beards-- so the beards, he has cultivated a mystique about himself, how he dresses, how he carries himself. And this beard is supposed to be where his power is. And when a journalist and researchers have asked him about it, he doesn't talk about it, and says that God resides there. I don't know how God resides in the beard, but that's the answer he has given to people. 

So there he is. And I want you to see that transformation of this gentleman. Sorry. So here, this image is when he came to Kenya. And he's preaching to a very small crowd of very few people. And that was 2004 when he burst into the public sphere. And maybe just a bit of history-- so he burst in the public sphere in 2004, running as a fugitive from the law in America, and then the calm since that's giving prophecies about sexual sin in Kenya. 

Kenya is rampant with sexual sin and God is very angry and is going to destroy the city of Nairobi, starting with the red district at Koinange Street. And Nairobi is going to be split into two because God is angry with so much sexual sin that is going on in Kenya. And people just ignored him as another charlatan in the industry. We have so many of that in African Pentecostalism. I have come across so many of that. 

But then the post-election violence in 2007, 2008 happens. And he had prophesied that. To me as an academic and as an observer of this Kenyan sociopolitical sin, and alongside with many other people, we had already foreseen that the post-election violence was going to happen, because we had seen the signs. So many things were going wrong in their country, ethnic emotions, and all that. 

But for many people, this was a sign that he is a prophet sent by God. And he used that to launch himself into the public sphere, began to hold humongous rallies and carried out peace-building initiatives in the government. So that drafted him into peace-building. And he basically launched himself into the public sphere and people began to listen to him. 

Immediately after he became popular, the whole idea of reconciliation and peace-building disappeared. And he became a very strong critic of the prosperity gospel, denounced clergy from all denominations in Kenya. He has no regard for any clergy, whether that is Pentecostal or mainline or mostly any religion. He is the one and the best prophet, and the last prophet of God. 

So he denounced clergy as frauds, cheats, liars, greedy, corrupt, and sexually immoral. Notice that sex, it's always very close to his mind. And we'll see that later. So he denounced churches as locales for sexual scene and immorality, condemned women, selected dressing-- these are his words-- condemned homosexuality and lesbianism. He doesn't talk about the other binaries, only homosexuality and lesbianism, prophesied that God's wrath was coming to Kenya because Kenya is full of rampant. But nothing happened. No earthquake happened. But last week, there was an earthquake. And he promptly said that he had prophesied about that. 

So quickly then, he establishes the Ministry of Repentance and Holiness. Now, just something, a caveat there-- when he came in, he hated the idea of churches, because churches were polluted by sexual sin. And within a very short time, he had become so popular that he created altars in the place for churches. Because for him, altars are holy spaces, unlike Christian churches that are polluted by sexual sin. 

So he created this unique ministry, which has a very unique leadership structure that I'll show you briefly. He started ordaining women-- I want you to hold that in mind-- as bishops and heads of altars, cultivated a mystique about himself. So who is in charge of the Ministry of Repentance and Holiness? There's no doubt who's in charge. He's the prophet, the founder of MRH, and the prophetic arm of the ministry. 

Then he got an archbishop, who is my colleague at the university, someone who is a PhD, a full professor of agricultural economics, as the archbishop, and created an outfit called King's Outreach Ministries to organize all the altars in the country. Then he has a huge number of bishops, archbishops, deputy bishops, heads of altars, youth pastors. But only him can preach. Only him can perform miracles. And only him can prophesy. Nobody else can do that. 

And in his 1,600 altars in the whole country, on Sunday, there is no preaching. They watch his YouTube or listen to him on Jesus is Lord Radio. So he's a very authoritative figure. So that's the ethnography of his ministry and the office bearers. 

I want you to notice that, here are the regional overseer-- there's no women, but women begin to become bishops and pastors and head of altars, which in itself is an interesting dynamic. Because in other Pentecostal churches, they don't ordain women. So this one comes in and ordain women, and it's is a big attracting factor for women. 

So King's Outreach Ministries is the umbrella body. There are 1,600 spread across the country and beyond. So they say that they have altars in America. And I saw something about that on YouTube. I'm not sure. I'm not able to determine that. I know they have followers in Latin America and he travels there a lot. So he images and frames his ministry as a ministry that's beyond Kenya and it's international. But his really strong base, 90% of his followers are in Kenya. 

So the talent and principles of this ministry centered around the keywords of repentance and ministry, as reflected in the name of the ministry. He applies his message both to religious and sociopolitical scene. Anything that happens in Kenya, if there's an accident, he prophesies. And the prophesies happen when the incident has already happened. 

Healing and miracles is the big thing in this church. And it's a big attracting factor too to the ministry. He sells ministry. He sells healing and prophecy. So here he alleges to heal people of HIV and AIDS. And in one of the magazines, there are so many people who are paraded and their pictures are taken. They are issued with certificates of a clean bill of health because they have been healed of HIV/AIDS. In fact, he uses the word, HIV is deleted from their cells and their blood. And medical practitioners-- some of them are members of his church-- come to legitimize and support that. And many people have found that very disturbing. 

So here, the deaf ears pop open, the blind eyes see, cancers are deleted, while tumors dissolve, crooked limbs are straightened, and all manner of claims. And you can see in that poster announcing one of his healing crusades, which can run up to 10,000 people. When he comes to a city, to my city, especially, it comes to a standstill. Then he claims to resurrect people. And it's normally women who are so sick, and they're the people who are healed and resurrected. 

So there was this story of a Mama Rosa who was said to be resurrected by a text message. Mama Rosa suffers from epilepsy. So she had one of her thing. And then he promptly sent a message to the husband and says it's well. And then she resurrects. And then the whole country gets into celebration. In the parts where he has followers, they are celebrating the resurrection of Mama Rosa, who died a few months ago. 

So those are women, who are cutting trees not nice, and celebrating the resurrection of Mama Rosa. So here are women, again, receiving healing. So it's a big thing, plus prophesies. And he has prophesied about everything that happens in the world-- tsunamis, floods, earthquakes, air accidents. And all of them are linked to their concept of sin and sexual immorality. The reason there are tsunamis is because whenever the tsunami happened, people are in sexual sin. So you see, he then he evolves into this huge guy, who criticized a very severe critic of the prosperity gospel, becomes extremely wealthy, and lives a very opulent life. 

When he lands in a city, it's like the president of Kenya has arrived, with massive security details. I counted a security headcount of his security guys who surround him when he's preaching, about 24 of them. And they're armed. Roads are washed before his arrival for crusades. He's a larger than life figure. But he's loathed and loved in equal measure. He fears death and is very paranoid about being poisoned, yet he resurrects people. 

So that's him. This is his house, which he's putting up at the cost of $4 million US. And it's his poor followers who are building this house. You can see how he travels. But I wanted you to see the women there. And it's women mostly who clean the roads for him. Then they carry those brooms home to go sweep their homes, because then it brings blessings into their homes. 

There he is, as quoted by the Kenya police. And you can see the escort to the entourage, which stops traffic and inconveniences people a great deal. There he is with armed police. So just two, three weeks ago-- no, it was over Christmas holidays. When I went home for Christmas, Kenyans made a lot of noise. And the commissioner of police withdrew his security details. And now he has no security. So he started traveling with the helicopter. 

But you can see. And I want you to notice the power. Here is our president Uhuru Kenyatta, and the opposition chief, Raila Odinga. So he speaks and shakes hands with these guys. And when his security details was withdrawn, he told his members that president Uhuru Kenyatta had sent for him this helicopter to carry him to Nairobi, which turned out to be a lie. 

So he has made really interesting claims. He has been transfigured and doubled like Jesus Christ. He says his Moses and Elijah. And his members call him the two mightiest prophets of the Lord, and the two ferocious witnesses of Revelation 11. One is shorter than the other and can be in two places, different places at once. God calls him My Lord. And Jesus comes to see him and lies on his feet. He has claimed that he will be assassinated in Jerusalem. And his body will lie for three days before God resurrects him. 

So you can see images of his transfiguration. Of course, these are photoshopped images. But his followers will not have any-- when you tell his followers, these are photoshopped images, they don't believe that. 

So now that we have a background of Prophet Owour. I want to get into the real thing, which is the Kingdom of Holy Women. So the altars, basically, are really women's spaces. So you can see the altars there. They are highly decorated. And women spend a lot of time in that altars. It's as if they're running away from their homes to be in the altars. And they carry incredible responsibilities to altars-- cleaning and decorating and making sure that everyone else is comfortable. 

But altars are also spaces for fellowship, prayers, repentance, healing, spaces for emotional release. There's incredible wailing in this church. And women wail on the streets, calling the radio and repenting for all manner of sins in the country. So there's a perpetual state of wailing. And one member told me that it helps them to feel better about themselves when they cry and wail. So there's an element in which they go there to seek both physical and emotional healing. 

At the altars, women find community with each other, a shared sisterhood, bound by a common faith. But there is also a welfare for women. The vulnerable members of society. Single moms and divorced women and widows have welfare in this church. And it's a big attracting factor. 

But that welfare is pegged on women remaining holy. I remember speaking to one woman who told me-- she was a young woman of 29. She had just lost her husband. And she was forced to move away from the house she was staying to a compound where there are members of their church who can continue to police her life so that she doesn't fall into sexual sin. And if she does that, then welfare is terminated for her. 

So in my research, women told me that they feel unjudged. The Kenyan society frowns on being single. And yet there's a huge number-- the statistics are damning, that one out of every six women in Kenya is a single mom. And this can be explained in so many other ways. But there's that sort of stigma that is attached to being single. 

But here, women who are single are not stigmatized. In fact, they are even praised. Though, there's the other element where they have to stay holy, too. But they are not judged, and they are ordained into the priesthood and gain leadership training there, and be able to do their thing. 

So altars are important sites of holiness and gender geographies. And you can see that. How women dress there, they go there and be in community together. And geography and the space and the bodies and everything collides together as women live out their lives in these spaces. They have carved space for themselves and with God in the altars. It's a space for holy women of the sacred altars, as I say call it. 

So they are women in the altars. Then I just want to speak very briefly about something that is connected to women of the altars, and that's the fact that women in this ministry have evolved a dress code dictated by the prophet. And because it's linked to the whole concept of holiness, women have to dress in a certain way so that, one, they do not tempt men not to get into heaven. 

Because men are described to be visual beings. When they see half naked women, they see it automatically. So that places a heavy burden on women to dress. So in this church, the prophet has so much to say on how women dress, how they comport themselves. They don't wear short skirts or dresses or any piece of material that exposes their body in any way. 

Before this, it was sack clothes. When women went to the altars, they wore sack clothes and smeared themselves with ashes as a sign of repentance for the sins of sexual immorality in their country. Then that evolved into that. So this dress code was dictated by the prophet, who sees visions about how God wants the women to dress. And then he comes and tells them. 

And the other day, I discovered, in my research, that most of the bishops own tailoring shops where they do these dresses for the women. So there's the economic bit of women bodies there, too. Men are not expected to dress differently, except that they have to be in suits. Whether it's raining or it is hot in the African sun, they have to be in suits and tie. And their coats have to be long so that they hide certain parts of their bodies. 

Yeah. So these sack clothes then evolve into this dressing, and it's dictated by what he says. And it's all linked to the concept of sexual sin. And the prophet dictates these. And they are taught that their bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit and they must take out of their bodies. 

And I came across the other day, an YouTube message where he was telling women not to moisturize their body, even with the Vaseline. Because when they do that, their bodies shine and look good, and they expose their legs. And then they tempt their pastors, who commit sexual sin because of them. So this places a heavy burden on women to be responsible for men, but not the consequences of whatever happens to them. 

So throughout my research, I was analyzing my data. A number of interesting came things came to me. One of the things that women are looking for is that they are looking for a sense of community and well-being. And health featured very highly. So the themes that came out are women and well-being, anxieties around health and disease, particularly HIV and AIDS. 

There has been-- well, statistics have really gone down in Kenya. But for a very long time, the statistics were quite high. And this is one of the reasons that women here seeking for healing. And he promises to heal HIV and AIDS. But also, many women told me that their dressing puts them in a situation where they feel like they have control and they are not vulnerable to violence. Because there's lots of gender-based violence, and they feel that this kind of dressing protects them. But also that the church preachings protect them from witchcraft and barrenness. 

Barrenness, there's a stigma to barrenness. And women really face tremendous rejection because of this. But here, they are welcomed. And they feel like they're in good and safe hands, especially widows and vulnerable groups. But they also go there for worship. And you can see there women worshipping. It's a female choir. And the prophet wants to see women worshipping. 

In fact, they lead the worship in his church. And look at how they are dressed. And they sing holy here. Women don't swing their bodies. You stand still and just worship. There's no swinging of any part of the body, because it's sexual sin. And so you can see women outstretching their hands for healing. There he is with little children. And the holy girls, those are the people who are very close to him. 

Now, I want to speak very briefly about women's agency, between empowerment and vulnerability. So I alluded to this, and I told you to hold that in mind. So women ordain to ministry, which is something that other churches, the Pentecostal churches, don't do. And you can see images of women prostrating on the floor. He's ordaining them. 

They don't go to any theological education. No pastor of his has any theological education, including himself. He frowns upon theological education and claims the Holy Spirit is their best teacher. But throughout my research, I came across, also, from nonmembers, that women are ordained are women with social standing, who can be able to support their ministry. And those who are very poor, very few of them are ordained to ministry. 

This woman, I know her personally. She is in charge of Angola, a church in Angola, where he has a lot of followers. There she is. I want you to notice how Dr. Owour is dressed, his long flowing coat. So men are supposed also to do that, so that they're not leading anyone to sin. 

So I came across a number of bishops who have been ordained. And I have an example of Gladys, Bishop Gladys, who works not very far from my university. And she doubles up as a business woman. She is currently commanding an entire county, which is made up of five districts and has 80 altars and a half. So she's in charge of organizing and all that. 

But it's important that you notice that they don't have spiritual power, per se. They don't preach. They don't heal. They don't pray for anybody. They don't prophesy. They are just there to facilitate the prophet's work. But for most women, to them, that is power that they are called bishop, with very little tangible power to show for. 

But one of the things that struck me is that many women felt that this church has been able to pick them up from where they were, from the situation, so brokenness, and given them a life, a new life. Like that testimony by Gladys, I would like to ask Barbara to read that for me. Can you read that? Yeah. 

AUDIENCE: This church picked me up from the trenches cleaned me up and gave me a new meaning. I'm a divorced mother of six, and victim of gender-based violence. [AUDIO OUT] For two years, I was confined to my bed and unable to move. I suffered breaking abuse, physically, emotionally, and psychologically. I made a decision to walk out without my children.

I had nothing carrying me. I was hurting, raw, bitter, abused, poor and lonely. I had no self-esteem or confidence or self-worth. I turned to this ministry, and it changed my life. I was embraced and welcomed to the church just the way I was. No one judged me. I felt accepted just as I was, and this has made me love the Lord as his servant forever.  Today, I have a new story, a new life, a new song. The church picked me up from a dustbin to this comfortable space. 

DAMARIS PARSITAU: Yeah, so that testimony was very powerful to me. He picked me from the dustbin to this comfortable space. And I came across many women who had narratives like that. While my feminist eyes sometimes look at this ministry really strangely, women are telling me real tangible things that they feel. They have gained self-esteem, being somebody in the society, being comforted after suffering tremendous sexual and physical and gender-based violence and abuse. So these are the things that my data kept pointing to. 

Briefly, I will talk again about-- weddings are not a sexy affair. So I have this student of mine, who is a very smart girl. And she was one of my best students. And she came to my office one day dressed in the kind of clothing that I showed you. And she was getting married. So she came to tell me that she was getting married to this gentleman who was arranged for her to get married to by the church. 

And so we got into this conversation. I asked her why she didn't want to marry for love. She said, I don't need to marry for love. If my pastor thinks that my husband-to-be is a good man, then that's all that matters to me. So we got into a conversation about her dress. Then she told me, weddings are not a sexy affair. That's what they have been taught in church, that even on your wedding day, you have to be covered completely. No part of your body should be exposed, because that's sexual sin, even on your wedding day. 

And how women are supposed to get married has lots of connections to do with the kingdom of Heaven. And weddings must be conducted in a way that will lead people to believe in the kingdom of Heaven and that sort of thing. So how weddings are conducted is interesting. 

So here is the bridegroom that arrives fast. And waits there, because she represents the church. And then the groom comes in later, who represents Jesus Christ. And weddings are supposed to be kind of imitate how the rapture will take place. And rapture is a big, big thing in this church. They are only talking about Jesus coming any time and the church has to be prepared. But notice that women's bodies are linked, again, to the whole idea of the kingdom of God. 

But to me, it's all about toxic masculinity. It's about men controlling women bodies and their sexuality. This prophet has everything to do with how women comport themselves, who they marry, how they marry, how they are going to get intimate. And sexual sin is always lagging before them. But it also points to a very complicated relationship between churches and gender and sex in the context of power. And it's a question of who owns power, whether that's spiritual power or economic power or political power. 

We are witnessing a situation where men of God are extremely powerful, to the level where they have so much control over how people live their intimate life. But there's also a crisis of masculinity. I just spoke about the high number of single moms in the country because men are shirking their responsibilities. But women told me that they like dressing the way they dress because they feel protected from gender-based violence in their country. 

In conclusion, I want to say that the Ministry of Repentance and Holiness theologies place heavy responsibilities on women. MRH offers contested and conflicting notions of gender, sexuality, intimacy, and purity. Women are responsible for the sexual response of men, who are easily aroused at the sight of women's flesh. Men are therefore not responsible for this aggression, as they were simply provoked by scantily dressed women. 

But this conversation is larger than MRH. It's a conversation that has been going on in Kenya for a very long time, and masks the brutal realities of scant socioeconomic options that many women have. But they are cast in a moralistic discourse. Thank you so much. 


CATHERINE BREKUS: So I know that some of you might need to go to classes at 2 o'clock. But we will stay here till 2:30 for anybody who would like to have a conversation. So the floor is open for questions. I will bring you the mic, since we're recording this. 

AUDIENCE: Thank you so much for this presentation. This is absolutely fascinating. And I think it has a lot of resonances, also here in America. And I'm really looking forward to seeing how this project continues to develop, and getting the book when it's done. 

So I thought your point about the sites of tension was a really interesting intervention. And I was wondering, thinking of sites as not only sort of geographical spaces, but also as media spaces in particular, what is it about the sort of three actually ethnographic sites that you mark in your research that have become such fertile ground for this ministry to operate? So Nairobi, Western Kenya, and then your neighborhood-- what about those particular areas is especially-- makes the ministry especially provocative for either women or men or just participants in those areas? 

And specifically, how the prophet may see himself sort of creating other sites in Latin America-- you mentioned that there might be some sites here in the US. But thinking about, actually, the sort of geographical considerations that are taking place as he's setting up these ministries, setting up these altars throughout Kenya and beyond, and then also how that sort of translates into some of the media or the ways in which he's accessing media and taking advantage of media. 

You talk a lot about YouTube, television, radio news, and just wanting to know like how strategic is the-- it seems pretty strategic. But how is he even talking about sort of new media and old media, versus websites and social networking, and then also, just sort of traditional ways of getting in the newspaper or getting on the local news? So thank you. 

DAMARIS PARSITAU: So should I answer that first? Yeah, thank you so much. That's a really, really good question. So Nairobi, Kisumu, and Western Kenya-- so when he first launched his ministry, Nakuru was the home base. And Nakuru, which is in the Rift Valley, was the epicenter of the post-election violence. So many families were affected. There was a lot of mass displacement of people. 

And he created-- reconciled warring tribes. And so he actually really settled into this base where people felt like, if there is peace in Nakuru and the Rift Valley, he contributed a big deal to that. So that for Nakuru. And Kisumu, too, in Western Kenya, was the hotbed, because Kisumu is the hotbed of the Kenyan opposition family. And the Luo people who occupy the Kisumu area and the larger western region was in the opposition. And again, they have suffered tremendous marginalization from the Kenyan government. 

But also, they were the people who were also so much affected by the post-election violence. So that might explain. Nairobi, too-- and actually when I was mapping the centers where he's very popular, I could actually tell that these are the centers that suffered tremendously during the post-election violence. And you could tell the ethnic composition of the area where he has massive following. 

So that is linked, of course, to the politics of the country. So it's interesting to me that, this is one person among many Pentecostal churches that really, really aggressively uses the media to launch himself into the public sphere and to be known, and to put his message across to people not just in Kenya. Because he knows the importance of media, whether that is social media today or the traditional media. 

As I said, over the holidays in December, so much started coming out about him that had never been known. One of the things that he did using the media is that he really controlled the information that went out about him. What was known about him is what he told people. 

But now that we have a huge chunk of people who have broken away from his ministry-- or not really breaking away, leaving. Especially when he started making claims of him being doubled and transfigured, many people were really so frustrated and they got out. And they started-- what do you call it? They started a Facebook page with so many followers. They call themselves a group that exposes the heresies and the lies of Prophet David Owour. So much came to the public just two weeks ago. 

And that's something I forgot to talk when I was presenting-- maybe I was nervous-- that his ministry to the widows has also the element of exploiting widows. One of the things that he did when he came to Kenya, he quickly became friends with a very wealthy widow who lives in Nairobi, and who has been bankrolling the activities of his ministry. So what came out two weeks ago is that, this wealthy widow by the name of Jael was a very high ranking lawyer in the country, who had a lot of wealth to herself. 

Immediately, she joined the ministry. She was ordained as a bishop. And then she left her practice and joined the church. And then what now came out is that she was completely isolated from the family for 15 years. But they took over all the wealth of this widow. She's really wealthy. And all the money and the properties were registered in the name of the ministry. Until the family came out is when people realized, oh, this is what has been happening. 

But the most unfortunate thing for me is that, she had been drugged for so long that she signed away all her properties when she was not in a proper state of mind. So that created tremendous public discourse. And suddenly, the media became an enemy. So now his followers have been told not to get into Facebook or social media sites. 

He's refusing-- he's calling the media the enemy, the newspapers, the TV houses, and all that. So there's this interesting dynamic of relationship. When he is OK, the media is his best friend. When the media reveals the activities of his ministry that are not very good, then they are enemies, and they are blackmailing. 

So last week there was an earthquake in Kenya. It was not a serious one. But he quickly claimed that it's because he is being blackmailed by the Kenyan media. That's why we have that. So it's a contested relationship. 

AUDIENCE: Yeah? OK. So first I just wanted to say thank you because this is so fascinating. And it's really wonderful to hear your thoughts on it and to hear how they've changed over the course of the year. So my question is about the issue of agency, women's agency, and the really complicated way that this ministry empowers them and subordinates them at the same time. 

And so I guess I just would love to hear you talk more about that, and particularly about-- I was thinking about the quote that I read. Probably because I read it out loud, I was thinking about it. And there's something great about that. Here's a person who needed help. And here's a ministry that helped her. On a surface level that seems good, to use moral language. And yet it's implicated in this huge network of consequences, and like the other woman you mentioned who has to live in the compound and that kind of thing. 

What do you think about whether this ministry is really doing something good for its female members? Or do you think it's-- how do you think that works with them? They are getting a material benefit. That material benefit empowers them with confidence. But it also gives them-- like they're being surveilled. They're being controlled. How do you think that works out? Is it ultimately more negative than positive? 

And if this church is to fail-- we've talked a lot over the course of the year among the Fellows, like this guy seems to be sort of exploding on social media. And there will be a crisis point in his career, and then what will happen to that church afterwards? Will anything be there to take the place of those kind of social safety networks? So yeah, I guess just, how much good is it doing? Is it doing any good? How do you negotiate that and what you think about it? 

DAMARIS PARSITAU: Thank you. I knew you'd ask me that question. It's so complicated to answer you. It's a very complicated relationship. And I spoke to so many women who swore by their prophet that their lives have been tremendously transformed-- they like using that word-- tremendously transformed since they became members of that church. Many of them told me they are leaders, they have voice. They can speak, and that they have titles. And there's a lot of craze about titles there. 

And so from the material that I gathered, there are women who feel very empowered by the church. I don't think so. But I feel sad to say this, as an activist and as a feminist. I feel like some of the things that the church does to women is completely outrageous. And I can't even imagine that there are women who go to that church, let alone professors who are members of that church. That's something that I'm not able to wrap my mind around. But then there's also the element of, what people gain spiritually. 

And I spoke about well-being, that they feel that their spiritual well-being is being taken into consideration. But something that-- I don't know whether I spoke about this. But one woman told me that the reason that she joined that ministry is that she felt it was a different spiritual experience from all the other churches she had been to. And she gave me a list of the churches that she had been a member of. 

So she is this person who is like a nomad. She keeps running away from one church to another. But she had been in this church for nearly 15 years. And she said, I just wanted a new spiritual experience, and I found that here. So there was things that you can explain. But there are those things that only these women followers feel about. 

And I cannot invalidate their feelings about their church. I can only accept that grudgingly as a feminist. But it seems there's empowerment, but disempowerment in so many levels. Particularly, I feel, as someone who works with women who struggle with body issues and gender-based violence, I feel like it's just so wrong on so many levels. 

But I have also seen women objectify others, joining the prophet to objectify women who don't dress like themselves. They have actually objectified me. I remember one time, as the director of the Gender institute, we had students we had been violated in campus. And I was besides myself. I was so angry. 

And I went to the security people, I went to the vice chancellor and I said, I need to have a seminar about this. We need to train both students and staff about this thing. It's horrible. And I remembered one woman who was in the training, who told me that I was not a good role model to girls because I wear trousers, because I wear short skirts. And she is a member of that church. And so I've seen these women objectifying others, joining the prophets to continue to objectify other women. 

So there's empowerment. There's disempowerment in so many levels. And the consequences of this ministry are yet to be felt. I can tell myself, as someone who's lived in Kenya for so long and someone who's been following on the activities of this church for a very long time, that it's coming to an end soon. And the government is closing in on him, especially because of this particular high-ranking case. But also because bishops are perpetually being forced to force people to give money to build his house, to drive his-- to fuel his cars, to give him this opulent life. 

People are getting tired. So the consequences of that will come out later. But for now, I don't think-- and maybe I would refer you to my article, "Women Without Limits, Unlimited Women," where I was just talking about this empowerment and disempowerment that takes place in Pentecostal churches. Maybe we can find answers there. I don't know. But I don't think there's empowerment. 

AUDIENCE: Thank you, Damaris. This is quite rich and lovely. It's obviously going to not only add to the literature on Pentecostalism in Africa, but I think it's going to be very unique. It is a highly, highly unique church. 

I'd like to go back to the last comment, what I would probably call the amazing grace testimony of Gladys. And I call that the amazing grace testimony of Gladys, precisely because of the importance of that, not only in Pentecostal churches, but in our churches. The further they felt they were lost, now they have been redeemed. And they are now themselves. 

I think this is what we are seeing in some of these testimonies. And so you have to be able to find a way of dealing with that. It may mean shelving a little bit the feminist cap, maybe you assume the womanist cap. Because quite a number of your colleagues who are working on this will say, we are not feminist, we are womanist. So that would be very, very important. 

You raised a very important issue, too, and that is the relationship between the state and these churches. A few months ago or maybe almost a year ago, Kagama of Rwanda closed down 8,000 churches. And the responses to that is mixed. Some hailed him as being forceful in closing down Pentecostal churches that were seen to be fraudulent. 

There are some who say, no, you dare not do that. These are spiritual churches, and the state should not intervene at all. So that becomes an issue. Generally, when we look at the lives of these kinds of churches-- and there are thousands of them all over Africa-- we kind of just wait for the Weberian moment when they die. And then there'll be crisis. And based on internal distinctions, then the church will split, and it will take someone else. 

Now, my question is this. To what extent was this man also influenced by his stay in Israel, the Ben Gurion thing? I like the fact that you pointed to the symbol of this beard. You kind of dismiss that, but it's not. That was the future of independent African churches for a long time, the idea that, not only did they have these beards, but they quoted extensively from the Old Testament. And they identify with the prophets. 

I always try to say, in relation to the transfiguration thing, if there was a Nigerian there that day, he would have asked God to also create one pen for them, not just for the other prophets, because they're pretty smart at responding to such things. So the Old Testament symbols are so powerful, which is, to some extent, part of the independent African church model. And part of it maybe his own is cautioned in Israel. I think I would like to somtime sit down with you to continue the conversation. But thank you very much. This is really rich. Thank you. 

DAMARIS PARSITAU: So there is so much influence of MHR ministry from Judaism. He spent a long time doing his PhD and lived there, and actually married a Jewish woman and has a baby, a child with him. And when he moved to America, he left the wife and his son. And came to America and married another woman. So he has a history of women. And he had also another woman in Kenya whom he had a family with and left. And so he has a very complicated relationship with women. 

But Israel and Judaism is so close to his heart and everything he does. In fact, what I didn't mention is that he only eats kosher food from Israel. And everywhere he goes, especially when he goes to Latin America, they bring this on television and everywhere, that they served him kosher food. and the cooks who are cooking from him who are Jews. He's a Black Jew. He said that. So there's a lot of influence from Judaism. You can see that in his beard. You can see that in his preaching, in his prophecies. He's even called himself all those things that the Old Testament prophets were, and beyond. 

But there's also influence from everywhere else. I have listened to a YouTube where he says that Muslim women dress better than Christians. And they are better religious people than Christian. And that has led to questions whether there is also the bit of that. Although, he doesn't like other religions at all, at all. He doesn't like Islam. He doesn't like Catholics. He doesn't like anybody. 

So there's a lot of influence. I could give a whole lecture on his influence, how Israel has been very-- has really impacted his theology, his teachings, his very life. And now that the Kenyan media is after him, he issued a prophecy a day ago to say that Israel has reserved a very big house for him and big cars and servants and everything. And he is going there where he will die. He will be killed and his body will be lying there. So there is a lot of influence from everywhere. 

One of the things that I found with many of his followers is that they actually believe that he's prophet Elijah and Moses and John the Baptist rolled into one. So now he is three witnesses. And I said one is shorter than the other one. I have always found that very comical. 

But there is so much influence. And women, particularly, really believe that he's a Black Jew. And actually, Sam told me that they think he's Jesus himself. So there's all this thing. 

The story of Amazing Grace, Grace is somebody known very well to me. I know her. I know her story. So I wasn't surprised when she told me this. But I also came across more nuanced stories than these that I had no time to talk about. It's had a lot of impact on women and agency. But also Israel is really coming into-- when President Trump moved-- what was that he moved, the embassy to Jerusalem? He led a massive celebration in the country because of that. So yeah, there is that. I don't know whether I've answered you, and we can have more conversation about this. Yeah, but that's the situation. 

AUDIENCE: So like everyone else said, thank you, this is such fascinating work and I'm glad we got to hear part of it. So my question is, why do you think sex is such a central aspect of his ministry, considering that he has his own sordid sexual past with multiple partners and multiple children and leaving them? That seems like sort of an odd choice. And then the second part of that question is, why do you think it resonates with his audience so well? Are there patterns in the social scripts in Kenya that sort of mesh seamlessly with this message? Is it seen as revolutionary, or where does it play in the social and political landscape? 

DAMARIS PARSITAU: Thank you. That's a question I don't know how to answer. But he has a very complicated relationship with women. That's number one. And just the other day, what emerged-- which I didn't know all this time, because he describes himself as a holy person. Actually, when he goes to meet female bishops, they keep what they call holy distance, so that no part of his body comes close into contact with women, in case he sins or he has bad thoughts about women. 

I don't know why he just can't have a conversation with the women without thinking about the whole idea of sex. But I think he has a very complicated relationship with sex and is mad that he's a sexual beast, who raped a woman in the labs in Chicago, and is a fugitive from the law. I don't know from a psychological point of view, because I'm not a psychologist, how that has created who he is. But he seems to really have that issue. 

And it's a big deal. And it's actually the gist of his ministry. Sex is always in his mind and in his mouth when he speaks. Everything is connected to sex. Tsunamis are connected to sex. He hates homosexuals and they are the reason there's so much problems in Africa, such kinds of things. 

But the Kenyan society, in the last couple of years, has been undergoing a lot of social change. First of all, the feminist movement in Kenya is very strong and has had a big impact. Today, girls go to school probably more than the boys. I have the statistics, because I do that as an activist. But now they have disappeared. 

So girls and boys dress like any other kids anywhere in the world. Women want to look fashionable. And other Pentecostal churches-- I found this very interesting. Other Pentecostal churches encourage women to look after themselves, to build self-esteem, to comport themselves better, to look good for their husbands and their spouses. And so this is really interesting that someone else comes and wants to wash that away. 

And I think there is a threat coming from that. And the threat is very real, because that the term feminism in Kenya has such negative connotations, that people like me, who openly call themselves feminists-- most of my colleagues would never say they are feminist because there's a backlash to that. So I think there is a threat of that. And you can see the social tensions already, the fact that marriages are really falling. Girls are refusing to get married until nearly the age of 30, which was different from my generation when we were getting married at the age of 22. Barbara keeps laughing about that, but that was the reality I grew up in. 

And so there are all these tensions. And they are creating tensions in society. And people are not happy. Men are not happy. Religious clergy are not happy. And of course, Africa is a patriarchal society. Virginity was a requirement for most girls before you get married. And so you see the African cosmologies and worldviews coming into his teachings and his preachings. 

He seems to be so much afraid of modernity. I don't know why, for someone so educated like that. So there are all these tensions that I'm not able to put into word. And I'm not yet done with analyzing all of my data. And it's something that I'll be taking into consideration as I think about that. I don't know if I answered that question correctly. Thank you. 

AUDIENCE: Thank you, Professor Parsitau. This was a really eye-opening and fascinating lecture, like everybody has said. I'd heard a little bit about and read a bit about Prophet David Owour. And I didn't realize just how deep the rabbit hole went. So thank you for taking us on this journey. I had one question, which I think you began to answer in response to Kira, which was that, you said you've interviewed many ex-members of his-- I don't know if you should call it a church, or just his ministry. And I wonder what their narrative about who he is, what his rise to powers in his position, spiritually and politically in Kenya is, and how that might differ from the broad general narrative that's coming from himself, and might be more dominant in the public sphere now. 

I also had a question related to how he may have influenced other religious movements in Kenya. In Professor Lupano's work now, he's talking a lot about how the explosion of Pentecostal churches has affected the way that all of the other Christian denominations, the way they carry out their liturgy, the way their structure is, the way worship carries on. And so I'm curious if he has also had an effect on other religious communities, whether they're Christian or especially Pentecostals or otherwise. 

And finally, I know you may not be able to answer this question. But it's something we see in Nigeria all the time that has always confused me a bit to a certain extent. From the outside perspective, it's very easy to dismiss this type of movement as for the masses, for people who don't have a high level of education. It might even appear just superstitious and so on. 

But you always find a large number of people who are very highly educated, who are social, political, sometimes even religious and academic elites, who are very honestly and sincerely devoted to it. So you've mentioned some colleagues you have at the university. Do you have any idea exactly why it is that they tend to appeal so strongly to many members of the academy in particular? Thank you. 

DAMARIS PARSITAU: Thank you. So I don't have an answer why academics are followers of this church. And I know I am biased. Forgive me for that. Yeah, and I spoke to a number of professors and asked them why they follow this prophet. They actually don't see anything wrong with this prophet. And that was amazing to me, that people who can really think so critically don't see anything wrong with him. 

In fact, I think one of the things that gave him a big edge in the Kenyan social and political scene is that he was anti-prosperity gospel when he came in. And the prosperity gospel had become such a huge burden to many Kenyans. So when he came and preached this fresh message and was castigating prosperity gladly, so many people actually began following him on that, only that. He reproduced the worst elements of prosperity gospel later on. 

Now he's one of the most-- in fact, he's the wealthiest Pentecostal clergy in Kenya right now. So I think that was a big attracting factor, but again, also the whole idea of people wanting to have a new spiritual experience. It's like people are experimenting. Which church is better? What appeals to me? But there are many things that draw people to churches. There is healing, whether that takes place or not. There is that. There is the acceptance. There's authority. 

I am not sure whether you're familiar with the works of Babatunde. What is his other name? We have written an article together. Professor Lupano knows him very well. Ebenezer Obadare, yeah, who has just written-- published a book with Adriaan van Klinken on Pentecostals and sexual citizenship in Africa, where I have an article on this Prophet Owour. And he's thinking about the expanded roles of clergy. They are gaining tremendous social influence, political influence. And this particular clergy is very influential politically. 

I remember during the 2013 general elections in Kenya, he was able to hold a very huge rally in which he brought all the eight presidential candidates together, prayed for them, anointed them with oil, and told them to make sure that there is peace in their country. And people admired that. People felt like he has political power. He brushes shoulders with the high and the mighty. So these are some of the things that attract people to this. We'll continue to have a conversation about that. 

His influence on other churches has been very bad. It has been very negative. And in fact, the reason he says he has 101 security details is because the Pentecostal clergies want to kill him because he has taken away members from his church. So there's accusation of sheep-stealing. The truth of the matter is, when he came in in 2004, and by 2007, 2008, when Kenya was in a very vulnerable state because of post-election violence, he gained massive followers. And so many people left to the churches to follow him. 

Later on, when he started talking about transfiguration, the same people went back to their old churches. But the truth of the matter is, is that he is such a feared character because he keeps telling people he will curse them. And he gives example of people he has cursed. Like he had a fallout with one of the archbishops. And the archbishop promptly has a stroke. And he goes on radio and tells them that he cursed him. 

He operates on fear. So people are so afraid that he will cast them because he has so much power, whether that power is real or not. But in the eyes of many people, that power is real. And so there are all these issues and dynamics that make him create himself as this big person. 

But he has trained ecumenical relations in Kenya a great deal, because he hates every other religion. Remember, he's the best and the last prophet. All the other ones are false. But Kenyan clergy have never gone on TV, even to criticize him. They are so scared of him. 

So all these dynamics again-- and again we can continue to have a conversation about this later on. But I feel like he has been a very divisive figure, at least in the ecumenical scene in the country. 

CATHERINE BREKUS: Thank you so much for this fascinating conversation.