Jesus Christ Incorporated business, Football, Leisure and Knowledge in Rwanda

By By Dr. Felix M. Ndahinda – University of Rwanda, College of Arts and Social Sciences
On 1 March 2017 at 05:40

A curious idea has captivated my imagination over the last couple of years: I would love to get some statistics about how much time per week an average Rwandan spends in one or the two dominant social activities: religious rituals and football.
The question can generate very interesting insights for both academics and non-academics. For the time being, I am not (yet) endeavoring to conduct such an in-depth inquiry (because of the usual time and resource-related constraints that such an (...)

A curious idea has captivated my imagination over the last couple of years: I would love to get some statistics about how much time per week an average Rwandan spends in one or the two dominant social activities: religious rituals and football.

The question can generate very interesting insights for both academics and non-academics. For the time being, I am not (yet) endeavoring to conduct such an in-depth inquiry (because of the usual time and resource-related constraints that such an academic exercise entails). What I propose to do here is to break down the arguments why I consider these to be two dominant activities in Rwandans’ social lives. It is also my intention to touch upon what I consider to be the negative implications of living “God-Football-centric” lives.

Since my only methodological approach for the time being consists of observation of lived social realities, it is worth to start with some caveats: I suspect that an in-depth inquiry might generate statistically significant difference between time spent in football-related activities by males versus females: my expectation would be that more males spend time in football-related activities - such watching games in stadiums or on TV sets, listening to radio programs, discussions, thinking about or reeling about results - than females.

Because of, among others, the still limited football infrastructure within neighborhoods, I would also expect the proportion of those who actually spend time playing football to be statistically low, but this might show variations dependent on generations: I expect the younger generations to be more active in football activities while the older generations are still equally involved but on the passive side. Without wanting to sound sexist (my pre-emptive apologies and respect to feminists out there!), I think that the time spent on football related activities for males can be matched by the time their female counterparts spend in activities sponsored by the beauty industry (makeup, hair, nails, shopping…).

Conversely, it is very likely that time spent seeking or praising the good Lord might be slightly higher for females in comparison to males. I would refrain from betting on this though (after all, this still not a result of actual research with more rigorous methodologies….).

The fact of the matter remains that on average, a Rwandan spends quite a significant amount of his/her time in “God’s presence” or “doing football”, particularly a Rwandan male in the latter case. Our surroundings attest to this! On a daily basis and in nearly every neighborhood, sounds of loudspeakers forcefully proclaiming the greatness of God and urging sinful mortals to repent if they are to inherit the heavenly kingdom are so common. Those inconvenienced by the noisiness of songs and sermons broadcasted not only to congregations but also to entire neighborhoods are reluctant to voice their concerns out of fear of being labelled as “ungodly” in a super pious society.

Praying and Football are among social interaction activities in which Rwandans are involved.

In the football realm, broadcasts on omnipresent TV screens on a nearly 24/7 basis, non-stop radio programs, social media exchanges and conversations between friends suggest that there is an outsized interest in the “beautiful game” – as football is popularly known - amongst Rwandans.

Let me elaborate on the place that each of these social phenomena occupy in peoples social lives and let me start with religiosity in Rwanda. It is an unquestionable fact that spirituality occupies a central role in the lives of the majority of Rwandans. God is indeed “omnipresent” in daily rituals, greetings, sayings, conversations and speeches. In good, but especially bad times, most Rwandans seek comfort in their spiritual beliefs.

According to data from the 2012 census, the Rwandan population comprised 43.7% (Roman) Catholics, 37.7% Protestants, 11.8% Adventist and about 2% Muslims. A large number of Rwandans affiliated with either of these religions attend prayer services, some on a (near) daily-basis, others a couple of days a week. In addition to Sunday services, there are Roman Catholics who attend daily masses, actively participate in special prayer activities within groups such as the Communauté de l’Emmanuel, Legio Mariae, or the Charismatic movement, to name but a few.

The multitude of protestant denominations, particularly the ever dynamic born-again variants, are constantly engaged in evangelization games consisting of increasing the number of formally registered faithful by praying (a play on words here) on turfs of rival denominations, leaning on personal charisma of church leaders. They are constantly involved in a Champions League scramble for the faithful, to use a football metaphor.
Sounds of beautiful and catchy gospel music - sung, or rather screamed loudly, are an additional source of attraction, particularly for the relatively younger generations. For those holding the Islamic faith, minarets in quarters such as Nyamirambo regularly broadcast equally loud calls for prayers from the dawn till sunset.

All these religious creeds do, indeed, offer some level of comfort to many Rwandans as they promise batter tomorrows in this universe or in the afterlife. Born-again-ism offers a very interesting case study on the place of religiosity in the lives of Rwandans.

It is common to be asked by a born again believer – I am tempted to say activist – whether you are “saved” or have “accepted JC as your Lord and Saviour”. The question is asked regardless of whether your interlocutor knows that you are formally a Christian or not. Apparently, you need to prove to the questioner that you have a direct line of communication with your good Lord and genuinely live a Christian life. What that means in real life, beyond sermons, seems somewhat ambiguous. It seems that the special relation with the Maker is weighed using such metrics as: how much time you participate in Church sponsored activities such as Prayers (frequency is paramount!), fasting, offerings (with a special insistence on how one-tenth of your income belongs to God and not paying it amounts to robbing Him and decreasing one’s chance of inheriting His heavenly kingdom).

Praying and Football are among social interaction activities in which Rwandans are involved.

Looking at how chaotic several so-called born again denomination manage their business: frequent infights for leadership, equally frequent cases of “secessions” within congregations, mismanagement or misappropriations of funds either from some donors or from offerings, to name but a few; one cannot help but wonder whether they are really all about serving God or at the service of the various dignitaries who staff those congregations.

It is not uncommon to sit through a sermon sensitizing crowds of believers – the majority of whom are rather destitute - on the necessary of carrying the burden of sustaining good living conditions for their leaders (including houses and cars).

Heading a church is not much a spiritual burden as it is a lucrative business nowadays!. A business I like to call “JC Inc.”; Jesus Christ Incorporated. This is not new or limited to Rwanda. Mega Churches in countries such as the US or Nigeria are very lucrative businesses. Blessed are the poor has become only something applicable to the folk of believers, not the leaders.

Heavenly reward for earthly sacrifices is only a theory: reward starts here on earth and it takes the form of wealth, power and status.

The current trendy tendency to outcompete one another in titles carried by Church leaders - henceforth known as Reverends, Bishops, Apostles, Prophets and even Daddy(ies) – coupled with the pomp and protocol that accompany those titles reinforce the idea that personality cults and gimmicks accompanying such practices might just be self-serving rather than being at the service of the good Lord.

The history of medieval Europe teaches us that several of the beautiful cathedrals that enrich the old continent’s décor (several of which are currently empty due to growing secularism) were built as ornaments meant to reflect the prosperity of given cities and reflect the power of monarchs, aristocrats or bishops who commissioned them.

Their spiritual character seemed rather tributary to these other mundane aims. I cannot help but wonder whether parallels can be drawn with the above-described dynamics in Rwanda.

I wish I had a magic ball to see the level of religiosity Rwandans will have in, say, some fifty years from now!. Let me turn now to football, perhaps the second, if not the first, most popular “religion” in Rwanda, next to Christianity. Characterizing football as a religion or fitting it in belief systems is obviously questionable. Edmund Griffiths describes belief Systems as “a set of propositions held to be true, to which some emotional charge (affect) is attached and which gives more or less cogent expression to a general sense of how the world is” (see: Towards a Science of Belief Systems, Palgrave, 2014:3).

On the other hand, in her book entitled The Sociology of Religion (Sage, 2007: 19) Grace Davie contends that there are two ways of defining religion: “The first is substantive: it is concerned with what religion is. Religion involves beliefs and practices which assume the existence of supernatural beings. The second approach is functional: it is concerned with what religion does and how it affects the society of which it is part”.

A functional approach to religion allows for either the possibility of drawing parallels between football and religion or, for a qualified characterization of football as a religion. After all, football creates communities of fans bonded together by a shared love for the game or specific teams, players and/or coaches. Attendance of competitive games in stadiums, fan songs, or other emotional expressions that accompany football games are all rituals that are not without mirroring religious practices. Saturdays and Sundays lives can indeed be very predictable in Rwanda. When people are not caught up in some of the usual social activities such as weddings, burials, mourning, family visits and the like, they are either involved God-related business or “doing football”.

Even if Rwanda is not among the top football nations on the African continent in terms of rankings or performance of national teams or clubs, a very significant number of Rwandans, particularly the male youth, play football. The football infrastructure might still be limited – for instance, think of the ratio between stadiums in Kigali’s neighborhoods in proportion to the city’s population – but the fact remains that this particular sport is very popular. What is more interesting to any observer, though, is that Rwandans are super passionate about watching football, particularly European football.

In private houses, one sign of graduating to middle class is the ability to have cable TV subscription offering the possibility of watching football at home. For those less fortunate or for those in the middle class wishing to have a day out, a multitude of small and large cafés catering for all social statuses are filled with (trendy flat) TV screens broadcasting football games ad infinitum.

Broadcasts of football games are not only live: throughout the week, people visiting cafés are treated to never stopping replays of past games or football commentaries by “experts” analysing past and future games. Watching games in one thing, living football in another thing. Daily conversations before or after important games are generally dominated by discussions of results. The English Premier League has particularly captivated several peoples’ imaginations (I am tempted to say: colonized peoples’ minds).

I still have to understand why this is the case, since, arguably, the Spanish or, to some extent, the Italian and German leagues can somewhat compete with the English Premier League on all relevant factors such as game level and entertainment. Yet, the English Premier League is the dominant favorite of Rwandan football fans: they have their favorite Premier League teams. I understand that in cities such as Kigali, there are even Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea … fan clubs.

Negative results of a favorite team are often lived as a personal tragedy, translating in an inability to eat or think about anything else for days. Overall, time investment by several Rwandan males in gaining knowledge about “anything football” is quite remarkable. On a daily basis, various Rwandan radios broadcast football programs for several hours, once or twice a day, discussing past games, games to come, players’ transfers, performance of players or coaches, money in football etc. I am tempted to think that there are several Rwandan youngsters likely to name without hesitation the full list of starting players for Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea or Liverpool than the 30 Districts of Rwanda.

According to the capabilities methodology used to investigate what is required for individuals to live a good, fulfilling life;spirituality and relaxation are two very important functionings. Religious beliefs occupy a prominent place in several individuals’ lives.

Next to the spiritual function of religion - such as helping believers make sense of their lives and surroundings (including such ethically complex issues as human suffering, death and the afterlife) - there are those whose main environment of socialization consists of religious platforms and settings. Similarly, watching a good football game on a Saturday or any other day can indeed be a relaxing activity, for instance, after a long day or week of hard work.

Football is also an important tool enabling people to bond based on shared interests that transcend other sources of societal divisions. Yet, my main interrogation around these two activities relates to whether they occupy a proportional place in Rwandans’ lives. Proportional is used here in relation to the many other imperatives imposed upon us by our earthly life. Life is such that we need to work hard be able to earn all other functionings we need to live good lives.

The possibility and opportunity to secure or create a good job is generally increased in proportion to the diversified knowledge and capabilities one has been able to acquire: the more you know about different things, the more likely you are to find ways to make it. Knowledge is a product of learning. We learn not only through classic education but also through self-instruction. Reading is one very essential means of gaining knowledge. Sadly, based on my observation, I think that the reading culture is Rwanda is still very low, including amongst academics. There was a time when it was not easy to get access to reading materials in Rwanda (books, newspapers, magazines…).

The availability of (admittedly still few) public libraries in Rwanda and the accessibility of a wide range of reading material on internet leave no excuse to those likely to use access as the main reason for their semi-illiteracy. In a rebuttal to Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarian philosophy consisting of capturing human endeavors as dominantly dictated by a quest for maximization of happiness and minimization of pain - with utility being the sum of pleasures over pains - John Stuart Mills established a distinction between higher and lower pleasures. He contended that higher pleasures were those held by cultivated or educated persons, consisting of nurturing one’s intellect and creativity.

These higher pleasures were contrasted with, for instance, sensual pleasures which fall under the category of lower pleasures. Using Mills thinking, I consider reading an educative book as a higher pleasure. I stand to be accused of blasphemy by suggesting that acquisition of knowledge through reading informative and educative materials is a far higher pleasure that watching a football game, listening to radio broadcasts on football or spending dozens of hours per week in religious settings.
While preparing for the afterlife is important for believers, living our earthly lives to the fullest should be an important goal since most religions teach that believers will have an eternity to enjoy the afterlife! Engaging in self-educational activities such as cultivating a reading culture might be one of the most effective ways of achieving higher pleasures.

My hope and dream for the younger generations of Rwandans are for them to find the right, proportional balance between religiosity, football and qualitatively more educational activities such as reading!

By Dr. Felix M. Ndahinda – University of Rwanda, College of Arts and Social Sciences