Changing the Drumbeat

Revd John Mark Oduor – the Provincial Director of Mission in the Anglican Church of Kenya – reflects on the need to change the drumbeat of war across Africa to a drumbeat of reconciliation.

This is one of the most significant and influential essays that underpinned Continuing Indaba.

It is posted today to help us understand what may be needed in South Sudan where the drumbeat of war rings out. It is relevant to every nation where division in society is being driven by loud voices.


In this world we live in, it is said that everyone dances to a certain drumbeat. Carl Henry calls it the “go-go generation”. He puts it this way “we are becoming nomads in the world of ideas and values no less than in the world of space and time”

Many dance to the drumbeat of wealth and prosperity, business and success, football and other sports, they live controlled and manipulated by these drumbeats. But there is a drumbeat that is significantly becoming louder by the day and it’s hard to ignore. It keeps our ears blocked and our hearts palpitate with a rhythm that makes many of us uncomfortable. We try to ignore it, brush it aside, push it to the periphery but it has refused to go away. It is the painful drumbeat of fear, conflict, and tension, beaten by the sticks of war and turmoil, accompanied by the Kayamba that sheds blood and whistles that cause death.

Drumbeat of Fear and Conflict

This drumbeat is so loud in our ears that we no longer can hear any music at all. This drumbeat is heard in every corner of the globe, from Europe to Asia, the Middle East to East Timor, China to Mexico, Colombia to Indonesia Afghanistan to Iraq. But the continent that beats them all is Africa.  You can no longer think of Africa without thinking of this drumbeat, from Zimbabwe to Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo to Uganda. It finally landed in Kenya after a democratic election turned sour. When Kenyans burnt each other in January 2008, one CNN reporter loudly said, “Another African State is on fire”. It can be said, like in the Movie Hotel Rwanda,

“TIA” meaning “This Is Africa” This drum beat is synonymous with Africa and vice versa, unfortunately recently Kenyans have joined in. Which part of Kenya can you think of without seeing the painful picture of those who have lost loved ones and have been maimed or worse are so hurt that they don’t know what to say. Watching on TV you hear one survivor saying in Kiswahili “Sasa unataka ni seme nini – now what do you want me to say?”

This drumbeat of terror, fear, conflict, tension and shedding of blood has become part of the African life in the last few decades. Its almost hard to image that there are children who have never known peace, stability, or a place they can call home. This drum beat is killing our eardrums and we have reached a point that we cannot hear anything else. It is unfortunate that even the church has been so caught in the dance that she forgot which drumbeat she should be dancing to and whose music she should be listening to. Worse still, whose drum she should be beating. This, my friends, is the problem. It is when we forgot the drumbeat to which we should be dancing that the rain started beating us. We, the church, got so wet that we almost forgot that the church was supposed to be different. We stopped being different we became like everyone else. Brothers and sisters this is the problem.

The second problem has been the desire by everyone to change the drumbeat so that we hear less of the noise. We have tried to dance to several beats but this has not helped. The crisis has gotten out of hand, but many of us have not seen it nor realized the magnitude of the noise in our ears. Carl Henry tries to describe this crisis and says it’s a spiritual, moral, social and intellectual crisis. He sums it up that “this crisis, in short touches the whole of humanity and the whole man. The soul of modern man has been sucked dry by temporary concerns that eclipse the eternal world.”

We have tried to offer solutions to reduce this noise and silence the drumbeat, but we have not succeeded. This is because we have offered temporary solutions. We have treated symptoms and signs but not the real issue.

The world has offered temporary solutions to a problem that will soon get out of hand if we do nothing. We have heard the cry for justice. This has been done and in many ways.

Let me highlight some of the temporary solutions that the world around us has tried to offer. There are those who opted for instant justice or mob justice. Its actual name should be instant injustice. Many have taken the law into their hands when faced with situations of injustice. Others have tried to change the drumbeat with instant injustice because they have felt that the official system and the powers that be will not serve them well enough. They would say that they know that nothing will be done and so they take the law into their own hands and install their own form of justice. This unfortunate situation brings temporary satisfaction to the enforcers but not to the victims. Neither does it deal with the problem. It just creates another drumbeat of conflict tension and bloodshed and the cycle continues. Those who have been hurt harbour revenge, anger and bitterness. This only perpetuates the cycle and the drumbeat continues.

The same drum beat has been perpetuated also by the delayed justice in our legal system. It is said that justice delayed is justice denied. Many who have felt that the legal system isn’t working for them have opted not to trust it and they would rather not waste any time or money in the system and this drumbeat has not helped either. There is no change. The same drumbeat different players, while our ears continue to hurt and our bodies ache with pain and fear and our hearts bleed.

Drumbeat of Silence

Some survivors opted to use the samedrum beat that made HIV and AIDS the worst killer in this continent. The drumbeat of silence. This drum beat kills slowly and painfully. Carlos Falconi

in his book The Silence of Pope Pius XII identifies two major reasons why the Pope opted to be silent about the Second World War atrocities, that it is useless to speak as speech alone can’t do a thing, and that sometimes talking about such issues endangers the victims and the one speaking. Many who find themselves helpless would rather be silent as they ask the pregnant question, “who will fight for us and who will stand for us”? They resign themselves to a state of solitude and abandonment with nothing to look forward to. They see the future like a little boy sailing in the sea who wakes up early in the morning to see how far they are to go before they get to the land; when asked by the parents what he sees he sadly stoops down and says “nothing”. This drumbeat will not change things and it speaks so loud we need to ask ourselves why it is blasting our ears. Some keep hoping that someone or something will remove the conflict, the fear, the tension, but they don’t go away. Nothing happens.

Drumbeat of Blame

Another drumbeat that has echoed through the corridors of our land is the blame game: accusations, rhetoric and passing of the buck. Everyone seems to know who was responsible, who should be penalized and who should be arrested and imprisoned, but nobody does a thing or even owns up and says “I’m responsible”. It’s called the “culture of impunity”. Read in the papers and you’ll be shocked at how many people know who the guilty ones are. But nothing gets done. Many in Africa hope, pray and wish just that someone would rise up and say “we are tired of everybody blaming everyone else but nobody doing anything about it”. It’s like the words of an a cappella song, “everybody said that anybody could do the important thing that somebody should do….. But this important thing is what nobody did”. The drumbeat continues and the cycle continues and the rhythm of fear, turmoil pain and suffering is perpetuated and more people die and nothing gets done.

Brothers and sisters, growing up in the rural areas, was an interesting experience, I saw another drumbeat being practiced yhat was common among the women folk. This is the drumbeat of mock fights, trading insults and warmongering. This drumbeat was practiced by people who, on their own, could not fight but could engage the enemy in an emotional and psychological stimulation that lead to the real soldiers coming out to prove their point. They would make faces, throw their arms in the air, call names, and tell you what they could do if you tried touching them. How useless you are, if you were near enough they would draw a line on the ground and ask you to cross it and see what they would do to you. This drumbeat has not changed, today in the political arena; the mock fighters claim to speak on their people’s behalf. Words such as “we are being finished but we won’t take it lying down”. Some of us remember the days of “money has been poured to finish us” and “our people are being marginalized”. Most of this rhetoric is selfish and self-centred but nobody seems to say so and  they are bought by the masses. The title of John Githongo’s experience should echo this drumbeat well enough “Our turn to eat”. This battle cry only gives a false security that we can manage all things only if we the victims fight back, but like I said earlier, this is just a mock fight. Nothing concrete comes out it. The warmongers make threats but the threat will not be carried out unless by the ill-willed and uninformed.

Another drumbeat that East Africa has heard very loudly lately, and is so loud in Kenya today, is the salsa dance beat that someone else will do it for you. Get the perpetrators to another man’s court. Get the International Criminal Court at The Hague to do the job. I call it a salsa dance because, like salsa, it is foreign but we think it will get our justice done. Maybe we could learn that the ICC is a good project, but for whom and by whom? We may take 50 years to arrest the culprits and take them to The Hague, but without the survivors’ witness it will be a pipe dream to get justice done. We could learn from Rwanda. 15 years down the line and less than 30 people convicted.  You may have noticed that Sudan strong man is adamant that ICC can do him nothing.

The LRA strong man in Uganda says he won’t sign any peace deal if his name is among the wanted men by ICC. This drumbeat might look like a nice outfit, but is the survivor getting his deal right? The targeted big fish also happen to be well equipped, well resourced and some are even citizens of several countries so getting them can be another story. We are all aware of the reportedly wealthy Rwandan genocide sponsor who is staying in Kenya where he owns several estates; for him life is “business as usual”. Could this drumbeat provide false hope to the survivors of the deafening sound from a killer drum?

Ladies and gentlemen, one more drumbeat that kills our ears will not kill you if I mention it. Many have realized that humans cannot help them so they have turned to God for divine intervention and invocation of the spiritual. Many curse and hope their curses will have generational effect. They curse the perpetrators and wish their children and families will live to regret all their days or that they be doomed in the land they or their parents, grabbed, stole or acquired through dubious and illegal means. They call on God to “fix” their enemies. They conveniently quote the psalmist, “let God arise and our enemies not His be scattered. …Let them run in seven different directions (Psalm 68).”  They cannot depend any more on humans. In fact they quote an Old Testament prophet “cursed is the man who puts his trust in man (Jer. 17:5)”. But like the great saints of old they still deal with the same old questions: “Why do the wicked prosper? Why do the unjust seem to have it easy? How come they trample on the poor and the innocent yet nobody does a thing”?. Their hope of God unleashing wrath on the unjust seems to fade away because they don’t see this happening in their generation and time and God seems to take His time. So it turns into despair, hopelessness, resignation and ultimately death of the spirit, heart and rejection of God.

We can openly conclude that these drumbeats above are not solving our problems. Some provide only false security or temporary satisfaction.

Wrong drumbeat or wrong drum?

We need to ask ourselves one key question: “Could it be that we are not just listening to the wrong drumbeat, could we actually be listening to the wrong drum”?. I want to suggest to you that we need to review the sound we have heard for too long. From the time the winds of political change leading to waves of independence started in the 50s, this continent has not known peace. Friends, 50 years is more than enough time to ask the serious question. Could it be that we have heard not just the wrong drumbeat but actually the wrong drum? Africa is known for her drums. The Asante Kingdom of Ghana was known for their talking drums. Again growing up in the rural Kenya, you would know the occasion or event by the drumbeat. You would know that it was Sunday because at 10am the church verger would beat the drum to tell people that it was time to go to church. The drum said that it was God’s time. The sound would tell you if it was a funeral, or a wedding. You could tell that it was the church bell and not the political rally drum.

Remaking the Drum

Is it, therefore, possible to critically look at the drum that has given the above beats that don’t seem to sort out our problems. I know that one can tell a lot by hearing the type of sound. We need to ask several fundamental questions and get answers so that, as a people of faith, we must have a solution. To get the solution we need, we must go back to the foundation upon which our faith and mission is based.

Lets go to the drum. What is our drum made of? Is it made of the crocodile skin of careless rhetoric, or the hippo’s skin of revenge? Could it have been made of the genuine leather of love, forgiveness and grace? Are we looking for a beautiful outfit like the snake skin of deceit or are we looking for the real buffalo skin of endurance? So can we go and see what our skin is made of.

Jesus Christ in many ways shows us how to deal with conflict. He gives us a 5-step model, which I call the Theology of Baraza drumbeat.

To make the drum we would need a wooden trunk: This trunk becomes the defining material that gives the drum the shape, size, and ultimately its sound. The trunk is Christ. He defines who we are and what we do. He gives us the message, our philosophy and agenda must be based on Him and his agenda. Like Christ the trunk comes hollow not with a hidden agenda ,but to be inculturated and incarnated in us and our community; it still remains the defining component of us, our faith and our mission. He is objective in the way he deals with our issues but remains focused and open-minded. He not only defines our mission but gives it  clearly as we find in John:

This is my commandment, that ye love one another, as I have loved you.

Greater love hath no man than this that a man lay down his life for his friends.

You are my friends, if ye do whatsoever I command you.

Henceforth I call you not servants; for the servant knows not what his lord does: but I have called you friends; for all things that I have heard of my Father I have made known to you.

Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you, and ordained you, that ye should go and bring forth fruit, and that your fruit should remain: that whatsoever ye shall ask of the Father in my name, he may give it you.

These things I command you, that ye love one another.

And Paul’s 2nd letter to the Corinthians “We have been given the ministry of reconciliation”.

This is where we find our skin. Our skin is our mission. Our mission is what makes us sound different when we play the drum.  It’s the heartbeat to our calling and purpose. The type of skin defines the type of sound. Our mission is reconciliation. This reconciliation must “remain”, last a long time and pass the test of time.

Reconciliation is sometimes defined as “to bring together those who are separated by conflict”.  It means that they were once together but are now apart.

Now to make the drum, since we have found the trunk and the skin, we need strings to pull the skins at both of the entrances of the hollow trunk together. The strings were usually made of the same substance as the skin but thicker and stronger. We find these strings from Jesus’ commission and mandate to us in the above text in relation to the purpose of the sound we produce which is to call people together. Here we find our strings and they are five. These five strings pulled the skin together and this made the drum. It was the familiar drumbeat that called people to a Baraza. Baraza is a Kiswahili word for a local assembly. It was in this local assembly as was typical of the Luo people in rural western Kenya that the agenda of the community was discussed. People knew what was going to be discussed because they heard the drumbeat that was familiar. The drumbeat told people what the agenda was. They could tell whether it was a funeral, a new-born child celebration or a political meeting. The drumbeat brought the people together as a community. It’s based on this once togetherness that I pick up Jesus’ way of conflict resolution in relation to Baraza drumbeat.

The strings from Christ’s mandate are:

  1. Relationship: There was a relationship between the members of the community. They stood together with one another in all circumstances. This is seen in the way Jesus talks to his disciples: “I have loved you….” “You are not servants but friends”. Prophet Amos
  2.  says “two cannot walk together unless they agree”. A prerequisite to understanding the community and dealing with its issues was that you are part of the community—there was relationship. Is this what the church confesses in our liturgy every time when we start the service? “We have come together the people of God…….”
  3. Conversation: The community appreciated the diversity within itself. They expected people to hold different opinions, but everyone was allowed to talk and share their ideas. There was room for everyone. In conflict resolution Jesus allowed the survivor and the perpetrator to talk to each other. Jesus taught his disciples “If your brother has anything against you go talk to him first”.  Isaiah
  4.   says “Come let us reason together”. Go, talk to the coming king with a stronger army Jesus insisted. Talk, talk and talk that seems to be so loud and with talking comes listening.
  5. Fellowship: This is a forum where people of the same mind, values, thought etc meet to share ideas and experiences. The Baraza created a forum for fellowship for the community. This meeting took place at the foot of a particular tree. Fernado Domingues
  6.  calls it “The Tree of meeting”. Among the Luo the word fellowship has several meanings. It is translated as “One” or “Oneness”. In Luo the word fellowship is lalruok which also means something that goes round in cycles around one thing and attaches itself tightly to it. Fellowship is a forum in which people, as friends, brothers and sisters, share about their lives’s experiences. It’s here where people share one another’s burdens, weaknesses, strengths and encouragements. Like in the Baraza, this forum creates an opportunity for the community to be one.
  7. Appreciation of our uniqueness.  We are all different and have various talents and gifts. The community allowed members to use their best qualities, skills and talents to enrich the life of the community. Jesus reminded the church in Revelations that he knew them and their strengths, but also appreciated their effort to do things differently. The church as a community of believers must uphold the basic principle that binds them together:  The love factor. Jesus taught that without love it would be impossible to identify them. Stanley Grenz puts it this way “In a word, such community life is the life of love. And love is merely life in the community”.
  8.  Among the Luo one’s identity was not based on individual name but on the whole community.
  9. Walking together with each other after forgiveness. This was, and is, the hardest part of community life—yet it is the best. Richard Gehman says “Forgiveness is costly and difficult. True forgiveness is the hardest thing in the universe, our idea of justice pulls the other way”. He goes further to say, “God’s forgiveness should motivate us to forgive others”.
  10.  This would be the only evidence that there was a conflict resolved. The Luo called forgiveness wena – “Leave me or let me go”. It gave the prerogative of the final say to the victim after or during the forgiveness process. After forgiveness, with the community’s encouragement, that victim and the aggressor walked together. William Barclay in his book Turning To God identifies the following as the obligation of the church as was practiced by the Luo community, namely teaching, strengthening, admonishing and encouraging people to live together after forgiveness or conversion.
  11.  Jesus best showed this by choosing Peter to be the Chief of the Apostles even after he denied him. In spite of his failing he was accepted back.

Baraza Drumbeat

Stephen Covey says that leadership is not position but influence.

The church can show leadership in reconciliation, healing, peace building and conflict resolution through the above model which can be seen in what I have coined the Baraza drumbeat Theology. The Baraza, as we know it, is the gathering of the community, including the leadership to the smallest, to decide which way forward in the community. Like making the drum one needs to personalize the process of conflict resolution.

Baraza, like the church (ecclesia), is when we come together. We could borrow from the monastic life of the medieval Catholic monks.  In the monastery when the monks sat to do business, it was the least whose opinion would be heard first. You were considered least either because you were the newest recruit, or youngest, or recently recovered from an experience, habit or an addiction. Traditionally, among the Luo, when someone had a complaint against another and you were brought to the Baraza, it was worse if the accuser was a woman. She would have to be heard and her story believed and the man had no favours.

I believe that the Baraza model is what President Paul Kagame used to sort out issues in Rwanda after the genocide of 1994 in dealing with perpetrators and victims.

The church over the years has used councils (read Baraza) to sort out her theological challenges. Today the earlier mentioned drumbeat won’t help deal with people’s issues until they are willing to sit down and give some Jesus drumbeat and Baraza to the process.

If you ever see a drum maker working on a drum, every part of his body gets involved. The legs held something, the hands worked, the eyes got busy. Everyone and every part is important. Let’s make a new drum to produce the beat that creates a Baraza theology, one that is all inclusive, allows all to talk, share and feel they belong and have a role to play.

In Kenya, honestly I have not heard the church trying to bring people together, to talk and sort out issues. They have loudly acknowledged the need for the International Criminal Court drumbeat, but how will that heal the hurting people in the village who don’t know of a Mr. Ocampo.

Some are so scared of their neighbours that, unless the church helps create a prevailing environment for Baraza theological model, not even the government will help. It’s the people in the villages who are hurting, not the rich powerful big shots in the offices and parliamentary offices in the cities.

The most important thing other than the sound of the drumbeat, it was also the beater of the drum that matters. It wasn’t just an ordinary person, but a special person. Today the church is that special person to beat the special drum that summons the community to a Baraza, under the tree of meeting of the old rugged cross of Calvary, for the healing, reconciliation, and unity of the community and the world.

May our drumbeat be heard in the world so that we lead them to the Baraza of life.


Barclay, William. Turning to God.  Edinburgh: St Andrew Press, 1978.

Carlos, Falconi. The Silence of Pius XII.  London: Faber and Faber, 1970.

Covey, Stephen R. The 8th Habit: From Effectiveness to Greatness. London: Simon & Schuster, 2004.

Gehman, Richard. Learning to lead: The Making of a Christian Leaders in Africa. Nairobi: Oasis International,  2008.

Grenz, Stanley J. The Moral Quest: Foundations of Christian Ethics. Downers Grove, Chicago: Intervarsity Press, 1997.

Henry, Carl F.H. New Strides of Faith. Chicago: Moody Press, 1972.

Okullu, Henry. Bishop Quest for Justice. Kisumu, Kenya: Shalom, 1997.

Various Authors, (Ed. Department of Systematic Theology). Theology and Transformation of Africa. Nairobi: Paulines Publications Africa, 2000.

White, John. Greater Than Riches. Downers Grove, Chicago: Intervarsity Press, 1992.