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How Christians in Kenya are trying to hack government corruption

Kenyans gathered for a hackathon in early October. (Photo by Catherine Woodiwiss)

NAIROBI, KENYA — In a small side hall inside a ministry building, a group of young developers and artists huddled over their laptops. Half-filled Fanta and Coke bottles sat forgotten in the center of the table as the group worked in studied concentration while gospel music played in the background. With crumpled candy wrappers lying nearby, the scene was reminiscent of a college dorm hall or cafeteria. But but rather than cramming for exams, these young Kenyans were trying to hack government corruption.

“Corruption has affected everybody in the country directly,” said software developer Brian Birir, a lead organizer for the event last weekend. “It’s something that’s really impeding the development of our country. And it’s in our churches. But very few people are actually fighting it.”

In Nairobi — a city of heavily charismatic and evangelical Christian faiths — religion and technology, two of its most robust economies, don’t always know how to speak to each other.

The call to fight corruption is lofty — a call that high-ranking officials in Kenya’s Catholic and Anglican churches, and national religious organizations including the National Council of Churches and the Evangelical Alliance of Kenya, have also sounded in recent years. But where technology fits into the picture, and whether the church is comfortable wielding it to challenge corruption, is a newer question.

Birir, an observant Christian and an engineer for Nairobi-based mobile WiFi accessibility company BRCK, sees technology as a critical tool of engagement for a country longed plagued by endemic corruption.

Kenya has consistently ranked near the bottom of the global Corruption Perception Index. An audit report released this year revealed that a quarter of the country’s $16 billion budget was missing, concluding that only one percent of its spending was “incurred lawfully.”

Birir also sees technology as an opportunity and corruption as an illness for churches to address in creative and strategic ways. Last year, he attended a Christian hackathon in neighboring Ethiopia, and discovered the idea of merging IT expertise and religious devotion with the goal of finding solutions for his community. He returned to Nairobi with a dream of replicating the event — the first religious hackathon in Kenya — at home.

“I see hackathons as a way of encouraging innovation, of putting ideas into reality. We’re forcing people to think,” he said.

At the hackathon, small teams of two and three did their best to do just that, armed with ideas, spreadsheets and code. Two young men wire-framed a peer-to-peer mapping app for Kenyan citizens to report crime or evidence of corruption in real time. Across the room, IT officer Helen Kamau considered how to build an indexed app for the Constitution of Kenya.

“I used to code, and I’ve done programming, so I thought I could probably join in on other projects,” said Kamau, who works for a cooperatives regulatory authority. “But as I was talking with others I thought of this.”

Kamau and her challenge partner, coder Kelvin Murage, focused on helping Kenyan citizens easily search for and reference their rights, from marriage to abortion to traffic regulations. They focused on the design interface, envisioning a user base of legal scholars, social scientists and — most importantly — everyday citizens of Kenya.

“Know all your rights and duties as a citizen at the palm of your hand!” Kamau wrote in the app’s pitch. “Ignorance of Law can never be your defence [sic], be wise.”

By the end of the 30-hour challenge, their app concept took second prize in the judging.

Nairobi’s tech boom, and its enthusiasm for new digital horizons, is a regular headline in stories about East Africa, a sentiment that many embrace.

“Young Kenyans really seem to have a higher propensity for digital technology,” said Kyama Mugambi, lead pastor of Mavuno Downtown Church in Nairobi.

He noted that the open-source mapping group Ushahidi and the mobile financing app M-Pesa were very well received in Kenya long before they were worth talking about anywhere else. “I feel the question of need-meets-context-meets-skill is here,” Mugambi said.

Most of the 15 or so present said they’d never been to a hackathon before.

Interested in the gap between tech and religion, Mugambi recently authored a pilot survey that looked into Nairobi churches’ digital strategies. His initial research suggests that of the more than 1,500 churches in Nairobi, fewer than 30 have active Web sites, and a similar few are easily searchable on social media.

“Many church leaders here are not in a place where they’ve fully embraced media or modern technology,” said Mugambi.

Mugambi pointed to churches’ low funding for tech use in worship, as well as a growing concern in more traditional churches over social media, games and apps as vehicles for immorality and impurity — a challenge echoed by the hackathon organizers, who cited the Ashley Madison adultery site and sexting via Viber/WhatsApp as indicators of moral corruption.

In fact, Nairobi’s charismatic stream of Christianity in some ways marries well to the evangelizing zeal of hackathons. Both share an eagerness toward reshaping culture, locating social energy and harnessing potential talent. Participants spoke of their desire to transform society by using technology for “pure” and “godly” purposes.

By Sunday afternoon, the participants had reached the homestretch. Ideas formed while others were scrapped. Kamau discovered that an app similar to her constitution concept already existed, so she focused on making her own design more appealing and searchable. One developer’s app turned into a Web site for marital encouragement and affirmation. And the corruption reporting team built maps and incoming/outgoing SMS alerts and began designing voice-to-text services.

Mugambi, the pastor who was a former coder, likened the hesitation that some Kenyan churches exhibit on tech to their wariness of media and the arts in previous decades.

“Thirty years ago, media was viewed as this unsaved place where the devil manifests,” he said. “But over time, [churches realized] you can be a Christian and a media professional. I see a similar connection between that and technology today. But I do feel media and digital technology is the way to go. It is the way of the future.”

Catherine Woodiwiss is senior associate Web editor for Sojourners. This story was reported from Nairobi on a grant from the International Reporting Project, an independent journalism program based in Washington, D.C.