The Kenya Connection

In my recent encounter with Kenya’s BIPA (a small literacy advocacy group with atheists in key positions), I discovered that vetting overseas charities is complicated and difficult. How can you tell if a foreign solicitation is legit or a scam? In this case, I leave it for readers to decide.

by John C. Snider

You are a rare netizen indeed if you have never received an unsolicited email that begins something like, “Dear Beloved I send greetings in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”  Inevitably the sender is the widow/attorney for an oil/finance minister in [insert name of Third World nation here] who is looking to transfer millions of dollars out of the country, and if you’ll only help you can get a nontrivial cut of the money.  It should be obvious that those who respond to such messages, moved by this blatant plea to their Christian charity, risk financial devastation.

We non-Christians are generally less susceptible to such scams, but scammers also know how to work the corners.  In 2004, the Institute for Humanist Studies exposed a domestic fraud called Atheist Charities.  In 2007, Blair Scott (an active leader in the freethought community in Alabama) forwarded to the North Alabama Freethought Association’s message board an email he received from an “atheist stranded in Ghana.”  Scott discovered it was a scam and issued a retraction within minutes, but this incident serves as a warning that even ordinarily skeptical thinkers can be temporarily disarmed by the desire to help a kindred spirit.

So imagine my surprise when I received a message from a man named Joseph Khabamba, who identified himself as a “chronic atheist” from Budalangi, Kenya seeking support for a “campaign to support the revival of reading culture.”

After several email exchanges I came to understand that Joseph was associated with a “community based organization” or “CBO” called Bunyala Income Project Activities (which he alternately referred to as either “Buninco” or “BIPA”). It turns out CBOs are charitable agencies somewhat akin to 501(c)(3) non-profits here in the United States.

But how does one verify the legitimacy of a foreign charity, especially one based in the developing world? As a first step, I arranged—along with podcast co-host David Driscoll—a Skype call with Joseph, thinking a telephone conversation would give us a better feel for him, and might serve as an interesting interview for the podcast. Unfortunately, the sound quality was terrible, either because of subpar equipment or poor bandwidth on Joseph’s end (he claimed he needed to travel 400 km to use a cyber-café in Nairobi!). Still, through the pop and hiss of the poor connection, David and I both came away with the impression that Joseph was “for real.”

Still, before I committed to giving support or exposure to BIPA, I wanted to verify Joseph’s claims. After a brief web search, I contacted two organizations in Kenya (the National CBOs Council and CBOs in Kenya) as well as a Dr. Fredrick Wanyama of Kenya’s Maseno University, who has published research on the effectiveness of CBOs. Dr. Wanyama cautions that “Kenya has hundreds of thousands of CBOs [and] unfortunately, there is no central register or a one-stop office for information on CBOs in the country.” Several weeks have passed, and so far none of these third parties has been able to confirm the existence—much less the legitimacy—of BIPA, and as you’ll see in the interview below, Joseph finally admits that BIPA is not yet a registered CBO.

In the end, I have concluded that while BIPA may be well-intentioned, it is not well-organized (for example, it took a dozen emails before Joseph finally provided a mailing address and a list of specific book titles they wished to receive). Readers inclined to contribute to BIPA may send books (and/or computers or computer equipment) to:

Joseph Khabamba
PO Box 77124
Mathare, Nairobi, Kenya
Telephone: 254-0726233140

Joseph also has a standing request for monetary donations; however, potential contributors should take the above caveats into account before sending cash. Worst case for those who send second-hand books or equipment—you’ll be out the cost of shipping to Kenya.

Finally, here’s my interview with Joseph Khabamba, conducted via email, which has been lightly edited for clarity.  Some editorial comments have been inserted [in brackets].  If nothing else, Mr. Khabamba has some interesting things to say about religion in Kenya and how American foreign policy affects them.

Q: Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us. Tell us who you are, what organization you represent, and what your organization’s mission is.

Joseph Khabamba: It is a pleasure to get this opportunity to communicate with readers and listeners of American Freethought. I will try to answer all the questions posed candidly and without falsehoods.

[Joseph enclosed a list of the names of officers of BIPA.] I am 48 years old, a single parent with a 21-year-old daughter and a 19-year-old son. I have worked in the media industry most of the 25 years of my journalism and publishing life. For eight years I worked for a PR and advertising firm—Kenwide Media. I also edited Farmers Journal and the Kenya Environmental Network.

Bunyala Income Projects Activities (BIPA) was launched mid 2008, for the sole purpose of championing the culture of reading the written word as opposed to TV and video, the viewing of which is a major leisure occupation of the youth.

Q: What can readers/listeners of American Freethought do to help your organization? Can you provide a list of book titles or other items you are asking for, and how can people get that to you?

JK: Currently we are pushing to launch the “Even the Poor Can Read and Want to Read” campaign at Budalangi, a small town 400 km west of Nairobi. What we require from you is a lot of books for the library, and 10 computers which will form the backbone of the Internet centre and bookshop. This is a service that is in big demand though unavailable currently and are which will serve a huge area. Budalangi has a population of about 100,000 people.

Q: You mentioned in an earlier message that you have contacted several prominent authors [specifically, Stuart Woods] with request for assistance. What did you tell them, and what has been their response?

JK: American author Stuart Woods was the only international writer I wrote to about getting this assistance and patronage for the library and internet place we are setting up. To avoid getting into trouble with political people as well as religious groups, we offered to name the library after him, but unfortunately he declined, curtly replying “But I can’t help.” His refusal to play ball may be connected to an earlier email I wrote to him questioning his presence [sic] for naming characters in his books after British and Irish names; not, say, French, Italian or Slovak ones. He wrote back to tell me that he employed those names because they are easy for his readers to remember.

The other area we are targeting to get aid is the local vibrant manufacturing industry and local publishers and authors. Though these will only come in after seeing the act in place not before.

[Editor’s Note: Stuart Woods is a prolific writer of bestselling crime thrillers. I contacted Mr. Woods and he more or less verified Joseph’s story. Woods: Yes, I received such an email, which was phrased as an honor, rather than a donation, though I was sure the next email, if I accepted, would have included a price.  Perhaps the writer is an honest man looking to establish a much-needed library, but given the flood of scams originating in Africa, I could not be sure of that.  My response was, “I’m sorry, I am unable to help.”  I would never give money to one man, as opposed to an established charity and not even that, unless I had independent confirmation of the worth of its work.]

Q: As you probably know, Americans receive a huge amount of “spam” email, a very large percentage of which comes from Africa, and which frequently appeals to the recipient’s religious sentiments. That said, there have been cases of spam emails that claim to be from atheists living or stranded in Africa. What assurance can you provide us that your request is legitimate? For example, are you registered with any of the governmental or charitable agencies, do you have a registration number we could verify, or anything like that?

JK: As you rightly posed, Americans are endlessly bombarded by all sorts of pleas for assistance mainly from Africa, so much so that it is hard for them not to be fatigued. As for BIPA-CBO, we believe that our case merits assistance from the [readers of] American Freethought. I will send you our registration certificate and other supportive documents after calling the other committee members to a meeting to discuss all the issues about the projects and your aid. [Joseph subsequently emailed to say: “About the delay in not forwarding a copy of BIPA registration certificate to you, this has been brought about by the need to straighten out several issues, particularly BIPA’s status as a CBO and being granted exemption options, which means that material goods sent by your members are not subject to customs duty taxation which is exorbitant. We are at an advanced stage as far as meeting government requirements to qualify for exemption are concerned.” So…as of March 31st, I cannot verify that BIPA is a registered CBO in Kenya.]

About the huge “spam” email appealing for help from America sent by real and con artists from Africa, I think it would have been in order if American Freethought had a physical presence here in Kenya, which would have made it easy to smoke out fake atheists and those claiming to be stranded here. You can involve me in that assignment.

Q: I’ve read that about 80% of Kenyans are Christian (either Protestant or Catholic), with about 10% Muslim and the final 10% “other.” From your perspective, what is the current social situation in Kenya? How much influence does religion have on people’s lives and on what communities do? Is this influence all bad, mostly bad, or some good and some bad?

JK: The faiths have huge influence and presence everywhere in Kenya. And this is taken for granted that everybody believes in foreign (Christianity, Islam and even Buddhism) and local religions. The influence on the whole has been fine. (They play a major role in various economic projects – building schools, universities – charities, they create wealth). But early last year, when Kenya made global news headlines following the killings that were caused by the disputed general election results, it turned out that religious leaders were inciting their members to kill and destroy property of those opposed to their political stand.

Q: Can you tell us a little about yourself; how and where you grew up; what kind of education you have; and what was your religious upbringing?

JK: [My full name is] Joseph Khabamba Omolo (Waswa).  Waswa is our clan’s name, which is widely used by all the males of my age group.  My academic and professional profile is as follows. I did both “O” levels and “A” in 1976 and 1978 at the Coastal town of Mombasa where I also did my primary school education. My father (now aged 79) was the electrical engineer of a sugar making factory which he had joined after finishing his graduate studies in the former West German in the early 70s. After my “A” level education I took a teaching job (as an untrained teacher) in 1980; in 1982, I joined the Rowel Press, a publishing and printing company, then moved to Nairobi to continue in that vein.

Q: When did you first realize you did not believe in religion? And how do you describe yourself? Atheist? Agnostic? Skeptic?

JK: It was 1986 during the dying days of a socialist government of the late Julius Nyerere [1922-1999; served as president of Tanzania 1964-1985] that I got introduced to strong anti-religious statements from the Daily News, the Tanzanian government mouthpiece which I used to read avidly. At that time Marxist doctrines were what sharp, young and educated, political-minded Africans adopted. When hard pressed by creationists I tend to fluctuate between Atheism and Agnosticism. But strictly [speaking] I live the life of an atheist.

Q: Do you feel free to share you beliefs with friends, family and co-workers? Or do you feel you must hide your religious beliefs in order to get along?

JK: I do not discuss my atheism with Kenyans as much as I used to do before scaling down since 2006. Earlier on it used to blown condemnation [sic] everything religious or African traditions. In 2005, we teamed up with a Tamil man who propagated the rationalist philosophy to expose the lies religious [people] and witch doctors use to con people, but this did not last long as the he went back to India. The best thing now is to [try to?] organize a symposium and invite students and others to participate, we can [hope to?] have a member of the Leaky family (the renowned paleontologists) to moderate, though two of them burned their fingers by getting involved in politics where they had to attend church service with their political mentors.

Q: As you know, America’s new President has Kenyan roots. Both of Barack Obama’s parents have been described as atheists (his father having been raised a Muslim in Kenya, his mother a Christian from Kansas). How do Kenyans feel about Barack Obama? (Are there any Kenyans who don’t like him?) And are Kenyans aware that his father was an atheist?

JK: Partisan and tribal backgrounds of Kenyans influence how President Barack Obama is viewed. Most Kikuyu tribes-people of President Mwai Kibaki supported Republican candidate Johan McCain. The Luo tribes-people from whom Obama’s father hailed supported the Democratic Party. All other tribes-people of Kenya supported Obama, and they still do. About Obama’s parents’ religious views, this is of little consequence to Kenyans. President Obama, at this point in time in his presidency, appears to be aloof from his Kenyan roots, but this is likely to change if he wins a second term of 2012, [at which point] he will not fear conservatives whom he must please to win the next term.

Q: America is well known as being the most religious country in the Western world. From your perspective, how does America’s religiosity affect Kenya?

JK: American’s religiosity is very much felt here. Evangelical church preachers are involved in many activities which they fund. It is a relief that the Obama presidency is not putting conditions on global projects that support abortion.

Q: What’s the most important thing you want Americans to know about Kenya?

JK: It is unfortunate that America’s economic might is fragile. This has made our political leaders start courting countries like the Islamic Republic of Iran. President Ahmedinejad was here for a two-day state visit only a few months after the Chinese leaders were also here, and promoted to give Kenya aid. So, America should know that Kenya is likely to follow the Venezuela and Bolivia way.

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