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Pandemic Responses: Fear, Shame, and Rejoicing in Suffering in Africa and the Middle East

“Why should I stop?” I asked myself. The big fellow standing in the road holding up his hand was not in police uniform.[1] It is not uncommon cycling in Kenya, to have people wave me down just to ask me to give them money. Something told me that this was serious. Other traffic was stopping. To date, bicycles had just been allowed through. I pulled up having passed the big fellow by a few yards. “Go over there and get tested,” he told me. I obliged, joining a few motorcyclists in a queue having a ‘temperature gun’ put to our heads. I would rather not have been stopped! Should my temperature for some reason be unusually high, I could be heading for mandatory quarantine.[2]

I have been trying to read the barometer of events related to coronavirus as they have unfolded here in East Africa. Living in an African community while doing this has, at times, wanted to make my head to explode! The two logics being applied to the coronavirus outbreak, the technical scientific one I am receiving from much of the media and especially Europe and the USA, is worlds apart from indigenous people’s interpretations. The former, from the West[3] is highly scientized. In tackling COVID-19, science has called the shots. People have responded by compromising their freedom. In East Africa, people struggle to believe that a mere virus can cause such a massive problem. They desire to resolve the situation through prayer. They trust that the problem will soon go away. They hold various theories like that coronavirus infection is cured by drinking a lot of tea, or that release of the virus was a means to give China global domination over the USA.

On the street in Lagos, Nigeria, on the far side of Africa from Kenya.
Image: Joshua Oluwagbemiga

Whoever dictated how Kenya should respond to COVID-19 had little grasp of the constitution of our population. People were told to ‘stay at home’. This lock-down strategy we understand has worked in Europe and the USA. Getting home from work one afternoon, I was told we had no food for that evening’s meal. Paramilitary forces armed with batons had chased everyone from the market! Fortunately, the same afternoon, food could be acquired alongside our highways and bye-ways: Women who had been chased from the market were selling their produce on the sides of paths and roads. We did not go hungry after all!

Many people have to do a day’s work to make the money they need to buy the evening meal. Others, like in my case, have money, but still need to find people from whom to purchase food.[4] Typically, that was from the open-air markets. Travelling (by bicycle) through the area (hither and thither between my work and home, about 7 miles), apart from markets themselves being closed, there seemed to be as many people out-and-about as ever.[5] I realised that even those people who did not have to go to work or buy the day’s provisions still preferred hanging around in town to sitting all day in what is typical for many of them, their one-roomed mud-floor houses.

Around this time, some Kenyans under extended-quarantine for COVID-19 made an escape bid. This was reported in the local as well as the global media.[6] Many were held because they had just travelled in from abroad. The depravity of the conditions under which they were held has been shared widely on social media.[7] Gradually I twigged as to what was happening. African people were not going to upset their routines in response to scientific claims, as Europeans had done. They would, though, respond to force and to the demonstration of the intense suffering that awaited them as a consequence to disobedience. Although strict lock-down is hardly possible, the population seems to have been gripped by a specific fear: “If I get sick with this terrible virus, the government will force me to stay for two weeks or more in some dank cramped quarters without any family!” That terrifying prospect is galvanising efforts to social-distance and perhaps stay at home in some cases, so as not to be found sick and have to go through tortuous quarantine![8]

A few days later, a friend sent me a link to a report about a parallel situation arising in Iraq.[9] This report explains that, similar to us in Kenya but a little different, people in Iraq live in fear of being found positive for coronavirus! As a result, medical teams’ doing tests so as to assist those in need, are being avoided. People are hiding from them. The reason given in this article, is the shame involved in getting sick, and even more in being confined to a quarantine situation and dying in isolation only for one’s body to be disposed of in a large communal grave.

There are definitely overlaps between the two above-described fearful responses to shame. The shame felt by Kenyans at not being able to properly bury their dead is illustrated by the account of James Oyugi, buried at night by government order,[10] resulting in his family demanding that he be exhumed and given a proper burial later.[11] Fear of isolation clearly underscores the shame felt by Iraqis – who don’t want it to be known even that they are sick![12]

Reflecting on the above took my mind to recent research exploring the relationship between guilt, shame, and fear in cultures.[13] Guilt cultures are said to be those in the West, shame cultures in the Middle East, and fear cultures in Africa. That is to say, according to this classification system, Westerners are motivated by guilt, people in the Middle East by shame, and Africans by fear.[14] Westerners avoid guilt by complying with the prevailing scientific logic, people in the Middle East conceal themselves so as not to be discovered, while Africans will only respond to threats of being beaten by the paramilitary, or of being interned for what they perceive as torture in quarantine facilities. In the latter two cases, quarantine, and not death from COVID-19, can be the worst consequence and is to be avoided at all costs![15]

The rest of the world is supposedly following the lead of the West when it comes to countering COVID-19. The existence of shame and fear cultures, outlined above, may be making this impossible. In Kenya, many sick people who suspect they have COVID-19 may well avoid hospitals. They fear public recognition of their ailments that could result in quarantine. People that have other ailments, such as malaria, will fear going to any medical facility where their temperature may be checked. This situation is apparently similar to what is taking place in Iraq. Reported cases of COVID-19 may statistically be small in these contexts and health services may well remain very quiet. The sick will be nursed at home, with perhaps zero benefit from modern medicine, while spreading the virus to all and sundry.

I would at this point like to look at the background and cause to the above situations. I will start with Africa, and look at what is happening from two perspectives. Firstly, Africa is known for its fear of witchcraft.[16] Simplifying a little, witchcraft beliefs are based on the understanding that misfortune is always caused by someone else’s misguided heart orientation, typically their envy. People fear the consequences of the envy of others. Because what is good arises by default, and others’ actions are responsible for one’s misfortune, the other is to be feared. This is at the root of the fear aspect of traditional African ways of life. Secondly, the Christian church in Africa is often considered by Westerners to practice the prosperity Gospel. In this interpretation of Christianity, God is expected to bring blessings of all kinds, including money, position, job, wife or husband, children, prestige, public acclaim, and so on. This interpretation of the Gospel largely ignores or even denies aspects of it perceived by both Western and Eastern Christians, of following the example of Christ by accepting suffering on behalf of others.

A street scene in Cairo, Egypt.
Image: Simon Matzinger

People of the Middle East are considered less oriented to fear of witchcraft than are Africans. Perhaps this is because of the practice of Abrahamic faiths over centuries. Many people in the Middle East idealise the example of Muhammed. Muhammed is unquestioningly considered wise, strong, intelligent, and successful. He married many wives, was frequently victorious in battle, and became a wealthy and popular leader.[17] The example set for Muslims in the Middle East is that true believers should be wealthy, powerful and successful, clearly underlies the profound shame they experience if taken sick from their homes to die in isolation.

I want to contrast the above with the understanding of the ancient churches of the message of Jesus.[18] The role model for Christians is the life of Jesus. Jesus ended up shamed, rejected by nearly all (including his closest disciples), crucified on a cross (a shameful death) between two criminals (a shameful context). Jesus’ followers often faced shameful situations of defeat and failure. Jesus’ apostles are portrayed as incompetent in the Gospels, especially Mark’s Gospel. Peter, one of the heroes of the New Testament, was periodically interned, almost killed for his faith, offered no resistance to his persecutors, and was eventually shamefully crucified upside down.[19] Paul, another hero of New Testament faith, spent years in different prisons, never led any military force, and ended up ignominiously executed in Rome. The island of Patmos, on which the writer of Revelations (the final book of the Bible) spent many years, “was a lonely, isolated place.”[20]

My examples above illustrate how Christian believers are, in so far as they follow the example of Jesus, ready for defeat, shame, suffering, rejection and even isolation for the sake of their faith. We can go further. Christians consider such suffering salvific.[21] As Jesus died for others, so his disciples knew that their suffering was to benefit others.

In Luanda, Angola
Image: Francisco Venâncio/Olhar Angolano

The strategies being employed in the West to counter COVID-19 today can succeed for one major reason: The cultures of Western countries have ancient connections to Christianity. The reasons, only some of which have been mentioned here, that the same strategies can be much less effective or even ineffective in the Middle East and Africa, are to do with the absence of the same tradition. This has many implications: 1. Within the West itself, at this time of immense suffering due to isolation, interruption of all regular routine, fear of death, often deep relational tensions, the example of Christ and other biblical characters should be over and over emphasised to help people realise that what they are going through has a purpose, even an eternal purpose, that is something that God himself acknowledges and understands. This includes that their suffering can be salvific for others. 2. As a result of their long history in the Gospel, many Western people implicitly carry a profound comprehension of this message. Amongst the populations we have looked at in this article, people of the Middle East and people in Africa, many either have not been exposed to the Gospel, or in the Middle East have had false propaganda on it rammed down their throats. In the case of Africa, many have been presented with the Gospel in terms of prosperity.

In conclusion, I suggest that there is a desperate and urgent need as a precondition for counter-COVID-19 strategies, for a profound and widespread sharing of the message of the Gospel of Jesus, globally. Not doing so may well result in thousands, or even millions, of avoidable deaths.

I should emphasise, that I am not here referring to high-budget English language Gospel content being beamed into Africa or the Middle East. I am talking about Christian believers willing to share God’s love in eager vulnerability, using indigenous languages without relying on outside resources. Some may retort that it is too late, there is too little time to do this. I believe it is never too late to begin.




More from Jim Harries on the COVID-19 pandemic in Africa:



[1] This was 19th April 2020.

[2] Not a pleasant prospect in Kenya:

[3] Some might argue that this is not ‘from the West’, but global, certainly including China. My sources of information are in the West.

[4] There are many reasons why people purchase a day’s food on the day in question. One foundational reason is, because hoarders of food are considered greedy. If neighbours know that food is stored, they may well come and ask to be given some of it. To not share what is available is considered unsociable. In addition – many local people make their daily bread by being a part of the daily food distribution system, particularly many women.

[5] My impression is that people are slower to get up in the morning, and quicker to go home at night, because of the curfew.



[8] My suspicions are shared by the BBC:





[13] This resulted in the production of a test, that can enable someone to determine, through answering some questions, whether a culture is predominantly guided by guilt, shame or fear:

[14] Shame and fear ceasing to be the dominant underlying cause for misfortune enabled the initiation of scientific discoveries for which the West is renowned.

[15] See also:

[16] [Editor’s note: See Jim Harries, “In Witchbound Africa”]


[18] I use the term ‘ancient churches’ to refer to churches in the old world and countries populated by Westerners, with pre-20th Century foundations. This is in contrast to ‘newer’ churches in the majority world that tend to be oriented to prosperity. I often discover this difference first hand. I am a Western Christian. I do a lot of ministry with orthodox Egyptians, in Kenya. The contrast between us and Kenyan Christians on these concerns is often great.

[19] The account of Peter’s crucifixion is not in the bible but in Christian tradition.


[21] 1 Peter 2:21-25.

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Category: Living the Faith, Spring 2020

About the Author: Jim Harries, PhD (University of Birmingham), is professor of religion with Global University and adjunct faculty with William Carey International University. He works closely with a wide variety of churches in western Kenya in informal theological education. These include many African founded churches, Pentecostal churches, and the Coptic Orthodox church. Jim uses indigenous languages, and local resources in his ministry. He chairs the Alliance for Vulnerable Mission and is the author of Vulnerable Mission: Insights into Christian Mission to Africa from a Position of Vulnerability (William Carey Library, 2011), Three Days in the Life of an African Christian Villager (New Generation Publishing, 2011), Theory to Practice in Vulnerable Mission: An Academic Appraisal (Wipf and Stock, 2012), Communication in Mission and Development: Relating to the Church in Africa (Wipf and Stock, 2013), Secularism and Africa: In the Light of the Intercultural Christ (Wipf and Stock, 2015), New Foundations for Appreciating Africa: Beyond Religious and Secular Deceptions (VKW, 2016), The Godless Delusion: Europe and Africa (Wipf & Stock, 2017), and a novel African Heartbeat: And A Vulnerable Fool (2018). Facebook: Vulnerable Mission. Twitter: @A4VM.

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