Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Religion in Kenya



One difference between living in the United States and living in Kenya is the cultural perspective on religion. If you were interested in learning about someone’s spiritual or theological beliefs in the US, you might ask, “Are you a spiritual person?” or “Do you believe in God?” But in Kenya, it is assumed you are a spiritual person and believe in at least one god. So, you really just have to find out what that spiritual belief is. That is traditional in Kenya, although we were told by Reverend Edward Buri at St. Andrews Presbyterian Church that communities are becoming more secular especially the youth. Christianity has been the dominant religion in Central Kenya for the past 100 years, but now agnosticism and Islam are growing faster than Christianity. Christianity was able to become dominant because the missionaries that came in the 1800’s allowed Christianity to mix with traditional African culture.

We got our first lesson in African Church History from Dr. Douglass Waruta from the University of Nairobi. The Portuguese, who arrived around the time that Columbus landed in America, tried to force Christian culture on the people they met along the Kenyan coast. They wanted people to not only believe the story and religion set up by Jesus, but to also take on Portuguese culture and language as well. For the Portuguese, spreading the gospel was a way to dominate the local people. We visited Fort Jesus in Mombasa, which was built by Africans who were forced to work under the Portuguese to protect their interests from the Arabs who also had trade interest in the region. When the Arab Muslims finally kicked the Portuguese off the Kenyan Coast, the religion left with them.

The missionary movement of the 18th and 19th centuries came with the movement of imperialism into East Africa. These Christians believed evangelism and education (not just baptism) were key to becoming Christian. The British sent Dr. Krapf and Johann Rebmann to translate the bible into the native languages of the people they came to convert. Each of the Christian denominations carved out their own tribal group to evangelize and set up schools to educate Africans on what you would learn in an English school. The divide and conquer method they used can be seen today when you visit a Presbyterian Church and find that all the members are Kikuyu, or if you visit a Quaker Church all the members would be Luiya. In some cases, this has led to continued tribal racism and political conflict.


So far, I have been to the Laresho Presbyterian Church and Kangemi Holy Spirit Church. Laresho is a suburb of Nairobi in a nice part of town. Laresho had wonderful gospel songs, some that sounded more like tribal chants, and others that were sung by a choir that was similar to something you would find at my church in Indiana. Some of the service was in English, some in Swahili, and some parts in Kikuyu (since most Presbyterians are Kikuyu). Besides these differences, the service followed the same form as it does in Indiana. We did the Lord’s Prayer, had offertory, had a wonderful sermon by Reverend Phyllis Byrd Ochilo, and even did the passing of the peace. After the service, the church had a luncheon to celebrate one of their pastors. We ate traditional Kenyan – and specifically Kikuyu – dishes with Coke products to drink. This church also has prayer groups that are organized by neighborhood in Nairobi. I went to a prayer meeting where we sang more songs in Kikuyu, prayed for family and for Kenya, and had tea afterward to socialize. I really enjoy how comfortable people are here with singing loudly and putting their struggles out in the open to be prayed for.

The Kangemi Holy Spirit Church was a totally different experience. Kangemi is one of the major slums (low income, informal settlements) in Nairobi. Emmanuel Simwa – the Bishop of Nairobi and Mombasa in the Holy Spirit Church pictured below at the Just Communities Inaugural Celebration – drove us through crowded streets filled with people, livestock, and trash to the small church. I was surprised at how many churches we passed along the way. Many were independent African churches, but the Salvation Army also had a congregation there that worshipped outside. The Bishop parked his truck outside a small building with a corrugated metal roof and walls made of tree branches and large plastic sacks. When we stepped out of the truck we could hear a booming chorus of African song and drums coming out of the building. The youth service – for any unmarried person between the age of 5 and 45 years old – had started an hour earlier and just continued into the main part of worship. The other ministers of the church had jumped in the bed of the Bishop’s truck along the way, so they showed us where to go as they prepared for worship. We entered through a flap in the wall and removed our shoes. This was definitely a holy place. We were ushered to the front of the room where we sat with the Bishop and other leaders of the church during the service. We enjoyed three hours of singing Christian chants, swaying from side to side, jumping up and down, drumming drums, and listening to sermons and prayers. I was again amazed at the unity of the church. A married couple had returned to church for the first time since their child passed away of what was probably a preventable disease. The pastor asked them to come forward so they could pray for the family, and the whole church prayed for them individually and together in song. They all mourned the loss together.

They also welcomed us into the church. We had come on the day they celebrated the initiation of their church in 1927. Prior to being recognized as the Holy Spirit Church, members had been part of the French Quaker Church. African leaders promoting African traditional singing and dancing and values in the church were beaten for insubordination up until the time they were “allowed” to start their own church. This is one way the church upheld the imperialist doctrine of superiority. The pastor asked us to take their cross back to our home churches to show how they live and worship in the slums of East Africa. It was a powerful statement of solidarity that I hope to accomplish. We are all part of one body of Christ that must live in unity and equity.

Anything I missed? Hope you are doing well! Send me a line.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

My wonderful Host Family: The Macharias


I have now been in Nairobi for one week. Everything is still very new. I am beginning to know my way around certain parts of town, but every smell, every person, every plant and animal is a new experience for me.
My Host Family
After a full day of adjusting to my new home, I spent four days with my host family in the Laresho neighborhood of Nairobi. My family, the Macharias, consists of Baba Bobby, Mama Juju, and three boys Mwangi, Njonjo, and Kahagi. Bobby studied computer science at Cleveland University (in Cleveland, Ohio) when he was younger and now runs two businesses in I.T. and marketing using his leadership and computer skills. He is also very involved in Laresho Presbyterian Church as what would be considered an elder and financial manager. Juju is the CEO of the East African sector of a major cereal company and is a founding member of a foundation that extends classical music training into the lives of children from a wide range of backgrounds. Obviously these activities do not define my host parents completely, but it gives you a small glimpse into their lives here in Nairobi. They live in a suburban gated community located directly adjacent to one of the major slums in Nairobi. They are reminded daily of what they have and take seriously their responsibility to help others in need.
My brother Mwangi was accepted into a leadership academy in South Africa that is a feeder school for Ivy League schools and other world class educational opportunities. He left for school on Sunday morning, so most of the time I was with the family was spent celebrating this accomplishment with family friends and relatives. I spent most of the time talking with my host dad, Bobby, about societal norms in Kenya. The school system and parents put a lot of emphasis on education and picking a career track in order to specialize your education at a young age. Many students start taking classes to help them with specific career goals starting at age 13. He was surprised that people he met in college in the US were going to school without picking a profession to focus on first. Mwangi wants to be a neurosurgeon and has been working toward being a doctor for a while. Now that he is 17, he has a whole new life in a new country to figure out while working on career and life goals. He is a very mature 17 year-old.
Western Influence
There is a lot of Western influence in middle class life. The kids dressed in American fashion, we watched American TV shows and listened to American popular music. School is taught in English, so the language of business and daily conversation is also mostly English. It seems like some more personal conversations are spoken in Swahili or other native languages, but for the younger generation English is their first language and Swahili is learned in school like I learned German or Spanish. Many native languages are being lost with the generation of kids being born in the city. Rev. Edward Buri talked to us today about languages as a form of wisdom. We can learn another culture’s wisdom by learning their language, but if we don’t know our own we can lose our identity.
Going to Church
The church service I went to on Sunday at Laresho Presbyterian Church was very spiritually uplifting. The music worship and messages given by the pastors and members is a gift that I am very happy to accept. I come to this new place with an empty cup ready to be filled. This Sunday was a special recognition Sunday for one of the pastors. We sang songs in English, Swahili, and Kikuyu, had special “thank you” speeches from leaders of different ministry groups, had a baptism, listened to a powerful sermon by Rev. Phyllis Byrd, sang more songs, and then everyone got to walk up to personally thank the pastor for his work. The service was three hours long. Then there was a luncheon with traditional Kikuyu foods and Coke products.
I was invited to a prayer meeting at one of the member’s homes later in the day. The church was broken up into groups by neighborhood to have prayer meetings. Simon – a man I met at church – was hosting the group this month. There were twelve or thirteen people there led by a minister. We sang many more songs as a small group, the minister took prayer requests related to family and then on the topic of Kenya. Once we had discussed the issues on our minds, we stood up to hold hands for a long group prayer where most people added something. After the prayers and songs, we had tea and snacks. I was able to talk with three young men about Kenya and the US. Hopefully I can become good friends with them this year. One of them, Harun, invited me to visit his home village that he left in order to complete school. He is 18 and must work to pay for living expenses as well as school. I have great respect for the ambition and hard work that so many like Harun have. This is truly an inspired place.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Moving to Kenya

Our group arrived in Nairobi Kenya on Monday night. At first I felt like a shell of a person from all the travel. It took a while to get home from the airport, but when we finally got to Phyllis Byrd's house (our YAV director), I immediately felt at home with her family. She had made us a midnight snack, prepared a bag of supplies we would need for our time here, and then took time to explain enough of what we were doing to make sense for the next 24 hours.
The guys (Michael, Steven, and I) are staying in the apartment that I will be living in for the year. It is about a five minute walk from Phyllis's house. Phyllis showed us around the apartment (which is a lot nicer than I could have expected) and then said goodnight at about midnight Nairobi time. I had not really slept for over 30 hours at this point. When I went to brush my teeth to get into bed, I wondered who had put locks on my luggage. This is when I had the realization that this luggage actually belonged to a man from Australia meaning that all the clothing and supplies I had brought with me to this new continent were either at the airport or lost forever. This did not really help my level of stress from the move... Luckily I have amazing friends here and Steven gave me his extra toothbrush to use for the night. In my confusion and need for habit, I immediately brushed my teeth and used the tap water to rinse. This of course is exactly what Phyllis had just an hour before warned us not to do! The tap water is not as pure as what you get in the US and could have pathogens that could get you any number of diseases. I took an antimicrobial pill to counter act this mistake and went to sleep. The first day.
Our first full day in Nairobi started in the bright sunshine as we walked back to Phyllis's house. She really is a good cook. She let us have a low action day so we could adjust to our new country. She explained our training schedule which rocks! We are spending this weekend with our host families to get to know them. Next week we go to the cost of Kenya to Mombasa and a couple other cities and maybe beaches. Other activities include cultural and historical activities and time to understand the people here. We will take one day to learn how to properly barter for groceries and cook a meal for ourselves. Most foods here were grown here and not on huge industrial farms. As long as I don't eat like I did yesterday all the time, the food should make me healthier! We are also spending some time every day learning Swahili. I am happy with what we will learn and the people we will meet. We are definitely part of a very special group here in Kenya. I can't wait to get to know more people here! Thank God.
Phyllis sent me to the airport in a cab with her friend Stefania. The trip was a good experience to see what the area looked like in the day time. The luggage was much easier to exchange than I expected. Stefania and I got to talk a lot, as it was a long trip. I realized that some of the preconceptions of different groups of people that I bring from the US whether social, religious or ethnic are not all good and not obviously seen as sarcastic as I some how assumed they would be. I have no problems with any group of people, but I have to work on how I talk. We talked about racist tendencies in training that you might not know are there. I'm not racist right? I need to work on thinking about what I say before I say it. Stefania is pretty great. She just graduated with a degree in Commerce and is looking for a job. I was glad to make her day less boring by making her accompany me to the airport. She told me her mother was from Poland, and I thought (based on Phyllis's introduction) that she was Phyllis's niece. So I jokingly asked if her family was “into marrying foreigners.” Phyllis is from New York of course. Stefania blushed and didn't say anything... I stupidly took a minute to figure out what I had said. I wasn't trying to marry her just yet:) We got a good laugh out of it at least.
Overall, I am very happy with where I am. It has been a great introduction and there is so much yet to see and understand. Pictures will be coming soon. I just figured out from George (the internet cafe manager) that I can upload pictures from a USB port. The cafe is only a couple houses down from my apartment. Very convenient. Please let me know how you are doing!