Not wanting to outstay my welcome in the sermon slot today, I rattled through about half of these 3,000 words – so I thought some folk might like to be able to revist, at a more leisurely pace, the words I spoke quickly; and to fill in the gaps from the parts I left out.
There is so much to say! I am really only going to be able to share some highlights with you this morning.
First, let me set the scene.
Why did we go?
- Five Dioceses in the Mt Kenya East region, & Chelmsford Diocese have been in partnership for 40 years.
- Every two years, curates given chance to see what Anglican Church in Kenya is – its people and projects
- Personal contact important to strengthen relationships
Why did I go?
- Never been to any part of Africa before. So it was sheer curiosity!
- Wanted to see what Anglicanism looks like in a very different context
- Wanted to see what I felt like in a very different context
- Wanted to feel part of something Diocesan – bigger than just curacy.
But – a caveat – we are visitors. We couldn’t always ask the questions we wanted to, directly. So I was left with questions as politeness trumped curiosity in some places.
We flew to Nairobi, then drove north to Embu. My group stayed in Embu diocese, others went to Mbeere and Meru.
This was the pattern of our travels:
Embu, Isiolo, Archer’s Post, Samburu, Embu, host families, Nairobi.
Our driver was Julius, and he was a highlight of the trip.
The questions I had in the back of my mind were “what does it mean to flourish, to live life to the full in this context?” and “what is Christian life like on a daily basis?”
Rather than a narrative of what I did and where I went I shall pull out key instances and what they have left with me.
More tea, vicar?
We flew overnight, landing in Nairobi about 5am. After fighting our way out of Nairobi’s rush hour we stopped at a place called Thika for breakfast.
I had a cup of tea, and it struck me that this was the first time I had drunk tea that hadn’t been imported. That really brought home to me that what can feel like a very British tradition – putting the kettle on and making a cup of tea – depends on global trade. Kenya supplies about half of the UK’s black tea. I had no idea it was so much; but I know now that market is shrinking because of competition from other African countries.
I learned quite a lot about the tea trade during the course of the trip. On the second day we visited a tea factory in Mungania – seeing the whole process from fresh leaves arriving to the final product being tasted. I then went on to try picking tea – and with an awareness I was probably in someone’s crop, it was quite hard! Later, on my parish visit, I went back to the same area and saw a tea selling point. Each farmer brings their crop to a place where it is collected by the vans from the factory.
We saw the work that goes into the growing of tea; the kind of factory jobs that are available. It gave me a glimpse of what daily working life might be for some – but not whether this counts as a good job, a stable job. Certainly the tea farmers are dependent on getting their crops to market.
Embu diocese is in one of the most fertile parts. On the slopes of mount Kenya, it is cooler, and wetter. The soil is red clay – very sticky when it gets wet – but great for tea and bananas.
For all the theme of tea during our visit, Kenyan teamaking is not quite my – well, cup of tea. As one who is happy with teapot dregs and a dash of milk, tea that was made with only milk and a hint of tea was a bit of a challenge at times.
We prayed a lot. That might seem an odd thing to say – you might expect us to, as we were a party of priests. And we did say Morning Prayer and Compline together on most days. But it was during the day that we noticed the difference. Kenyan Christians showed us a way of prayer that is about unselfconscious gratitude for the things of daily life – for food and drink, for visitors, for safe travel, for rest, for conversation – everything and anything.
I’ve been reflecting on this, and the number of times the Bible uses the phrase “all things.”
All things come from you, O Lord, and of your own do we give you. 1 Chron 29.
All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being. John 1.
We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. Romans 8.
For in [Christ] all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross. Colossians 1.
So rightly, the Kenyan Christians give thanks for all things – the things we might overlook – the connections we might not make.
I wonder, how easy is it to give thanks for all things when we take so many of them for granted?
I have never knowingly been thankful for the sanitation in my house – but I was when I arrived home. I was fortunate that I didn’t pick up any bugs – some of the others were unwell for a day or so – but even so, the basic sanitation was something that opened my eyes to that which I take for granted.
We used an African prayer once or twice during Morning Prayer and I think this helps show the sense that all is God’s – that he has dominion over all the world – that we might tend in the UK to acknowledge God in some parts of life, but that there are parts where we can manage just fine by ourselves, thank you very much. And that is one of the things I took away from the Kenyan approach – the understated and ever-present integration of prayer in daily life.
An African Canticle
All you big things, bless the Lord.
Mount Kilimanjaro and Lake Victoria,
The Rift Valley and the Serengeti Plain,
Fat baobabs and shady mango trees,
All eucalyptus and tamarind trees,
Bless the Lord.
Praise and extol Him for ever and ever.
All you tiny things, bless the Lord.
Busy black ants and hopping fleas,
Wriggling tadpoles and mosquito larvae,
Flying locusts and water drops,
Pollen dust and tsetse flies,
Millet seeds and dried dagaa,
Bless the Lord.
Praise and extol Him for ever and ever.
Some of the big things were in evidence during the two nights we spent at Samburu Lodge. That was a real contrast to the “normal” Kenya we’d seen in Embu and Archer’s Post, and that which was to come in the Nairobi slums.
I won’t pretend I didn’t really enjoy this part! A safari holiday is way out of my price range and so is the kind of hotel with a turn-down service and a dedicated room steward. We went out into the game park four times, and all were exciting – one afternoon we saw two lionesses and four cubs just crossing the road. The next morning there was an Eden-like view of giraffe, warthog and deer all grazing as elephants walked past on their way to the river. The views were glorious even without animals and birds to see.
This is the only Kenya that some people will visit – the animals are the attraction, not the people. The stories and challenges of daily life go un-noticed. The day after blessing a water bowser, a swimming pool, garden sprinklers and baths feel like incongruous luxuries. But, tourism is a source of income and employment reminding me again that everything relies on some other part of the economy.
Back to real life, and one unexpected discovery for me was the role and significance of the Mothers’ Union. The women really are a force for good and for change. In Embu, they’re building a hostel for female university students. That means women can study away from home, when their families might not have let them. So a new generation of educated women can help build the future. And, it gives income to the church. Genius.
That’s just one project; our trip included several others.
We met children in different contexts – some joyful; others heartbreaking.
First, in a children’s home in Embu.
Then, we heard about children that are being cared for by grandparents supported by the Mothers’ Union.
We visited a school for the deaf whose buildings are crumbling, where parents don’t always collect their children at the end of term, and the school sometimes has to ask the church for money for food.
We met children in villages
We talked with children in St Barnabas school
We saw children on the streets and in the slums of Nairobi.
HIV/AIDs is a real problem in Kenya. The stigma of being HIV+ means people won’t seek treatment; there is a cost to treatment; and so there is a generation of children who have lost one or both parents.
It was hard not to feel like a cliché around some of the younger children we met on our day in villages near Archer’s Post. Some of them hadn’t seen white skin before – and were duly fascinated. We had lots of smiles as we took pictures and selfies with them.
The Mothers Union in Marsabit is working to prevent FGM and child marriage – the extent of their challenge is clear. The first child, a seven year old, that we met in Daaba village in Marsabit has already been “engaged” – she no longer goes to school, and will be married in a few years’ time.
The day we spent in the villages created more questions than it did answers.
It did provide one of the most joyful moments. We were welcomed by the women of the village into their church. We danced with them but we were doing what felt like a version of the hokey cokey. I had no idea what was going on. But we laughed. And as we prayed, we gave thanks to God for the universality of the language of laughter.
What does it mean for the church to build a brick church in a place where there are few other facilities? How does a fixed building affect the lives of pastoralist people? What does it mean to flourish – to live life to the full – when your possessions fit in a box, your home is a temporary hut, and your existence is dependent on rain? What is progress, or growth? How do you balance respecting tradition with ending abusive processes like FGM?
These villages are in the southern end of Marsabit Diocese – this extends right up to the Ethopian border, several hours’ drive away. They have solar-powered boreholes and so their water supply is relatively stable.
The next day Bishops Roger and John, and Qampecha from Marsabit, blessed and commissioned the water bowser that was bought through the Lent appeal. This was a fun moment – with a serious undercurrent – but it was lovely to see the concrete result of the appeal.
That day I had been in church in Archer’s Post – a small church, with around 50 people. I had nothing to do but introduce myself – and try to pick up some of the songs being sung in both English and Kiswahili – and to enter into the joyfulness of worship even if the volume and musicianship weren’t quite what I am used to.
You might have seen on Facebook that my attempt to introduce myself a week later hadn’t gone entirely to plan with my Kiswahili being interpreted. I am not terribly confident in other languages, so the first time I greeted the congregation in Archer’s Post with Bwana Asifiwe and they responded Amen was fabulous. Bwana Asifiwe means, Praise God. We say “praise God,” and anyone in earshot replies “Amen!”
The final weekend meant staying with Margaret and Paul. Margaret is the priest of Katangariri, near Embu, on the slopes of Mount Kenya.
On Saturday the Sunday school teacher Irene and the evangelist Ephlantus took me on several pastoral visits – to a woman who had recently lost her husband; someone recovering from a stay in hospital; one caring for her grandchildren. We chatted, sang, and prayed with them and I was very grateful for translations back and forth into English. I was asked to give them the word of God – I found myself using psalm 139 in many ways – because the one thing I knew about the people I met was that God loved them and knew them.
Again, questions of flourishing and development came to mind. Everyone in the village, it seems, has their own shamba – small farm. I was trying to explain to Irene that it wasn’t usual in the UK to keep a cow or a goat – that we are very removed from our farming history.
On Sunday I went to the church of the Good Shepherd for two services – the first in English for th young people, the second in Kiswahili. I preached at both.
Now, all along, the organisers had been saying that we could choose what we preached on. I’d looked at the lectionary and seen that one option was Bible Sunday, so I had prepared a sermon on this. You might imagine my squeaks when Margaret said they had organised a service around the dedication of the church… so I had about half an hour on Saturday evening to pull together some thoughts about that! Fortunately the passage in John 10 is one I’m very familiar with; and as Jesus talks of himself as the Good Shepherd – and I was in the Church of the Good Shepherd – I think it was OK. I nearly cried in the Kiswahili service; the sermon was heralded by a verse of “this is the day that the Lord has made,” followed by “this is the preacher that the Lord has made” – no pressure then!
Staying by myself in Margaret’s home was the one thing I had worries about. British reserve and wanting to be a good guest in a different culture contributed to the worries. I did find it hard – there were practicalities – like how using bug spray or hand gel was part of the routine as we got on and off the bus together – that became intrusive when it was me alone performing the rituals. I wasn’t always quite sure when we were going to eat or what we were going to do – and Margaret’s grandson didn’t really start talking to me until we were driving away from church on Sunday. Suddenly in the car his reserve fell away, too!
And then, suddenly, we’re all gathering back again at Embu Cathedral heading south to Nairobi for the last two nights.
Our final day was spent in groups in the slum parishes.
I have no photos from there, because we were advised cameras were too much of a target for pickpockets.
It was grim. For one family to live in the conditions we saw is bad enough. For there to be thousands, in one slum, in one part of one city in one country – knowing that according to the UN, one billion people live in slums – is truly horrific.
That day we visited two churches. One has been built on land the church does not own. The idea was that they’d build it in the month when local elections were taking place, so all the politicians and the council were busy – then they’d ask for the land. A risky strategy and one that made Archdeacon Vanessa twitch! One was in the heart of the slum – accessible after rain only with wellington boots. The scale of population and of the fragility of life was brought home after we heard there had been baptisms the week before. 31 babies baptised, but it should have been 32 – one child had died overnight.
In some ways the church buildings felt wrong – surely there were more needs that could be met? But perhaps – if Christ was anywhere, would he not be here, with the marginalised and the oppressed? So perhaps the very permanence of a brick church is a beacon of hope, of love, of the value of all people as God’s children. Psalm 139 is true in the slums as it is in the villages.
Such a huge challenge.
I confess that my reaction on returning to the guest house was to scrub myself clean. I felt guilty about that – that I could walk away from the families, the poverty, the insecurity and the danger – yet those we had met, who had welcomed us into their homes – were stuck.
And in another of the contrasts that Kenya gave me, we discussed how we had all felt something of this – the need to be clean – whilst we drank imported wine in the four-star hotel near our guest house on our final night. That was a good wind-down, with alarms set for 0430 the next morning for the flight home.
I still have only scratched the surface of the two weeks. So when you’ve asked me how I got on, and I’ve spent a minute telling you it was awesome – consider that you got off lightly!
One of the things that affected me personally was the community that was built up on the bus. Two weeks’ travelling is a lot of bus time – we sang, laughed, shared sweets and biscuits, asked deep questions of life to one another. I don’t feel welcome in new places unless I am invited; I don’t feel part of a group without encouragement – and yet I did; I was just one of the gang on Julius’ bus and that sense of belonging was a lovely rarity for me.
I certainly know more about what Anglicanism looks like in a very different context. We are definitely related in our liturgy; the expression of it is entirely different. There were some aspects I wasn’t totally comfortable with. I think there’s a bit too much American influence – I think the prosperity gospel has a hold in some obvious and some insidious ways. I’m definitely not a fan of Kenyan amplified music – unaccompanied singing is beautiful – electronic backing beats and uncertain keyboard chords are not.
I have renewed my commitment to fair trade – because of the tea growers, but also because the low-paid, insecure jobs that keep people in slums are the sharp end of global capitalism and consumerism. Kenya doesn’t export much that is manufactured to the UK, it is mostly tea and flowers; but the starkness of the deprivation and the scale of the problem shows us how we are all interconnected.
And I hope that I will continue in the habit of praying for All Things.
Bwana Asifiwe. Amen.