Tag Archives: Nairobi

A Week in Kibera.

Recently I got back from spending a week in Kenya, most of it in the Kibera slum of Nairobi. It had been 3 1/2 years since I’d been to Kenya, and I was eager to see how our friends were doing. Though we’d been in contact with many of them, it’s much better to be able to physically see how people are doing than to just be told. Plus it’s the unspoken things that really tell the stories.

Some things had changed. More of the roads in Kibera are now paved, keeping down a bit of the mud and dust, but the trash problem has not gotten any better. Many of the children in the daycare are new, but that’s to be expected, as children get older and start going to school and are replaced by younger ones.

What didn’t change was the absolute beauty of the people in Kibera. As I came from a nation where material things are so important to people, but unhappiness and loss of purpose is rampant, I am reminded that there is as much blessing in not having what you don’t need as there is in having what you do need. The words of Proverbs 30 are brought to mind.

“Two things I ask of You—

do not refuse me before I die:

Keep falsehood and deceitful words far from me.

Give me neither poverty nor riches;

feed me with the bread that is my portion.

Otherwise, I may have too much

and deny You, saying, “Who is the LORD?”

Or I may become poor and steal,

profaning the name of my God.”

Before we think we have it better, look at the joy on the faces of the people of Kibera and remind ourselves that joy doesn’t come from what is outside.

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The gods of the Western World

I’ve been back from Kibera for a week now. Though I was able to formulate a lot of my thoughts while still there, how to put them down was another matter.

I think I’m going to start with the premise that the largest deficit and therefore the largest detriment to missions coming from the Western world is a lack of humility. Without getting into too much detail, this is what we saw when we went into Kibera.

In Hebrews 1, we find that “God…has in these last days spoken to us by His Son, whom He has appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the worlds; who being the brightness of His glory and the express image of His person, and upholding all things by the word of His power,”

In reading this we find that Jesus upholds all things. Yes, I know there is still sin in the world, and that is why God’s Kingdom is both here and coming at the same time. But when we realize this fact, what we discover is that no matter where we go, God is already there working. Frequently as missionaries it is not so much our job to come in with a new plan, but rather to walk into a place prayerfully with our eyes and ears wide open to discover what it is that God is already doing. It takes an awful lot of hubris to think that God isn’t there until you show up.

If we don’t do this, we find what we unfortunately did when we went into Kibera, and is summed up in the book, “When Helping Hurts”, by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert. It reads, ““The god-complexes of the materially non-poor are also a direct extension of the modern worldview. In a universe without God, the heroes are those who are best able to use their reason to master the material world. In other words, the materially non-poor are the victors in the modern worldview, the gods who have mastered the universe and who can use their superior intelligence and the material possessions they have produced to save mere mortals, namely the materially poor.”

When we go into a poor community thinking we know it all, we are ultimately going to do damage. Western missionaries had come in and put a plan together without consulting the indigenous leadership, then pulled the funding they had been giving when they didn’t go along with it. Their plan was to pull everyone out of Kibera to a place where they felt they could more easily sustain themselves. Though this sounds like a good plan on the surface, it did not take into account the vision and mission that the people living there already had; that being to reach the community around them. They were being asked to abandon their own countrymen who needed them. Imagine what Africa would look like if Western missionaries came into every community and removed the leadership. If you want to see REAL poverty and suffering, that’s the way to do it in short order.

Summing up, we need to be very careful when we come into indigenous communities with our grand plans. Often they are just that…. ours.

The Worn Out Passport

In two days I leave for Kenya. I’m not even sure how many times I’ve been either to or through Kenya, but it’s been over three years since I was there. Too long, frankly. My focus the past several years has been Ethiopia, but I’m being brought back to Nairobi, and I’m expecting God to do great things.

This also marks a milestone for me. For the first time I’ve completely used up a passport. On the front you can still read “passport”, but the eagle has been totally worn off. More importantly, I have only one blank page left inside, and that will be filled some time on Monday at Kenyan immigration. I still have three years left before it expires, but I’m going to have to renew it when I get back because I’ll no longer be able to go anywhere that requires a visa, which is mostly where I go.

This passport has taken me a lot of places. Some were for missions, some for work, and some strictly for fun. Since renewing it, I’ve been to or received a stamp or visa in my passport from South Sudan, Kenya, The Bahamas, St Kitts and Nevis, Ethiopia, The Dominican Republic, Mexico, Turkey, Belize, South Africa, Honduras, and Switzerland. Some of them have been several times.

Which brings me to a conversation that frequently starts when people ask me about what I’m doing when I travel. It usually ends with, “I wish I could do something like that, but I……”, and then there’s usually a reason why they can’t go and serve. I think people genuinely have a desire to go and build God’s Kingdom, or as Jesus put it,

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me,

Because He has anointed Me

To preach the gospel to the poor;

He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted,

To proclaim liberty to the captives

And recovery of sight to the blind,

To set at liberty those who are oppressed;

To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.”

The problem is that people either don’t know how to start, or feel that if they go and serve, everything else will fall apart because they’re already stretched to time or money or resources. Well to the second part I would say that we serve an infinite God, and one of his promises is in Matthew 6, the entirety of which is a great chapter on serving, but specifically,

“Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For after all these things the Gentiles seek. For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33 But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you.”

But to the other part, that people simply don’t know where to start, I tell them two things. First, serve locally. Find out what people are already doing and help. Or if you see a need, be part of the solution. Let the Holy Spirit guide you on what you should do, and don’t worry about the small stuff. (Most things are small stuff.) The second thing is to go and get your passport if you want to serve overseas. Before you know it, your passport will be worn out too.

Back to Kibera.

In just a couple of weeks, I head back to Kibera, Kenya. A group of four men will be going to minister in the largest urban slum in Africa. We’ll be going back to catch up with some good friends we haven’t seen in a long time.

It occurred to me today that I used to post a lot more pictures than I have been lately. I am a professional photographer, after all. So for those following my journey, here are some pictures from previous trips to see Pastor Obedi and His wife Helen in Kibera.

Kibera and Paul’s Fifth Missionary Journey

In less than three weeks I leave for Kenya. This will be my first trip to Kenya in about three and a half years. There will be a team of four of us going, two of which have never been to Kenya before. It’s hard to convey to people who have not been there not only what it will be like, but also what we’ll be doing there. It’s the second part, the what we will be doing, that I’d like to talk about today.

I think the best way to start explaining what we are going for is to use the Apostle Paul’s fifth missionary journey as a template. You say you haven’t heard of Paul’s fifth journey? Well, it’s not nearly as well known as his first four. It’s the one where Paul took a group of people to Tarshish, and they painted the walls of a church that didn’t need painting. After that they did some street preaching in a language no one understood, and then handed out flip flops and used shoes. After that, on the last day they went shopping and snorkeling.

This of course did not happen. And I realize that my sarcasm is biting. But I also know that when people read something that is true, the initial reaction is to be angry, but then to think about it. There is nothing wrong with going somewhere to do projects that need to be done, and there’s nothing wrong with having some fun on the last day you’re there. What I find distasteful is that short term missions has gone from an opportunity to build unity within the body of Christ, and to both be a witness to the lost and encourage and strengthen our indigenous brothers and sisters to do the same, and instead has become wholly about us. What is the project? What are we going to paint? What are we going to build? What are we going to do TO or FOR these poor people? The moment we ask these questions we put ourselves on a higher plane in our own minds than those we are going to minister to. There’s a song with the phrase, “the notion that we’re better than them; the ultimate delusional chant.”

Instead, we ought to ask things like, How can we work together so that we can all grow in better community with each other and with God? How can we learn from each other so we will not continue to walk in our own brokenness? When we ask these questions, it suddenly becomes less about projects, and it becomes a lot more about people.

So going back to what we’ll be doing in Kibera, I think it would be best to start with a description of what Kibera is.

Kibera is the largest urban slum in Africa. It’s population is unknown, though estimates range between 250,000 and a million people. The average family lives in a 12 foot by 12 foot shack. There is no trash pick up, and there are no sewers, so sewage runs down every gully and low point of ground. The average wage is $1 a day. Crime and violence are rampant.

In light of this, going in and painting something or doing some kind of project, or even feeding the poor would be the equivalent of putting a bandage on a dead beached whale. The truth is, a large number of the people there are either unemployed or sporadically employed. So if I go in with a team and start working on something that needs to be “improved”, all I’m doing is depriving someone of a paying job.

So what can we do? This is where the “working with” as opposed to the “doing for” is so important. You find the indigenous resources and skills that are already there and figure out how they can be developed with the help of the people who live there every day. You identify community leaders, like pastors, who already have the respect of the people. You find out what their own goals and vision for their community are and do what you can to achieve that. When there is a specific deficit, and only when there is a specific deficit that can’t be filled from within the community do you bring in foreign money and talent.

This doesn’t sound nearly as romantic as saying, “we went to Kenya and fed 1000 poor children”. And this is the reason that I decided to write this blog. One of our new people lamented that when he told people what we were doing, he had a hard time raising support. The response was, “So basically you’re going to Kenya to have a bunch of meetings with people?”

The answer was essentially yes. But we have to go and do what’s ultimately right, and not what makes people feel good about giving. After all, it really isn’t about us.

Nairobi National Park

I still have a lot to write about regarding yesterday, but I really need to think about it first, so today I’m being lazy. I’m writing what is easy to write about, and that is today’s trip to Nairobi National Park. This is the ninth time I’ve flown into Nairobi, but until today I had never been to the park. Either there wasn’t enough money, or the logistics was bad, or someone didn’t want to go. Well today we. Remedied that. After all, this was supposed to be my wife and my twentieth anniversary trip before it turned into a missions trip.
We got up before dawn and arrived at the park so early there was no one there yet to let us in, so we were literally the first ones inside the park. I saw more animals by far than I had expected. I even saw a lion that had just finished its kill, which I had no expectation of seeing. Coming early meant that the fog still rolled across the low areas and made for an absolutely beautiful scene before dawn. To finish it off, I got that odd juxtaposition of a giraffe in front of skyscrapers that you can only get in certain parts of. Nairobi National Park. Following are a few of my favorite unedited shots from today.
Tomorrow we go to visit our sponsor child through Compassion International for the first time. More on that later.

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Kigali, Rwanda

Our airline took the scenic route this time to Nairobi, and I am sitting in the airplane on the tarmac in Kigali, Rwanda. This is a new one for me. As far as I can tell, Mt Rushmore might be out the window. This is the darkest international airport I’ve ever been to, in the darkest capital city, possibly even darker than Juba. The runway is dark, the tarmac is dark, and I can barely see the control tower. The terminal building is lit about like a parking lot would be after the business has closed. I had hoped to see a bit of Rwanda from the air, but if anyone asks me what Rwanda looks like at night, I’ll just have to tell them, “a bit like Mt Rushmore”

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Wood Smoke and Diesel

It’s only about a week until I leave for Nairobi. I have to say, it’s one of my favorite cities. This is the first time I will be going to Kenya for the sake of going to Kenya. I’ve always visited there on the way to somewhere else. This time I’m going just to see Kenya, and my wife is coming with me.  So what is Nairobi like? I will answer this question as much for my wife’s benefit as for anyone else’s.

Nairobi is the smell of charcoal fires with a bit of underlying diesel smoke as you get off the plane. Most people (at least that I’ve met) still cook with charcoal, even in their homes. Most vehicles run on diesel, because fuel is very expensive and diesel will get you farther.

Nairobi is a city of contrasts. You have expensive homes, gated communities, shopping centers, Mercedes Benz dealers, immense slums, destitute people, the highly educated, the uneducated, skyscrapers and tin shacks, motorcycle taxis, movers and shakers, and the hopeless. It’s street merchants and professional beggars. All of these are thrown into a blender and spread evenly. Kibera, the largest slum in Africa, is right across the road from entrance to the trendy restaurant, “Carnivore”.

Nairobi is leaving the airport and seeing giraffes over the fence on the side of the road. It’s seeing a warthog running down the side of Langata Road. Nairobi is eye candy. The people walking down the street wearing 25 hats that are for sale, or bunches of bananas for the hungry motorist- these are the things you see as you drive down the road. It’s the brightly painted metal fences and the students in uniform as they walk to class. Nairobi is the political signs that literally wallpaper everything that isn’t moving (and probably some things that are) during election time. There is always something to look at in Nairobi.

A man paints a metal fence in Nairobi.
A man paints a metal fence in Nairobi.

 

Most of all Nairobi is the people. They are very friendly. If traffic in the United States was like it is in Nairobi, road rage would be rampant. But there it works. Drivers look for the hole in the traffic and take it. No one gets upset about it. You don’t drive on the right or the left side of the road. You drive on the good side. Surprisingly there are few accidents.

Nairobi is the small shacks on the side of the road that look like nothing, but contain the most amazing cultural artifacts. If you want to come home with a piece of Kenya, avoid the huge markets and try these little places. Want a 100 year old Rungu? (a weapon the Maasai carry made out of the root of a tree.) You’ll find it there.

Want to get a couple miles down the road? Don’t call a taxi. Thumb down a matatu, or a small bus. It’ll cost you about 50 cents and it will be a cultural experience, along with about 15 of your new “friends”.

A food market in central Nairobi.
A food market in central Nairobi.

Try the local foods, especially the fresh fruit juice. Just avoid unpeeled vegetable and fruit. (see my previous blog on staying healthy). Try the sukuma wiki, or the meat pockets. If you’ve come this far, don’t go to Kentucky Fried Chicken. You can have that at home. Sit at the Nairobi Java house and have a really good cup of coffee, or go to a local restaurant and have fresh Tilapia that came out of the lake that morning.

To sum it up, Nairobi is an absolutely amazing city. It’s modern, but different from anything you’ll find in America or Europe. It’s a pleasure for me every time I go.

A panorama of Nairobi from the water town on top of a hotel.
A panorama of Nairobi from the water town on top of a hotel.

Nairobi

The five of us safely made it to Kenya! We arrived at the guest house, and it’s awesome to see the two youngest members of our group taking it all in. I listened to one of them on the phone marveling at how there are no lines in the road, and people just drive wherever they want. I can only smile, because they haven’t seen anything yet, but I won’t say anything. They’ll find out on their own. We have a night and a morning to relax before the final (flight) leg of our journey. After that, it’ll be the back of a truck or a buda buda. (see previous blog post)