Nairobi is a thriving middle class city. It is also known for its massive slums. How can those two realities exist side by side? The inescapable fact is that they do, just as they did in Dickens’ London. The contrast reminds you to arrive in Nairobi with an open mind, not letting your preconceptions dictate what you think of the place, but to get to know the city on its own terms. It is a happening city, enjoying a building boom, with plenty of signs of spiritual life as well. At the same time, as a westerner it is advisable not to go out after dark. Living securely here is an issue. On the scale of world cities, Nairobi is not vast. Nearly 3.5 million live within its boundaries, so by comparison with Manila, Chennai or Mexico City, it is fairly average, but it is the heart of Kenya. Chosen by the British colonists for its cooler climate at altitude, Nairobi is nearly 6000 feet above sea level, making the air thinner than perhaps you realise.
I arrived in mid-February, on my way to visit missionaries in Western Kenya, and had arranged an overnight stop in Nairobi to see some of the people and places where our Mission used to be involved. I met local pastors, was taken to the ACTS bookshop on the beautiful campus of the African International University, and visited a couple of churches. For someone just passing through, the Kenyans put on a remarkable welcome, and treated me with an interest that I don’t deserve. I found Kenyan Christians warm, easy to chat with, serious about the Bible and zealous in proclaiming it. There is an earnest quality to Kenyan Church life that is lacking in Britain.
The Jomo Kenyatta airport is busy, well designed and sits on the eastern edge of the city, where there are signs of plenty of development to come. The road network has seen a lot of investment in recent years, but still cannot cope with the numbers of Matatu’s fighting past each other to get into the city. A newly completed southern bypass takes you along the boundary of the Nairobi National Park on your left, so you can be glimpsing giraffes one minute, and then on your right you are looking out across the Kibera slum. Among the shanty towns of the world, this is one of the largest, with its rusty rooftops like terraces following the contours down the hill towards the road. On the left side of the bypass the Kenyan housing department have built some concrete tower blocks to house the people from the slum. My friend told me that when these are given to Kibera residents, they keep their shack and rent the flat to someone else to generate an income. Whether this is always or often true, the story does highlight the complexities of lifting people out of urban poverty.
After Kibera, you pass on into the salubrious surroundings of Karen Heights, the western suburbs of the city where the very rich live, as well as a great many ex-pats. My friend and I stopped at a Java House coffee shop to sit and chat, and I could have been in any corner of Britain frequented by the Range Rover set. Yet drive out onto the street and all the contrasts and contradictions of street sellers and beat-up vehicles mingle with the biggest and shiniest SUVs. I stayed overnight with a delightful Christian couple in their apartment in a gated community among the Jacaranda trees and bougainvillea. The flat was no bigger than the house we live in at home, just a typical middle class place to live, and what we would expect for our children. For the growing middle class this is life, and rather grander apartment blocks are being built round the corner by Chinese developers, and sell for 9.5M Kenyan Shillings (about £75,000). For those who have succeeded in getting a qualified job with a salary, or running a successful business, this is their way of life, and I was told that as many as a third now make up the middle class. However, without such success, the next step down is a mighty plunge to the cash economy that sells everything and anything at the side of the streets.
I was driven into Kawangware slum in the morning light to do a morning’s Bible teaching in a church at the heart of the slum. On the way you see every kind of independent trader setting up at the side of the road. Some have a lock-up with steel doors, while others arrive with a barrow load of stock and find a place to sit. The plant sellers all cluster along one street, their tidy ranks of young plants enhanced by a display of brightly coloured planters. In another street about twenty stalls all seemed to be selling vinyl sheeting hung over branches and poles, the place where Nairobi’s huge advertising posters go to die, be cut into lengths and used to patch up shanty buildings. Fruit and veg sellers, samosa stalls and suitcase vendors all jostle for street frontage in the dirt and mud, and the numerous furniture makers set their sofas and chairs out in the street, with a large wooden cart in front ready to provide a home delivery service. I admire this level of enterprise, and it seems to bustle better in Nairobi than in other parts of the developing world, but I can’t help thinking that the prospects of life for such folk are fairly grim. This is their life every day, trying to attract attention, making a small margin, breathing in the passing fumes and hoping for a good customer, only to get up the next day and try again. When the economy doesn’t provide you with a stable job making something or providing an important service such as a teacher or a nurse, being a street trader is your best hope. Perhaps the most pathetic of these traders was the woman who sat outside the Church in Kawangware, with three large pots of beans cooking over fires, hoping that someone would want to buy lunch.
I had come to the church in Kawangware for a Friday morning’s Bible teaching. A group of twelve pastors meet there each Friday, all of them from other churches that meet in tin shacks across the slum area. Some of these are Grace Baptist churches, others rejoicing in names of the more wonderfully African ‘Glory Revival Fellowship’ variety. I had started the day with a ropey voice, but with the help of some local lozenges bought from a lock-up chemist cage in the main street, I set to work to take them through 2 Cor. 1-4. I felt the strength of weakness even as I preached it, and it could not have been more appropriate for the setting. These men are up against the biggest and brashest Prosperity Gospel preachers, who wear the best suits, arrive at their venues in shiny cars and promise people the earth. How similar such preachers are to the ‘super-apostles’ Paul was dealing with in Corinth, so full of what they were paid and their slick presentation skills. I was glad to be preaching these chapters in weakness and without any great personal presence, and the Lord helped me through three hours of talk and discussion with a voice that only petered out at the end. I admire this group of local pastors and what they are doing. Others might think of them as failures, but they are learning how to expound God’s Word week by week, are courageous evangelists in their neighbourhoods, and are making disciples amid the seething masses of those who live across Kawangware. They are the best people to do that, and the Kenyan churches depend on such humble men of God who believe in the truth of God’s Word and the power of the gospel to change lives.
A continuing issue among Kenyan churches is leadership. What models of leadership did Kenyans learn from the British in the imperial era? How much did British nationals trust Kenyans to lead their own churches? And what has been the long-term inheritance of that among indigenous churches? Like many African countries, Kenya has its ‘big man’ syndrome, which means that once at the helm, the big man is never to be challenged, whether he is the President or a pastor. Missionaries have handed over their churches to national leaders, but have pastors learnt from them an oppressive, authoritarian model of pastoral care? It was a joy to work with a group of pastors to think through what Paul meant by having the treasure of the gospel in jars of clay like us, as competent ministers of the new covenant. Humble, shepherd leadership is what is needed by the churches of Kenya in the days to come.
Outside Nairobi, the city of great contrasts, lies another Kenya: rural, beautiful and very different. I left Nairobi as Kenya Airways carried me across the Rift Valley to Kisumu. In my next post I’ll describe my impressions of life in the rural.