Real life in rural Kenya

DSCF8254Africa has a middle class. This is a surprise to many people in the West, but in a country such as Kenya the middle class is growing rapidly. They pay their taxes, drive their cars and live in decent housing, often doing white collar jobs and generating income for the wider economy. This is very obvious in Nairobi, but it is also true in Western Kenya. In Kisumu, Kenya’s third city, life is much quieter than the throng of Nairobi, but there are a few opulent hotels, a large new high-rise University building, and suburbs where the middle class and ex-pats live in walled compounds shaded by trees, protected with heavy security. During my visit there this February, we drove home with some curiosity one day to find men digging a trench down the street to install fibre optic cables. Even in Bondo, the home town of Presidential candidate Raila Odinga to the West of Kisumu with its ‘frontier town’ atmosphere, the town now plays host to a small university. Development is changing rural Kenya, and yet life still remains in so many ways the same.

Rural Kenyan life is still organised around the land, and it is farmed in small ‘shambas’, where each family lives and eats what their land produces. Whereas British farms are organised in units of hundreds of acres, each Kenyan farms about an acre of land or less, which means that homes are spread out fairly evenly across the countryside, rather than gathered into village clusters. Most farmers grow maize and millet, along with cassava and green vegetables, and keep a few cattle and goats, with some stray chickens. Their plot may be fenced in with bushes and sticks, and pieces of board or corrugated iron fill the gaps and make for ramshackle boundaries. If this seems untidy to those who are used to large British farms with fences and thick hedgerows, as an allotment holder I felt rather at home! I chatted to several of the local pastors about what they grew on their plot, and how they made a living. Of course, everything still depends on the rain, and they rejoiced that it had rained for the first time the night I had arrived (not cause and effect, I assure you!). However, as I had come to visit a village church gathering that Saturday, half of those who would have come to the meeting were busy turning their soil as the first rains had softened it, something I could fully understand.

In the West we are told that everything in Africa is a disaster. When Comic relief comes around, we hear the incessant plea that ‘Children in Africa are dying’, and we must throw money at the problem. Ever since Bob Geldorf and Bono achieved sainthood with Band Aid, this has been the narrative, and it continues because there are still enough places where it is true. Zimbabwe has a food crisis, brought about by the mismanagement of the land, and there has been a serious drought in parts of East Africa because of the effects of El Niño. But we must be careful not to label everything African as disastrous and unproductive. A group in South Africa made a spoof video to laugh at the western view of Africa, called ‘Radiators for Norway.’ Flipping the ‘Aid for Africa’ idea on its head, they say that Norway lacks heat, and Africa has it in abundance, so they need to share the heat. The group that made it gives out a ‘Rusty Radiator’ award each year to the video that most parodies Africa. Drought in Africa will continue to happen, and in contrast to a British drought, where we never ask ‘Will there be famine’, a shortage of food in Africa will endanger to the lives of the poor. But we need to remember that famine is not the norm. In Kenya in particular, the land is good, productive land that is being farmed well. Techniques can be improved, and local farmers could learn to grow some different crops perhaps, but the system works.

In the villages that I visited, subsistence farming is the normal way of life, and with that comes a closer dependence upon God. This is something we have lost in our urban consumer lives in the west. We can’t imagine the process before the food got into the packaging ready for the supermarket. But if you live from your land, that makes you value the doctrines of creation and providence, and you see yourself as a steward of the land the Lord has given you. Looking at the doctrinal basis and core values of the ‘Sola 5’ churches, a group of Reformed Baptist churches across Southern Africa, I was struck by their statement on the use of the land.

‘…we affirm the stewardship of human beings to use animals and the environment for the glory of God and the benefit of humanity within the guidelines of biblical principles of ecology. We also affirm God’s ownership of all land and mankind’s responsibility to use it for his glory, considering the needs of fellow human beings and future generations

Land belongs to God! It is a gift from him to be used for his glory, for the benefit of all, including those yet to be born. When did middle class townie Christians in Britain ever think that far about the land around them? Yet I am sure that that is the attitude of the Christians I had the joy of meeting.

We often speak about such people living on a ‘dollar a day’, as though this is a dreadful predicament to live in. What a reflection on the western measure of the value of life! In a rural Kenyan community, a family lives on what they grow. They make some money from what they sell in the markets, and that pays for the things they need: clothes, medicine, the costs of their children’s schooling, or other essentials, but the part of their life that involves money is quite small. While they may buy the seed to grow their crops, after that no money changes hands to bring it to their family table. Trying to measure such a lifestyle in money terms only goes to show how much we have idolised money in the West and made it the measure of everything. That is not how these rural societies work.

When I arrived home, I bought the International New York Times that week because it had a Kenyan village featured on the front page, from exactly the area where I had been. Their feature  described an American ‘minimum income’ project that is being tested in that province of Kenya. Large US donors, mostly hi-tech companies, are pouring money into these villages, and I wonder what damage it will do. If I understand it correctly, the way the scheme works is to give each person registered in the scheme $22 per month for 12 years. The idea is to guarantee a basic minimum income. Payments are made through the M-Pesa mobile phone payment system, and there is an implication that anyone who commits fraud. The idea is that it will ensure that everyone can pay for basic healthcare, and some can invest the money in the equipment to help them earn a living. Personally, I have my doubts. I have seen a similar scheme operating badly elsewhere. In Amazonas, Brazil, the government operates a system of grants to people from indigenous tribes who have settled among the river communities. There is a sense of guilt for disrupting their lives, and so money gets sloshed around. It doesn’t come every month, but simply by being from one of the indigenous tribes, some people are entitled to free money. The problem is that anyone who works as a labourer in the tropical heat just puts their feet up when the money comes. They use it to sit around. A guaranteed minimum income scheme in Western Kenya may do some good for the conscientious, but human nature being what it is, if it makes work less necessary, it will be counter-productive, and make food much less plentiful because people will neglect their land, even if it salves the consciences of the computer millionaires who fund it from Silicon valley.

But let me come to the spiritual life of rural Kenya, which is why I was there. The rural Kenyan churches put British Christians to shame for our lack of faith. We think there are so many obstacles to churches growing here in the UK, that you can only plant a church when you have fifty Christians lined up for the start, that you need a team of full-time staff and a war chest of £50K before you ‘launch’. I praise God for churches that are being planted across the UK, but I am tired of the excuses of those who say it can’t be done, whose watchwords are ‘not now’, ‘not us’ or ‘not yet’. Look at what our Kenyan brothers and sisters have – in terms of resources, almost nothing! No money, no buildings, just people with hearts full of faith. Yet rural churches are being planted let right and centre. A church of fifteen Christians has an unsaved villager turn up on Sunday, so they move the midweek Bible study to the new person’s home, and all their extended family will turn up to listen to the gospel. A couple of people start coming from 3 miles away, and they ask for a Bible study, which leads to a Sunday meeting under a tree, and before long the embryo of another church is forming. In ten years, the churches in the group I visited have doubled in number. They have courage, boldness, godliness and faith that puts us to shame. Yes, their culture is much more open to spiritual things, but is ours really so totally closed? Is God unable to work in Britain if we take him at his word? We can learn much from the faith of our Kenyan brothers and sisters.

If Kenyan churches are multiplying so often, then their greatest need is not money but training for their leaders. Often it is the first Christian in the village who becomes the pastor, simply because he is the one who brought the gospel to his family and friends. Does that mean he is the best person to be the pastor? That depends. It would be easy to set the bar high, insist that every pastor must have secondary education, and then complete a high grade of theological training before he starts to serve. That would leave many churches without consistent ministry because there just wouldn’t be enough people to go round. Training needs to respond to the situations leaders find themselves in, equipping those already serving, addressing the issues that the gospel raises in this culture, and being flexible in the way it is taught, because western ways of learning may not get traction so easily in this culture. And many of these young pastors need an experienced mentor. In such circumstances, there is a great role for those serving in cross-cultural mission, not to be the controlling master but to be the friend who works alongside a group of such churches, helping lift a new generation of Kenyan pastors to their full potential.

God is at work in rural Kenya. It is a beautiful place to visit, most of all because of the thriving spiritual life of the Christians who are shaping their culture for God’s glory.


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