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Kenyan Church thrives at heart of Nairobi slum

Posted on: April 20, 2004 10:56 AM
Related Categories: evangelism

From Michael Craske in Nairobi

Kibera slum is home to one million Kenyans on the outskirts of Nairobi. There are no legal water or electricity supplies, the sewers run through the middle of the mud “streets”, and when it rains, the corrugated iron shacks – single rooms that sometimes house more than ten people – flood with garbage and human excrement. Every few months, fires destroy large numbers of these shacks, killing and injuring their inhabitants. “This is an illegal settlement, it doesn’t exist,” said the Revd Richard W Mayabi, the priest of St Jerome’s Anglican Church in Kibera to the delegates of the Council of Anglican Provinces of Africa (CAPA) Mission and Evangelism Conference last week. “Because Kibera doesn’t exist, its people also don’t exist.”

Mr Mayabi works amongst some of the world’s most impoverished people. Despite the shocking surroundings his work is thriving, his congregation growing, and he has high hopes and a vision for the future. St Jerome’s now holds two Sunday services (English and Swahili) and hosts a Sunday School – the only schooling some of Kibera’s children receive. It also has an enthusiastic choir that has recorded a collection of African hymns and songs. He is the only pastor for the two Anglican Churches in the slum area of Holy Trinity Parish.

“I have only been here since January of this year, but I have already made major changes,” said Mr Mayabi. “We have expanded the Church building [a iron-walled shed tucked down an alley and surrounded by washing lines]…we removed the office and moved the back wall and the toilet out as far as we could from behind the altar. What do we need with an office? I need to be out with my parishioners.”

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The Revd Mayabi talks to CAPA delegates at one of
Kibera's churches
(ACNS/Craske)

He has also taken over the running of the community/mission centre – set up with the help of Church Army Africa – which although without electricity, acts as a school, a centre for mission and evangelism, and a general meeting place for the Mothers’ Union – which runs all of the Kibera activities with boundless enthusiasm.

“We hope to increase the role of the centre too in the future. Already we teach people discipleship – to go out and bring more hope to people – but I have a vision of offering even degree teaching for people from this building,” he said. “Outsiders think that because these people are dispossessed that they are non-people, but that simply isn’t true. Some that live here are university graduates, some are skilled professionals, but because of a lack of work they have been reduced to life in Kibera.”

Mr Mayabi is also about to start a micro-finance project and classes to teach people how to deal with money. The classes will again be run from the community/mission centre.

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Mothers' Union and children outside of the
community/mission centre
(ACNS/Craske)

“Sometimes it gets to me,” he continued. “I go to a diocesan meeting and the things I have seen are still banging in my head so I can’t always concentrate. It’s difficult to get through to people what we are dealing with here, and that is often dispiriting too.” But, he said, he had to carry on because the Church was bringing hope to Kibera’s people. “I must carry on with God’s work. There are many ways in which God is working through lives in Kibera and my helpers – Church Army Africa and the Mothers’ Union – try to unlock this in people, and I thank God for his presence in our lives.”

The congregation’s daily reality in Kibera is hard to take in. There is no law in Kibera. Murders are commonplace and when the police come they come only to remove the bodies. Kibera’s fires are sometimes started by officials to encourage people to move on. Settlements are torn down and people thrown out without any warning. And the people themselves have no official voice. “If they speak, they do not know what the consequences will be,” he said.

Mr Mayabi added that people’s expectations from a priest were basic, but with only one Anglican priest for a million people it put endless demands on the parish. “The most important requirement for the people of Kibera is that a priest is there when someone dies. Though it’s important to just be there – ever present in the community. Part of my work is to visit people and show my presence all over the slum, and this really helps,” he said. “When I arrive it adds something to their day and they are always so generous despite the poverty.” His main problem, he said, was drinking too much tea. “I can’t refuse it! And in a slum with more churches than toilets this can become quite a problem!”

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CAPA delegates visit Kibera's streets (ACNS/Craske)

The delegates of the Council of Anglican Provinces of Africa’s Mission and Evangelism Conference visited Revd Mayabi with Church Army Africa. The visit was made for delegates to see some of the good work undertaken in Kenya with some of the continent’s least empowered people. It also demonstrated how mission and evangelism works in many different aspects of the Church’s life.

“Another church will be needed soon in Kibera,” said Mr Mayabi. “God bless these people."