Alfred Place Baptist Church

An African township

We went off to Kijiji on Friday morning at 8.45. Kijiji is one of the slums that are dotted across Nairobi and this is a medium sized one where half a million people live; it is about a mile and a half from Trinity Baptist Church . Hannah Ebrahim the 19 year old from Cuckfield, Iola and I were led there by Keith. The road into the midst of the township simply bustles. It rained last night and so there were very muddy sections, in fact clambering over some stones Iola slipped and almost fell. The potholed rutted road is ankle deep in litter, especially a million transparent plastic bags. It is without tarmac because few vehicles travel this thoroughfare; we saw none at all. Here and there men with sticks were trying to clear away the blocked up and foul ditches after last night’s rain. Goats wander around, chickens peck in the dust and shops (which are all made of corrugated iron) line this road. There are some that rent videos, others advertise that they buy ‘dead’ mobile phones; there are the hairdressers, the bars, e.g. “The Texas Bar,” the pharmacies, the shoe shops, second hand paperback book shops, the butchers and the tailors. A line of women, children on the backs of many, sitting on their large plastic containers are waiting in front of a water truck to fill them from a hose pipe – the 21st century equivalent of the 1st century well. The water is free; the government cannot afford an epidemic. There are some mission halls and then you can come across a school – which shows how long this township has been here, but there is no police presence. In front of the shops are dotted an irregular line of the stalls of the street traders on which are stacked fruit and vegetables and eggs; sacks of charcoal are being sold, and for fast food outlets corn on the cob freshly cooked over a charcoal brazier is prepared for the rare waiting customer. Some little children jump up and down as we approach shouting “mzungu . . .white man!” Everyone glances at us, men lasciviously eye a young woman, but though there is poverty there is nothing threatening about this busy road at 9 a.m. One would not, however, come here during the hours of darkness. Last night in another township across the city three Irish girls were set upon, robbed of everything and one was raped. Today this brings the additional panic of AIDS. “What were they doing after dark in such an area?” Keith asked. But this is morning light and I smile and say hello to the inquiring children.

 

We finally stop outside an unpromising row of corrugated iron shops and lock ups. We step over the stinking ditch, pass the vegetable seller and see a crudely painted sign for a church – right on the road. It does not appear attractive in any way, but we actually turn into an adjoining little alley. The door at the end is opened with a key and the four of us are surprised to step into a courtyard of tranquillity. The four sides are corrugated iron walls, on two sides are the backs of other buildings with no overlooking windows. Clothes lines full of drying garments criss-cross one section. There are three locked toilets at the top of some steps along another side, and finally a row of three painted rooms, with doors numbered 1, 2 and 3 fill the long side. We enter number 2 where the group of Christians meet each week for Bible studies. An old man welcomes us; he is one of the group and he actually lives in that room. He sleeps on a mattress on the concrete floor. He has plastic containers for his water and plastic bowls to wash in. He can sit on one of four narrow backless benches. There is a small barred window. That is it. There is no electricity, no chairs and no carpet; that is his home.

 

About twenty people gather there including four children, one cute three year old sits on Keith’s lap for the hours of the meeting; she is as good as gold switching off her plastic mobile phone until we are finished. Though the Africans are all Rendilles they do not all speak Rendille, they are a part of that tribe who have lived with the Samburu for a century and have lost their language. So we begin with some hymns in Swahili which most understand. They are translations of well known ones such as “My faith looks up to Thee Thou Lamb of Calvary,” and then I begin to speak to them on Hebrews 2:4, “How shall we escape if we neglect so great salvation?” Christ is great in comparison to the prophets, in comparison to the angels, in comparison to the creation, as compared to God himself, and great also in his compassion. So “do not neglect this salvation because there is no escape if you do that.” That was my message for the next hour. It is first translated into Swahili, and then into Rendille with searchings for the right words from all present, and little friendly arguments about what is the correct word. No one is that fluent, but Keith’s knowledge of Swahili has much improved. It is all painfully slow, but then after ten minutes Daniel, the most proficient of the Rendilles, who has often accompanied Keith back to what is his home area in the arid north, arrives and he takes over the translating into Swahili and then Rendille, adding to and explaining what I’m saying, talking more than twice as long as myself when I make my statements. I finally finish, but the meeting is half over. Then one by one they all speak, the women first and then the men, giving their testimonies. They have all been converted in the past seven years through the witness of Trinity Baptist Church where many are in membership. There has been one key man Sammy whose love for the Bible became proverbial once he was converted. He became gate keeper and watchman in Trinity Baptist Church but even when he was opening and closing the gates for the vehicles to enter the car park his eyes barely left the holy pages of the book he clutched. Through him his wife believed and then others, old and young, all brought along to the church. He is still the Trinity Church watchman but taking the theological course and designated to be a church planter back home amongst the Rendilles. There were also a number of older people who had harrowing tales to tell of years spent in vanity and spiritual estrangement from God. One old lady has had a hard life, thrown out of her home by her husband who wanted to marry her sister, and she has no one except this group. She is blind in one eye and partially sighted in the other but Trinity Church has helped to pay for medical treatment and now her sight is much improved. Another younger mother, Guguru, has taught herself to read and she has begun to read the Bible starting with Genesis; she has now reached Ezra. The members of Trinity Church are set passages from the Bible to learn each week, psalms and parts of the New Testament. The most zealous people to learn, retain and repeat these verses are the children from Kijiji. To bring them to one side in church and ask them, “What is Psalm 100?” is to be feasted with a happy face and a fluent recitation of those words. So, back in our Bible study room in Kijiji this Friday morning the people all gave their testimonies, one having come for the first time to Trinity Baptist Church to ‘Meal with a Message’ a week ago. He is a nominal Christian raised in a conservative church but whether he is ‘saved’ is not known. He pulled me to one said afterwards and reminded me that last Friday I had promised I would get him a job, “just like that” as Tommy Cooper would say. I could not remember even speaking to him, but I said I would pray for him to get a job.

 

We could not leave without spending some time receiving hospitality from the other leader Godana, the husband of Guguru, who lives next door. We passed his goat shed where two of those beast
s are gazing through the half opened door and mutely examining these strangers. On the other side of the corrugated wall is Godana’s home; it is one room where seven souls live. He has cunningly insulated the ceiling and walls with opened up plastic sacks filled with cardboard so that it is not freezing at night or frying by day. In one corner is their bed, the five children sleep in another corner along with the ten year old step brother of Godana. He has had to have operations on his feet which had pointed side to side instead of straight ahead. That is why he was brought from the Rendille area by the congregation to have a series of operations on his limbs. His legs are thinner than a child’s wrists. We entered this family room and sat on some comfy chairs in a corner by the door. The children just have this thoroughfare across the stinking ditch on which to play. They do not have access to the peaceful lawn next door except on meetings’ days. Godana served milky tea to all, and Fanta and Coke for those of us who preferred a little luxury. We prayed before leaving and then at 12.45 we retraced our steps along the busy road, which is ripely smelling but not unpleasant as the day is cool. Again we are gazed upon by all – curiously but not threateningly. It was an unforgettable experience for Iola and me. It was, let me underline this, an indescribable privilege to be there, much more enriching than a safari park visit. I saw Iola’s face lighting up as we heard through an interpreter the quiet testimonies of lives enriched and elevated by the grace of God in Jesus Christ. In the midst of much that was materially poor was something beautiful for God. I had last been to Kijiji about seven years ago when the first stirrings of interest by some Rendilles was beginning; what progress has been made since that time with all the visits Keith has made to the north of Kenya where this scattered tribe lives as they have lived for centuries. Today there are even schools in that remote area which the local government has made over to Keith’s leadership and support.

 

GEOFF THOMAS