Sunday, October 4, 2015

'...and I live in Kawangware.'

‘…and I live in Kawangware.’ 
Whether I’m talking to my Kenyan colleagues at St. Paul’s or to students or members of the choir I sing in or old friends from my previous life here that I meet from time to time, the response is interestingly the same – a slight widening of the eyes, a tilting of the head, followed either by, ‘Oh’ or ‘Why?’

The first time I came to Nairobi in 1980, Kawangware didn’t exist.  It was a combination of small Kikuyu farms, forest and bush.  As Nairobi’s population exploded over the past thirty years, ‘informal settlements’ as they are called spread out from the center in every direction.  This was not the orderly expansion overseen by well-paid city planners that we have grown accustomed to in the West; but rather the totally chaotic, put-up-tin-shacks-and-sort-out-water, electricity, toilets and roads-later sort of development.  The result is covered by the catch-all English word ‘slum’.  But this word dehumanizes and distances us from what is really going on in a place like this.  Families live here.  And there are businesses and shops and schools and places to get your hair cut or buy clothes or get a bite to eat or buy a soda or buy petrol or get your car fixed or buy a living room suite.  Dads and moms head out before dawn to work either in an office or a shop or selling things in the non-stop markets along the roadsides.  Children dressed in school uniforms troop off to school.  Little by little, families who own land work to improve their properties.  Sometimes companies buy out land owners and put up apartment blocks.  Proper roadside shops replace the plastic sheets on the ground on which traders display their wares.  The result is a jumble as far as one can see in every direction.  In the evening parents and children come home to one or two-room tin-walled, tin-roofed tenements.  Water is bought by the jerry-can full and has to be carried in.  You don’t want to know about the toilet facilities that are shared by all the neighbors.  After a hard day at work, either mom or dad or even both may go off to their evening school classes, trying step by step to get the qualification that could mean a better job and a chance to leave their tin life behind.  I have been here in Kenya for many years, and I know no lazy people, least of all in Kawangware.

But nothing is orderly.  Everything is in flux.  Corruption is a debilitating tax that everyone ends up paying.  But the burden is most heavy on those who can least afford it.  The road system in Nairobi is what was left by the British in 1963 and was woefully overcrowded thirty years ago.  Some improvements have been made, but not on our side of town.  Buses and matatus clog the roads and carry commuters to and from the city center about 10k away.  The main roads in Kawangware are paved, but traffic is regularly frozen because somewhere some group of matatus thought that driving four minivans abreast on a two lane road lined with market stalls and wall-to-wall people was both possible and to their advantage.  It gets even more exciting when buses decide they can play, too.  And then there is the fleet of human-powered push carts, which reduces the traffic that instantly backs up to the speed of brisk walk, maybe.  And the road I live on, Kabiria Road, has been paved numerous times in the past, but corrupt practices ensured that the newly paved road would disintegrate into massive potholes and dust within six months.  Presently they are attempting to redo our road and put in proper drainage the way it should have been done decades ago.  We’ll see.  What it does mean is that for the time being, we live in a dust bowl.

Kawangware is not as desperate a place as Kibera or Mathare Valley, ‘informal settlements’ in Nairobi that are rightfully considered notorious.  But Kawangware is also not a destination location.  I can’t think of anyone who would choose to live here, if they had a choice.

However, we are here – I and my colleagues who teach at the Makarios III Patriarchal Orthodox Seminary.  And my friends who teach 300 or so children at St. Clement’s Primary School within earshot of my room where I’m sitting.  And the workers at the Orthodox Clinic here.  And my friends on the faculty and staff at the Orthodox Teachers Training College.  And His Eminence Archbishop Makarios is here.  We are all here, on a huge compound that was given to the Orthodox Church back in the 1970s by the then President Jomo Kenyatta.  At that time, the outskirts of Nairobi were to the east about 4 or 5 miles.  And now the wave of Kawangware has swept over and around us and this is where we are.  We are here trying to reach out to the community around us in love, educating their children and giving them two good meals a day with our food program.  We are here training future teachers with the only early childhood education program in the country.  And we are here training the future generation of priests and leaders for not only Kenya’s growing Orthodox Churches, but those of Eastern, Southern and Western Africa as well.

So I live in Kawangware.  Pray for me.  Pray for us.  We are called to be the presence of Jesus here.  And if there was ever a place that needs desperately what we have, this is it.

And one matter for fun!  From 2011-2013 I was part of an acapella singing group here in Nairobi called the Greenwood Singers.  When I returned earlier this year, I was welcomed back with open arms (though I am the least accomplished of the 15 singers in the group).  We are putting together a program for early December.  Here are a couple of the pieces we working on – you can listen to them on YouTube:
Baba Yetu (Christopher Tin) -
Missa O Sacrum Convivium – Kyrie  (Pierluigi da Palestrina) –

Through the prayers of the Theotokos and all the saints, Lord Jesus Christ our God have mercy on us and save us!


Here are some pictures of the neighborhood where I live:

I spied some schoolboys playing after class when I set out with my camera to
get some pictures for this post.

This is the wretched dirt/mud track that connects our compound with the rest of the world.
Notice the push cart guy delivering water.

St. Clement's Primary School kids lining up for lunch.  When Orthodox Christians here noticed a number of kids in the neighborhood without enough to eat, they started a food program.  And when they observed that the children were not going to any school, they started St. Clement's.

Tuesdays are Chapati days!  Everybody loves them, but they are rather labor intensive to make.

Schoolboys, eating lunch.

Good, simple, healthy food.  Except for the chapati :-) !

When I am not teaching at St. Paul's, I join the teachers from St. Clement's for lunch.

Several other schools and youth programs take advantage of our football (as in rest of the world, not American) field
and what passes for a basketball court here.

This window shop is run by Catherine.  I bought some bananas from her.

Esther runs this shop.  She's cutting up greens to sell.

Franklin runs this kinyozi (barber shop) where I go to get my hair cut.  He charges me
50 Kenya shillings, or about 50 cents.  I give him a big tip.

This is the 'supermarket' up the hill from our compound where I go when I want
something small and don't feel like undertaking the challenge of driving.

This is the very dusty Kabiria Road.  Our compound is down the track on the left.
Those are shops on both sides of the road.  Those rocks are meant to slow traffic
and keep the dust down.  It doesn't work.

Kids on their way home from school playing in construction culverts and drainage pipes
with buses, matatus and cars careening by, and dust, dust, dust.
 Welcome to my world.

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