A letter from Marta Bennett in Kenya
Friday, November 23,2012—“Black Friday”
“Gratitude consists of being more aware of what you HAVE than what you don’t have.”
Thanksgiving. The day here in Nairobi was so "normal" (teaching, meetings, writing reports, student advising, problem solving) that midday during a break I hopped in the car and fought my way across town through traffic and construction to collect my renewed passport at the U.S. Embassy. I paid the Kshs300/= to park, walked confidently up to the gate, then stopped in my tracks in front of the locked entrance, completely puzzled. I looked around, peered again into the locked entrance, and then after a few moments literally slapped my forehead, exclaiming, “It's Thanksgiving!!!” How daft can I be? I confess it was a bit challenging to be thankful, all the way back across town, arriving a bit late for the next meeting.
Yet in spite of that, I truly am thankful, all in all. For life, health, family, friends, the opportunity to teach, investing in students’ lives, and learning from so many here in so many ways.
One opportunity, for which I am grateful this term, has been the privilege of co-teaching a leadership course located in Kibera slum. One side of Kibera, said to be the largest slum in sub-Saharan Africa, is just a mile or so from where I live and from where I work; Carlile College (an Anglican school here in Nairobi) has a training center right in the heart of Kibera, called Tafakari Senta. Together with St. Paul’s University in Limuru, Kenya, they host a master’s program in Transformational Urban Leadership, training pastors and ministry workers who serve in the informal settlements of Nairobi. When I was asked to teach a course this semester, I knew my plate was rather full at the International Leadership University (ILU –formerly Nairobi International School of Theology/NIST). However, for a variety of reasons, I accepted to do this, on the condition that I could co-teach it with someone. In the end a former NIST student, Emilio Kariuki, agreed to teach together with me. Dr. Kariuki has recently returned from the U.S., having completed his doctorate in leadership, and is a gifted teacher as well as having a pastor’s heart.
We have eight students, three women and five men, pastors and ministry workers, with whom we meet each week in a tin-roofed classroom behind a green metal door. Each week that I teach, I drive in as far as I can, then, leaving the car at the end of the dirt road next to a small Pentecostal church and a garbage heap, I walk in down the uneven dirt, rock and garbage-strewn paths between mud and stick houses, clinics, small shops and kiosks, all built wall-to-wall. I cross the railroad tracks, then descend down into the further maze of doors, tin roofs and paths, with narrow openings leading off into more clusters of dwellings, shops, and who knows what else, stepping around sleeping dogs and greeting a man called Collins, who jumps out into my path each time to firmly shake my hand and greet me. He is somewhat “special needs,” so after the first rather startling encounter, I greet him warmly each time and ask how the day is. Eventually I arrive at Tafakari Senta, enter into the narrow corridor of the small compound, and duck under the hanging laundry to enter the classroom. Most of the time we have power, tea is served, and unless it is raining hard on the roof, the sounds of the lively slum outside are muted, and we dive into the subject at hand. Leaving after 6:00 p.m. or so, at the approaching dusk, we emerge from the Senta to find the pathways transformed, lined with women frying and selling almost anything imaginable, cloths on the ground covered with piles of tomatoes, avocados, onions, potatoes, and greens for sale, tables of dried fish being hawked, and more. If rain is threatening, hawkers carrying bundles of umbrellas magically appear, while music blares from the kiosks, with pirated movies and CDs for sale at bargain prices.
Children are everywhere, some in well-worn school uniforms, others playing homemade games; many stop in their tracks when they see someone like me walking through, breaking into smiles with extended hands for a handshake, calling, “How are you? How are you?” If I answer, “Fine, and you?” they mostly look blank, smile, and then repeat, “How are you? How are you?” in their chanting voices. This past Monday I chatted with a group of them outside the Senta before I entered, teaching them to say, “Fine, thank you!” when I asked them, “And how are you?” From there we defaulted back to Swahili, asking, “What’s your name?” and “How is the day?”
There is much to be learned from life in the slums, from people who have many life challenges related to having limited resources and limited opportunities. Yet more often than not they know how to be community, know how to celebrate, are creative and entrepreneurial, are quick to share whatever food or drink they have with a visitor, and are often rich in faith. As some friends sent to me in their thanksgiving email, “Gratitude consists of being more aware of what you HAVE than what you don’t have.” I remember some years ago visiting a quite elderly woman in a small home in another slum just outside of Nairobi. After a delightful afternoon of conversation over several cups of tea, she rose to escort my friend and me back to the main road to catch transport. As we ducked out of the low doorway, she stood up with her hands raised and a huge grin on her face, and looking upward toward heaven, she exclaimed, “Oh thank you, Jesus, for this time! You are so good!” then turned to give us big hugs.
Gratitude. Thanksgiving. May we have eyes to see and hearts to respond with humble gratitude for the many good gifts that are showered into our lives. And, by the way, though Thanksgiving Day was just another day in Nairobi, on the Saturday of this weekend we will manage a turkey dinner for the family, so we will have a taste of Thanksgiving after all, even if not exactly on the day.
With gratitude for each of you,
The 2012 Presbyterian Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 99
The 2013 Presbyterian Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 109
Read more about Marta Bennett 's ministry