A letter from Marta Bennett in Kenya
June 28, 2010
“Ebenezer!” “The Lord has done it!” “God is so good!” These are some of the praises sung by our graduates as it was confirmed that they had made it. June 12, 2010, was the 26th graduation of NIST (Nairobi International School of Theology), and for the first time we had outgrown the capacity to hold the year-end celebration in our own campus compound. Fifty-four graduates, from a variety of African countries (Kenya, Rwanda, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Cameroon and our first-ever graduate from Eritrea) all enjoyed the graduates’ retreat, graduation dinner, then the processions, flags, singing, dramas, speeches, garlands, handshakes, dancing and all the rest of the actual graduation itself. The ceremony was held at the large nearby Nairobi Baptist Church, the first time we were not out under the sun — or sometimes rain — a dramatic sanctuary that somehow lent an extra sense of grandeur to the occasion.
Teaching at a master’s level in a theological seminary in Kenya is much like teaching the same anywhere else in the world. The reading, preparation, teaching, examining, marking, meetings, sorting out issues, setting policies, writing handbooks, etc. is all there. Yet at the same time, as I reflect back on this year, I note various cultural incidents that enrich our interactions in this context:
At graduation itself (which was punctuated throughout by the blares of World Cup 2010 vuvuzelas — even in the sanctuary) students more often than not received their diplomas from the Chancellor and Vice Chancellor with a curtsey or a bow, plus a smile and handshake posed for the paparazzi before they processed down the stairs off the platform. Once in a while a Ugandan student has knelt on her knees with a bowed head in front of the dignitaries to receive her certificate, and for most their village and other friends and relatives shout and ululate (high shrill trilling) to escort them off the platform.
I think of the professional woman student who had come for advising on her thesis. As she turned to leave, she suddenly turned back, dropped to her knees before me in my office, bowed her head and clasped her hands, and asked me for a prayer of blessing. Just last week another student who is facing monstrous challenges met with two of us to seek some assistance in finding solutions. As we finished, I suggested that before we part, we should pray. Instantly this tall, regal Ethiopian slid out of his chair to his knees as we proceeded to prayer. At the graduation retreat a time was introduced for giving thanks for God’s faithfulness. We were all standing, but one well-dressed lady in full African garb instantly went prone on the floor, crying out her heartfelt gratitude for all that God had done, along with the rest. At the end of the session she stood, brushed herself off, and we all returned to our seats.
I think of coming to my office and seeing shoes left outside the door of my colleague’s office in the corridor — a student had entered and did not want to dirty the rug. As a sign of respect, students refuse to enter or exit the classroom before me as the professor, and they often insist on carrying books or projectors to assist me. I still have tugs of self-reliance but have learned to accept with gratitude their kind gestures. At times the greeting to a professor is a handshake with the right hand, while supporting the right elbow with the other hand. One’s name is rarely if ever used; it is “daktari” (doctor), “mwalimu” (teacher), or “Prof” — a term reserved for only a few. I also have appreciated the home remedies brought to me — such as when I had been coughing a bit, a student brought me fresh honey and garlic, leaving it on my desk. One student came to me for counseling, saying, “As you are our mother, I need to talk to you.”
So many students struggle with what seem to be overwhelming challenges — extended family responsibilities, lack of funds even for basics, many responsibilities in the churches and other places of work, transport strikes, interrupted or very slow Internet access, few books or other resources. Yet they persevere, usually with amazing fortitude and optimism in the midst of it all. It is such a privilege to share lives together.
Besides heading the Leadership Studies Department, teaching “Organizational Leadership and Development” and “Conflict Transformational and Reconciliation Processes’ this past term, and also advising nine Masters theses, I have just finished teaching in a “Training of Trainers” course for 21 of our recent grads, who can now begin teaching some of the undergraduate courses. We are working diligently toward becoming a full-fledged Kenyan university. NIST will remain as the school of theology under the larger umbrella of International Leadership University, Kenya (ILU-Kenya).
Justin, now 12, is finishing Year 7 in school, and is playing a bit of both soccer and rugby. Imani, who turns 11 on Saturday, is finishing Year 5 and loves learning to play guitar. Both are glued to the TV as we follow the World Cup games this month. Foster son Steven (now 23) is starting a Foundations in Information Management/Systems five-month course and has been playing a lot of soccer while doing some tutoring.
Ongoing and heartfelt gratitude for all your ongoing interest and support in so many ways!
The 2010 Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 52