A letter from Marta Bennett in Kenya
I was teaching a week long intensive PhD course on “Conflict Transformation and Peace-building,” beginning on the Monday of the on-going Westgate Mall siege in Nairobi. The attack had begun in the late morning hours of Saturday, September 21st, and continued on through the following Tuesday, killing at least 70, seriously injuring 175, and massively destroying property in an amount yet to be determined.
As a class, before, during, and after each session, we would switch on the TV and stay glued to the unfolding drama until we were reluctantly pulled back to the task at hand. There could not have been a more poignant or more tragic case study being enacted just a few miles away as we discussed the cycles of victims and aggressors, as well as types of conflict, principles, and processes of managing, resolving and transforming conflict. With students from six different African countries (Ethiopia, Burundi, Ghana, Nigeria, Zimbabwe and Kenya), many first hand experiences of both interpersonal and ethnic conflict provided the fodder for intense discussions dealing with issues so close to our own lives.
No, I was not at the Mall that day, nor were my children. My bank branch was there, and it was one of “the” places to hang out for youth, as well as often offering free music events and activities for children and families. I realize my Facebook posting on the evening of the 21st was misleading when I posted that “We are all home now, watching the news from the safety of our living room.” It was not that we had been at the Mall. It was that Imani had been at a swim meet in the area near the mall and was quite delayed in getting home. Justin was out with friends, and at age 15, that could mean being anywhere. I was just so grateful to have everyone accounted for and back home safely at the end of that first day.
Two of my colleagues live near the Mall and frequent it often for grocery shopping and meeting friends for coffee, etc. Their adult children were panicked when they heard the initial news and could not reach them, even late into the evening on Saturday. Several of us joined in the search, hoping for the best, while entertaining the possibility of the worst. Fortunately, they were up-country on a weekend outing, phones switched off, oblivious to the drama happening in their own backyard.
We were not there. But we all were touched in one way or another. Three friends owned two different shops at the mall. Besides the trauma to themselves and their employees, with insurance coverage that excludes acts of terrorism, they have lost it all, with debts still to pay on items that no longer exist. Our church hosted the funeral service for a young couple who had just officially and joyfully announced their engagement earlier that Saturday morning. The groom-to-be was the nephew of Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta, and the young couple died together, having been targeted by the gunfire of the terrorists.
One story with a merciful ending was that of the Walton’s, the family who stayed in our home during the year we were in the US (2011-2012). Perhaps you saw the photo that was splashed across many of the news sources, of the small girl running across the open space to the man crouching with the outstretched hand, urging her on in her dash for safety. That was four-year-old Portia Walton. Her mother and two younger sisters were huddled together under the island table in the background, waiting for their chance to bolt to safety as well. Katherine, the mom, and the three girls were on the rooftop at the children’s cooking competition that day. The two older brothers (ages fourteen and ten) had gone down into the Nakumatt store to buy sodas when the siege erupted. By God’s mercy, including a few clear instances of his presence and miracles, all six of them were eventually able to find their way to safety and to each other later that day. Their story and their testimony of God’s presence is told in an interview at this link: http://news.yahoo.com/us-mom-5-kids-survive-kenya-mall-attack-195816555.html
Times of crises raise questions of “Why?” and “Could this have been prevented?” and of who didn’t do due diligence to intervene in time. But ultimately, God’s only clear answer is “I am with you.” In Scripture, God never seems to answer the question of “Why” as much as we may seek for an answer. Jesus pointedly avoids the “why” with the blind man, when the disciples are asking whose fault his blindness is. Instead, Jesus turns and asks the blind man, “Do you want to be healed?” We turn to the God who is in the midst of suffering, and we meet a God who suffered his own beloved Son to enter our world, to walk with us, and to take our sins upon himself, even unto betrayal and death. This is the same God who meets us in our suffering today. We serve not a remote and distant God, but a God who loves us with total involvement.
Philip Yancey quotes Dame Cicely Saunders, (founder of the modern hospice movement) saying, “God does not prevent the hard things that happen in this free and dangerous world, but instead shares them with us all.” Yancey continues on to explain, “And because God shared our suffering in the person of Jesus, we his followers have a model of redeeming it, a way to wrest good out of what at first seems irredeemably bad” (The Question that Never Goes Away, by Philip Yancey, 2013, Kindle location 1210 of 1409).
Just as God raised Jesus from the dead, conquering death and opening the way to eternal life, God is able to redeem even the most difficult, even evil, events, bringing new life out of the destruction. It is a truth lived out over and over again, from the story of Joseph in the Old Testament to this month in Nairobi.
During the week long course on Conflict Transformation, I invited two resource people in to join me at different points. One, Mr. Patrick Musembi of Daystar University, had done much research in the area of ethnic conflict in the region. He is a passionate peace-builder, and thus effectively guided the class to apply several frameworks with which to unpack a number of case studies. The other is also one who is passionate about peace building and equipping the Body of Christ to be the agents of reconciliation. The students were gripped by Dr. Faustin Ntamushobora as he presented a simple, clear reminder that it is the Church that brings the message of forgiveness, and the possibility of reconciliation based on deeper healings and transformed hearts, bringing the possibility of more than just “non-violent cohabitation.”
Speaking out of profound personal experience of having come through the Rwandan genocide in 1994, having lost many family members and dear ones, embodying reconciliation across painful divides, he teaches with authenticity and the passion of conviction. In response to his own experience, he has been an active agent of reconciliation and the rebuilding of lives and communities as a pastor, trainer/mentor, educator and peace-builder. As Faustin emphasizes, forgiveness must precede true reconciliation. Otherwise, any attempts at reconciliation are merely a means of co-existing together. Forgiveness is about the heart, and only forgiveness can break the cycle of conflict – of victims and aggressors, and victims who become aggressors, who ultimately become victims once again in the end.
How have the people of Kenya responded to this tragic invasion on their national soil? What surfaces most prominently is courage and resilience. Not only did queues extend for even a kilometer at times, of those waiting hours on end in the sun to donate blood, but all ethnic and racial tensions were put aside as Asian Kenyans, African Kenyans of all ethnic origins, White Kenyans, and foreign residents all joined in. The Twitter hashtag popping up everywhere was “#WeAreOne. In the Daily Nation on October 22nd (one month after the siege), the sub-head of a leading article read: “Grieving relatives pray and plant 70 trees at Karua forest [at the edge of the city near the Mall] in honour of those who died when terrorists raided city mall.” Planting trees, one for each life lost: Planting a tree is a deep African symbol of hope, an investment in life, and staking a claim for a better future, with expectation that the children of our children will enjoy the shade and the fruit. Life will prevail.
Let me close with a poem by Caroline Nderitu (a member of our church), which was published in a local publication, entitled “Hope Kenya, Hope!” (Kenya Buzz, back page, October 2013).
Why does the sun continue to rise
Into the Kenya sky each day?
Why do we get up every morning?
Why is there breath in our lungs –
Why are we still here?
For hope we live
Not because the path to healing
Stretches nice, wide and easy
Beneath our feet
Not because the skies
Have been calm above our heads
And the winds calm on our sides
But for hope
For hope we live
Not because mangoes of answers
Hang juicy and ripe for families to reap
But because our re-buffed sharp vigilance
And re-kindled steely resolve
And refreshed solid unity
Are seed in the ground
And there will be a harvest
There will be no more unrest
For hope we live
Hope is the colour in our eye
Hope is the flavour in our voice
Hope is valour in our step
For hope we live
Not because yesterday was full
Not because today is fresh
But because tomorrow is fertile
Tomorrow is different
Tomorrow is new
For hope we live
So whatever else we lose
We never lose hope
As long as we have, hope
We have… something!
And hope does not
And will not
Let us down
For hope we live.
In all of this, we are able to claim the ultimate source of our hope, as we sing the lines of the classic hymn, proclaiming:
“My hope is built on nothing less, than Jesus’ blood and righteousness…
On Christ, the solid Rock, I stand; All other ground is sinking sand…”
Family and ministry updates:
- At ILU, we are pressing very hard towards some tight deadlines to gain a Letter of Interim Authority to function as a university, as we transition from our 30 year Registered Status towards full Chartered University. The new Kenyan Universities Act of December 2012 goes into full effect in December 2013, after which our former status no longer is exists in the law, so we now need to do this intermediate stage to stay legally functioning. It is my division that is responsible for completing this process, so prayers are appreciated – for full completion and compliance, for smooth teamwork as we press on together, and for the resources needed to fully accomplish what is required. Our goal is submit the full document by the first week of November, followed with submissions and resubmissions of all our programs for accreditation by the end of the month. We are very committed to maintain the biblical and theological integration in all our programs, which needs to be persuasively articulated in each document, in that not all on the reviewing committees necessarily appreciate such a perspective. Can anyone spare some extra midnight oil?
- I have enjoyed teaching one of the PhD Leadership modules, plus an on-line Masters course on Personal Leadership Development, and one regular classroom-based Masters course on Leading Change this semester.
- The kids are working hard at school. Justin sits for his major “O Level” exams this year (in the British Cambridge system, this is at the end of Year 11, or 10th grade in the US system). Assuming all goes well, he then proceeds on to years 12 and 13 (11th and 12th grades), after which he sits the AS Level and then A Level exams respectively, to complete his high school education.
Thank you so much for all your support, through prayers, correspondence and finances. Your support and giving make possible the training of these many leaders, who in turn are being used by God to bring healing and transformation. To give financially, you may contribute through my PCUSA mission account E200312 for individuals (link below), or account D506057 for congregations. As you may be aware, each PCUSA mission co-worker is now being asked to move towards raising full financial support, to reach the larger goal of sending out many more to partner in God’s work around the world. Every contribution makes a difference as we partner together.
With gratitude, in God’s service,
Marta Bennett (Nairobi, Kenya)
The 2013 Presbyterian Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 109
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