God is bigger than…
At some point along the way on Monday I learned that our driver, Armstrong, is a Quaker. This may come as no surprise to anyone who knows something of Kenya for there are upwards of 300,000 Quakers in this country, but to me it was a welcome blessing. A sign that I am in safe hands.
Armstrong arrived at Savelberg, our Christian Retreat Centre in the heart of Nairobi, at early doors on Monday morning prepared to drive us to Nakuru. He shared a little breakfast with us (we had bread, peanut butter, jam, sausages – sounds a bit like my kind of heaven) and then we set off, only an hour later than our intended starting time of 8:30am. This wasn’t Armstrong’s doing – there’s something in the air in Kenya that means that things don’t always start when you mean them to. At this point I must give a big shout out to Theoneste who patiently waited for me at the Friends International Centre on Sunday and was completely cool that I was three hours late! Thank you Theo.
God is bigger than the air we breathe
And we went off in our 11-seater minibus (a Toyota Hi-Ace) through Nairobi, travelling through areas that I found mildly haunting since I had watched the film District 9 on the plane on the way over. Looking out of the bus window was sort of like watching some scenes from District 9. Comparative levels of poverty, compared to my sheltered life in the minority world. There’s a distinction between my sheltered life and life in the minority world because I have a flat in London and as Bainito pointed out, when he was in Birmingham, UK, he saw homeless people begging in the streets. But what I could not see was the richness of these Kenyans’ lives – are they happy people? Do they have communities? What values did they hold and could they meet their own expectations for their lives?
I had already learned a little about some Kenyans’ lives as I worshipped among 250 Quakers at Friends Centre Ofafa (within Nairobi Monthly Meeting). Having arrived very late even by Kenyan standards (I missed most of the singing and the dancing), Hetty (the other British Friend attending the Young Quakers Christian Association Africa triennial) and I had to introduce ourselves in front of our Kenyan sisters and brothers. I had already picked up that if the person at the front with the microphone said ‘Praise be to God’, the congregation called back ‘Amen’. So I said ‘God is great’, hoping to get back ‘all the time’, to which I would have replied: ‘All the time’ and they would have answered ‘God is great’. Unfortunately they just said ‘Amen’ so I had to introduce myself. I’ll try a ‘God is great’ later in my visit.
So what did I learn about these Friends’ lives during the hour or two worshipping with them?
First I learned about the lack of jobs among many members of the community. Enough so that a Friend gave a special announcement about a number of jobs that had been advertised recently by the government and gave details about how to apply.
Second I learned that the recently published draft constitution of Kenya is so important to the church and its people that they replaced the sermon with a commentary on this people’s document. Get this, I’m not writing about something that happened after Meeting – this was using the slot in their Meeting to share the news and a church perspective on a law.
I wish that I could remember exactly what Oliver Kisaka said but I can’t. General themes included that God’s law is most important but people aren’t very good at living by God’s laws so they need to make laws to try and keep themselves in check. Additionally, thinking of the ten commandments and how God gave them to his people, this community was not God’s only people, but a people that God wanted to develop as a model community, the chosen people. Oliver expressed the church’s belief in the importance of the family as being at the root of their community.
Oliver also raised a question about the government’s obligation to end poverty. Though in this case the response of the church seemed to be that those that didn’t work shouldn’t eat, as God says in the Bible. Presumably they just meant people unwilling to work. Just like in Britain, there may be resentment about people getting something for nothing from the government.
God is bigger than the world we live in
Later we, the UK, US and Dutch contingent of Young Friends ate eggs and bread in the church office. We ate with a number Kenyan Friends, including Oliver and his wife and the clerk of the Meeting, as well as some of their Young Friends. I wish that I had written some names down because I’ve had so many new ones pass through me in the last 39 hours that I can hardly remember any!
So Armstrong drove us to Nakuru. Along the way he played a tape of worship songs that included at least one Delirious? Song so I was happy! Before I came I downloaded quite a lot of songs from spotify so that I can listen to them offline and included 8 Delirious? Albums and a whole host of other worship albums. I presumed that I’d probably want to listen to them here and so far I do.
When we started this journey I didn’t know that Armstrong is a Quaker and I just thought that the worship songs were a nice touch. After one particularly audacious overtaking manoeuvre, when Armstrong next looked in his rear view mirror I (sitting at the back in the middle for leg room) gave him a kind of hands-clasped-in-prayer-with-thanks wave, which he later asked me about what exactly I was doing then! Giving thanks and appreciating his skill, I said. And meant it. Truly.
A slight aside just now, I’m writing at night and you know how if you get one itch, then you can easily get more. A few minutes ago I saw a mosquito in my room and just now I’ve got the feeling that there’s another one got at me, then another and then another. But I can’t do anything about it unless I shift the mosquito net from being over my bed to try and include my chair and desk too.
I can’t remember when I learned that Armstrong is a Quaker, but I think it was when Marieke, one of the Dutch contingent, suddenly discovered that Armstrong was the son of a woman that she was hoping to meet. Marieke’s parents lived in Kenya many years ago and married in Nairobi and they had a friend from those days who lives in Nakuru who she was hoping to visit. And by something of quite a large coincidence, this woman’s son drives a safari van and just happened to get this job of driving us today. So Marieke and Armstrong are kind of Friendly cousins.
And along the way in Armstrong’s van we saw all kinds of animals, mostly domesticated creatures, but also zebra and baboons and gazelles. And we saw the Rift Valley from a viewpoint on top of a hill and later we saw a lake that is well below its traditional size.
The Rift Valley is phenomenal. I really didn’t come to Kenya to look at scenery or animals. But today (writing on and after Monday 7 December 2009) a safari trip had been built into our schedule and it seemed like a good way to unwind, And besides, the bus ride from Nairobi to Nakaru was a chance to talk with some of my fellow international visitors to the Young Quakers Christian Association Africa triennial, ask them questions and learn from their experiences. And so it was with the safari too. The other people on this trip are all really quite remarkable people and it is a pleasure to have their company, as well as time with our hosts.
Later I learned that the coincidence wasn’t as great as it could have been, since when Bainito had arranged our travel he had asked around Nakuru to see if any Quakers were working in the safari/bus industry and might be the one to approach about fixing our travel. And someone had recommended Armstrong and so over he came. There’s something to be said for using Quaker businesses when you’re a Quaker, if you can and similarly using a company because you know that they have a Quaker working for them. Making Quaker connections doesn’t just have to be about in the context of our Meetings, but also in our daily lives.
So what did we see on our safari? Rhinoceroses, flamingos, a tortoise, jackals, giraffes, zebra, gazelles, a secretary bird, baboons, eagles, monkeys vultures, that sort of thing. Oh and three lions. There is something quite thrilling about seeing lions in the wild, they really are majestic creatures. We weren’t particularly close to them, but not so far that camera zoom lenses couldn’t handle capture them.
But most exciting of all, our driver is a Quaker and tomorrow he’s taking us to the Mabanga Farmers Training Centre, near Bungoma, as we get ready for the start of the Young Quakers Christian Association Africa triennial.