Children in Kenya. Flickr

A Lesson From Kenya

The travel log of a trip to Nairobi, in a country where tribal divisions are in the blood. Yet, in the midst of the factions, a people is reborn.
Paolo Perego

Geoffrey’s Toyota, stuck in traffic, tries to make progress by switching lanes on the huge highway. There are three lanes, but six columns of cars, lorries, and buses, which spill over beyond the asphalt. “This is the only road from the airport to the city,” the driver tells us, after sharing a few words about his name, age, and job. Then silence. He is 38 with 4 children. He turns on the radio, but we can’t understand the Kiswahili words of the song. We peer through the windows at the world going by. Decrepit old cars reflected in the chrome fenders of the SUVs, amid the smoke of exhaust pipes and the honking of horns. Then there are the matatus, the public transport minibuses that zigzag wildly from lane to lane amongst the cars. Not far off, you see the fence marking the boundary of the safari park, with three giraffes in the distance. We are in Kenya.

Out of this World

At the edge of the road, a river of people is walking through the mud. Only two years ago, here people were chasing each other, carrying machetes, in those bloody riots that saw the country’s scores of different tribes at war with each other. There were 1,500 deaths and 300,000 homeless. Neighbors and acquaintances fought each other; you only had to be a Kikuyu for the Luo to burn your house down, and vice-versa. What sparked it off was the presidential election in 2007, when the two candidates set their factions against each other, with mutual accusations of fraud. Mwai Kibaki is the leader of the Kikuyu, and Raila Odinga is the leader of an alliance between the Luo and other tribal groups. Kibaki had won by a small margin, and the tensions relaxed only with the nomination of Odinga as Prime Minister.

Up to now, all seems to be settled, even in the chaos of the market, where the car wheels almost run over the vegetables and hawkers seated at the curbside. This is Nairobi, Kenya’s capital, with its 4.5 million population, in the heart of the savanna, where the tower blocks of one of the most important financial centers of the continent live side-by-side with the mud-shacks of Kibera, one of the world’s biggest slums. An out-of-the-world place, you think, but you soon change your mind. It just takes a few meetings to get the real picture.

Changed, Even at the Table
You can feel quite at home 5,000 miles away from your family, one evening at dinner with Joakim Koech. He is the responsible for the Movement in Kenya. He comes from Eldoret, a town in the Rift Valley in the north of the country. He is a Nandi by tribe, a small group of the more numerous Kelenjin people. Romana, his wife, who works for AVSI, is from the same place; they’ve known each other since childhood. They pull each others’ legs at table, joking about when they went to catechism together, and then their meeting with the Movement–first hers, and then his, drawn along by his sweetheart. “It changed our life,” they tell us, right to the core, to the point of realizing it was something more important than the tribal divisions that led to the fighting in 2007. “It was difficult, because it’s something we have in our blood, even today, when the fighting is over.” Joakim wrote about it, in an article in Traces (Vol. 10, No. 6, 2008), speaking of his own personal experience of those days, along with a Fraternity group made up mainly of Kikuyus, the faction opposing his own. “What defines us is not tribal belonging, but the fact of Christ. Every day was full of fear and tensions. A friend said to us, ‘We are the winners,’” he wrote then. “And the same is true today, for example in the face of a constitutional reform that introduces abortion, euthanasia, and Islamic courts for the whole country. The challenge is not to fight an ideological battle, but to take seriously the experience of faith we are living. There is something that comes before even the goodness of a fight: we belong to an Other.” There is something that comes first. “It is truly a new culture.” Looking around, you see this in the Easter posters on the walls of Joakim’s house, in the fact that we are eating at a table, whereas the Kenyan tradition is for the children to eat on a big mat, with the adults sitting around them with a plate in their hand. And–why not?–a bottle of scotch brought by Carras on one of his frequent visits from Italy.

An Ambitious Project
At the table there is also Leo Capobianco, from Italy, the Country Manager for AVSI, who has been in Nairobi for 18 years. “I was an accountant; I had begun to work for AVSI, setting up offices for them around the world. I came here, expecting to stay a few months, and I am still here, as you see! There were four of us then: Fr. Valerio, of the St. Charles Fraternity, two Memores Domini, and I.” They were full of enthusiasm until the first attacks of armed robbers, which forced them to abandon their elegant home on the outskirts of the city, “where you could still see elephants and gazelles outside the window.” They took refuge in a safer area where diplomats live. Here began the work of AVSI, in response to the request for three technicians to teach in a school belonging to the diocese.

Then, in 1990, an ambitious project was begun to build a new school at Ghiturai, where the diocese had offered the use of a piece of land. “The St. Kizito Professional School was inaugurated in 1994, and today runs 10 courses for over 400 students: for hairdressers, beauticians, bricklayers, mechanics, and joiners, to name just a few,” Leo told us the following day as we visited the school, and saw some students working on the engine of a jeep, and others fixing the hair of a companion, under the supervision of the instructor.

“Education has always been something important for our community, starting from AVSI, which, apart from the St. Kizito School, has collaborated in the founding of the Little Prince School, a primary school in the Kibera slum.” Anthony Maina, Headmaster since the founding, tells us about it. “In 2000, we started off with 9 children, then in 2005 we opened a new building, because the number of children was growing, due to the government policy on schooling.”

Amidst Pangas and Clubs
The newest addition is the kindergarten, this year, with 51 children; in the school we have a total of over 300. It is a pearl amid the huts. “In that street, you could see people fighting with pangas and clubs,” Leo tells us, pointing to the nearby slums. “Many of our students come from there and are able to attend the school thanks to the distance-support organized by AVSI. The same is true for the Urafiki Carovana and Cardinal Otunga Schools. Urafiki is a primary school opened by the missionaries of the St. Charles Fraternity. Otunga is a secondary school where Joakim has been the Head since it opened in 2008. They are both in the Kahawa Sukari zone, in St. Joseph’s Parish, where the St. Charles missionaries came in 1997. The parish is a place of miracles. There is the kindergarten dedicated to Emanuela Mazzola, a girl from Milan killed in a car accident; then, twice a week, sessions for handicapped children, alternating with the Meeting Point for AIDS patients. Even here, you feel at home, with these “cursed” women who meet for lunch and offer each other support. As you share a meal of “who knows what” with them, Caroline comes in, saying, “Excuse me for being late; sorry I missed saying the Rosary with you.” Then she tells her story: “What about me? I am a very ‘positive’ woman,” and they all laugh. She is tall, dressed in flaming red, and has a sweet face. She is 27 years old, with two children, but no husband. “When I first came here, I weighed 24 kilos [50 lbs.], and now I am over 60 kilos. They clothed me and fed me. I asked to be baptized. Now I can receive Communion. Here we are persons first, and we often forget that we are sick.”

The other school is Cardinal Otunga, set up by Joakim and a group of teachers, with the idea of transforming into bricks and mortar what they had read in Fr. Giussani’s The Risk of Education. “It seemed like foolishness to found a secondary school that was not boarding, as most of them are here. You send your child to school on Monday and forget him for the rest of the week. But we took the risk, involving the parents in the curriculum.” The awards on the headmaster’s notice board betray a certain pride: the best class here; the best student there… “There are some kids who come from Kibera, and who attended the Little Prince. The slum is a long way off, though; it takes hours to get here, if you don’t have a car,” Joakim tells us. “Fortunately, there are Henry and Jane Kamande–he is the Head of the Urafiki School and she is his wife. They have 3 children, but accommodate 13 others in their house during the week.” “Yes, they are all my children,” says Jane, joking as she removes her apron. She lowers her eyes, smiling, and you know at once that she actually means it. She stops what she is doing and shows us the rooms where the boys stay, and the study rooms. It is the house once occupied by the first Italians who came here in the mid-eighties, with a portico surrounding a patio, giving it the air of a monastery. Only a row of worn tennis shoes tells you that the “convent” atmosphere is destined to disappear as soon as the boys come back from school.

This is the other Kenya, the one you couldn’t see from the car as you came from the airport. And there would be many other initiatives to tell of: like the birth of COWA, the local incarnation of the Company of Works Association; the Otiende Centre, with courses of formation for the people of Kibera; then, all the AVSI projects, above all on the theme of distance-support.

The Heart Here
“Great things,” you tend to think, like the title of the Rimini Meeting this year. But what enables you to achieve great things is only the heart, with its desire. And here the heart is great, too. You see it in these people, in this small community, a few score, changed by the encounter with Christ, like Paolo, Antonio, and Nino, who live with Leo, and now find it hard to stay away from Africa for long. You are moved during a School of Community, 15 people in a circle in a small room, listening to Pascal: “I need Christ now, in reality; I need to build my life starting with Him.”

One evening, you look Cristian in the eye; he is sad, because that morning, after weeks of waiting, he finally met Martin and Mary, the two children that he has been supporting from his home in Lausanne, Switzerland. He has been to their house in the slum, where all the children have swollen bellies because of hunger, and play with the pigs in the open sewers. “You feel impotent. You are not the one to save them…” he concludes, looking through the rain-swept window of the car. You see other faces, revealing other hearts: Victoria, Valeria, Ciprian, and Silas, with their Fraternity in Mutuati (a village 250 miles from Nairobi); Vivian; seminarians Matteo and Cristiano; Crispus; then, David and Simon, coming a few minutes before departure. Here is a true people, amongst the tribes. A new, different people, made up of Italians, Luos, Kikuyus, Kalenjins, and others. A people that has a face, changed by a true judgment that brought maturity to an experience of faith and friendship. “I, but no longer I,” as the Pope said, paraphrasing St. Paul. It has happened to you, too, after all. “Where am I?” you were wondering on that road five days ago. That question is no longer, replaced by that “something that comes first” that you have seen, and that makes you feel someone like Joakim, on the other side of the world, to be more than a brother.