Jambo! Greetings from Kenya!

Feb 2008

Jambo sana! That’s “a big hello” in Kiswahili, the local language here in Kenya. Thank you so much to everyone who expressed their care and concern for my well being here. A priest friend in LA described Kenya in his email as “deteriorating into a hell”! I can only imagine the sensation the foreign media has stirred about the situation here thus causing so much anxiety and worry among you for me. Well, despite the turmoil that is besetting the nation, with pockets of violence still erupting in scattered parts ot the country, the majority of Kenyans are going on about their lives, hoping and praying that peace will be restored throughout the land. The community of the Daughters of St. Paul here in Nairobi is also safe and trying through our ministry to respond to what is happening to the nation.

From what I gather, the violence and unrest are primarily politically motivated with the unruly groups comprising mainly of unemployed youth, paid by powerful individuals to stir trouble among tribes. Apparently some are paid about 300 Kenyan Shillings (US$5) for every house they torch. Locals themselves (those I've met) are trying to fathom the situation - on why their fellow citizens can dismantle in minutes what took years to build. While different tribes used to live in harmony in one village, now the tribe other than yours is considered an enemy and vengeance is on the agenda. Some say the unrest is a result of resentment going as far back as the time when Kenya was colonized by the British – how some tribes were favoured above others especially in obtaining fertile land, on injustices suffered then with dire repercussions experienced even til today which in sum basically means huge income disparities between one tribe from another. And so it’s now a dog eat dog situation. The two main opposing tribes comprise of the Kikuyus and Masaai to which the current president, President Kibaki and the opposition leader Raila Odinga belong to respectively. Kofi Annan has been here for a month to lead the political parties and country into a peaceful resolution through some kind of coalition government….

Heart of Peace
Meanwhile, in response to all the violence and hate, we, the Daughters of St. Paul have come up with a CD comprising of songs of peace. It’s a compilation of songs from various artists with the theme of peace. Since I’ve been assigned to the audio-visual sector, I assisted in the selection and choice of songs and also designed the CD (and cassette) cover. (Yes, believe it or not but cassettes are still in demand here!) I gave several options for fonts and two choice of colours and thought the green would be more symbolic but the Sisters here thought red would stand out more in their display so we went for red in the end. This CD has songs in English and now we're working on a Kswahili version.

You can listen to 4 sample tracks below. My favourite is “A Little Heaven” by Alex Muli.

Actually I’m really enjoying the African beat and rhythms and love the harmonized a capella singing of the Sisters at mass every morning! They sound so good, I’m planning to suggest they record an album or two! Although she’s not a Kenyan but a South African, I really love this track by Judith Sephuma called Le Tshephile Mang. It's from the album Women of Africa which I received as a gift recently. Someone uploaded the entire song so I've included it on the playlist above. Have a listen - it'll really get you grooving!

Parish Mission
Apart from my work at AV, I also join the Sisters for their bible/book outreach in parishes on occasional weekends. The first outreach took place at the parish of St Francis in Limuru, run by the Franciscan Conventuals. I was quite taken in with the beautiful African children and took a number of photos of them (check them out under Photo Albums). It was windy and cold early in the morning but by 10am the sun was up and I ended up with an overly tanned face! People there were hungry for the Word of God and the other spiritual media materials we brought with us. The Polish priest who hosted us spoke of the grim situation at Limaru, which had suffered from some riots and violence the previous week, where a few were killed. The Bata shoe factory there has been closed since then which means the employees have no work = no pay = no food. Members of certain tribes have been displaced because their lives had been threatened. Limaru is just outside the city of Nairobi and on the way back, we passed some tea plantations and other farming fields, as well as an area of slum dwellings.

Book Launch in Prison
Another major experience I had took place on Feb 5, when I went to the Langata female prison because a book was being launched. The author was a prisoner and we were the publisher! We also brought a cake for the occasion. It was quite a prison! Not your usual notion of a prison – there were “shops” including a salon! Thanks to some reforms five years ago, the prisoners are now given many rehabilitating opportunities. The launch was well organized and set up. Judy Akinyi (pseudonym Saga McOdongo), the author of the book “Deadly Money Maker,” was truly the star of the day. She was praised by all the invited VIPs and we were entertained by the prisoners themselves who provided a fashion show (some clothes being made creatively from plastic supermarket bags!), dance and songs, declamation of poetry and a skit from Judy’s book. Well, Judy certainly had a tale to tell – once a teacher at the Kenyan polytechnic, she desired a better life for herself and children and was lured to fast and easy money. She got involved with Queen, a drug baron, but naïve as she was, Judy wasn’t aware that Queen’s business was in the drug trade. To cut a long story short, Judy was swindled and ended up, while trying to retrieve her loss, being arrested for drug trafficking. She was sentenced to 9 years but on appeal was given 6 years. While suffering initially in prison from all forms of abuse before the prison reforms came into place, she had the courage and resilience to put her experience on paper (at first on scraps of toilet paper with sneaked pencils). Her intention was to warn others of the dangers of drugs and anyone else lured to fast and easy money. After prison reforms fell into place, Judy was able to continue her book on the computer. Her story is one of inspiration and we were proud to be the publisher of the book.

Sr. Teresa, Judy, me, Diana (Judy's eldest daughter) in Judy's cell

For me personally, I was also inspired by Judy and while happy for the improved conditions and prison reforms, I was still sorry for the prisoners and quite appalled by the food I saw them eating – but I guess they are used to that kind of “goo-like” food! I mean when you’re hungry, anything edible I guess is delicious. There was a scene that struck me though – a prisoner was sitting on the bench and in front of her was a daisy in full bloom. She held it, admiring its beauty and for a moment, I felt a sense of wonder – that amidst the ugliness of the prison, she could still discover beauty and I think Judy also personified that – beauty and inspiration for the other prisoners. That something positive could come out of her negative experiences and that grace was present amidst sin. Being in the prison also made me aware of the freedom we have outside of the prison walls, sometimes often taken for granted.

Burying the Dead (literally!)
On Feb 12, I attended the funeral of the mother of one of our local Sisters in Kahuguini, a village in the district of Galundo, just outside of Nairobi. That was quite an experience as it was a whole day affair! Twelve of us from the community in Nairobi went. We reached the village church at around 9.30am. By 10am, the “hearse” in a form of a mini-van came, with passengers in it! But I was in for a bigger shock! We, the Sisters, were asked to carry the coffin! That was my first ever experience of carrying a coffin! Fortunately it was only for a short distance from the hearse to the entrance of the church. For an hour after that, we spread kangas (the African term for sarongs) on the ground and prayed – some tribal custom of not going into the church yet! We eventually entered the church with lots of singing – African hymns of course with great rhythm! All I could do was join in the clapping of hands. Then for about another hour until noon which was the scheduled funeral service, there was more singing and speeches! Since I didn’t understand a word of the Kikuyu dialect, I was fortunately positioned near the back of the church and surreptitiously read a book! During the homily (also in Kikuyu) of the funeral service, since I couldn’t take my book out again, I ended up having a good snooze!
After the service, we traveled to the nearby burial ground, a spot of land near the deceased’s house. And guess what? Another surprise awaited me! We, the Sisters, were also invited to bury the late Pauline Wambui Manje. We had to lift a spade of red earth from a huge heap and pour it into the six foot deep tomb in the ground where the coffin had been lowered. The burial ceremony was also peppered with songs and I think what was different for me was that there seemed to be an atmosphere of serenity during the whole burial. There was no wailing or any emotional outburst, no sense of fear or dread. Rather, a sense of peace seemed to evade everyone and that impressed me quite a bit.

This stanza from John Donne’s poem, A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning, (http://www.luminarium.org/sevenlit/donne/mourning.php) which a friend recently sent me seems to fit the situation so aptly:
So let us melt, and make no noise,
No tear-floods, nor sigh-tempests move;
'Twere profanation of our joys
To tell the laity our love.

(John Donne by the way is a somewhat new favourite poet. His poems remind me of the works of Gerard Manley Hopkins.)

Well, everything ended at about 4pm which was when we had our lunch! What awaited us was a meal of mashed rice and corn, mixture of beans and lentils, potatoes and cabbage.

I’m still getting used to the African food but because we were all starving and the food was hot, it was taken with relish! It was nice to adjourn from the burial plot to the little farm house of the Sister, where there were cows and chickens. We also dropped by at another Sister’s place where there were more cows, as well as goats and lambs, and where we ate newly harvested sugar cane – with our bare teeth!
I thank God for the past experiences so far and I continue adjusting to the culture and poverty of the place. Getting and remaining online can be quite frustrating – internet connection in Kenya I've discovered is via satellite not fibre optic so downloads and uploads take forever, dependent on weather conditions too!! Power interruptions can also happen anytime. Once there was no power for 3 whole hours! It’s not easy adapting but the Lord does provide blessings and consolations to make the transition easier…

In other news, my wonderful friends at Paulist Productions are excited about the launch of their first webisode series and I’m proud and happy to have been involved with that project in LA last year. Do check out the trailer here: http://www.tylersride.com/ If anyone is familiar with Jeremy Camp and his Christian rock music, he's also acting in this series. He's really nice and friendly as a person too.

And so until the next post – goodness knows when that’ll be because I’m not planning to post regularly but only when I have some exciting “chillies” or “limes” to share! - you may like to see more photos under Photo Albums. Have a grace filled, wonderfully flavored, tangy Spring!


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