Recent events have brought international attention to a place you won’t find on any map …
“If we want to train people for ministry in the slums, we need to place the college right in the heart of an environment from which we can learn and to which we can contribute.”
These were CMS mission partner Colin Smith’s comments two years ago on the decision to move the Centre for Urban Mission (CUM) from the campus of Nairobi’s Carlile College to the heart of Kibera.
Situated within Nairobi (though not officially recognised by the government), Kibera is a 630-acre informal settlement where more than 750,000 people live in a sprawl of tin-roof shanties. Since 2003, CUM students have been asked to live in Kibera for part of their training.
This commitment to being in Kibera has sometimes come at a cost, as over the years, a few students have become victims of tragic crimes. Last year one student was shot and killed on his way to college. Weeks later, the college caretaker was wounded in her leg.
While this would certainly be enough to scare some people away from the programme, recently a couple of graduates have reaffirmed their dedication to the community by choosing to stay in Kibera and remain in ministry there.
In addition to training leaders, from its strategic location CUM works with the local church to provide HIV-prevention programmes, small business loans and advice, as well as community projects such as nurseries, feeding programmes, homework clubs and informal schooling.
Walking through Kibera’s muddy, debris-strewn roads, one notices at least two things: extreme poverty and a distinct rhythm of life. Kibera isn’t just a massive slum, it’s a community with its own social and administrative systems – seemingly arbitrary at times, with self-appointed (and often corrupt) leaders.
At every corner there is a sign of enterprise: doughnuts on sale, hair-braiding services, restaurants, a kerosene pump enclosed in a shanty. The residents for the most part go about their micro-business with a sense of purpose, defiant or oblivious of those living on the other side of the ever-increasing chasm between rich and poor.
That rhythm was brought to an abrupt halt at the end of 2007 when riots erupted in Kenya after incumbent Mwai Kibaki was declared winner of the country's presidential elections.
“Most of the violence has been taking place in the slums,” said Colin, who directs CUM, writing from Nairobi on 3 January as Kibera became a scene of intense violence, looting and burning.
Though some churches in Kibera were destroyed by fire, at the time this article was being written, the Centre for Urban Mission remained relatively intact and the staff and students safe. In early January, Colin was a key part of a group convened by CMS to help people in Kibera and elsewhere re-establish their businesses.
In the wake of the unrest, the Church in Kenya has been at the forefront of relief efforts; yet it faces major challenges. One of these challenges is to overcome division between churches in informal settlements like Kibera and churches outside.
As Colin once put it: “The city is divided. You can be born in Nairobi and never step in the slum. The slum is invisible. Even churches a kilometre away from Kibera may have no contact with the slum at all.”
As Kibera becomes increasingly impossible to ignore, it’s Colin’s hope that bridges will be built. In the meantime, he and the rest of the Centre staff continue to learn from and contribute to the community they’ve chosen.
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