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African Great Lakes Initiative of the Friends Peace Teams

Report from Kenya #280 – May 23, 2014

The Culture of Kenya versus Central Africa

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Reminder: Don’t forget to sign up and join us on June 20 to 22 at PeaceQuest2014 in Baltimore, the 20th Anniversary Celebration of Friends Peace Teams. On Friday night I’ll be introducing the keynote speaker, Carl Wilkens, the only American who remained in Rwanda twenty years ago during the genocide and helped save hundreds of people. Go to peacequest2014.org/ to register. Many workshops are scheduled for Saturday.

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I told them, “In my Kenyan culture, you cannot sit as other people are working. Either I stand, or I join you in working.” Henry Sabatia.

In my talks, I frequently comment that the culture in Kenya is extremely different than that in Central Africa (Rwanda, Burundi, and eastern Congo). This difference is much greater, say, than the difference between American and British culture. Below is an article from the latest edition of Quaker Life, the magazine published by Friends United Meeting, which provides a good illustration of these differences. I encourage you to read the article along with my observations which follow.

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Equipping to Serve: Through the Work of a Missionary

Quaker Life, May/June 2014, p 10 to 12.

Editorial note: The following article is a transcript of an interview with an FTC [Friends Theological College in Kaimosi, Kenya] graduate who is a teacher and a missionary in Congo. His is one of many stories of people who are equipped and energized by the ministry of Friends United Meeting to equip others to know Jesus Christ.

I’m Henry Sabatia from Vokoli Yearly Meeting in Kenya. When I finished my training at Friends Theological College in 2010, I got an opportunity to go to Congo as a teacher and also as a missionary. While in the Congo, I had to learn a new culture, how they do things and how they worship. Since I’m an African and an evangelical, it was easier for me to get in tune with them. My first mission work had been in Uganda. I had learned then that God had given me the gift of adjusting to any environment. So I told the people in Congo, “I’m no longer a Kenyan, I’m a Congolese. I’ve come to you. I’ve acquired your identity. We do things the same. What you eat, I’ll eat. Whatever you do, we’ll do together.” They rejoiced that I was the first African missionary they had seen. They had white missionaries, yes, but I was the first African missionary to reach them. I felt somehow proud, knowing it was all for the glory of God.

While in Congo I taught eight courses, while continually giving devotions, preaching and counseling. I remember when I first arrived somebody telling me, “Now that you have come, nobody else is going to preach. You’re the one preaching for the two months that you’ll be here.” They used to have a devotion every morning from Monday to Saturday and I was to do them all. I thought of Proverbs 25:25 which says, “Like cold water to a thirsty person, so is good news from a distant land.” It touched my heart that this is what the Congolese wanted from me. I prayed for God to give me what to tell these people. I thank God because through that prayer, through the Holy Spirit, He gave me a message of building up. Even me, I felt I had been built up. I would pray to God, “Give me what to share with them. We need a message today and also again tomorrow.” At times I would be given a message that lasted for four days. Throughout my stay with them, I was given many messages of building one another up.

Their actual church building was almost falling down. Compared to here in Kenya, we don’t have churches in such condition. I had a heart of sympathy but I had no ability to assist financially. I prayed to God, and asked God, “How can I help these people?” Through the morning devotional services, God inspired me. The people had made some bricks, but because of lack of finance the bricks got destroyed. They had prepared some soil to make more bricks, but the roof was going to be a problem. Time was running short, the rainy season was about to begin and they were afraid. Suppose the rains may come before we finish the project? Through prayer, God had shown me that He is faithful. He will never leave the work to be destroyed. So, I kept on encouraging them, but they said to me, “Missionary, do you really know the rains of Congo?” I said, “I don’t know about them, but I know God. What He promises will come to pass. So, if He says a project will come to fulfillment before it rains, it will.” Yes, we saw God.

The first time I went to help them prepare bricks, they said. “No, you are a visitor!” They brought a seat for me to sit. I told them “in my Kenyan culture, you cannot sit as other people are working. Either I stand, or I join you in working.” So, the second day I joined them, because I have that heart of working. I’m not used to just sitting idle. So, I joined them in making the mud and preparing the bricks. When they were dry, we transferred them to the church. Each member was given a certain number to carry to the church, but me, I transferred countlessly because I wanted to motivate them. They told me, “We’re amazed because even our yearly meeting leaders, whenever they come, they just have a seat and watch as we work. But you, from far, you’re here! You’re joining us. You’re like a part of us. You have even challenged other members who are just idlers. These other ones say ‘if a foreigner, a visitor, is working then who are we? Let us join him.’” Therefore even members of the other churches in other denominations joined us in preparing bricks. When the mason came and started making the foundation, I joined him. The people looked at me and said, “Wow! Come make bricks and you are there. Come make a foundation and you are there. Come to class you are there, you’re all round.” It is a gift of God. I like being active all around.

I want to thank God because on the last day when I was leaving, they were just roofing. God did a miracle because the moment they finished roofing, it rained heavily. It touched my heart to see how faithful God is. While we were building the church, the rains would fall on all sides. You could see it coming but God would drive the rain aside and the wind would blow it in a different direction, therefore you could see how faithful God is.

I enjoyed being in Congo, despite the challenges of war and tension. God protected me. You know here in Kenya, it is rare to hear a gunshot, but there it is more common. The first time I heard it, I asked if it was action between robbers and the police. Because in Kenya when you hear continuous gunfire, it is normally the police. But they said no, they don’t have police. So, I prayed to God. There were some rebels coming. I was praying and fasting for Congo. The presiding clerk wanted to move me from the interior to the town for my safety, but God assured me of what was to come. I told him. “I’m here. Whether I’m alive or dead, I’ll be with you.”

My students also motivated me, they encouraged me and yet, they could pose challenges. Before going to Congo, I didn’t feel I could teach. I wanted to be a preacher, maybe offer some guidance and counseling. But I learned I could also be a teacher. In 2012, I taught a course at Friends Theological College on mission and evangelism and my class did very well. I taught out of my own experience. I remember when the students realized that a mission is different from a church. The mission field holds so many challenges. When you reach the mission, people look to you as a provider. You have to teach them that God is the provider. There are so many expectations when they see you. You need to know how to present yourself to them, to give them hope. Some are desperate because of what they are going through because of poverty and they need a word of hope. You have to show them the way to depend on God.

I am yearning to reach other people with the gospel. I’ve been in Uganda; I’ve been in Congo; and I’ve seen the need. Sometimes we say we are handicapped — we lack the manpower, our pockets are empty — and it’s true you can not go for mission without finance. But with the little we have, we do what we can. And as we pray, God will add us more so that we can reach more.”

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Commentary: When I return to the rural areas of Kenya after a visit to the rural countryside in Rwanda, Burundi, or eastern Congo, I feel like I have gone from poverty to the Garden of Eden because Kenya is so much more lush and prosperous. And this has nothing to do with the climate or rainfall, but the difference in culture. As I ride around the countryside in Central Africa, I see mostly women – frequently in groups of three to fifteen – working in the fields together. Only here and there do you see a man working and he is usually quite young. When I taught Rwandan refugees in 1964-65, I was told no respectable man would be seen working with a hoe. Kenya is a completely different story where men are frequently in the fields working. This is my theory. In Kenya, unlike Central Africa, oxen are used for plowing. Since cattle are a man’s responsibility, this means that the men do the plowing. Moreover, they would have needed to invest a considerable sum in buying a plow and then training the oxen. As a result they have an investment in their fields. It is absurd to think that Central African agriculture can be prosperous when only women by themselves – already burdened with cooking, carrying water and firewood, tending the children and the sick – will be able to adequately produce bountiful harvests as is done in Kenya. They also lack the capital to invest in improvements.

This is evident in the article above. Rwandan, Burundian, and eastern Congolese are hierarchical elitists. The leader is supposed to sit in a chair and watch while the common folks do the work. The Kenyan pastor on the other hand can’t sit and watch as he must become involved in the work. Which is more motivating, “Sitting and watching or leading by example?” Do note that what he did in the Congo was culturally inappropriate which didn’t hinder him a bit.

A second obvious point is the enthusiasm Pastor Henry has for building the church (Compared to here in Kenya, we don’t have churches in such condition.) Even though he has no material resources to offer, this does not deter him. He is all encouragement, praying that he can roof the church before the rains come. He gets everyone to help, including people from other denominations. This energy, this enthusiasm, this drive to succeed is another attribute where Kenyans are so different from Central Africans who wait until someone does something for them – there seems to be no reason why the parishioners could not have built a simple, but adequate church before Pastor Henry came, but they didn’t.

Third when he first comes he expresses his solidarity with the church members (What you eat, I’ll eat. Whatever you do, we’ll do together.) Notice how Pastor Henry wishes to stay with his rural hosts even when there is danger of gunshots. He wants to stay with the people he is serving rather than be evacuated. This is that friendliness that makes Kenyans so appealing. Central Africans, on the other hand, are much more stand-offish.

These differences, and others not covered in this article, mean that AGLI’s work in Kenya is so much easier and frankly “cheaper” because we don’t have to be highfalutin. In Kenya we can do a workshop at the Peace House for any number of people because we can just throw mattresses on the floor with one room for men and one for women and everyone is accommodating. We can do a one-day workshop and just give people half a loaf of bread and a soda for lunch. In Kenya we can ask participants and their community to supply food (the most expensive item for any workshop). When violence erupts, Getry Agizah, Peter Serete, and countless others of our Kenyan facilitators or citizen reporters will arrive as soon as possible. They may not know what they are going to do, but the important step has been taken – they have shown up.

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