Many times while living in the rural western Kenyan town of Ugunja I would be invited by local inhabitants to their house for dinner. Some were keen on showing their gratitude for the work I was carrying out, while others were just keen to tell their friends that they had a white man come for dinner! Even though each person had their own personal reason, for inviting me to their house, there is one invitation that will always stay with me, bringing a smile to my face. Although at the time I wasn’t feeling like smiling!
During my time living in Ugunja, I lived in very basic lodgings. After a few weeks of living there I started to become friendly with the members of staff, in particular the 52-year-old cook by the name of Anton. Every evening after work I would go back to my lodgings and spend the night cooking my dinner with Anton and eating beneath the bright night sky. I always loved the Kenyan night sky, as there is virtually no light pollution, meaning the views of the night sky were always amazing and you can get lost for hours gazing upwards.
One day after a few months of living there, Anton came up to me all excited and invited me to his home on the following Sunday, as he wanted me to meet his family. Of course I happily accepted! Interacting with local inhabitants and their culture, for me, makes a trip so much more rewarding. The following Sunday came around and we travelled to his home, a nice 2 hour journey, first catching a matutu (similar to a small mini-bus, but drivers like to drive at 120km an hour on the wrong side of the road and around blind corners—very dangerous indeed!) to the nearby village of Sidindi, and then walking for 90 minutes to his home along an empty dirt track, over-taking the odd colourful woman dressed in their Sunday best, balancing a bible on their head on the way to Church. We past numerous banana trees, sugar cane plantations, and small-scale farms, where only women seemed to be working.
On arriving at his house I was shyly greeted by his 9 children. He had certainly been a busy old man during his life! It did cross my mind whether or not his life would have been more rewarding if he had practiced birth control or used contraception, as his $30 monthly wage for a family of 11 isn’t much to survive on. His children were adorable and we spent a while just talking and basking in the glare of the early morning sun, eating sugar cane and drinking the ridiculously sweet tea that Kenyans in this area like to drink.
I was a little curious why Anton kept meticulously checking his watch every couple of minutes or so, and when he exclaimed it would be his honour if I would accompany him to his local church I understood why. I’m not the most religious guy in the world but in Kenya I decided to go to Church every Sunday as religion is a big part of Kenyan life and immersing yourself in ones culture is extremely rewarding.
The walk to the Church wasn’t far, passing a family of squealing monkeys, who were jumping from tree to tree after being startled by our presence. I knew we were near to the Church before we even arrived as the singing and clapping was unmistakable in the distance. As we arrived at the Church, I started to become a little suspicious, as I have rarely seen a Church as full as this one was. There was probably a good 200 people inside, with all seats taken apart from two located next to the preaching priest in front of the listening congregation. There was a hushed silence as we entered and on seeing us the priest quickly beckoned us to these two vacant seats.
I made my way to the front of the Church, passing all of the glaring eyes. Upon sitting down, Anton stood up and talking in the local tongue of Dholou, started speaking to the congregation. After a few sentences, the congregation all started to look in my direction with quaint little smiles covering their faces. It quickly dawned on me why they were looking my way and why I was asked to make this trip to Anton’s house. I had been tricked!! He didn’t really want me to visit his family, he wanted to earn a bit of local respect amongst his compatriots by bringing a white guy to come and preach at his Church. So before I go on, I want to let you know that I have never preached before in my life and before I came to Kenya the last time I had even visited a Church was as a 7-year-old at my cousins Christening.
After informing the congregation that I was there to preach, Anton re-iterated this in English and said that a song would first be sung and then I would have my chance to preach to everybody. Anger was running through my veins at this particular moment in time!! I was fuming!! I don’t know if this is a good feeling to have while under God’s roof, but there was no denying that I had been put in a little bit of a tricky situation!!
Throughout the song I tried to keep my cool and think of something with a little substance to say. No matter how hard I thought, I couldn’t think of anything that would last more than one minute. Instead, I suppose you could say that I left it all to divine intervention and put my faith in the person who’s Church I was attending.
The song was soon over and my time had come for my first taste of preaching. As I stood up to preach, it finally dawned on me what I should talk about —my own experiences during my time living in Ugunja, Kenya. I have come to learn that talking about your own life experiences in most situations gets the best responses. I started off by saying how happy I was to have been given the chance to work in Kenya and that life here is completely different to life in England. I then had a moment of inspiration and decided to talk about money, explaining to the open mouthed and eagerly listening congregation that in England people have a lot of money and are always unhappy, while people in Kenya have little money and are always happy. While ‘preaching’ this, a brainwave somehow linked happiness to God, as in Kenya people have little money but are very religious, where in England, fewer people actively worship God, and although they have more money, the majority are unhappy and want more. I let the congregation in on my little brainwave.
As the heads started nodding in the audience after the translation into their own language, I started to gain in confidence and got a bit ahead of myself and started to free-style (never a good idea!), ending with the sentence ‘ before I came to Kenya I didn’t have a best friend, but after living in Kenya, I now have a best friend and his name is God.’ To this, the whole congregation stood up and started clapping and whistling wildly. It was a strange feeling that overcame me. Like I have already said, I’m not deeply religious, but standing in front of these people and telling them my story and thoughts, and them seemingly understanding my arguments that money is the root of all evil was a very good feeling. In an instance my anger had left me and I was instead filled with pride and a sense of achievement.
This wasn’t the last of my incidences in Church. The following week a female work colleague invited me to another Church. After sitting down to the service I noticed all the men were on the right, while the women were on the left. I mentioned this to my colleague and she said this wasn’t a problem. It wasn’t a problem until the priest half way through the service stopped and asked my colleague if I was a girl or a boy, to which the whole Church burst out in fits of laughter!! I soon got used to embarrassing moments like this!!
I suppose the motto of the story is this. If you have the pleasure of visiting this area of Kenya and you are invited around somebody’s house, then everything might not be as it seems. Also if you visit a Church be aware of the seating arrangements. I would also recommend having some sort of speech prepared just as a worst-case scenario!