Easter 1998 – Ireland and Kenya

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Street Children in Nairobi

I receive a copy of the Saturday Irish Times here in Kenya usually about two weeks late. Today I was very moved to read the Holy Saturday issue which proclaimed the news of the peace agreement in Northern Ireland. How moving to anyone raised in the Irish nationalist tradition to read the simple headline on the front page editorial “Easter I998.” The intention of the headline clearly was to proclaim that we have a new date to stitch into our memory of Ireland’s historic moments. And then, inside the paper there was the wonderful article by the poet Seamus Heaney.

If revolution is the kicking down of a rotten door, evolution is more like pushing the stone from the mouth of the tomb. There is an Easter energy about it [the peace agreement] a sense of arrival rather than wreckage (Seamus Heaney, Irish Times, April 11.) How well a poet can capture in a brief space what the rest of us would grope to express in paragraphs. This Easter business – there is really something to it.

This reference of the stone moving from the mouth of the tomb brought a similar and moving image to my mind. This time the stone was a large tractor tyre covered in white sacking material. The tomb was a series of branches and metal wires covered by the same synthetic sacking. This construction was a prop for a drama about the resurrection I was part of on Easter Sunday here in Nairobi. The general area where I found myself was the slum behind the industrial area of the city.

More specifically, I was in a home for street children that has been built by a dynamic Sister of Mercy from Dublin, Sister Mary Killeen. It was my privilege to celebrate the Eucharist with the ninety or so residents of the home. They had spent a week preparing for the drama which took the place of the homily in the Mass. It was only after the celebration that it began to sink into me just how much effort these young people had put into their celebration of the risen Jesus.

After the liturgy the chief house mother and I headed across the compound of jerry-built dormitories to the one low building that housed her flat. After our customary cup of tea, we returned to the now-empty hall where the Mass had been held (a gift of the Nairob Lyons club, the tomb was competing for space on the stage with their massive Logo on the wall). I stared at the tomb and recognised what an ingenious product of creative scavenging it was. The children had scoured the nearby slum and, evidently, the grounds of a big trucking company next door, to find their materials.

I would not care to ask how legal were the means by which they obtained the tyre. How they managed to heave it over the high wire fencing I will never know. The branches and wires had been rounded into a circular structure that exactly matched the five-foot high tyre. These children had made this tomb their own.

I chatted a little with my good friend the chief house mother. She is an iron-willed Edinburgh Baptist who lived in Kenya for decades. She is slight of frame and has the white hair of one in her late 50s. Her face is gaunt and her jaw always looks clenched. However, her brown eyes are large and bear looking into. She is called Mama Kamau (mother of Kamau) after the Kenyan orphan she legally adopted years ago. Mama Kamau reminded me that during the sketch one of the boys had climbed into the tomb and almost knocked it over as he climbed inside the place looking for Jesus. He was portraying St Peter from the scene in John’s Gospel where the two disciples find the tomb empty. “You thought that was somewhat exaggerated acting, l expect” she said in her working-class Scots accent that you could cut with a knife. She was accurate in her surmise. “But you’re wrong,” she said, “They have a way of doing that.

When I am in my office one of them will burst through the door and ask something like ‘is James here?’ looking for one of their friends. Before receiving my answer, they will look under my desk and behind the door as if I was trying to hide the young fellow. “Like most missionaries of decades standing, Mama Kamau often reflects on how different from her own culture of those to whom she has given her life. I stayed a while staring at the empty tomb and something sank in. I thought: these children are definitely catching the Christian “thing.”

Special Children

It was not to be taken for granted that Christianity would touch these children. Obviously, for their years on the street they had nothing of a religious formation. To be sure, before they hit the streets, they had a wide variety of home experiences. Some did indeed have a serious Catholic upbringing for a few years — typically their parents would have died of AIDS and left them to join the thousands of street children that populate Kenya’s capital city. But even for the few that are lucky enough to find their way to a home like this, are almost invariably traumatised by their months or years living rough.

I know so little about these children. But from their inability to look me in the eye much less speak to me I can tell something. Their self esteem can be so low that it occurs to me to speak of their having “no self image.” They just cannot perceive themselves as occupying enough space to be a real person who could answer a question put by this tall white priest who they do not know well. Who can say to what extent these children can come to know and like the Jesus we are telling them about?

The recent upsurge of glue sniffing street children has made walking on certain streets in the city centre a nightmare.

Another aspect of this question is that the religious formation has not always been well looked after in the home. Sr Mary who started the home has spoken to me about this. She feels guilty about it, but her primary energies had for a long time been devoted to fund-raising and managing the practicalities of housing, feeding and schooling these children. I travel quite a bit around similar projects to this in Nairobi and I have seen this situation repeat itself. The scramble to find the material basics for the very poor is so demanding that religiously motivated people often do not find time to offer religious formation to the people they are striving to help. This is where our Jesuit students can come in.

One of my jobs in the Jesuit School of Theology where I teach is to find apostates for our fifty odd students. They come from all over Africa, so as strangers to Nairobi they need help in finding some part-time ministry to undertake alongside their studies. Teaching catechism in such places as this home for street children is just the sort of work ministry that suits our fellows. But what actually gets through? Our Jesuit students are not trained catechises and their schedules do not permit them to all year round regular visitors to the school.

I myself have made only the very limited commitment to this home. I turn up to say Mass once a month. However, it seems that this event has served as a focus for a lot of their leaming. By the way, the minority of Protestants at the school are well looked after by Mama Kamau. They are packed off most Sunday mornings to a nearby Protestant service. They dress to the nines, cross the sewerage-bearing stream that borders the home, and reach their Church promptly. Mind you, for big feasts like Christmas and Easter Mama Kamau has put so much work into preparing the Catholic liturgy that she packs her Protestant children in as well. Preparing for these liturgies helps occupy the time of the children during the school holidays that coincide with these Christian feasts. Having them prepare for the Mass all week keeps them all out of trouble. So it was that in our drama on Easter Sunday, some of our main actors were Protestant.

The improvement of the way the children participate in the Mass has been remarkable. The liturgy is to be said in Swahili. At the best of times, I struggle to say the priest’s part of the Mass in this language. However, for the first few months of my visiting the place I had to recite the responses as well. But never fear, Mama Kamau applied her Protestant ethic. She made photo-copies of the parts of the Mass, placed the sheets in plastic folders and spent hours training the children to read and recite just as they should. Now they bellow out both the prayers and quite a few hymns. Mama Kamau now corrects me where I go wrong in saying the priest’s part of the mass. As a pseudo-Catholic, she is mysteriously “high” in her liturgical preferences.

Actually, Mama Kamau, does not approve of drama during the Mass. She feels it is disrespectful. I have conceded to her preferences and instead of having drama every time I visit I now only press for it on very special feast days like Christmas and Easter. At times I snigger at Mama Kamau’s high Catholicism but I have also learnt to be slow to judge some one of her immense experience working with Kenyan children. She reminds me that these children have had virtually no structure in their lives. As I have already said, they can also tend to have self-images that are lower than the floor. So, to co-operate with each other and to successfully pull off a Catholic liturgy is a great achievement, a great security, for them. And after all, they do have some experience of Mass “on the outside.” They very much want to know how to behave like “normal people.” I have now learnt to recognise for myself how the structured approach is helping the children. You can see a joy in their eyes when they have “got it right” down to the last hymn and the last Amen.

It’s getting through!

I suppose I could have recognised that the children were making their own the message about Jesus that we have been offering them. However, somehow it was staring at that perfectly designed tomb that let the truth settle in that this has been happening. As I marvelled at the tractor tyre, I remembered Omondi the fellow who had read the first reading during the Mass. Omondi is a taciturn thirteen-year-old who I baptised at Christmas along with two other young men. He has few friends and no one knows much about his history before he arrived at the home (in such cases you can always assume the worst). A month before Christmas, I had taken the boys into Mama Kamau’s sitting room for a kind of ritual announcement that I would Baptise them. Mama Kamau later joked with me that Omondi took the meeting so seriously that he gave up sniffing glue for the whole month leading up to his big event, it is impossible to stop drugs getting into the home. The children that want to use them will find an opportunity.

However, in a sense, the joke is now on us. Omondi has stayed off drugs for four more months now and seems to be slowly opening up to friends and house parents. They say they find him saying his prayers for a few minutes each morning.

In the theology course that I teach at the Jesuit college I declare with great confidence that the story of Jesus meets a kind of yearning expectation in the heart of each individual. However, for some reason I lose my confidence in this truth when I visit this home for street-children. This is where the proof of the pudding is. These children are hearing about Jesus for more or less the first time. For them is it anything more than a fairy-tale? These little ones have already been so thoroughly crucified. Who am I to preach the resurrection to them?

In the end, however, it has been them who preach the resurrection to me.

Easter 1998. In both Ireland and Kenya, Christ has not only continued to be crucified, but he also rises.

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About this record

Written by Gerry Whelan S. J.

Published here 01 Mar 2023 and originally published Summer 1998

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