Bonds beyond gospel
Around five years ago I was studying in LA, and it was there of all places that I fell in love with blues, soul and gospel. Five years on, I find myself here in Nakuru, jumping into my host mother’s car a week after moving into her more than welcoming home. Her name is Margaret. She is a mother living alone and a church woman, the leader of a church in fact, highly revered in her community. I am not exactly religious but after talking with her, I learned of her passion for community support and the central role the church plays for so many Kenyans. After hearing about the English and Swahili church services, I was told there would be much singing, and I was sold. I knew this would be a unique opportunity to hear, see and experience the gospel rooted in red soil.
As we drive, I observe many respectfully dressed people of all ages on the streets streaming into the gated compounds of churches. On one road, Margaret points to the multiple building structures, smiling and laughing as she repeatedly states, “This is a church, that is a church…” She has counted at least 10 churches on only a few passing roads, each one almost next door to the other. Finally we pull up into the largest one yet, an impressively tall, open and well-kept structure, supported by grey stone with a practical metal roof sheltering the pews from the intense morning sun. As we get out of the car and are about to enter, I realize the English service is coming to a close, with the Swahili service following soon after. Margaret opens a side door and guides us to the nearest seats at the front.
While sitting down, a man reaches over to shake my hand, smiles and whispers, “We’re so happy you’re here in Kenya.” At this moment we are called to rise and suddenly the hall bursts with the singing of four women positioned behind microphones, each harmonising with the other. They lead with a clap, a rhythm to which everyone follows, and the entire audience carries that energy, propelling each line sung to a new level, that is evermore powerful and beautiful. I find myself clapping instinctively as I look around to internalise the reaction. Most are smiling, some men and women alone, others together, and some rocking children in their arms. Each person sways as vocals stretch to make way for another change in direction. This contagious energy overcomes all, drawing out inner angst and resolve with passionate singing, bringing a somewhat cathartic experience to everyone present. There is immense joy. The music is a blend of local music with influences from many musical styles and countries from around the world. The man next to me offers his hand and I look around to see everyone joined together. We sway and as I read the Swahili lyrics on the projector I really begin to notice just how many members are standing on the big stage in front – around twenty, all part of the communion. These highly respected members of society were joining hands in unison, singing with the great range of people who have congregated. I realise at this moment, as the music carries us, the power of song in bringing us this collective experience, surmounting any barriers of wealth or authority. This community is joined at the hip and there is a sense that being together and supporting each other makes each of them strong individually.
These churches are home to gospel music in Kenya and have helped social groups of women and youth to be brought from out of sight into the public space as worthy culture-driven workers. The churches and their music are significant in the lives and spiritual experiences of many Kenyans. Positive, supportive Christian phrases are peppered into the everyday language of these widespread communities. In fact, each day, though many of the fellows are not religious, Margaret would sit down and pray for us before each meal, asking for continued protection, humility and displaying gratitude for bringing joy to our daily lives. To start and end our days together in this way brings an inner awareness, a fresh perspective and an underlying sense of appreciation for where we are, who we are with and ultimately helps us in our own spiritual journeys to better understand why we are here. It is through Margaret that I am truly realising the importance of reflection, so that any change we seek to implement has purpose and the best direction. After our prayers, I find myself asking whether I can do better, as I feel more and more connected with my reasons for being here.
Let me fast forward now to the end of the programme. I can say that almost inadvertently, these opportunities for continual reflection while living with Margaret have enabled me to understand my experiences in a way that is empowering; developing my understanding at both the emotional and intellectual level. In turn, this has helped align my own beliefs, values, actions and choices, such that I am more able to make a positive impact while remaining empathetic. It is true that with any experience, what you gain from it depends on what you put in. Many of us have realised this through our continual hard work with our inspiring entrepreneurs. We find ourselves with new levels of responsibility and an innate dedication to help their lives by reflecting on their needs and beliefs. From the very beginning we made every effort to comprehend their lives in their entirety, from their skills to their inner passions, to understand what mattered, what to use and where to go, such that any success was defined by them. Everything done has been done in partnership – fully understanding the context before advancing has been one of the most valuable learnings, and to put it into practice has allowed each of us to appreciate the bonds we’ve developed with our entrepreneurs.
I can say, therefore, that Margaret has inspired and helped me to achieve my goals on this programme, and has supported us throughout, from relentlessly preparing meals to taking care of us if we were to fall ill. Throughout the last five weeks, she has gone out of her way on her daily projects, such as fundraising events, to help support people in need through her church. On our last night living with her, all eleven of us sit around her dinner table for our final dinner. Margaret prays for our safe journeys home and guidance wherever we are. After, she looks at us and expresses how happy our presence has made her. We are, as she says, her children whom she loves and wishes the best for always. She assures us that whenever we are in Nakuru or Kenya, we have a home, and that is exactly how we felt. I can say that we will all very much miss her, as she has brought much joy, love and value to our programme and our lives.
By Karam Chohan, Balloon Kenya Fellow, Nakuru 2015