My head is buried deep in my book. I am sitting in the back seat of a matatu that belongs to the museum. The daily “offerings” to the local traffic police have ensured that the matatu continues to grow ancient while making money for the owner. The seats have patches of faux leather. The spongy bits of the seats are peeking through the patches. The windows can barely open. The temperatures on this fine evening can bake a cake. There are four of us in the back seat. The latest addition does not understand that we live in a share economy. He takes up more space than he should, earning irate looks from all of us. We endure the discomfort of our ride as we swerve from left to right on the potholed road. I am reading a book titled “Why Africa is Poor” by Greg Mills. I am struggling to imagine that perhaps, my country is an exception. May be we have a unique set of problems or there is so much that is working against us. The more I delve into the book, the more I realize that there is nothing new under the sun.
I notice him out of the corner of my eye. He shifts uneasily and moves closer to me after one of the passengers alights. He has a neat moustache, the kind that makes you wary given the recent reports about suave looking armed robbers. I zip up my bag and pretend that I am deeply engrossed in my book. My eyes are as alert as an eagle’s eyes. I can almost feel his eye lashes twitch. I do not want to miss any of his movements considering he might be one of “them”. He notices my uneasiness and shifts, perhaps, in an attempt to distract me. I am flipping a page in my book when I notice that he is trying to keep up. He wants to read my book. Our eyes meet as I turn the page once again in an attempt to throw him off balance. He mumbles a quick hi. I hesitate before responding. Blame that on the news. There is enough bad news in this city. The speed with which it gets to you makes its effect more pronounced. I decide not to respond and continue flipping through my book. I can see my stop a few meters away. I start preparing myself so that I can alight. Just before I stand up, he touches my hand lightly and gets my attention.
“Could you please give me thirty shillings? “He says. There is a look of sincerity in his eyes. For the first time, I notice the nimbleness of his youth. He is probably in his early twenties. His voice is trembling as he asks. My immediate answer is no. The matatu grinds to a halt. I am at my bus stop. He pleads for my help. I rummage through my purse in order to convince him that I do not have any money. A part of me is offended because he asked. I want to interrogate his motives.
I want to lash out at him for asking. I do not get a chance to do that because the matatu driver is in a hurry. The other passengers are grumbling because I have taken too long to alight from the vehicle.
The next day, I read an article about how we treat the poor in Kenya. Larry Madowo wrote this in his weekly column, Frontrow:
“When you’re poor in this country, even your own lived experiences are open to scrutiny and revision so that they don’t offend the important people at the top.
Why can’t you just be grateful that you had a place to have your baby at a price you could afford and ignore all the “minor” inconveniences that came with it?”
This was in the context of a poorly and hastily constructed response to allegations of the rape of new mothers at Kenyatta National Hospital by the hospital’s chief executive. I wanted to lynch the chief executive when I heard her response but something stopped me in my tracks. If you have been a member of any church for as long as I have been one, then you may have made the following observations, particularly in the modern church:
- Talk about the poor is limited to seasons especially Christmas. In case you thought Santa Claus lives in the mall, welcome to church. It is the home of Santa.
- The poor are those people out there. We do not know their names, their addresses or their families
- A lot of time is dedicated to giving towards this and that project. These projects mostly benefit the church and leave out the poor
- Tithing is an essential part of sermons about giving. There are few, if any sermons, as to what part of the church’s income goes towards the poor.
- In prosperity laden speak, poverty is the ULTIMATE You can be greedy, envious, idolatrous or vain in your ambition but please, don’t be poor.
- Jesus died for the poor but they definitely must do something about it. Buy this book, follow these steps and make poverty a thing of the past.
I make these observations while fully aware that there is a lot of good that has been done by the church. I know many well-meaning churches that have gone out of their way to put children through schools, build hospitals and offset medical bills but I am also painfully aware of the ways in which the poor can be forgotten in church. If the story above says anything about me, it says that I am complacent in forgetting that when Jesus Christ said that we will always have the poor among us, he was not just talking about poverty in a certain geographical location. He wasn’t being fatalistic either, he was simply reminding us that this broken world we live in will always have glaring reminders of its brokenness.
At the height of the election mania, I remember hearing a lot of talk about Kenya being a Christian nation. Some went as far as finding the hitherto unknown meaning of the word Kenya in Hebrew and reminding anyone who cared to listen that they had to vote a certain way. What was conspicuously missing from that discussion was that the first time the word Christian was used, it was not used as an adjective attached to the purposes of the empire. It was a noun that was used to describe a small faithful group that overturned market principles through their generosity. While the empire’s economic principles dictated that they had to amass wealth, they gave it away. They took care of their own when they were sick and went out their way to take care of the outsiders. They shared their meals and worked hard to finance the advancement of the kingdom. The early church was not an ideal community but there was room for the least among them.
I worry that in an attempt to bring an end to the financial troubles that many have to contend with in this nation using scriptural principles, we have lost the language of the gospel that is cognizant of the poor. In an attempt to remain relevant, we have diminished the power of grace over sin and made poverty the unpardonable sin. It must be cast out, prayed and fasted over then treated with a healthy dose of principles prescribed by your favourite get-wealthy-now preacher. The poor must prove their existence to earn our help. They are an invisible lot who occasionally get the bread crumbs from our tables. We talk about loving our neighbours but we do not know our neighbours if they do not fit into a certain economic status. We waste food in our homes yet we sit next to underfed men and women in the pews the next morning. We lack the language to speak to them so it comes as surprise that our nation is continually making it difficult to speak for them.
I see the log in my own eyes in this area. I am a married woman who is blessed to have an education, a job and a second income. I do not fully understand the struggles of a man whose education is wasting away as he walks from one closed door to another. I cannot pretend to be cognizant of what it means to have the landlord on your neck, an empty stomach and five children to feed. I have heard many justify the ill treatment of the poor by saying that they are a lazy, entitled lot. To say that without spending an hour in their shoes is to speak out of pride. It is to forget that God loved the world so he became a part. God entered the world as a naked, fragile baby, born to a poor, young girl and clueless dad who was a carpenter. Loving without listening is self-seeking exercise. Loving borne out of listening and sharing in the experiences of others mirrors the love Christ shared with the world.
If the end of political charged season should teach us anything, it should teach us that having one of our “own” in a political office can never make this nation Christian. The more I observe the political games, the more I realize the way of the empire can never be tied to the way of the cross. I do not know what a Christian nation looks but I get an idea from what the principles enshrined in the Law of Moses. These principles directly touched on the welfare of the poor. God commanded the Israelites to do the following for the poor:
- Farmers were not supposed to pick all the grain from their fields so that the poor could come and glean ( refer to the story of Ruth)
- Every seven years, creditors had to forgive their neighbor’s of their debts
- Tithes were collected to make provisions for the widows, immigrants and the Levites.
I fear that in an attempt to “baptize” our country, we often forget that the greatest commandments are to love God and to love our neighbours. In our zeal to get everyone to toe our line, we have neglected the numerous opportunities to tend to those whom God has asked us to tend to: the widows, the orphans, the strangers and the prisoners. As we demand that a government does a better job of putting in place policies that are pro-poor, I pray we will be known for walking the talk. I know where my sin lies when it comes to taking care of the poor. Do you?
- 1 John 3:17
- I Timothy 6:17
- Isaiah 58:6-10
- Proverbs 14:31
NB: The list of Bible verses that speaks about taking care of the poor is endless. You can do a study on this topic for more insight.