Hope flickers in Nairobi's slums

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NAIROBI, Kenya — Think you're going through tough times? Try living in a Nairobi slum.

Running water and electricity are rare; open sewage trenches are common. Many people use "flying toilets" — waste-filled plastic bags tossed into alleys or the murky Nairobi River.

Kenyan migrants and African immigrants arrive daily looking for work and a better life. They typically find something far different.

In Kasabuni, jobless men jostle with packs of shoeless children running down rutted, trash-strewn dirt roads that weave between shops and one-room dwellings. Scorch marks streak the walls where rioters burned shacks and kiosks during "the skirmishes" — the post-election violence that tormented Kenya in early 2008.

If you can find work in Kasabuni, it's likely a "casual" job (day labor). But it probably won't pay enough to feed your family. So you borrow to buy food, or you go hungry. Many families subsist on one meal a day. If you're a teenage girl with penniless parents, you might try prostitution to pay the fees to attend high school — risking AIDS and early death. If you're a young man, you might turn to crime. Despairing fathers and mothers sink into alcohol and drugs.

"There's a lot of frustration," says Jecktone Owiso, 32, a Kenyan pastor who ministers in Kasabuni. "People are beating each other here the whole night. There's a lot of wailing here, a lot of crying everywhere."

Hopeless? Not quite.


Bible stories
In a back lane off one of Kasabuni's dirt roads, Christian believers crowd into the one-room home of Dominic and Beatrice, a local couple. A curtain separates beds from the sitting area where adults and children pray, share testimonies, tell Bible stories and talk about their meaning.

The Bible stories are the heart of the worship time. This is a "T4T" (Training for Trainers) group, one of four such groups Owiso has helped launch since he came to Kasabuni. Soon, he hopes, they will multiply as believers learn the stories and start their own groups — which in turn will start others.

It's an evangelism/discipleship method almost anyone can use — from seminary-trained pastors to illiterate villagers. Owiso learned it from missionaries Jerry Stephens and David Cox, who model "T4T" for pastors and church members in Nairobi.

"Since Jerry and David introduced me to this, it has led us to great growth," Owiso reports. "The people love the stories. They are easy to understand. Then the people say, 'This is what Jesus is trying to say.'"

And they realize they can tell the stories, too.

Owiso leads a church in Kasabuni where the "T4T" groups come together. They meet in a ramshackle building with a tin roof and wooden benches lining a dirt floor. Worshippers sing, clap their hands and listen to the pastor preach. Owiso speaks in a loud voice to be heard above the radio blaring from a bar across the dusty street. He challenges his flock to reject the temptation to give in to the hopelessness of life in Kasabuni.

"Do not say, 'I am just a youth,'" he appeals, pointing to kids and teens sitting on the benches. "You are responsible for this place. Everyone here is a leader. Everyone here is able to fulfill God's purpose for [his or her] life. Tear down whatever is bad around you — selfishness, bad words, unkindness. Tear it down and uproot it in your heart, in your house, in your neighborhood, in our city, in our nation, in the world!"

Owiso knows words alone won't transform Kasabuni. He takes food to needy families. He risked his life repeatedly to deliver aid and hope to a nearby refugee camp during the political violence. He loves the children of this place. They follow him around — and lead him to their parents.

"I play with the children," he says, a wide smile brightening his face. "I sit down in the dirt with them. I tell them they are special. My prayer is that these people who have received Jesus will begin a transformation, so there is less wife-beating, less drunkenness, less prostitution, less drugs and alcohol — so people may know Jesus."

A well-educated, high-energy young pastor, Owiso doesn't have to work in Kasabuni. He ministers in the slum because he followed God's call there.

He's not the only one.

Richard and Joan Ayimba lead a church and a kindergarten in Baba Dogo, another slum area. Homeless widows wander the streets. Some hungry girls become prostitutes as young as age 7 or 8. Children come to the little Christian school lacking five shillings (about 50 cents) to pay for a morning bowl of porridge. Joan feeds them anyway.

The Ayimbas also have multiplied their ministry using "T4T." They turned down a car and a house from a more prosperous church to live in one room in the slum. Why?

"My heart was not there," Richard answers. "God revealed to me this place in a vision. I saw the people coming in tatters. This is where we believe God has called us."