Bad Relief Undermines Worship in Kibera


In contrast to the transient nature of outside organizations, the local church is often the ever-present change agent within any given community.

To many people, the Kibera slum in Nairobi, Kenya is a place with no equals. It is filthy, congested, degraded, and unfit for human habitation. Like the proverbial scriptural reference to the birth place of Jesus Christ, many people believe that “nothing good can come out of Kibera.” Therefore, most remedies directed towards Kibera are motivated by the sympathy of outsiders, who often give handouts in an attempt to cushion the residents against their perceived, gigantic problems.

In reality, many of the problems of Kibera stem from chronic issues that can only be solved through a consistent and long-term relationship between the change agent and the residents. Changes within individuals and communities are not instantaneous; long-term relationships are needed to bring out the best of “what is” and of “what could be.” The people in Kibera have capacities, skills, and resources that need to be tapped if genuine development is to be realized, but the process of identifying and mobilizing these gifts and assets takes time.

Unfortunately, for many years non-government organizations working in Kibera have tended to operate on the basis of “quick fixes.” Frustrations set in because changes in individuals are not coming as quickly as anticipated. Many of these organizations then either close down or move to other parts of the country, leaving people in a worse situation than they were before.

It appears that many donors are willing to give to any venture as long as they see pictures of “dilapidated” Kibera. In the process, individual and community lives have been devastated. First and foremost, there has been a lot of duplication of efforts, leading to competition and conflicts amongst the many organizations working in Kibera, thereby undermining the cohesiveness of the community. Second, development approaches initiated from outside the community often target certain types of individuals—e.g. children—without recognizing that these targeted individuals are part of larger social networks such as families; this results in a breakdown of these social networks to the harm of the targeted individuals. Finally, many of these organizations believe in giving travel and sitting allowances for people to attend any training. This has given rise to people who thrive on moving from one seminar to another all year round because of the money they receive for attending the seminar and not for the purposes of getting empowered by the training. When these organizations leave Kibera, the people left behind have had their creativity, skills, and social networks undermined, making them even more desperate than before.

Of course, there are some occasions in which there is a need for relief work in Kibera. For example, often times there are fire breakouts where houses and business premises are gutted down. It might be necessary to bring in outside resources to provide relief and to rehabilitate these homes and businesses. But even in these situations, caution should be taken so that the relief efforts are not prolonged to the point in which they undermine local people’s stewardship of their own lives and communities.

The root issue in all of these considerations is that God, who is a worker, ordained work so that humans could worship Him through their work. Relief efforts applied inappropriately often cause the beneficiaries to abstain from work, thereby limiting their relationship with God through distorted worship or through no worship at all.

In contrast to the transient nature of outside organizations, the local church is often the ever-present change agent within any given community; this strength has been realized by St. Jerome Church, a congregation of the Anglican Church of Kenya here in Kibera. St. Jerome Church recognized its position and ability to declare the kingdom of God holistically by being contextually relevant to the people it seeks to serve. As part of its ministry, St Jerome initiated an accumulating savings and credit association (ASCA) fourteen months ago to help reduce the financial vulnerabilities associated with life in the slums.

St. Jerome Church believed that the people in Kibera had something to offer to their own improvement, and therefore the ASCA started, not with money from outside the community, but by requiring each member of the ASCA to save their own money.

Hurriet belongs to the ASCA and has a business that involves manufacturing peanut butter which she sells at the market. The loss of employment by her husband encouraged her to venture into business. She appreciates the program because it has helped her to realize her strengths and skills. Hurriet recently received a loan of 5000 Kenya Shillings (about 71.42 U.S. dollars) from the ASCA group and used this money to purchase more inputs.

“My business has grown and it has helped me to meet some of my basic needs,” says Hurriet, “but above all, now I have extra packaging containers which the loan helped me to purchase. This makes me feel comfortable because I am not strained.”

It is indeed possible to build individuals and communities from the inside out. St Jerome and many other churches located in Kibera and the other informal settlements of Nairobi have realized this possibility. Currently, six churches with which I am working are running ASCA programs, reaching out to approximately 150 persons. In this process these churches have moved from the more common practice of handouts to an approach that uses empowerment in a holistic sense; in the process, these churches are helping to restore people to a life of worshipping God through their work.

This post was written by Alvin Mbola.

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