I apologize in advance for my novel, but a trip to the “Full Gospel Church” in Njabini warrants nothing less.
Fortunately I had a piece of paper and pen with me so I could sit there madly scribbling all of the things I had to remember to write about when I got back. If the sideways glances I got for using my bible as a writing surface were any indication, the congregation probably wouldn’t have looked too kindly upon me pulling out my laptop and madly typing away as they prayed to Jesus.
After a local meeting in town Saturday night, Sarah announced to us that she would be attending church the next morning in order to make some connections with the village elders. Up until this point, I have managed to gracefully bow out of church every Sunday, with empty promises of “next week, next week (lying to God, I know – a low point in my life, for sure).” However, once Sarah announced her intentions, Ashwini, her friend who will be leaving soon decided that she wanted to give church the old college try before she left. Reuben, one of the two other volunteers here also agreed to go. I felt trapped.
To understand this feeling of entrapment, allow me to describe a typical Sunday morning at FKKCC. By 8:30am, the house is empty for a good five hours; children, matrons and usually a volunteer or two, gone for the entire morning. To most people, a morning of peace and quiet sounds like total bliss. Most people have electricity. Most people have access to food (I, alas, am at the mercy of Mary, our wonderful cook, who does not serve lunch until after arriving home from church – and trust me, cooking over a charcoal fire is not my forte). Most people have TV, or internet, or electronics that are fully charged. Most people have errands to run or a gym to go to or money to spend. I suppose I could have sat and read a book, but I just finished one last night and I have more than enough time to read on any given day – I don’t need 5 uninterrupted hours of peace when I get plenty on a normal day here. I can’t even take the chance to sleep late; it’s impossible to sleep past 7:30am, considering I’m in bed by 9 every night!
As you can see, my options were dire. Church it was. In honor of the occasion, I decided to “take a bucket,” and, gasp, shave my legs (let’s be honest, from the knee down). I donned one of the two knee-length skirts I brought with me (thank goodness for our last minute Natick Collection trip Abz and Jax), threw a little mousse in my hair, and, for the first time in Njabini, applied more than just tinted moisturizer. Just a smattering of powder, blush and mascara, but when the kids saw me, you’d have thought I underwent massive reconstructive surgery. We piled into the van (another paragraph on that to follow) and literally, people gasped. It was probably a combination of the smell of soap, my curly wet hair, my skirt and the makeup, but before I knew it, there were hands grabbing at my face in hair from every direction. Even the matrons and teachers who had come along with us exclaimed “Ooooh, Hannah, your hair is so LONG and CURLY.” I was like yes, and it’s clean. Should I take the hint that a bucket and 10 minutes worth of effort makes me look different enough that it warranted such a reaction? Ugh, if I DO take the hint, then that means I should start putting more effort in on a regular basis – too much work if you ask me.
Now, on to the van. It’s a van constructed to hold 10 people. We fit 28: 18 children and 10 adults. I tried to take pictures, but they do no justice to the maneuvering it took to fit that many people. On account of the massive rainstorms we had on Saturday, the roads on Sunday morning were still puddles of mud, prompting the entire van to erupt in a cheer for Wombogo every time he was able to out-maneuver a potentially disastrous mud related situation. Meanwhile, I clung with white knuckles to the bar on the ceiling and looked out the window, calculating how many bodies would crush into me if we tipped over to the left and if the glass of the window would puncture me at just the right angle to kill me instantly.
In many ways, church in Kenya resembles church anywhere else. People gather beforehand to greet each other on the lawn, the boys look uncomfortable in their Sunday best (and there are always the ones who get away with their jean jackets and baseball caps) and the girls are dressed to the 9’s. I got such a flashback to my church-going Sundays when I looked at the adolescent girls, dressed in what they thought was the trendiest thing they owned, but now that I have the hindsight of 12 years I can tell you was nothing short of gaudy. I felt for these girls, in their out of style heels that they insisted on wearing, because they were heels after all, the outfits that they hoped would make them look older and sophisticated, but only succeeded in making them look uncomfortable and the ridiculously ugly purses that we brought with us everywhere we went, so that if someone needed a cough drop or tissue, we could be at ready. Girls in Kenya are still girls. Of course, they won’t be embarrassed about these outfits for another 12 years, if at all. This is all not to mention the youngest girls, who, while they wore worse getups, could get away with them because of their age. Tutus over pants, knee socks sagging over sandals that never managed to stay clean, topped by whatever sweater or jacket was closest to the door.
The women, however, were of a breed I have not been exposed to before. I don’t know if being at the “Full Gospel” church made a difference, but these women were decked out, much the way women in a Southern Baptist church in Mississippi might be, saving of course, for what defines “Sunday Best.” I imagine that most women (and men and children, for that matter) have one or two outfits that they reserve only for special occasions and church. Because Kenyan families work primarily outside and the red mud clings to anything you wear like a magnet, it becomes a necessity to segregate your clothes if you want to keep them in any semblance of shape. These are proud Kenyan women; nearly all of them had donned a colorful headscarf and skirt suit in honor of the occasion. While the styles were completely dated and the colors faded, they kept their clothes in the best condition they could, and looked regal. Maintaining your shoes however, is another story altogether. It’s literally impossible to keep any pair of shoes clean in this area; the dry dirt is bad enough, but after the nearly daily rainfalls, it is next to impossible not to find your feet covered in mud 10 minutes after stepping outside. Honestly, I shouldn’t have even bothered to shower; my feet and ankles were filthy by the time I even got to church.
We arrived at the church by 9:15am – the sign out front announced that bible study was from 9-10:30, and worship was from 10:30-12:45. Unfortunately, by the time we saw the sign, we were past the point of no return. We couldn’t have escaped even if we had wanted to – we were so packed in, it took 5 minutes to unload the van, person by person. We took up 2 of the dozens of empty pews for bible study – I wondered how many people came on any given Sunday. I brought my bible to Kenya, because I figured if you can’t find God in Africa, you’re pretty much shit out of luck. The children had a ball reading the inscription on the inside cover of it, dedicated to me in 1999 (incidentally, the last time I opened my bible) in honor of my confirmation. They got a kick out of seeing my full name written in calligraphy and reading along with the minister during the sermon in my English version.
By 10:30 when worship started, the church was still woefully empty; by 11am however, the place was hoppin’. It was at about this time that I realized I was having my first experience with a gender-segregated church; men in the left row, women and children in the middle and right rows. Unfortunately, it was also Ruben’s (one of the male volunteers) first experience with a gender-segregated church as well; a first experience he embarrassingly witnessed from the women’s side.
The beginning of the service caused me to become slightly nervous for what the remaining hours might bring. The hymn, led by a few women with microphones at the front (no hymnals or programs in this joint) started off harmlessly enough, I even found myself swaying back and forth and clapping along, mouthing, if not actually singing, the words that I could make out. However, after a few minutes of standard Jesus-thanking, members of the congregation and the women up front began to sit down and rest their heads on the pews in front of them, still singing. Us white kids looked around at each other, not sure if we were expected to sit as well or remain standing. When it became apparent that we were the only ones still standing, we joined the women on the benches, although many of them were on their knees by this point, with handkerchiefs pressed to their eyes. It was like a scene out of a movie: women were crying, raising their hands to the ceiling and rocking back and forth on their knees and mumbling incoherently aside from the occasional, “thank you Jesus.” Throughout, the feedback on the microphone was causing a loud, low rumble, which added to the movie-like atmosphere I was witness to (at the time, I thought the feedback was done on purpose to imitate God’s presence, which, of course I now realize it was not). I was later convinced the feedback served to awaken the dozing children (and perhaps adults) from their uneasy slumber during hours 3 and 4 of the service.
After that first hymn, I knew I was in for a treat. Little did I know just how much I would witness this morning. Once the church was at (and above) capacity, we were packed in as tightly as pickles (it’ll catch on..); there was literally not a spare seat in the house, and during the hymns, people spilled out into the aisles, as there was not enough room to move your arms and feet squeezed in so tightly.
The only way I can think to explain the family-like atmosphere of the church service is to recall an anecdote my mother tells me about going to a party on my father’s side of the family when my sister was just weeks old. She walked into the hall where the party was being hosted, and one aunt or cousin or another came and took my sister from my mom’s hands. She didn’t see Abby again for something like 4 hours. A Kenyan church service is like an assembly line of children. Babies were being passed from one person to another, down a row, across an aisle and back again. I don’t think a mother kept possession of her child for more than 10 minutes at a time. Every time I stood up, I sat down with a new child on my lap. At one point in the service, Sarah looked at the child on my lap and whispered, “that’s not one of ours.” At another point, I was certain I felt the unmistakable heat of a child’s urine seeping through my skirt. With trepidation, I gently lifted the little body from my lap and much to my relief, saw my clean, dry skirt was intact.
Muzungu’s (white people, English speaking people, etc..) are not a common occurrence in a small Kenyan church; needless to say, we were quite the sideshow to the service. I was on the end of an aisle at first, and there were literally 5 children standing and gaping open-mouthed at me at any given time. Eventually, one of the little girls squeezed into the pew and without hesitation, sat on my lap. Thus, she became my little friend for the next portion of the service. At one point, I resembled Stretch Armstrong, my hands were being grabbed by a child in both the pew in front of me and behind me as I struggled to keep the one on my lap from slipping off. There were hands constantly stroking my long blonde hair, or touching my face – reminiscent of the Lost Boys stretching and pulling Robin William’s 40 year old skin, searching for the hidden Peter Pan in “Hook.”
The FKKCC children were called to the front of the church to perform a song they had been practicing in preparation that morning. My heart surged with pride and tears burned my eyes, threatening to spill over at any moment as I sang and clapped along with the children I have grown to love from my seat in the audience. Once our kids had taken a seat, the minister chose that moment to ask the 4 Muzungus in the congregation to stand up and wave so that we could be recognized as first time visitors to the Full Gospel church service (you know, on the off-chance that we hadn’t yet been noticed by every single person in the church). That wasn’t embarrassing or anything…
As the service wore on and the child du-jour sat on my lap, scratching her surely lice ridden head and staring at me with the unabashed curiosity that only a child can, I felt such a rushing love for Kenyan children. In that moment I knew I am doing the right thing here – regardless of what path I pursue once going back to America, I know that a piece of my heart will always be in Kenya.
The first hour and a half of the service and I was having a ball – I figured I could make this a weekly tradition, coming to church with the kids, playing with the village children, holding babies, etc… By hour 2, my faith was fading, by hour 4, I needed out. Never again will I complain about the padded pews I had to sit on as a child; the uncomfortable hard wood of the pine benches was probably the only thing keeping me awake by 1:15pm. Fortunately, the matrons ushered us out, although I don’t believe the service was over yet. In any event, we had a gaggle of children waiting outside to send us off. The little girl who had by that point become a 5th limb was visibly upset when I told her she had to let go of my hand, that she couldn’t come back to the center with me. Aside from that, I would call the trip an overall success. Sarah and I agree we will go back, but make sure to slip out once the fun part is over and hitch a ride back home. n