Whelan on Kenya

June 30, 2008 in General, News

Gerry Whelan SJGerry Whelan SJ is back from Rome to spend the summer in Dublin. He attended the Province retreat last week and is currently helping out in two parishes in Dublin. Although currently teaching fundamental theology in Rome’s Gregorian University, he spent the last six years as pastor of a poor parish in Nairobi, Kenya. In the last year Gerry has had two articles published in La Civiltà Cattolica, on his reflections on the situation in Kenya and the role of small Christian communities. Click on ‘Read more’ below to see the first of the two articles: ‘Christian Hope and the African City’. We will publish the second article next week.


For the last six years I was pastor of a poor parish on the periphery of Nairobi, the capital of Kenya. In the midst of great poverty and cultural dislocation, I witnessed Christian faith binding people together and assisting them in finding solutions to joint problems. I had a sense of hope that that this kind of grass-root community formation holds a key to the development of the young and developing nation state that is Kenya. This article seeks to give a taste of the experience I had in my parish and of some of the insights it gave me into the mission of the Church in this context. In the second part of the article I comment on the wider significance that Catholic insights into community building can have for the African development in general and urban governance in particular.

St. Joseph the Worker Parish, Nairobi

My parish was that of Saint Joseph the Worker in Kangemi, 12 kilometres from the centre of Nairobi. We Jesuit Fathers were asked to start the parish in 1985 when the population was 35,000. Today the population is closer to 100,000. Our area is located along the main road leading west out of the City. When it leaves Nairobi, the road passes first through rich agricultural areas and then to Uganda and beyond. Our area suffers from a lack of basic infrastructural services such as sanitation and clean water. Until recently there were few government services. Education and health services were minimal as were formal employment opportunities. This having been said, our location makes us a place where small farmers from the hinterland transport fruit and vegetables and meat for sale in the city. A giant fruit and vegetable market grew up in an informal manner. Buyers from all over the city come to buy there from small stalls clustered along the road. The sight of our slum and large vegetable market is well known to drivers passing on the dual carriage way out of the city. The market provides employment for many of the poorest residents of the area. Also, every morning before dawn thousands of individuals start the long walk into the centre of the city. They find day-employment in the industrial area that is near there or in a myriad of other menial jobs. Recent years have seen some modest improvements in the economic and political environment of Kenya. The advent of multi-party democracy and a change of government a few years ago make for an environment of freedom of expression that was unheard of previously. Some moderate improvement of the economy is evident and the provision of public services in the area is moving in the right direction.

Small Christian Communities

In theory, there are 25,000 Catholics that we serve in our parish. In practice, we do not see more than 10,000 of these. Nevertheless, we are a thriving parish and are in a process of sub-dividing the area so as to create new parishes eventually. Our parish work follows a strategy outlined by the bishops of East Africa to base virtually all our activities on the work of a number of small, cell-like neighbourhood groups called “small Christian communities.” In our case, we have thirty five such communities spread throughout Kangemi. These groups meet in the houses of members. They elect their own leadership and meet once a week for about one hour. These meetings devote about half of their time to shared prayer, and about half to “talking business.” This business usually concerns itself with activities of service of the broader community. Each Sunday, one small Christian community takes responsibility to animate the liturgies in the central parish Church. These liturgies are well known in the archdiocese for the vitality of the singing and dancing performed during them. We have a large church that can house a congregation of up to 4,000. A priest also arrives to say a house-Mass in each small Christian community once a month.

Liberation from Sin

In the parish we have a pastoral team made up of priests, brothers and sisters. This team spends a lot of time and energy training leaders and members of the small Christian communities. A first point of emphasis has been the life of prayer of members. In this matter we found a wonderful resource in the letter of Pope John Paul II: On the Eve of the New Millennium. In this letter, the belated Holy Father demonstrates his own extensive pastoral experience by speaking in detail about the ins and outs of planning in pastoral institutions. He stresses that the church must be a listening and responsive institution in order to meet the needs of the people of our era. For what, then, do we plan? The Pope stresses that first and foremost we “plan for holiness.” He acknowledges that this can sound strange to a modern ear. He agrees that it is not the pastor or the parish plan that makes people holy. However, he insists that it is for planners to create the circumstances where the miracle of God’s intervention in our lives can occur.

Of course, the Sunday Eucharist is the summit and source of religious experience within the parish. We take care that this celebration is both lively and reverential. However, working with the members of our small Christian communities we have also done more. Using the resources of the Jesuit spiritual tradition, we set up one-day and even two-day retreats for members of our small Christian communities. Building on this, we then spent considerable time training leaders of these small communities to lead their fellow members in prayer with scripture each week. By these means we witnessed real spiritual transformation and growth in members of these communities. We were aware that our parishioners are oppressed by many problems. These problems include poverty and unjust social structures. However, as St. Ignatius says in the Spiritual Exercises, there is always a link between our personal sin and the “sin of the world.” It is only when we ourselves are on the path of being liberated from sin and uniting ourselves with the will of Our Lord in our lives that we can hope to be truly redemptive influences on the society around us.

Family Life—The Foundational Social Issue

One particularly joyful moment in a pastor’s life is when he judges that efforts to plan for holiness are bearing fruit. At this stage issues for pastoral planning begin to concern themselves more with our engagement with our social environment and with implementing the mission of the Church to be a leaven in our world. Pope Benedict XVI has articulated this movement well in his first encyclical letter, Deus caritas est. He speaks how we first receive the gift of God’s agapaic love and only subsequent to this are we able to communicate this to others. As one can imagine, we were not without social problems besetting us in Kangemi and many opportunities to express an up-building love in our social environment. However, when it came to formulating a single theme for each year, parishioners returned time and time again to theme of improving family life. The point here was that when parishioners reflected on the underlying causes of social problems in our area they recognised the breakdown of family life as a key contributing factor.

A source of great hope for me was the enthusiasm with which parishioners sought to address this challenge. Frankly, I witnessed so many obstacles to healthy family life in our area that I had been tempted to discouragement.

Forces Against Family Life

The forces weighing against family life in our area were legion.

– Rural-Urban Migration: The majority of individuals living in our area of Nairobi are relatively recent migrants from rural areas. Often men migrate to the city for wage labour but have a small plot of land “up country.” They often leave a wife and children living on the land. The difficulties of living a single life in the city can create problems for marital fidelity.

Low Incomes: A second burden felt keenly by young people is that they simply do not have enough money to set up a household and to support children. In the poorest of individuals a kind of commercialization of sex occurs. Men will stay for short periods with a woman and provide some limited financial support. The woman often becomes a single-mother.

Dowry and InterEthnic Marriage: A related financial problem for young people is the cultural practice of requiring the young man to pay a dowry or “bride-price” before gaining the consent of the woman’s parents for marriage. The problems of gaining consent of parents is compounded when young people of different ethnic backgrounds—who meet freely in the city—seek to gain consent for marriage from more traditionally-minded parents.

Consumerist Values: The influence of Western media is present even for the poorest of residents of Nairobi. Values that are promoted encourage a promiscuous exercise of sexuality.

Gender Inequality: Many women feel that they were not treated with equality of respect in the traditional cultural structures of Kenya. One expression of this is their inability to own property in the rural area or to contribute to decision-making on matters of family finance. Many women chose to migrate to the city so as to find greater freedom in this respect. There they try to provide for their children by engaging in self-employed work often in cooperatives with other women.

Family Life Ministry

Emerging from the advice of leaders of the small Christian communities we initiated a number of organisations in the parish that were relevant to strengthening family values. A principle we followed was to expect parishioners first to be members of their local small Christian community and then also to feel free to join parish associations that dealt with issues not handled easily in a small Christian community.

Marriage Encounter: Our “flagship” programme for encouraging stable, Christian, family life was within a movement called “marriage encounter.” Here couples are invited to relationship counselling and train as counsellors of other couples

Youth Groups: Our next step was to make sure that we had youth groups for all the different age-groups of children and teenagers. In these groups we paid attention to education programmes on love and sexuality. We came to recognise that there existed special needs among young couples it their twenties who have not regularised their marriages either according to cultural tradition or the Church. Many of these couples feel shame in front of fellow parishioners and fall away from Catholic practice all together. We created a support group for such couples.

Single Mothers: Another reality that needed facing was that a majority of our active parishioners were, in fact, single mothers. We formed a single mothers association in the parish. These women rejoice in having a group such as this in the parish. Some are helped to heal memories of abusive relationships with men. Others are helped to cope with the distress of witnessing a cycle of poverty taking root in their family. Often their daughters themselves become single mothers and their sons become subject to all the temptations of the crime-ridden environment where addictive substances are cheap.

Father’s Groups: Once assured of an atmosphere of confidentiality, men were eager to discuss the difficulty of being a husband and father today. They recognise that they live in a cultural context profoundly different from that of their own fathers. Our discussions tended to stress the model of leadership exhibited by Jesus Christ and how Christianity challenges forms of marriage found in all cultures to find new ways of expressing God’s love for humanity.

Ethnicity and Inclusiveness

As parishioners grew in holiness, another issue that they became freer to address with honesty was that of ethnicity. Second only to the challenge of family life, the challenge of ethnic inclusivity became a priority in our parish. Our part of Nairobi is a cluster area for one particular ethnic group that has migrants from “up the road” in Western Kenya. This group now represent fully 40% of the residents of Kagemi. They equal the numbers of the one other ethnic group—the one that is indigenous to the area. The migrants often feel excluded socio-economically and some local politicians have not been slow to exploit these tensions.

Within our small Christian communities we took care to insist on the use of the national language, Swahili, at all times in meetings of small Christian communities and not ethnic mother tongues. Another strategy was to encourage the forming of associations based on the area of rural origin of parishioners. In practice, this meant that the one big migrant group in the area had it own parish association. Once encouraged in this way, these members became more than ever loyal members of the general small Christian communities of the parish.

Collaboration for Local Development

A final point I would like to stress in this description of parish life in Kangemi is that members of our parish became involved in collaboration with other non-Catholic organisations in the area both to work for the social and economic improvement of the area.

In our parish activities we tried to resist a tendency—one that we at times fell in to in the early years of our existence—of trying to build a kind of “parallel Catholic empire” with respect to social services in the area. More recently, we took care never to try to reduplicate services that were being offered by other actors. One such actor is local government. We are living in a moment—we hope and believe—of slowly improving governance in Kenya at all levels. We took care to support good public servants and indeed to reward them by making sure all our parishioners know when they are performing well. Our efforts at collaboration also involved inter-religious collaboration and ecumenism. We became friendly with the Imam of a local mosque and collaborated with him and his community on issues of combating crime. With local mainstream Christian churches we cooperated on a wide variety of issues. This collaboration began with praying together during the Week of prayer for Christian unity and proceeded to a number of activities of social concern for the area. These activities included programmes of caring for people living with AIDS, of caring for street children and of assisting refugees. At the level of local politics, we became involved together with addressing problems of crime, the illegal brewing of alcohol, and gender-based violence.

It has to be stated that we were less successful in collaboration with Pentecostal communities and with what are called African Initiated Churches, even though the majority of residents of our area are members of these groups.


In my time of working in Nairobi I actually had a variety of experiences of different kinds of work. I received opportunities to reflect on the significance of my grass-roots experience in parish ministry in a slum from wider perspectives. These perspectives included that of government policy making and questions of how the bishops of Kenya should plan for their Church’s mission.<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–>[2]<!–[endif]–> In my last section I stressed what hope I derived from working in a parish. In this section I want to change my tone. In the face of the phenomenon of the growth of slums, both in Africa and elsewhere, it is appropriate to feel a sense of alarm and fear. Governments of developing countries, as well as donor governments and international institutions need to appreciate better and to take some major new steps in the face of this crisis. Also, the Church needs to do more in its process of pastoral planning to respond to this phenomenon.

1. Poverty is Urbanising

The year 2007 marks a landmark of importance for world history of which few people are aware. This is the year when, according to the estimates of population experts, the proportion of the world’s population living in cities passes the half-way mark. We are now, so to speak, living on an urban planet.

In 1800, 2% of the world’s population lived in cities, in 1950 the proportion was 30%, in 2030 it is expected to be 60%. Another way of capturing these statistics is to assert that all of the world’s future expansion of population will occur in cities in the developing world. A next point to notice is the fact that poverty is urbanising. In 2000, the population of the world was estimated to be 6.1 billion. Of the one billion living in extreme poverty in 2000, 750 million were believed to live in slums in cities. Between 2000 and 2020, unless concerted action is taken, it is expected that slums in the world will expand by 1.5 billion people<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–>[3]<!–[endif]–>

The situation in Africa is a particular cause of concern.

In the next 30 years Africa’s population will double from 888 million

in 2005, to 1.177 billion. During the same period the urban population

will increase from 353 million, which is 39.7 percent, to 748 million inhabitants at the rate of 4 to 5 percent per annum. In the next 30 years, roughly 400 million will be added to the urban population.<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–>[4]<!–[endif]–>

Now, it is important to understand that urbanization, even relatively rapid urbanization, is not necessarily a bad thing. Throughout history, urbanization has been associated with economic growth and a flowering of culture. Healthy urbanization will occur above all when a process of modernization is taking place in rural areas as well as the city. What can follow is a kind of “virtuous circle” where modernizing agriculture provides food for the cities and income flowing into the rural areas from prosperous cities fuels a variety of economic developments there. An alternative to this is a kind of “vicious circle” that can culminate in nothing short of widespread social collapse. Here impoverished rural residents migrate in desperation to cities where, instead of contributing to economic vitality, they act as a drag on development. In this scenario, increasing levels of crime culminate in political instability and even the economic activity that has been proceeding in the city can be undermined.<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–>[5]<!–[endif]–>

A key question for Africa and other developing countries is in what proportion these different tendencies of urbanization coexist. Sad to say, current indications in most developing countries offer cause for deep concern:

While in advanced economies the management capacities of both

national and local governments are sufficiently developed to face the

current changes even as problems abound, in the developing world

inadequate financial, human and technical resources can only have

serious consequences. In the South, the integrating role of the city

seems increasingly to be giving way to an exclusionary trend, as

highlighted by mounting social and economic segregation as well as

spatial fragmentation. Exclusion, poverty and violence are on the rise

as the sense of belonging, social cohesion and the very notion of

citizenship are on the wane.

This exclusionary trend within cities is most apparent in Africa. Also, unless major policy changes occur this trend is likely to accelerate. In 2005 a new organisation was formed of African housing ministers concerned with the phenomenon of slums. The communiqués issued by the meetings that have been held so far ring a note of alarm about the future. Issues of concern include the following:

While Africa does not have the biggest cities in the world it does have the fastest rate of urbanization in the world.

While issues of poverty and a just distribution of wealth persist in other continents of the developing world, the fact remains that in Asia and Latin America thinking on development is often occurring in a context of moderate to rapid economic growth. The African context is often different.

Slum upgrading poses particular challenges in Africa. This is often because slums have so recently formed and are so neglected by public services. Problems can be compounded by weakness of capacity both in local government and in civil society.

Issues of security of tenure tend to be particularly problematic in Africa. For historical reasons land law is often in some disarray and ends up being particularly discriminatory against the urban poor.

Issues of helping the urban poor find access to finance pose special challenges also. Reasons for this include the lack of secure tenure and high incidence of economic activity that occurs in the informal sec

2. Policy Responses

If it is appropriate to experience a sense of alarm and fear before the phenomenon of slums in Africa, still the situation is not without hope. However, major decisions need to be made both by the international community and by national and local governments to address this challenge.

One cannot speak of addressing issues of urbanisation in Africa without speaking also of development in its broadest context. We can note with approval the fact that the international community agreed on a set of Millennium Development Goals. The challenge of urbanization in developing countries will not be met unless there is real progress on all of these development goals. This having been said, there are particular steps that need to be taken as we recognize the central role urbanization will increasingly play in development. One of the Millennium Development Goals does speak of a target to reduce the number of slum dwellers in the world. However, this goal is so vaguely stated that governments will need to do considerably more if the looming crisis of slums is to be avoided.

Remarkably, regarding this challenge, the best of academic thinking today is clear that the urban challenge is first and foremost a challenge of human relationships. Of course, in an expanding city it is of the greatest importance to provide technical solutions to needs such as an expansion of services of water, sanitation, transport etc. Also, technical issues of economic growth and rates of employment are of importance. Nevertheless, even the provision of these services and activities rely on human factors that cannot be treated with technocratic reductionism. A major study of world wide migration to cities has been completed recently under the leadership of Professor Marcello Balbo of the University of Venice. This study concludes that issues of good governance are key to managing urbanization in developing countries. Within this process the importance of having a vibrant civil society is clear. Networks of community groups must be in active communication with its government as a wide range of decisions are made.

The Balbo study points to activities of the United Nations agency, UN-HABITAT that advises governments on issues of shelter. A key activity of UN-HABITAT is what it calls its Global Campaign on Urban Governance. Balbo stresses the importance of this campaign:

Within the Global Campaign on Urban Governance, UN-HABITAT

promotes sustainable development of human settlements. The rationale

behind the campaign is to bring about the “inclusive city” a place

where everyone—regardless of wealth, gender, age, race or religion—

is enabled to participate productively and positively in the opportunities

which cities have to offer. The campaign stresses that the crucial

prerequisite for more inclusive cities is neither money nor

technology, nor even expertise or legislative change (although all

these are important): it must be good urban governance<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–>[8]<!–[endif]–>

For purposes of clear communication with governments, UN-HABITAT, distills its advice into promoting seven principles of good local government

Decentralisation of government: Assigning responsibilities and resources to the closest appropriate level.

Equity of access to decision-making processes and the basic necessities of urban life.

Sustainability. Balancing the social, economic and environmental needs of present and future generations.

Efficiency in delivery of public services and in promoting local economic development.

Transparency and accountability for decision-makers and all stakeholders.

Civic engagement: recognizing that people are the main riches of cities, and both the purpose and the means of sustainable human development.

Security for individuals and their living environment.

I would like to stress the importance of two of these principles. The first is the principle of decentralization of government stated in point 1. This principle recognizes that no two cities or two slums are the same. The most appropriate level of government to concern itself with the particular issues of each slum is that closest to it—the local government. It is at this level where officials should be found who are familiar with the local issues and capable of making good decisions regarding them. An empowered local government should have authority to raise and spend the money it needs. It should be directly elected. Complete transparency should be expected of it on financial matters. The next policy I want to focus on is point 6: the importance of civil society. It is increasingly accepted that the effectiveness of local government actions will be closely related to how effectively it consults with local community groups. Local authorities should not wait for election time to find out how residents of their area perceive their performance. In fact, the importance of a vital civil society is foundational to most of the other principles of good governance listed above. For example, the importance of community policing initiatives are emerging as key to addressing problems of security in slums


Perhaps the reader can already anticipate the concluding point that I now wish to make: Experiences such as those which I have outlined in the first part of this paper equip the Catholic Church well to make a contribution to discussions on well-managed urbanization and on the true nature of development.

In our study of the phenomenon of the unplanned growth of slums we have recognized that a major danger facing us is that of a break-down of community in urban areas. Conversely, when we investigate the best available ideas for how to address this problem we find that the rebuilding of community networks in cities plays a prominent role. In part one of this paper, I offered one example of what I believe to be a Catholic expertise in community building. I stressed ways in which our approach to community building begins with a graced liberation from sin. From there we are able to address issues of culture building in areas such as family life and transcending ethnocentrism. From the position of Catholic communities who are working on their own transformation—spiritually and culturally—I next outlined how our parishioners collaborated with other community groups and government institutions to help the development of solutions to social and economic problems.

The universal Church draws on such experiences, as well as a tradition of philosophically-grounded Catholic social teaching, so as to make a constructive contribution to debates on national and international development. Working out just what kind of government policies might result from a dialogue with Catholic social teaching is beyond the scope of this article. However, examples would include the need for government to support family life as well as to collaborate with faith-based-institutions.

There is every reason for confidence that the Church has a much to offer as humanity faces the challenge of rapid urbanization and the growth of slums in developing countries. However, there is no place for complacency. There is already evidence that the international community is flagging in its commitment to achieving the Millennium Development Goals by 2020. The Catholic Church needs to continue to press governments to live up to the undertakings they agreed upon at the turn of the millennium. Furthermore, a lack of awareness of the nature of the challenge posed by rapid urbanization makes governments both in donor countries and partner countries slow to undertake the policy measures needed for good urban governance. The Church could search for new ways of increasing awareness of the particular challenges that slums pose for human welfare.

Finally, the Church also needs to examine itself and ask how well it has been responding to this issue as it ministers to its own flock. In his document On the Eve of the New Millennium, Pope John Paul II spoke of how important it is for episcopal conferences around the world to plan carefully so as to respond to the changing signs of the time. On the issue of urbanization, national conferences could fruitfully study the distribution of new parishes being opened in the rapidly expanding Churches of developing countries. Are we opening up enough new parishes in slum areas? Are we developing innovative mechanisms of communication between home dioceses and receiving dioceses so to make sure that Catholic migrants to cities remain Catholic on arrival? Are we training our young priests to undertake the demanding tasks of leadership formation involved in a pastoral strategy built on small Christian communities?

Let us pray that the Catholic Church demonstrates both the understanding and the will to evangelize as it ought in this urbanizing context of the new Millennium.

1. At the same time as being pastor of a parish, I acted as advisor of the Holy See to the United Nations agency UN-HABITAT that has its headquarters in Nairobi. UN-HABITAT advises governments on issues of shelter. This often involves assisting governments deal with the issues of urbanisation in general and slums in particular. Other involvements during this time included working on committees of the Kenya Catholic Episcopal Conference relating to pastoral and ecumenical matters.

2. Quoted in Marcello Balbo (ed) International Migrants and the City, (Venice, University of Venice and UN-HABITAT, 2005), p.1. Statistics on urbanisation and many articles relating to issues covered in this article are also available in the comprehensive web page: www.unhabitat.org.

3. “Durban Declaration on the Establishment of the African Ministers’ Conference on Housing and Urban Development and Enhanced Framework of Implementation and Related Outputs, February 2005”, www.unhabitat.org/HSP/GC/20/INF/8 (my underline).

4. See, Urban-Rural Linkages Approach to Sustainable Development (UN-HABITAT, 2005), Through UN-HABITAT Web page: HS/765/05E.

5. Balbo, International Migrants, p. 1 (my underline).

6. See “Report of the Inter-Regional Conference on Urban-Rural Linkages Approach to Development” (UN-HABITAT, 2004) Through UN-HABITAT Web page: HS/753/05E.

7. Balbo, International Migrants, p.10. See also UN-HABITAT, 2002, The Global Campaign on Urban Governance: Concept Paper, www.unhabitat.org/HS/650/02E, p.5.