International Staff Songsters visit to Kenya – July 2016

We are grateful to Emma Davis for the following insight into her memories of the ISS visit to Kenya.

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Many of you will know that over the summer, Rosemary Steadman-Allen and I were extremely privileged to travel to Kenya with the International Staff Songsters on a 10-day mission trip to the Nairobi area. We had a fantastic trip and have come home with so many new memories and experiences. But firstly, I must say thank you to all of you for your prayers and good wishes before we went away, which were really encouraging to us – before we went, the trip was a bit of a daunting prospect and it was really good to know that we had the support of the Corps behind us. Thank you also to those who donated suitcases, toys, clothes and toiletries for us take. We actually visited the children’s home, a nursery and two schools where the gifts you donated are going to be given out as part of the Christmas shoebox appeal, so we know that they  are going to a really good home, and thanks once again for helping in that way.

I’ve prepared some photos so I can take you through some of the things we did during our visit. It was a heavy schedule, we were up every day at between 5 and 6am, as Africans rise with the sun, so I don’t have time to fit in everything that happened, but hopefully these photos will give you an idea of what we got up to.

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On the first Sunday, we were invited to sing at a territorial event , and we were eased into the African style of worship with a meeting that lasted five-and-a-half hours! It was the farewell meeting to the outgoing Territorial Commander of the Kenya East Territory and 3,400 people attended. Their commitment was shown by the fact that some of them had travelled from Mombasa which is a 10-hour drive away, and the roads are perhaps not quite as smooth as we’re used to. One interesting part of this meeting was learning about how the set up of Corps work in Kenya. If a place has less than 100 members, it is classed as an outpost, and when it reaches 100 it becomes a Corps. When it gets to 250 soldiers, the Corps is then promoted to Citadel status, providing that it is financially stable, has good facilities, and supports other smaller Corps nearby. So, that gives you an indication of the scale and how popular the Army is in Kenya.

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This next picture is in the Training College, which incidentally is surrounded for as far as the eye can see by fields of pineapples. There are 100 cadets who you can see here in their greys uniforms which are for everyday use (the white uniforms they have are just for Sundays and special occasions) and there is a long waiting list to enter training, so they are currently looking into extending the training college facilities so they can cater for the demand.

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This photo is from when we visited Kabete children’s home, which houses about 50 children between the ages of 2 and 14, and the Army pays for them to go to school as well. Some of them are orphans, and some have been placed there by social services. They were lovely children, they had made us a banner saying ‘welcome to Kenya’, and when we arrived they had prepared a couple of songs for us, and it was  great to spend a few hours there, playing games, and chatting with them, as one-to-one attention is not something they get very often.

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When the children were asked what they would like as a special treat on the day of our visit, they chose to have a pizza party with coke. So that was a wish that we could fulfil for them. Pizza in Kenya is not a common meal, it’s a real treat, and I think that some of the children had never had it before, because we had to go round showing them how to tear off the slices. That was a reminder to me of how much we take for granted every day.

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This is the choir from a primary school in Thika, which is about an hour away from Nairobi, and all the children are blind or partially-sighted. There was a really caring environment, and we saw the children walking around the grounds in twos, either holding hands or with their arm around their friend to guide them which was just lovely. The choir sang “How Great Thou Art” which was brilliant and when we were there they had just progressed to the next round of a national choir competition, so were really putting into action their school motto which is “disability is not inability”. One girl of about 10 read out a speech she had prepared to welcome us on behalf of the students, but as she was blind, and had also lost the sense of touch in her fingers, she held the paper up and read by moving it across her lips which was incredible. Unfortunately in Kenya, if a child is born with a disability, they are often rejected by the family, so who knows where these children would be if the Army had not taken them in and given them a safe place to live and learn.

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One of the highlights of the trip for me was our visit to Kibera which is the biggest slum in Africa. As you can imagine the conditions are very poor, and the home I visited consisted of one room, about 4 by 3 metres and that was home to parents and 8 children. The only electricity is one light bulb in the middle of the room and the only access to water is from communal taps. However, the Army has a very active presence in Kibera and in the slum itself there are three Corps, so as we were walking through the narrow, uneven passages of the slum in our red Army Tshirts, people recognised the logo and were saying ‘hello’ or ‘welcome’ and wanting to shake our hands. I think I was expecting people to be miserable about their situation, or to just keep to themselves, but actually they were really welcoming and I got the sense that they look out for their neighbours, and just seem to get on with things and do the best they can with what they’ve got.

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One of the Corps in the middle of the slum is Kibera Citadel, and this is us on the march with Kibera Citadel Band, who do an open air and march through the slum every week. It was a great privilege for us to be able to join them on this occasion and to march through a situation like this is something that I doubt we will ever get the opportunity to do again.

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This is the ISS with the Band in the hall at Kibera Citadel, obviously all the instruments have been donated by countries such as the UK and America, and they don’t have a full set of tune books, there’s a lot of improvisation and playing by ear, but every time I look at this photo I just think it’s amazing that every member of that Band lives in the slum. And yet their enthusiasm about their faith and about the Army really knocked us back, the Corps folk put on a lovely meal for us and it was very humbling. They are just so joyful, and were excited that we had come to visit them, but really I think we gained more from them than they did from us.

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On the last Saturday we spent the day at Nairobi Central Corps, which is the biggest Corps in the world and has an impressive 3,000 soldiers. It has got so big that they now have to have two Sunday morning meetings with 1,500 in each as they can no longer all fit in the building.

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In the morning we held a vocal workshop for Songsters from all over the territory and again people travelled long distances to be a part of the day, some leaving from their Corps at 5am. The organisers were a bit worried about the workshop because they had no idea if anyone was going to turn up. Unemployment is very high in Kenya and Saturday is not really considered the weekend there – it is just another day when people go out and try to find work. But thankfully, we spent a lovely morning teaching some songs to a massed Songster brigade of over 400. A special moment there was singing the words “The black, the white, the dark, the fair, your colour will not matter there, they shall come from the east, they shall come from the west and sit down in the kingdom of God.” We then lined up and went out into the centre of Nairobi for a march of witness. Nairobi Central has an active outreach programme for open air ministry, but this was the largest march that the Army had ever done in Nairobi. The city centre was really busy and the march lasted an hour so we will have been seen and heard by many thousands of people.

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We were near the front of the march and so hadn’t really seen what was going on behind us, but at one point we turned a corner and were able to see 500 uniformed Salvationists following us, all along the road as far as you could see and it was such an impressive sight. We then marched back to the hall and had a great festival with all the different Songster brigades taking part.

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On our last day we attended and sang in the meeting at Tala Corps, which is a “small” Corps of 400 people in a remote village. Again, we were made to feel so welcome, the singing and dancing were great, and there was just such a happy atmosphere.

So it was a busy and fantastic 10 days, but why did we go to Kenya in the first place? What was the point of us being there? I think that in a nutshell, the most important factor is that the simple coming together of groups of Salvationists or Christians is one of God’s ways of giving us the gift of encouragement. The fact that we had flown 9 hours to visit these people was a source of real excitement for them, and in fact no staff section has ever visited Kenya before. But, more than that, the way that we were made to feel so comfortable and at home in a foreign land, with complete strangers, who speak a different language and have an entirely different culture, is so astonishing that if we didn’t believe in God, we would be completely at a loss as to how to explain it. Our faith was powerful enough to unite us despite all those other barriers that could have got in the way. I have been so inspired by the Kenyans’ practical demonstrations of their faith, their strong trust in God, and their joyfulness despite the situations they live in, that it has enormously strengthened my faith and since I got back I have been much better at not letting things worry me so much, but have been praying more and trusting more – “hakuna matata” (meaning ‘no worries’) is the Swahili phrase. I’ve learnt that showing love in practical ways is a really powerful way to share God’s love, and I’ve learnt that you can choose joy, and live positively even in hard times. If the Kenyans have been encouraged half as much as I have been by our trip, then it was more than worth it. I think the reason the Army is so popular in Kenya is that when a whole group of people puts their faith into action by showing joy and enthusiasm in what they do, it becomes infectious, there’s a buzz about it, and people are intrigued and want to be a part of it. There is also a great sense of commitment, dedication, and everyone playing their part; it’s a real team effort.

So I hope that this has helped to explain a bit about our trip and what we have learnt from it. Please pray for Kenya, for the Salvationists there and all the great projects going on, and pray that the Army will continue to grow there and that the stories of Kenya will inspire many more people around the world.

EmmaDavis (Medium) Emma Davis