by Catherine Nyameino
It can feel overwhelming. Around you there’s so much human suffering, so many people walking past you on the city streets, each one of whom desperately needs to know their Creator and Savior. You could let yourself become paralyzed by the vastness of the challenge. Or you could do what one group of Kenyan Seventh-day Adventists chose to do: use the resources they had in their hands to start transforming lives—one at a time.
As the sun goes down in the backstreets of Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, a decades-old ritual begins. Among the crowds of people making their way home after work each day are those who have a different destination in mind. In dusty, narrow alleyways, doors open and men enter houses seeking temporary escape from the grinding reality of their everyday lives. They pay their money and sit down, sometimes alone, sometimes around a communal pot, sipping through “straws” of hollowed-out electrical cords. They are drinking homemade alcohol—illicit brews such as changaa or busaa—that are fermented in home stills from grains such as sorghum, millet, and wheat. These small, unlicensed “pubs” that dot the city and its outlying suburbs dispense potent brews that are sometimes adulterated with deadly quantities of gasoline, battery acid, or other toxic ingredients in an attempt to give the drink an extra “kick.”
The word changaa, literally interpreted, means “kill me quick,” and it sometimes lives up to its name. Newspapers frequently report incidences of violent illness, blindness, and death caused by drinking these noxious brews, and yet the popularity of Nairobi’s drinking dens remains undiminished. For thousands upon thousands in this city, they offer an affordable, if dangerous, alternative to commercially produced alcohol, which poverty has placed beyond the reach of many Kenyans.
The impact of these illicit brews is devastating both to individuals and to the community. Beyond the headlines of death and injury from bad batches, there are thousands of untold stories of pain: jobs lost, families destroyed, health and self-respect ruined, communities disintegrating.
A new strategy
The Seventh-day Adventist Church’s East Kenya Union Conference, based in Nairobi, considered how it could implement the world church’s Mission to the Cities initiative. How could Adventists in this urban sprawl introduce Christ’s method of reaching people? How could they show Christ’s compassion in practical ways? How could they help guide people toward a path of spiritual and physical wholeness? Union leaders first developed a strategic plan that identified some of the most challenging groups found in the city, including sex workers, street families, drug addicts, slum dwellers, those with lifestyle diseases, those with broken relationships, and communities with high rates of crime. Church leaders quickly recognized also that an almost-constant feature of every community in the city was the pervasive and destructive use of illicit brews.
As they contemplated the vast challenge before them, union leaders cast a vision for starting urban centers of influence, which would introduce Christ’s method of reaching people on the streets of Nairobi. It wasn’t long before churches and lay leaders around the city began to take up the challenge.
On the outskirts of Nairobi, some 10 miles from the city center, lies a suburb known as Wangige. The central Wangige market is renowned for its colorful displays of fresh produce and its bustling atmosphere, which attracts fruit and vegetable sellers from surrounding areas. And yet, ironically, a village known for its fresh fruit and vegetables is also a place where a majority of the population engages in drinking illicit brews, smoking, and drug abuse.
Gabriel Maina is an elder of King’eero Seventh-day Adventist Church in Wangige, and he has a passion to change people’s lives. Since 1993, he has been a stalwart in a church-run ministry to those with HIV and AIDS, and he formed a support group for HIV-positive men and women that continues today, more than 20 years later.
When Gabriel heard about the Mission to the Cities initiative, he immediately thought of those in his town whose lives were controlled by their addiction to illicit brews. For him, the problem had a personal dimension. His son had once come home drunk, confronting Gabriel with the terrible power of these illegal brews and with the possibility that he could lose his own child to drinking.
Gabriel approached Pastor Samuel Lumwe, director of the Office of Adventist Mission in East Kenya and the Mission to the Nairobi City coordinator, and requested financial support for a new ministry to combat the power of illicit brews in Wangige. Then, with support from Pastor Lumwe and the Union office, Gabriel embarked on his new venture.
He began small, with a personal, low-key approach. He gathered a group of volunteers from King’eero church who had worked together for years in the church’s HIV ministry, and they began visiting illegal drinking dens and other places where illicit brews are served.
One well-known place in Wangige where illegal alcohol is often sold is called Base, where groups of unemployed men gather each day and wait for prospective employers. Gabriel and his team mingled with the men at Base, chatting with them and striking up conversations. And then they issued a simple invitation. Anyone who wanted to quit drinking, smoking, and drug abuse was welcome to come to a meeting at the local marketplace the following Wednesday. In a short time, more than a hundred people had accepted the invitation and, on the day of the meeting, the tent Gabriel had hired for the event was filled to overflowing. For regulars in the marketplace, it was astounding to see so many drinkers of illicit brews gathered together publicly in one place.
Leaders kept the meeting format simple, beginning with singing familiar Christian choruses, prayers, and then a number of health talks. Among the speakers were local village elders and church leaders, but perhaps the most powerful speeches of the day were given by a number of the drinkers themselves. They talked about the many different challenges they faced, the circumstances that had brought them to this place, and their deep desire to escape the power of alcohol addiction. One man’s testimony was particularly moving. He said that, until that day, “We have never known that someone loves us.”
After the meeting, church volunteers provided lunch, and it soon became clear that the simple act of sharing food was a potent way of breaking down social barriers.
“As we served food together with the drunkards, I started to notice a lot of easiness amongst them,” said Gabriel. “They mingled with us much more easily than when we addressed them from the podium.”
Before the gathering broke up, Gabriel and his team distributed Discover Bible lessons and invited everyone back for another meeting the following week.
The following Wednesday, Gabriel and his team set up the tent in the marketplace and waited to see if any would return. They were delighted when 80 of the original attendees came back.
At the first meeting, leaders had noticed that many of the men were poorly dressed, so at this second meeting, they distributed clothes and shoes donated by church members. By the fourth meeting, it was clear that this rehabilitation ministry would be a long-term project, and so to save the expense of hiring a tent each week, the participants agreed to move the gatherings to the King’eero Adventist church compound. Today, this is where the ministry is based and where church members continue to welcome the illicit-brew drinkers of Wangige.
The church members of King’eero Adventist church are discovering that the road to rehabilitation for those addicted to alcohol and drugs is long and difficult. Yet a core group of committed individuals continue to attend meetings at the church each week, and a number of them have been able to quit their old habits completely.
Thirty-year-old Kevin Edwin Boro was one of the original attendees of the rehabilitation meetings in Wangige marketplace. Before his life took a downward spiral, his future had once held great promise. After high school, Kevin earned a higher national diploma in information technology, and he hoped to build a career in this field. Yet after a long, fruitless search for a full-time job, he gave up and started looking for casual jobs just to earn enough money to get by. Kevin started to join other job seekers each day at Base, and before long he had made friends with people who regularly drank illicit brews.
“I found myself in wrong company, and before long I started to drink to drown my problems,” he says. “After a while I started smoking and then went into hard drugs.” Inevitably, a terrible cycle developed. The more problems Kevin faced, the more he drank to escape them, which, in turn, made him less able to deal with challenges.
“You know, drinking makes one feel like all is well, but in reality, things get worse,” he says.
When the volunteers from King’eero Adventist church came to Base in 2014 talking about a new program for drinkers of illicit brew, Kevin immediately recognized a lifeline. “I needed something better, and the invitation was like a Godsend,” he says. “I seized the opportunity and went for that first meeting, and have not stopped attending since then. I have now quit all those habits, and I feel much better.”
When asked what particularly attracted him to the group, Kevin says, “It was the love that they showed us. And every time I attend the meetings, I experience a lot of peace within me. Sometimes I don’t feel like leaving. They pray for us and speak to us so well.”
“I am still young, and I now realize I was wasting my life away,” he adds. “I realize that all along I was in a state of denial, and I now need to face the reality of the dangers of my former habits.” With the help and encouragement of his mentors, Kevin is now looking forward to starting a new life. He has attended the local Adventist church a few times since the first meeting, and he says he has found it “interesting.”
John Mbugua is another person who thanks God he accepted Gabriel’s invitation to attend the King’eero Adventist church rehabilitation meeting in the marketplace. John started drinking when he was 23 years old and now, at 28, he’s only just beginning to realize the full extent of what he has lost over the past five years. As John’s dependence on alcohol and drugs grew, his earnings as a trained carpenter began to disappear, and his wife and child often went hungry as John spent his evenings in illegal drinking dens. Eventually, John’s wife moved out, and his carpentry customers deserted him. They could no longer trust John to complete their work properly or on time. John found himself without money, in bad company, and in increasingly desperate circumstances. He began to feel that, without drugs, he was nobody. Drugs and alcohol became his identity.
The first meeting of the rehabilitation group was a revelation to John. As he sat in the crowd of people and listened to the various speakers, he realized that there was a vast difference between his life and the lives of those who didn’t drink or take drugs. In the weeks that followed, John has worked hard to change his habits, but it hasn’t been easy. He admits that he still drinks, “but not as heavily as I used to before I joined the group.”
“I am now working towards stopping completely,” says John, “because I have realized that you can still live without drinking, smoking, and taking drugs.”
Forty-five-year-old David Karanja Kibugi has also decided to quit drinking as a result of joining the King’eero church rehabilitation program. He started drinking in 2004, when he got his first job at a local butchery.
“I used to work late and, most evenings, our clients were those who drank at a neighboring bar,” he says. “When I delivered meat to one particular customer, the person would invite me to drink one bottle. Before long I was hooked on drinking, and because I could not afford the beer, I started taking some drink that was packed in small sachets.”
David’s wife and three children have suffered greatly as a result of his drinking. “I picked quarrels very easily, and of course I could not provide for my family,” says David. “When I came home, I often drank and was told there was no food. I could quarrel, but I knew I would eat at the butchery the following morning. My wife and children often went hungry.”
David lost his job at the butchery but afterward began to learn the masonry trade.
“Although I am a good mason, I do not easily find jobs because prospective hirers would always find me drunk and could not give me any job,” he says. David has now quit drinking, a decision he dates to the very first rehabilitation meeting he attended.
“Deep within, I had come to a point of wanting to quit but got stuck because I did not know how to do it on my own,” he explains. “When I joined the group, however, and heard and saw how my fellow drunkards were equally frustrated and struggling with their habits, I decided that it was time to change my ways.” David still struggles with smoking, although he has cut back and wants to stop entirely soon. The support he has found within the rehabilitation group allows David to envision a new future for himself, one in which his old destructive habits no longer have any power over him.
Kevin, John, and David each say that their drinking and drug habits spilled out into every facet of their lives and essentially separated them from the rest of society. They admit they’ve caused their families great distress and hardship, and they each look back with a sense of regret. Today, they continue to struggle financially, and they often go hungry. Yet, in the months since they’ve joined the King’eero church rehabilitation group, they have each seen significant changes in their lives, and, even more important, they now experience a new sense of belonging and love.
They attribute their new hope to the care of the local Adventist church, which, through Gabriel and his team, took interest in these “misfits” and reached out to them. Each week, they enjoy the meetings and the camaraderie, and say they’d often like to just stay in the church compound all the time, because this is where they’ve found love and acceptance.
As physical transformations take hold, Gabriel and the other leaders of the rehabilitation project are looking for ways to help the men take the next step to support themselves financially and to begin building a new life for themselves. Although Kevin, John, and David each have a professional skill, Gabriel says they need some start-up capital to launch themselves in business once again. In some cases, Gabriel says, providing “graduates” of the rehabilitation program with a reliable means of transportation, such as a motorcycle, could also be a way to help them restart their professional lives.
Alcohol and drugs continue to ravage lives, decimate families, and bring economic ruin on the streets of Nairobi, but members from the King’eero Seventh-day Adventist Church are lighting sparks of hope. And as they help meet the physical needs of those who are struggling, they are introducing them to the One who has power to truly transform every aspect of human life. The same One who is walking the streets of Nairobi beside them each step of the way.
Bringing the Church to the City Marketplace
Lessons from the front lines of urban mission
- Don’t rush. Leading people to God cannot be a hurried process. It is important to mingle, make friends, meet physical needs, and then prayerfully introduce them to Him.
- Where possible, empower people. Through the HIV/Aids project, rejected and helpless women and men have become Christians with a strong support group and sustainable income-generating projects. When people become self-reliant financially, they become good examples to others.
- Start small—and prayerfully. Our responsibility is to take the first steps of faith, to sow the seeds. It is God’s responsibility to grow our ministries in His own time, at His own pace.
- Use all your available resources. Ask, “What do I have in my hands?” Even when you’ve identified a community need, you may feel you don’t have enough resources to do something meaningful. But remember, this is God’s business, and if you simply use what you have in your hands, He will bless it.
- Don’t forget the ultimate goal. Don’t forget that the task is incomplete until people have not only quit bad habits but have also given their lives to the Saviour.