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About the Author

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Andrea Useem, creator and publisher of, is a freelance journalist and editor based in Northern Virginia who specializes in writing about religion. Andrea holds a Masters of Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School, as well as a Bachelors degree in religion from Dartmouth College. Previously, Andrea worked as a freelance journalist in Eastern Africa for four years; she has also lived in Muscat, Oman. She is married and has three sons.

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Faith, Hope and Poverty: A Story from Kenya

Life is frustrating, right? I’m not famous, my two-year-old won’t go to sleep at bedtime, and my least favorite contestant might actually win American Idol. Most of these problems are solvable or irrelevant or not really problems in the first place. But here’s one problem that has bothered me since 1996: How do I help someone? The someone I have in mind is Vincent Barayia, a underemployed 34-year-old Kenyan living in Nairobi. I first met Vincent while working as a journalist at a small news agency in Nairobi in 1996; Vincent ran errands and served us tea in the afternoons. He was extremely shy, but our friendship began one afternoon when he came into my office and asked if he could ask me a few questions about being a journalist. I said yes, of course, and Vincent took a crumpled piece of paper out of his pocket, smoothed it, and asked, “What kind of values do you need to be a journalist?”

I still haven’t answered that question, and I still haven’t been able to help Vincent in the one essential way that matters: Helping him find a good job. Shortly after he began his job at the news service (which he secured through family connections), he was let go. Although an American friend sent him to a school for auto mechanics, and several internships followed, no permanent job materialized. For years, Vincent has lived without regular employment; my own attempts to call in favors and pull strings to get him hired have come to naught. My own parents have been extremely generous in helping him financially, but still, the basic fact remains: Vincent, like any human being, wants to be financially secure, financially independent. And now that he’s married with a young son, he wants to provide for his family. That means getting a job. And jobs are exactly what are in short supply in Kenya — and the recent election violence has dampened recent talk that Kenya could emerge economically as India has, leveraging its English-speaking population to fill the back-office niche. And for a chilling look at the effect of rising food prices on the world’s poor, see this week’s Washington Post series on the topic.

Today I wanted to introduce Vincent to my readers — casting a stone out into the world and hoping the ripples come back in his direction. Vincent talks candidly here about his rural upbringing in a polygamous family, his struggles with his faith through his years of unemployment, and his spirited efforts in teaching karate and writing children’s literature.

Andrea: Tell us about your background: What kind of life were you born into? What kind of values did your parents give you? Were you raised in a particular religion? What did you want to be when you grew up?

I come from a small village in Western Kenya. I grew up herding my father’s cattle, cultivating his garden, helping my step mother collect firewood, and grinding a mixture of dried sorghum and cassava on traditional grinding stones to make flour. I went to a nearby primary school. The standard of the school was pathetic but that is where my parents could afford to take me. My father was staying in Nairobi trying to make a living. Some months he would send us some money to keep us going but other months went without him sending a thing. So I was left behind with my step mum and her three children. Life was not easy for me especially being brought up by somebody who was not my real mum. She was not nice to me but I still thank that she brought me up.

My father was and still is a polygamist. My mother was his first wife. They parted ways when I was still a toddler for some reasons best known to themselves. My mother did not return, and I grew up not knowing her until I was 20 — she passed away in 2002 (may her soul rest in peace). After my mother left, my father married another woman who is my first step mother and later on married a sister to this step mother. So he now has two wives who happen to be sisters. Then, just the other day, he also married another wife.

In our customs it’s a taboo for a boy to do the house chores I did , like collecting firewood, grinding grains, fetching water from the stream, harvesting vegetables from the garden and cooking. This work was for a girl child, but my step mother I had to do it. My peers laughed at me and mocked me about it. Today I feel okay about that because I’ve come out of that barbaric [way of thinking] and embraced the idea that there’s no “women’s work” or “men’s work.” Anybody can do anything.

After I turned 10, my step mother made me work so I could earn money to help feed the family. I made brooms from grass and sold them, and cut trees and dug out tree stump to burn charcoal, which I also sold. The money I earned was used to buy food and also buy something for myself especially during Christmas festivals. That is the only time people had to look decent and at least eat a good meal.

I’m not sure whether my parents gave me any values. All I knew from my step mother was reprimand and criticism. Nothing I did was appreciated. My father was always away in the city. My grandfather (may his soul rest in peace) and my grandmother are the people that educated me about God. When I was preparing to go to the city [Nairobi], my grandmother advised me about city life. She warned me about ladies in town [i.e. prostitutes,] citing the dangerous scourge of AIDS and HIV. She also taught me I should be honest in my day-to-day interactions if I ever wanted to live a good life.

I was brought up in a the Catholic Church. After many years of staying in the city, I asked myself if I really wanted to be a Catholic or if I was just going there because that’s the place my parents went. I decided to test my faith, and I attended different churches for two months. I was never satisfied with them, as my heart kept on telling me I belonged to the Catholic Church. That’s where I still go to worship my God.

As a young adult, you moved to Nairobi. Tell us about that experience. How was life in Nairobi? What kind of work did you find there? What kind of living conditions did you have?

I moved to Nairobi because my dad lived there with my second step mother, my six siblings and an aunt. I thought at least I would get some accommodation as I looked for a job. I thought of Nairobi as the land of opportunities.

Reaching Nairobi, I could not believe I was still on the same planet. Seeing the unbelievable tall buildings was exciting. I wondered at the traffic jams with its great noises; how could there be so many cars in just one city? Nairobi residents raced about as if in a competition. Youngsters in dirty, ragged clothes were sniffing shoe glue and walking up and down the streets, opening waste containers to find food. I thought this was pathetic. The streets also housed many beggars sitting on the sides asking for some few coins. I didn’t expect there could be beggars in a land of opportunities.

My dad lived in a wooden single room with all his family and yet I came to join in. It was so crowded I had to sleep at a neighbor’s house at night. My other siblings slept with our parents, but they had to spread theirs beddings on the floor. The bathrooms and toilets were outside the house. The compound had 20 rooms with 20 families occupying them. Our family was made up of 10 people, so ask yourself: How many people were there altogether? Then try to imagine all of us using only two bathrooms and two toilets. You can imagine how filthy it was.

After a few months of staying in Nairobi, I talked to relatives and friends and was lucky enough to get a job as an office messenger at the Interlink Rural Information Service [the news-wire service where Vincent and I met -Ed.] I earned Ksh. 3,000 [$60 at that time] per month. I could not afford to pay my bus fare all way, so I walked half the journey every morning to and from work for two years.

You have spent many years being unemployed. Tell us about that: Why were you not able to find a job? What efforts did you make to find a job? What prevented you from working?

To get a job here you must be well trained. My high school grades did not qualify me to get the training I wanted. I blame this kind of education system: It has locked out so many. Here in Kenya, we do not lack intelligence, but we lack the right education. Then there is corruption. You might be qualified for a job, but you have to either have a “godfather” or a fat pocket to produce bribes. So ironical: You are searching for a job, and somebody asks for a bribe. If you need a job, where can you get that money to bribe them?

I wanted to be a surgeon when I was growing up. That could not happen. However, my American friends believed in me and sent me to college to train as an auto-technician. After that, I got several attachments [internships] and later on a job. But this employment did not last. Since then I’ve tried several places with no success. Some places have wanted to offer me a place but the salary is pathetic. You can imagine somebody offering you Ksh 6,000 a month [$97] for full-time employment. Can that cover my needs?

Many people find it very difficult to be unemployed. How did you survive? Did you ever lose hope for yourself? What were your dreams?

I’ve managed to survive without employment because one great family from US. This is Useem’s family. They’ve supported me both morally and materially all through. Currently, I’m also working as a Karate instructor earning Ksh. 6,000 a month [$97]. That’s a part time job. I spent the rest of the time searching for other places.

I’m also writing for children. I’m busy chasing the publisher to get myself published. I’m hopeful that they will come through for me.

Have I sometimes lost hope? You can bet I have, several times. Before I got married there was a time I was financially bad and had tried all places looking for something to sustain me. The bills were becoming big; I attempted suicide but did not succeed. That was in 2003. But now that I’m married I sometimes lose hope, yes, but I hang in there because I’ve got a son and wife. They are my reason to fight on.

The greatest dream I have for my family and myself is to be financially free — free to afford this life, and maybe have our own home and car. What I want most is to give my son the best education- that’s the best gift a parent can give his child. I myself did not get a good education; I will feel downtrodden if my son undergoes what I underwent in this life.

Did you always believe in God or was that something you found as an adult? Do you go to church regularly? Have you ever felt disappointed by God that maybe God is not looking out for you?

Yes, I grew up believing in God, courtesy of my paternal grandmother. I relapsed along the way during my youth. The peer groups I met influenced me, and I start saying that God does not exist. Maybe I thought this was true because of the suffering I underwent in my childhood. I wondered why I should suffer if God truly existed.

However, I outgrew that attitude, and today I’m committed to church. I’m a choir member in the Catholic Church I attend, the Holy Family Basilica Catholic Church in Nairobi city center. I am a tenor, and I love singing so much. Even my wife knows if you want to punish me, then deny me singing. That’s the only way I can thank God for bringing me this far.

Though I’m that committed to church I’m just a human being; I’m not infallible and nobody is. So I cannot deny that I’ve ever been disappointed in God. These are the reasons: I serve Him through singing but I’ve remained jobless, and all my efforts to get something have not been returned. Then I see people out here who do not know Him or ignore Him, even people who do bad things, but they’re very successful. I ask myself how He operates. It’s only the strong belief I have for Him that keeps me in the church at times.

Kenya has been in the news because of the post-election violence. How did this violence affect you and your family?

The post-election violence has affected us so much. Firstly, four of my siblings had to flee the place where they were living, for fear of attacks, so I had to squeeze them in with my family in our small accommodations. Try to imagine how expensive that was to feed so many people. Secondly, the prices of commodities and services went up and up; to date it’s still the case. Life has become unbearable, and you wonder, what next? At the end of the day it is us ordinary people that carry it: The rich don’t feel it. So I can’t tell when these post-election happenings shall set us free. Finally, it was like psychological torture when we started receiving leaflets threatening our lives and telling us to leave — this was for people who were not of the Kikuyu tribe. We lived in fear, and yet my family depended on me for protection.

During this violence, what kind of role have religious leaders played? Are churches in Kenya divided by tribe? Or do churches help Kenyans cross these ethnic lines to live together peacefully?

I must regretfully say Kenyans have not yet outgrown the pestilence of tribalism — as churches, as political parties, as individuals. From my Christian teaching I’ve always known that a church leader is supposed to play a neutral role to any dispute. I’m sad to say that this did not happen when the two leaders Raila and Kibaki were asking for votes from people. A number of leaders were seen to take sides, especially on Kibaki’s side — they belonged to his same ethnic group. I’m sorry to say that my own Catholic Cardinal was the first to take sides. I ask why God gave us such a lost leader.

But after the post-election violence started, these religious leaders came back to their senses. They began preaching peace and urging people to co-exist. Recently they even held talks with Raila and Kibaki towards find a lasting solution to the problem.

We also have to ask: What’s your feeling about Barrack Obama? If you could vote for a U.S. presidential candidate, who would you vote for and why?

If I was an American citizen there is no doubt that I would vote for Obama. I’m not just saying this just because Obama traces his origin from Kenya, no. I believe in competence and ability, and that is what I can say about Obama. He’s one young man that stands for change. And once this change comes in the U.S., then the whole world shall also change. If Hillary Clinton were elected, that would make the US seem like a kingdom: Her husband was there before, so she must also rule? Don’t get me wrong: I was a big fan of Mr. Clinton but that does not tie me down to support his wife. Obama is the man of the moment, he is the second John F. Kennedy God has given the U.S..

More and more Americans want to help people in Africa. Yet so much aid money has already gone to Africa, seemingly with little affect. What kind of assistance do you think is most helpful?

Let me drive your first sentence home: Yes, you are right, so many Americans have sent help to this continent and Kenya especially. But so often this money does not reach the targeted poor man, and if it does, then it is only a peanut. Why? Because in our country, I can say, humanity is lacking. People think of themselves before others. The powerful people grab all the money to benefit themselves. I’ll give a little example. In 1990s the Germany government started up some housing project to benefit poor dwellers in one slum called Mathare. The houses were to be built and rented out at an affordable cost. As I now speak, the owners of the houses are some rich fellows who lease them out expensively. The poor man has been kicked out.

There’s no way money for money to come from outside and benefit the ordinary citizen directly. My suggestion would be this, though it is so challenging: That the donors themselves comes to Kenya and study the country to get to know those that need help and then directly assist them. I might sound mean but I’m tired of seeing the poor oppressed.

And how could someone help you?

For myself I would wish most of all for a decent-paying job. Or I imagine getting some money to build houses I can rent. Money by itself, without advice, doesn’t help so much, because you must figure out how to make that money generate more money. So I’m also seeking advice on how to make the most of the money I do have.

There Is 1 Response So Far. »

  1. Andrea, how do we reach Vincent? If we want to send him something, how do we do it?

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