I still remember sitting with a worldly wise man in Oxford 25 years ago, and hearing the phrase, “the two-thirds world.” Up to that point I was satisfied with my deepening, broadening world view that saw most of the world as “the third world.” But as we talked that day, I immediately saw what he was saying, and for years made sure that my understanding of the globalizing 20th-becoming 21st-century reflected reality.
And then some years later, in John Stott’s last public address, he offered “the majority world” as a more truthful understanding of the way things are. Given my apprenticeship to him in all things that matter most, I followed him, and ever since have used that descriptor.
I thought of all this again as I have been in and around Nairobi. On the one hand it is a very modern city, full as it must be with modern people with modern ambitions about the way life ought to be. With its high rises, beautiful houses, beamers (BMWs) and club scene, it could be anyplace in the world; as sick as it is, the Kardashian sisters are as well known in Nairobi as they are in New York. And yet it is also a city with gates and guards at every turn, barbed-wire protecting some Kenyans from other Kenyans, with a lamentable poverty and well-known slums that are almost iconic.
In the John le Carre novel-made-film, The Constant Gardener, we see something of Kibera, the largest “informal settlement” (slum) in Africa with its 1.2 million people living in 2.5 square miles. The sadness just goes on and on and on, men and women, boys and girls, living amidst unbelievable crowding and burning trash. It’s hard to know about places like this, as they are horribly sad windows into the worst of systemic suffering– there are no cheap answers to its heart-aching questions.
A few years ago I walked through Kibera, and remember how surprised I was as I watched little boys playing soccer with plastic-bag-made-balls, intensely aware they were of what was happening that day in England’s Premier League. This week I went there again with my new friend Ken Oloo, who is the filmmaker we worked with for our ReFrame project this week. We went to visit an art gallery in Kibera, a surprising signpost of beauty and hope in the middle of unimaginable forlornness.A wonderfully kind man, a remarkably professional man, an incredibly gifted man, Ken has chosen to spend his days teaching adolescents from Kibera the craft of filmmaking. He calls his work FilamuJuani, “films in the sun,” and I could not have been more impressed with him or his work. Year by year he invites these young people to join him in an apprenticeship, over-his-shoulder and through-his-heart teaching them to see the world. Because he insists on the very best work, over time his students become the most sought-after young employees in the media world of Kenya. Simply said, they know their stuff.
Walking with him through Kibera, I found myself thinking of “slum tourism,” an awful possibility in our world—sure that I did not want to take part. But if not that, then what? What do we do with what we know? How do we see in a way that requires a response? Very poignantly, what do we do with the pungent stink of smoldering garbage? Most of us can live most of our lives without having to respond to the reality that that world is the majority world.
To be implicated, for love’s sake. In many ways, that is the question of my life. Why that happens, how that happens, is as deep a current in my own calling as I understand myself; I have been thinking about the responsibility of knowledge, teaching it, writing about it, semester after semester, for years and years. And at my best, I still see through a glass darkly.
In Ken Oloo I met a teacher for all of us. Seeing himself implicated in the way the world turns out, he has seen the wounds of the world with the eyes of his heart wide open—and knowing the world as he does, he has loved it, stepping in with gladness and singleness of heart, which at the end of the day is our common calling.
(For more on Ken and his work, see the website for FilamuJuani: http://filamujuani.org/)