Opinion | Discipleship

How Discipleship Is Transforming Nairobi, One Woman at a Time

Women in urban East Africa face challenges that are both unique and universal.
How Discipleship Is Transforming Nairobi, One Woman at a Time
Image: UnSplash / Zeddy Msagha

This week wraps up our #AmplifyWomen series. As an organization that represents the global church, Christianity Today is committed to platforming voices from around the world. In that spirit, our final essay takes readers inside women’s discipleship in Nairobi, Kenya.

This last Christmas, I almost didn’t notice the young woman sitting at the reception desk at work. She hid behind her sunny smile and didn’t share anything about her family or holiday plans. During a brief chat, I was surprised to learn that she had no one in the city to celebrate the holiday with and no one to visit outside the city. In two generations of her family, relationships were broken between people, God, and their home communities. At 24, she was an orphan with no shalom, no wellbeing, and no abundance. Her job only brought in enough for subsistence—rent for a shared room with another orphaned young woman who was also struggling to survive.

As I listened to her story, I felt prompted to ask her to join our family for the holidays. She jumped up with an enthusiastic Yes! and with joy, I opened my heart and home to her. Within a few days, she was joking and laughing, playing in our family’s Friday game night challenge, connecting with others on WhatsApp, and generally acting young and carefree. She radiated the image of God—an image that had been obscured by years of pain.

Sadly, this young lady is not alone. She is an example of a larger challenge faced by many women in Africa who don’t have access to so-called “experiential discipleship.” According to Randy White in Encounter God in the City, experiential discipleship involves a cycle of scriptural study, action, reflection, and whole-life application. It relies on the exceptional power of shared experience, entrusts to another all that Jesus has commanded, and leads to personal and community transformation. Although women in Africa are hungry for this holistic discipleship, many of them don’t have access to it.

I was once one of those women. Years ago, I was among the few girls to complete my secondary education and qualify to join the university—probably only the second girl from my village to do so—but even so, I was stumbling, struggling to survive. While the United Nations may not have classified me among at-risk women, I was. During those difficult years, an older woman named Joyce intentionally committed herself to practicing experiential discipleship with me. Her instruction, affection, and intercession helped me to move past survival mode and onto the highway of economic empowerment, spiritual wholeness, and emotional wellness.

Her investment in turn equipped me to create an onramp to the same highway for other young women. These years later, my calling and vocation are defined by discipleship: I mentor a number of young women who hold positions of leadership and influence in Kenya and the neighboring countries of Tanzania, Uganda, and Rwanda. I lecture at the International Leadership University, which seeks to train pastors and leaders within the city and from around Africa. And my husband and I help lead a congregation of about 2000 people at Nairobi Baptist Church.

In these last few decades of discipling young women in Africa, I have seen over and over the many obstacles that impede their spiritual, emotional, and moral health:

Economic disempowerment.
After high school, many women get caught in the vicious crush of poverty and don’t have sufficient funds to pursue education. The forces of family strife, war, and distance from stable infrastructure also impact their lives. Many of these women are so alone in their circumstances that options like prostitution, human trafficking, polygamy, and street life seem like the only way out.

Cultural pressure.
Many single Christian women in East Africa are told they will soon be past the age of childbearing, and the cultural pressure to carry on the family name pushes them to get pregnant out of wedlock. For those who are married, cultural expectations affect family planning, naming of children, finances, communication, conflict resolution, and gender roles. Many of these women struggle to balance the tension between Ephesians 5:31—which says that “A man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh”—and Ephesians 6:2, which says, “Honor your father and mother.”

Career stagnation.
In most sectors of society in Africa, including the church, there are very few women in top leadership positions. That space is simply not safe for women, nor is it open to them. Additionally, many Christian women in Africa struggle to balance duties at work and at home. The African proverb “a child that is not taught by their mother will be taught by the world” sums up the pressure many women face. They are expected to train up their children and also generate income (to provide for both their immediate and extended families) in the midst of Africa’s harsh, developing economy.

Although these particular challenges are unique to East African women, they desire what Christian women all over the world desire: community, mentorship, and discipleship. How, then, can we come alongside these young women?

Titus 2:3–5 tells us that the older women are called to participate in the transformation of younger women—yet another invitation to experiential discipleship. This model has the power to transform not just individuals but also our communities and cities on this side of eternity. We find God’s promise of this in Jeremiah 29:7: “Also seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”

The sovereign God has wrapped up our wellbeing with the wellbeing of the city. Perhaps that is why some of the younger women finding their wellbeing through discipleship have become what the Bakke Graduate School refers to as shalom leaders—those who “pursue reconciling relationships between people, people and God, and people and the environments.” Many of these women who have been discipled are now discipling others, and they in turn are discipling others, to five generations of multiplication in cities around Africa and beyond.

Their testimonies are powerful. Catherine, a physics graduate with a passion for public health who lives in Nairobi city, reported to me that “being discipled has kept me aware that God did not save us just to go to heaven, but he called us out to share the love with others and thus impact society and communities around us. Hopefully by changing one life, we start the ball rolling that affects others with a multiplier effect.”

Another young woman, Habesha, is estranged from her family and community in Ethiopia after fleeing from enslaving cultural practices. She described to me what discipleship in the city has meant to her. “As someone coming from a different background and culture, it can sometimes be hard to be in the middle of ‘new’ people,” she says, “but I usually get comfort when I am around [my mentor] and her family. I am comforted to know that there is someone who cares enough to listen and pray for me no matter what I am going through. Discipleship also teaches me to be a serious, dedicated, and strong person. It motivates me to pursue more of my calling in Christ Jesus.”

The original design created and commanded by God in Genesis 1 involves both men and women taking up stewardship of creation. According to Isaiah, all—both men and women—are to be oaks of righteousness for the display of God’s splendour and for the rebuilding and restoring of ruined and devastated cities (Is. 61:1–4). As a disciple maker in Nairobi, Kenya, I feel hopeful that, one woman at a time and through the power of Christ, we can transform this city and those beyond it.

Levina Musumba Mulandi holds a Bachelor of Science in engineering from University of Nairobi, a Master of Arts in Christian educational studies from the International Leadership University, and a doctorate in transformational leadership from Bakke University. You can contact her at levinamulandi (at) outlook.com.

September
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