NAIROBI, Kenya (BP)–The potholes in Eastleigh look big enough to swallow a bus.
Cars, trucks and pushcarts dodge the holes — and each other — in a continuous battle to get from one place to another. Power lines crisscross above the crumbling buildings, but the electricity doesn’t work half the time. Sewage flows through the gutters in the African sun. The kids look as ragged as in other Nairobi slums.
But the thugs look tougher.
“In Eastleigh, they’ll attack you in the daytime,” a Kenyan taxi driver warns, giving his passengers a rueful look. He avoids the area when he can; some drivers refuse to go there at all.
“The guns are in Eastleigh,” he says. “The Somalis are the gun dealers.”
Even Nairobi police don’t venture into some parts of Eastleigh. Somali clans handle their own disputes, by and large. They sell guns and khat, the Somali drug of choice, on the black market. But they also sell electronics, clothes, shoes and anything else you want to buy in Eastleigh’s chaotic jumble of shops and stalls.
You can make a little deal in the open — or a big one in a back room.
Don’t be deceived; major money flows in and out of Eastleigh — more than $50 million a month by one estimate. “It looks like a slum,” an observer says, “but they do big business.”
Eastleigh once was occupied by middle-class south Asians. That was before the collapse of Somalia nearly 20 years ago amid clan wars that have yet to end. Thousands of Somali refugees flooded into camps in neighboring Kenya. Many moved on to Nairobi where they took over Eastleigh “building by building, block by block,” as one witness put it.
Between 50,000 and 100,000 Somalis now live there; no one is sure just how many. They include all levels of Somali society, from villagers to clan chiefs, business leaders and politicians. Until further notice — or until stability returns to their homeland — Eastleigh is “Little Mogadishu,” capital of Somalis in exile.
They are proud, loyal to their clans — and overwhelmingly, fiercely Muslim. The martyrdom of Muslims who choose to follow Christ back in Somalia attests to the violent opposition the Gospel encounters in Somali society. That hostility carries over to Somali immigrants in Kenya.
“I personally have not had a [Somali convert to Christ] I have contact with killed, but I know some who have been beaten,” says a Christian worker who relates to recent Somali immigrants and ethnic Somalis who have lived in Kenya for generations.
The 20 or so Somali believers in Nairobi in the late 1990s have multiplied to nearly 200, one insider told a BBC reporter. But they live in constant fear of attack or persecution.
Young Somali women who decide to follow Christ sometimes find themselves imprisoned in their homes or quickly married to older Muslim men. After her new faith was discovered, a female friend of the Christian worker’s wife was shipped off to Somalia “just like that — gone.”
Still, he senses a quiet change among Somalis.
“There are lots of signs the Spirit is moving among these people,” he reports. Somali believers are being approached by others asking, “Who is Jesus?”
“That didn’t happen five years ago,” he says. “Walls have been overcome by relationships and by people loving people.”
Friendships and individual decisions for Christ might be tolerated, but the real test will come if scattered Somali fellowships form a movement and the “larger community feels threatened. Then they’ll push back,” the worker predicts.
Another approach destined to fail is churches and worship styles that look and feel Western, he adds. Somalis “need to see that they can be Somali and be a believer. The culture is just too strong to do it any other way. If it starts looking Western, it’s not going to happen.”
FEAR TURNS TO LOVE
What encourages him is the way “near-culture” Christians — i.e., Kenyans — are reaching out to Somalis in love. “God is using Kenyans to do exciting things,” he says.
James* and Jonas*, two Kenyan Baptists with connections in Eastleigh, have made many friends — including the leader of one of the 10 mosques there. They help people, make friends, visit in homes.
“I used to fear them, but since I started working with the Muslims, I have grown to love them,” James says. “They are not hostile; they are friendly” — if you get to know them. “They are strong in belief. I wish we Christians believed in Christianity the way Muslims believe in Islam.”
Several Muslim families, however, now believe in Jesus — quietly, so as not to invite immediate persecution.
“They will not declare openly,” James says. “It will take time. But from their hearts, we know they are recognizing Jesus as Lord.”
They also are the ones who will spread His name throughout Eastleigh.
*Names changed. Erich Bridges is a global correspondent with the International Mission Board.