The Centre for Christian Muslim Relations in Eastleigh, Nairobi, was established in 2010 through an initiative of the faculty of theology at St. Paul’s University, Kenya. The centre was envisioned as a space where students, academic staff, and practitioners in the field of interfaith relations would engage with theory and practice. This brief article will reflect on some of the ways in which we have engaged with interfaith questions in a real existential context.
Over the years there have been various formal dialogues held in different parts of the world between Muslims and Christians. Before focusing our on present activities in Eastleigh, it may be helpful to offer a brief history of dialogue and diapraxis within this context. Some of the earliest recorded attempts at formal dialogues in Eastleigh go back to 1973. These events were organized by an American Mennonite by the name of David Shenk who first worked in Somalia from 1963 under the umbrella of Eastern Mennonite Missions. However, a Marxist revolution forced him and his wife, Grace, and their two daughters to migrate to Kenya in 1973, where they settled in the Eastleigh section of Nairobi “so as to be within the Muslim community.”1 Shenk immersed himself in the life of Eastleigh through participation in dialogues and through hospitality. In his book Journeys of the Muslim Nation and the Christian Church, Shenk reports:
A Qadiriyya Sufi mosque was across the street from us. Our home provided a setting for dialogue with Muslims, including key leaders. We would remove all the chairs from our living room, sit on mats in a circle, and drink tea as we conversed earnestly about God and faith and truth and the Qur’an and Muhammad and Jesus and salvation.2
The above approach to dialogue was complemented by the production of texts referred to as “a Bible study series that engaged the Islamic worldview and addressed misunderstandings and objections Muslims have concerning the Christian faith.”3 These courses, entitled The People of God, are still taking place and are widely distributed to Muslims throughout East Africa.
An important development in Shenk’s conversation with Muslims was a long-term dialogue with Prof. Badru D. Kateregga. At the time, both Shenk and Kateregga were teaching at Kenyatta University College of the University of Nairobi. They debated and discussed doctrinal issues together as their students listened and watched.4 These conversations were later published in the book A Muslim and a Christian in Dialogue.
To be sure, the legacy of Shenk’s encounter with Muslims was not limited to formal dialogues. His approach also involved social action that was very much driven by Shenk and his Christian counterparts. Thus, according to Ahmed Ali Haile, a Somali Muslim convert to Christianity who spent some time at the Centre: “The Mennonites had rented a five-apartment complex on Eighth Street in Eastleigh intending to develop the facility into a community centre. In the meantime they had opened a reading room and library.”5
During the 1980s and 1990s, the conceptualization and practice of dialogue has shifted from a more formal orientation (from “above”) to a renewed emphasis on a practice approach (from “below”) that entails cooperation in joint issues for the common good. Rasmussen has referred to this approach as “a dialogue of commitment through practice.”6
Eastleigh is a suburb east of Nairobi that is largely inhabited by Somali Muslims. However, there are also Oromo, Sudanese, Eritreans, and Congolese immigrants in this large area. The number of residents in Eastleigh varies depending on the source of information. According to Refuge Point (2011) there are 100,000 people living in Eastleigh. However, the Daily Nation, September 26, 2010, stated that around 300,000 people occupy this area. The fluid nature of immigrants in Eastleigh contributes to the difficulty getting exact demographics of the area. Religious demographics are even harder to come by because of the Kenyan government policy not to include this category during a census since it has been so contested. Because of the immigrant/refugee origins of much of the population, significant poverty issues exist that exacerbate tensions between Muslims and Christians and also within the various groups there.
The context of Eastleigh, Nairobi, required dialogue through practice because of the tension that abounds between Muslims and Christians and the socio-economic conditions of the area. Similar to but also varying from Shenk’s approach, is the centre’s new emphasis in encountering Muslims through joint practice, while not overlooking other forms of engagement. Eastleigh’s increasingly polarized environment calls for more imagination in the encounters between members of the two traditions.
Towards a Diapraxis Model of Interfaith Engagement
It is no longer sufficient for religious traditions to merely talk about their respective theological beliefs. We therefore encourage Muslims and Christians in Eastleigh to engage in joint action on matters of common concern in order to contribute towards social transformation. The activities that Christians are involved in are largely determined by the social, economic, and political needs of the residents of Eastleigh. The following examples illustrate areas of joint action on matters of common concern.
In order to create possibilities for joint action with Muslims in Eastleigh, one must get to know them and establish bonds of trust. Therefore, right from its inception, CCMRE’s focus on networking with Muslim groups and individuals has continued to be one of its major activities. On November 22, 2011, the centre got in touch with the Somali Embassy Attaché of Culture and Higher Education, Mr. Abdirizak M. Diriye. This culminated in a meeting between St. Paul’s University officials and the Deputy Minister of Higher Education, Dr. Abdikader Sheikh Ali at the embassy, where issues of collaboration between the embassy and the Centre were discussed. Of particular interest to the minister was how post-war Somalis could benefit from the Masters of Arts in Development Studies offered at St. Paul’s. As a result of the networking activities of the centre, contacts have been made with numerous Muslim individuals and institutions, such as teachers with local madrassas and mosques, as well as public preachers in Eastleigh. The Centre has also made contacts with Christian institutions such as the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Eastleigh, the Roman Catholic St. Teresa’s Church, the Canadian Baptist Ministries (CBM), who have considerable experience working in the area, the Presbyterian Church of East Africa, who run a centre, and the Eastleigh Fellowship Centre, who host us. Other institutions with which we have made contacts include Kituo cha Sheria (Legal Centre), Rugta Maskaxda (Centre for the Arts), Mama Fatuma Good Will Centre, and the College of Shariah and Islamic Studies. International groups include the Initiatives for Change (Netherlands), Emory University (USA), and the African Study Centre (Germany).
Numerous joint activities between Muslims and Christians have been conducted through the centre. These include exposure tours for guests around Eastleigh, watching films and participation in joint reflection, participation in common spirituality practices such as prayers, sharing a common meal, a mapping project, and workshops on religion and media, among others. I would like to focus on two of these initiatives: the mapping project that took place during the month of November 2013 and the “Faith in the Media” workshop that was held November 1–2, 2013. The mapping project has been exhaustively documented in the book Mapping Eastleigh for Christian-Muslim Relations.7
The objective of the mapping exercise was to jointly study Eastleigh’s spatiality by Christians and Muslims as a “lived experience” and “understand together how mapping the commonly shared space can enhance our insights into Christian-Muslim Relations.”8 The significance of the mapping exercise went beyond the map-drawing of the Eastleigh space. According to Peters,
We were interested in the mapping behavior itself and how such behavior can impact our own perceptions, especially with regards to Christian-Muslim relations. The underlying hypothesis in such an approach was that an existential and phenomenological engagement with place can have a transformative impact on our earlier perceptions.9
Among the most significant findings of this exercise was that it radically transformed the mappers’ perceptions. Thus, according to Peters,
Twenty-three out of twenty-four of the members of the teams, regardless of their faith, were surprised to see how their perceptions of Christian-Muslim relations changed from negative to positive after mapping Eastleigh.10
On November 1–2, 2013, CCMRE organized a workshop entitled “Faith in the Media.” The event focused on the role of the media in fostering positive interfaith relations through objective coverage of religious issues. Over fifty journalists from the horn of Africa, Muslim and Christian leaders, as well as youth attended this event, which culminated in a document on best practices in the media’s reporting of religious topics.
Providing Learning Space
A critical mission of CCMRE is to provide a platform for academic and practical learning engagements between Muslims and Christians. Here the centre’s vision is to identify, test, and evaluate the various approaches and concepts in interreligious and intercultural dialogue and to attempt to apply them in various contexts. Towards the attainment of this mission and vision, we have hosted numerous local and international scholars who have participated in our activities. Scholars from Emory Divinity School, Tilburgh University, University of Rostock (Germany), Columbia Theological Seminary (USA), St. Paul’s University (Kenya), Moi University (Kenya), University of Nairobi (Kenya), Egerton University, and Tangaza University College, among others, have used the centre as a base for their research by participating in our activities. The centre has also hosted various practitioners in interfaith dialogue such as the world-renowned Pastor James Wuye and Imam Mohammed Ashaf of Nigeria, former members of competing militias in Nigeria who experienced personal transformations through their friendship and now work cooperatively to head the interfaith Mediation Center in Nigeria. The Centre has also hosted street preachers of Eastleigh, imams of local mosques, and madrassa teachers, as well as others. As a result of their engagements with us, participants have exchanged ideas and best practices, contributing immensely to their learning.
Sharing in Common Spirituality
During all our joint activities between Muslims and Christians, we begin and end with prayers from the two traditions. Sometimes one tradition leads the opening prayer before the activities begin while the other offers a closing prayer. In March 2013, a group of more than thirty Muslims and Christians gathered at the Centre’s offices and had prayers with both Muslims and Christians focusing on the forthcoming general elections. Since the hotly contested, previous election in 2007 led to serious violence in which more than 1000 people were killed and badly injured as well as property destroyed, Muslims and Christians in Eastleigh felt that it was important for members of the two faith communities come together to pray. In addition to the prayers, religious leaders from both traditions offered reflections on the elections based on the Bible and the Qur’an. The very presence of Christians and Muslims in the act of joint worship created an atmosphere of mutual trust and understanding. It also affirmed the great value of diapraxis at the level of spirituality, in coming to know and understand people of other faiths as people of prayer and spiritual practice, as fellow seekers and pilgrims for peace and justice. It affirmed that the Spirit of God works beyond the Christian or Muslim compounds and across the frontiers of religion, ushering us into the struggles of the world.
Perhaps the most abiding joint activity among Muslims and Christians at the CCMRE has not been in the formal activities but in the spontaneous sharing of friendship over a soda or a meal of rice and goat meat. This has often led to strong friendship and enriching conversations that continue until today. In contrast to the common stereotypes of Eastleigh as a dangerous place to be avoided, it is always fulfilling to find Muslims and Christians sitting together at the Eastleigh Fellowship Centre, sharing life. These occasions have frequently resulted in dialogue about common challenges faced and the doctrinal issues that so divide the two communities as well as those that bring them together.
CCMRE has broken new ground in the area of Christian-Muslim relations in the region. Numerous networks and joint activities have been undertaken, all aimed at creating space for positive encounter and transformation in Eastleigh. However, the project has not been without its challenges, which I would like to briefly describe.
The changing context of Eastleigh characterized by the ongoing tension and violence has been a continuing challenge for the project. On several occasions we have had to suspend going to Eastleigh for security reasons. Yet these events have also continued to be a reminder that our agenda for Eastleigh—that of building peaceful community relations—is yet to be fully accomplished.
From its inception the project aimed to bring on board in equal measure participants from both the Christian and Muslim traditions. This would effectively embody the positive spirit of cooperation that such a project needs. Although we have very good Muslim partners, most of the initiatives have been conceptualized and operationalized by Christians. Perhaps this state of affairs can be explained by the fact that the idea of CCMRE was first born in a Christian ecumenical institution. We feel that this needs to be rectified by bringing more Muslims into the decision-making level of the project.
Lastly, CCMRE relies fully on funding from our partners abroad. Although we are grateful for this support, it raises the challenge of the project’s future sustainability. We need to pursue more avenues for both local and international support for the project.
This contribution has reflected on diapraxis as a way of interreligious encounter in Eastleigh. It has argued that although dialogue has been used in the past as a form of encounter, diapraxis offers new opportunities for engagement. The practice of diapraxis opens new and surprising doors for interreligious encounters. In contexts of great unrest and tension such as in Eastleigh, this approach also contributes in practical ways towards the transformation of the community, opening doors for other forms of engagement.
David Shenk, Journeys of the Muslim Nation and the Christian Church (Waterloo: Herald Press 2003), 11.
Ahmed Ali Haile and David W. Shenk, Teatime in Mogadishu: My Journey as a Peace Ambassador in the World of Islam (Harrisonburg, VA: Herald Press, 2011), 45.
Lissi Rasmussen, Engineering Bridges (Minneapolis: Lutheran University Press, 2007), 180.
C. B. Peters, Joseph M. Wandera, and Willem J. E. Jansen, Mapping Eastleigh for Christian-Muslim Relations (Nairobi: Zapf Chancery, 2013).