All the Watches

Posted Aug 08, 2009 by 3 Comments

“So what exactly do you do in Kibera?”

I get that question a lot. I think people tend to have this image of me building schools in the sun, handing out food in some relief camp, teaching English to orphans, etc. But the truth is quite a bit more mundane.

I actually spend a vast majority of my time doing just two things: sitting around and visiting people. It doesn’t sound very exciting, I know. But by being patient, I have been able to see a whole different side to the culture of the slum than what I would see if I was busy.

Let me illustrate what I mean by describing a normal day for me in Kibera…

In the morning, drinking chai and eating breakfast (white bread with margarine), I usually ask Pastor Fred what the plan is for the day. Nine times out of ten, it’s something like this…

“Well, in the morning we’ll go over to the church because I have a meeting. Then in the afternoon we’ll visit with a family.”

That’s it. That’s the plan for the day.

For an American, it sounds hopelessly incomplete. Only two items on the schedule? How can you call that a plan? What else will we be doing???

But, even though it sounds boring, I nod and say, “Ok.”

Pastor Fred's office, where we spent a whole lot of time waiting for things to happen...

Pastor Fred's office, where we spent a whole lot of time waiting for things to happen...

For a little while, things go according to “the plan.” We go to the church. Pastor Fred meets with someone. I sit around and read a book… or daydream… or walk around outside taking pictures of things. Inevitably it ends up with the two of us sitting in his office just talking. Passing the time.

In the back of my mind, I have to fight the urge to jump up and down, to run outside, to do something! I didn’t come halfway around the world to just sit around… But I’ve learned that in these situations, it’s almost always worth it if I wait.

Just then, Pastor Fred’s phone rings. Someone is sick. Someone needs school fees for their child. Someone wants him to come pray for them. And just like that, we’re off…

The next few hours are spent walking through the slum, taking matatus to a hospital or visiting a tailor to pick up a child’s school uniform. As needs arise, we head off to meet them.

Walking from one place to the next in Kibera.

Walking from one place to the next in Kibera.

Suddenly, I look at my watch. It’s already 4pm! Time to visit that family. How did time go so quickly? Last time I checked, it was morning and we were sitting around bored in Pastor Fred’s office.

So we head off to the family’s home. We sit down in their 10′ x 10′ house and chat for a while. The kids slowly warm up to me and teach me songs they learned in school. The mother brings out chai and we drink while eating more white bread with margarine.

I ask them how long they’ve lived there. We talk about what part of Kenya they’re from. The mother starts to pour me another cup of chai. I try to refuse, but it’s too late. My mug is full.

Eventually, we stand, Pastor Fred asks me to pray for the family, and we head out the door.

On the way back to our house, Pastor Fred pops his head in at the home of another church member. The father insists that we sit for a little while and chat. Before I know it, I’ve got another cup of chai in my hand. I’ve got more bread and margarine to eat.

A few kids in a home I visited.  After a few minutes of uncertain looks, they warmed right up!

A few kids in a home I visited. After a few minutes of uncertain looks, they warmed right up!

Finally, as the sun sets behind the Ngong Forest, we return to Pastor Fred’s home. We flip on KTN and watch a Mexican soap opera until 9pm. Pastor Fred’s wife, Goretti, brings out dinner and we eat Ugali and Sukuma Wiki with our hands.

Then, it’s off to bed. I bathe, I sleep, I wake up and we start the whole process again…

So why do I tell you all of this? Why give you a run-down of my average day? Well, because what I’ve learned living in Kibera has genuinely changed my perspective on time.

There’s an old saying in Kenya. “Americans have all the watches, but Kenyans have all the time!”

Funny, but so true. It’s especially evident in the way Kenyans approach their relationships with one another.

For example, Pastor Fred is not busy, per se, but he is available. He may not have a Blackberry crammed full of appointments, but he somehow manages to meet with his whole congregation on a regular basis.

Pastor Fred knows his people. And his people know him. They know who to turn to when they have problems. They know who they can trust.

It’s inconceivable to me that someone could just head off to work without a plan for the day, but by leaving his schedule so open, Pastor Fred can be fully present when needs arise. When he’s meeting in someone’s home, he isn’t checking his watch to get to his next appointment on time. He is there. Completely.

Pastor Fred and I.  Thanks, Pastor Fred, for teaching me what it means to be present!

Pastor Fred and I. Thanks, Pastor Fred, for teaching me what it means to be fully present!

It definitely makes me stop and think. Am I fully present with the people I meet every day? Am I available to drop what I’m doing to help a friend? Or am I so wrapped up in my own schedule that every need of theirs is an inconvenience?

The other day I heard an interesting thing. When something gets rescheduled for a later date, Americans like myself say it’s been “pushed back.” Kenyans, on the other hand, say it’s been “pushed forward.”

Without wanting to put too fine a point on it, we tend to see rescheduling things as a hassle to deal with later. Kenyans see it as way to have more flexibility right now. Interesting!

In the end, living in Kibera has helped to change my perspective on time. Now, I’m still an American, and I’m not giving up my calendar and to-do lists anytime soon. But perhaps when I come back to the States I can build just a little more flexibility into my day…

Perhaps sitting around a bit more would do me some good!

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About the Author: Barry is the founder and Executive Director of World Next Door. A storyteller, traveller and giant nerd, he lives to compel suburban Americans to get engaged with social justice and find their place in God's kingdom revolution. His ultimate dream is to adopt a pet monkey named Kevin.

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  1. Julie Buczkowski said... 


    August 9th, 2009 at 9:57 pm  

    Barry, you are so YOU. We love reading your articles.

    Since leaving work to stay home with the kids, I have certainly scaled way back on meetings and to-do’s. Still, I do not make myself very available or, at times, even fully present in a moment. I really appreciate you bringing this to light.

  2. Rob Yonan said... 


    August 10th, 2009 at 9:39 am  

    it’s not such a stretch to see that the ‘church’ in Africa grows, while here in the US it often feels like it’s squeezed out of daily life. time. presence. so valuable.
    welcome home Bar’

  3. Breanna Sipple said... 


    February 17th, 2011 at 4:59 pm  

    Yep, this is such an important lesson to learn! I think I would be a bit like you in that situation too, way to have a book on you while you waited :). I would have LOVED going around on house visits with Pastor Fred, he sounds great (and wise)!
    During our staff training retreat for all the hall chaplains at the beginning of this school year, we were taught about the importance of being faithfully present, like what you’ve written about. It really does make a HUGE difference in the effectiveness of ministry.

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