Why Nairobi Estate Will Be God’s Melting Pot on Saturday [opinion]

A probing question by a nine-year-old has led to the coming together of all Madaraka residents to celebrate Eid-ul-Fitr, which marks the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadhan

Over the last nine years, Jamila Mbaiza Mwenesi has had to answer all manner of questions from her three children; nine-year-old son Adrian Anwar, three-year old Feisal and two-year-old Zahra. And the young mother has always been delighted to offer quick answers to her inquisitive children.

But that was until one evening in April this year, when her eldest child Adrian asked her a question that shook her disposition. That night, Jamila had just completed reading a bedtime story to her children and was tucking them in bed when Adrian suddenly asked:

“Mummy, why do Muslims kill Christians?”

Jamila and her family are devout Muslims. She recalls the moment soon after her son asked the question.

“I was stunned. I experienced a few seconds of confusion and I tried to decipher his question. His question caught me so off-guard and I struggled to conceal my shock from him,” the 26-year-old says.

Adrian asked that question just three days after the terrorist attack in Garissa University which had killed 147 people, most of them university students. The Somalia-based Islamic extremist group Al-Shabaab had claimed responsibility for the attack, with survivors saying the militants specifically targeted Christians.

Adrian’s question was the hardest yet he had ever asked his mother.

“Adrian is a very curious boy and I am used to his endless interrogations. But that was the most difficult question I had ever heard from him. As I racked my brain for an appropriate response for him, my mind was at the same time troubled as I tried to understand his thoughts regarding the question. All I could conclude was that the issue must have bothered him for a long while until he could not take it anymore,” Jamila says.

Before giving him an answer, she decided to probe him first.

“From where did you hear that Muslims are killing Christians?” she asked him.

“But mum, it’s all over the television and radio! Haven’t you seen the pictures in the newspapers? Even all my friends are asking the same question. Mummy please tell me, why are Muslims killing Christians?” the class three pupil asked again.

Jamila then did her best to help her son understand that it was not Muslims killing Christians, but a group of people that were not interested in peaceful coexistence with people who had different views from their own.

“I stressed to my son that Islam is a religion of peace, that Muslims are very accommodating to people from all walks of life — including those from other religions. I told him that Islam teaches us to love everybody, no matter their religion, race or cultures. I explained it to him in the best way a nine-year-old can understand,” says Jamila.

Thankfully, her son seemed to understand and did never raised the question again.

But his mother on the other hand remained a troubled soul. Adrian’s question continued to bother her for weeks. Every night, she would toss and turn in her bed, agonised by Adrian’s question. She knew she had to do something about it.

“I knew that Adrian’s question represented the thoughts of many of his friends. I reckoned that most of them had similar concerns and while some, like Adrian, may have asked their parents or teachers about it, many had not, and may have unfortunately believed what they had heard or seen. I knew that I had to do something to try and dispel the growing misinformation and labelling against Muslims that has slowly been infiltrating our society, especially after the terrorist attacks in the country,” says Jamila, who is a stay-at-home mum.

As she pondered over what to do, the words ‘change starts with you’, which she had heard repeatedly in various social campaigns ever since the 2007/2008 post-election violence rang in her mind. If she wanted change, then she had to initiate that change. She decided to start right in her home.

“Since the holy month of Ramadhan was coming up soon, I told Adrian that I would invite all our extended family members — some of them Christians — to celebrate Eid -ul-Fitr, an auspicious day in the Muslim calendar, with us. I hoped that such a practical activity of interaction would help complement the lessons I had been giving to him about all people loving one another and living in harmony despite their religious, cultural or social differences.

But as she began making those plans, she however began to have more reflections.

“I thought about the larger community that my children existed in. While the family event was a good idea, I thought about their friends in the neighbourhood and in school who would be left out of the activity, yet they too needed to be included in conversations and practical experiences of how communities can live together in accord despite religious, cultural or social differences. I then decided to extend the Eid celebrations that I had intended to have with extended family members alone to my entire Madaraka neighbourhood, since that’s where most of my children’s friends and classmates live, and these are the people they will grow up with and make childhood memories with,” says Jamila.

And thus began the planning process. Jamila’s efforts will this Saturday culminate in a fun-filled day called the Mazara Kids Festival where children from all religious, cultural and social backgrounds will get together for an afternoon of play, fun, song and dance — the kind of activities that promote interaction among children and help them know that they are all one despite any differences among them.

The Mazara Kids Festival is aimed at bringing together residents of Madaraka estate and its environs to not only celebrate Eid -ul-Fitr with their Muslim neighbours, but to help impart some important values to children.

“Our children are out future leaders and we must ensure they don’t grow up with seeds of discord in them. These children pick up more than we think. We have to be careful not to allow them to be led astray mentally, by allowing them to drown in the prevalent stereotypes in the community.

It will be a day for children and adults alike to gather together and celebrate all our differences and similarities that make us one. My main aim is for children to learn that despite any glaring differences one might see, we are still profoundly integrated, and that it is possible to play, laugh, eat together and have fun times. Too often, the enemy can inflict us with a crippling fear, and at a time when there is both a conscious and subconscious religious divide, I believe faith can actually be a catalyst for fostering good relations in our communities,” she says.

In order to ensure success for the activity, Jamila has involved the Madaraka estate leaders in planning for it. Thankfully, they have all been receptive.

Caroline Wangamati is the chairperson of block sector A, who says that the event is welcome and timely.

“This is a very good initiative as it is one of the first steps to celebrating the diversity in the society. Our children are still young and do not need to be filled with the intolerance that some adults display. We need to raise them in a healthy community where they will appreciate the differences and similarities that exist among us. Neighbourhood get-togethers like these are one of the best ways to promote understanding and cohesion among individuals and families, and they are good forums for children to learn invaluable lessons. We look forward to celebrating Eid with our Muslim friends as one big Madaraka family,” she says.

Rose Kibocha, the chief for Nairobi West location in which Madaraka estate falls, has lauded Jamila’s initiative.

“At a time when there is growing fear and division regarding our ethnic, religious and socio-economic diversities, the Mazara Kids Festival which is aimed at bringing together families in the neighbourhood is very noble. This is the first of its kind and I hope it will be a regular event. I also hope that it is something that other neighbourhoods can emulate and implement,” she says.

Chief Kibocha says that with growing misinformation among some people about Islam and the Muslim community, especially after the terrorist attacks, it would be unwise for parents to assume that their children are unaware of such conversations.

“Children know what is going on. They see it in the media. They are having these conversations amongst themselves. We may not be aware of the nitty-gritty’s of their discussions, but they are talking about it. It is our roles as parents, as teachers and other members of the adult community to ensure that they are getting the right information. Misinformation and ignorance by parents on what information their children are absorbing will be detrimental in the long run, not only to themselves, but to the society at large,” she says.

The local administrator says that the event will be a great opportunity for children and their parents to meet together, some of them for the first time, or others whom they have not seen in a long time and make life-long connections.

“In an era where connections are being done through internet connections or telephones, the get-together will be a good forum for people to foster and nurture face-face interaction, which is what is actually recommended. In addition, this activity complements the Nyumba Kumi initiative where neighbours are encouraged to know each other,” she says.