Language & Literature
Amata Thomas, a bishop in the Believers Fellowship churches, outlines the origin and growth of Beachy Amish churches in Kenya and describes the landscape of education in the country, both in the mainstream and in the schools associated with Rabuor Christian Believers Fellowship. Amata details some of the challenges and opportunities that come with operating Christian schools in Kenya. He also discusses some of the ways his church has found to disciple young people.
Well, thank you for being willing to join us here for this conversation. I’d like to give you an opportunity first to introduce yourself. Tell us who you are and what brings you here.
I am Amata Thomas. I am from the country that is called Kenya. I am presently in the United States, having been doing a tour presentation for the Open Hands.
I’m glad you’re able to be here. Can you talk about the Anabaptist churches there in Kenya and what your role is in those churches?
Yeah, we are having the Anabaptist churches and in particular the ones that I belong to are under the Beachy Amish Mennonite Ministries. They were started way back in 1991 as a response to the need that was arising from the Lamp and Light courses. The Lamp and Light Bible study correspondence courses were being sent from the US to the other side, directly to the students. Then it was, “How do we reduce the distance? How do we reduce the time? How do we make it easier?” Many were already asking, “We are finding these teachings are valuable, but where are the churches that are teaching this?”
So the AMA was contacted by Lamp and Light, and AMA sent out two brothers with their families to the East African side. They arrived in 1991. They were carrying out the Lamp and Light work, and soon out of that, the first church was formed.
Initially, there were up to now three churches. And down the line today, we are having 17 churches across the country and potential areas for more outreach. These churches were started by and led by American missionaries. But presently, we have gone to the level of having 28 native pastors ordained and serving in the various churches.
At the moment, I belong to one of those churches. The church where I go to was the third one to have been started on the Kenyan side. Its name is Rabuor Christian Believers Fellowship. Right in there, I serve as a pastor, and I have also the calling of a bishop for the church where I am and also for another congregation.
That is more of who I am, who we are, and what I do.
Thank you. Most of our audience is made up of teachers and administrators in schools here in the United States. Can you tell us a little bit about how schools are run in Kenya? Are you able to have private schools? Is homeschooling allowed? Can you just tell us a bit about the structure of school there?
Thanks for that, yes. I can tell you a lot of the schools, probably one out of 40 schools, is what would be considered a private school in the Kenyan side. Massively, there are many public schools against private schools. Then for the private schools, we are having those that would be called Christian schools and a private category. And then we are having those that would be called private business schools. They are there for profit. They are not there for the Christian mission work. That’s a big difference. So even out of the one out of 40 schools, again, there would be distinct category. If we had to line them up out of a big number, you will realize we may be moving to one out of a hundred private schools can be considered as a Christian school with Christian emphasis. We are having home schooling, but that number is so thin it might be up to maybe say 20,000 students, one is being homeschooled. That is a big number. Being schooled in a pool or an institution versus the thin number that is being schooled at home. There is again a difference when you’re talking of private school, public school, and home school. Most of these all do rely on the government’s controlled curriculum, which is developed by Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development. Our education system tends to emphasize on achievement through the exams. There is an examination body, and when you go through with the exams, they are the ones that certify you. The examination body is called Kenya National Examination Council. This content is having a secular component, which is a big disadvantage. There are a few homeschooling grounds and Christian schools that are using ACE, but that is the most that I’ve known. In our church, we have two schools, one big and slightly better. Another one just started. Unfortunately, we are still under the structure of the government-controlled curriculum because that is what people identify with, and as at the moment, that is what we are regulated to implement. We are trying all that we can to find some other means of implementing a Christ-centered curriculum. We would want all ideas. We would want people rallying around us and cheering us on as we navigate through the maze of making this come to be a reality. We know it’s possible.
If I understand it correctly, you’re allowed to have a private school, but the students in that private school have to pass the government exams. In order to pass those government exams, they have to have taken the government curriculum. Otherwise they won’t pass.
That’s what’s there. Our desire is to try to present some of the Christian curriculum that we have access to our government’s regulator. It can’t be implemented unless it is certified by the government’s regulatory body.
So just having students passing isn’t enough. The curriculum itself has to be certified that a student who goes through that curriculum would pass. You’re not allowed to try it first and prove.
You’re not allowed to try it first and prove it. The government must be behind the scenes. I see. Maybe through another testing body or partisan body to have it certified that this can be done in our land. And the other hidden side is we’re in a culture where people value employment. Self-employment is right there, yes, but the culture that thrives over there is many are going to school in order that they may find employment, not that they may work. That also determines a lot because most of the employers only identify with a government-certified curriculum. So if you don’t get that certificate, you’re unlikely to get a good job. That is the misfortune. On my side, I’m glad I normally say I’m a little keen on the papers. I’m more keen on the character.
Yeah. You said your church has two schools that your church is in charge of, or that students from your church go to those two schools?The two schools—it is our church that is in charge of those two schools. The two schools, one is having up to grade eight, and one is just starting at the preschool level. It is the church that manages these schools. And we are glad of the direction that the Lord is leading us through. We may desire quick results, but we know, for God, his timing is more crucial and important.
You said you desire to teach character more than just passing exams. Are there ways that your schools are working toward that, or are they too restricted to be able to do that?
At the school level, we are allowed to mold the students as we deem fit, while also competing at the same time with the time available to work on the content that needs to be delivered, and it is this content that will be examined. Need I say at this moment that the examination tends to be central. It is one exam that is set, and all students across all schools are sitting for that exam at the right time. It is tested at grade eight. That becomes a little competitive in terms of time and concentration on the character. But in our schools, our emphasis is on molding the entire person, not just the cognitive side of the person.
I’ve looked at those exams. They’re no slouch. You have to work hard to pass those. Are there other ways that your church is trying to disciple young people? In American churches, oftentimes we see the school as an arm of the church. It sounds like you’re doing that to some extent as well. Are there other ways, though, that you’re working to disciple your young people?
Yes, directly through the church, through the programs that are available at the church level. Besides the school and in the schools are only in the settings of two churches that are in the proximity of those two schools.
So other 15 churches are left hanging and then the outreach grounds are also left hanging. But now in these two churches where the schools are available, I know we are concentrating on the character and discipling the students that are in those settings in terms of their character.
However, we as a church overall, for example, have a… We call it Christian Believers Youth Conference, where we draw the youth from our churches and call them out to a particular institution that is owned by the church. We call it Lamp and Light Center. Now, we call them out for a period of about 13 days in the year where we are able to have a time out with the youths who attend these to build their man to the glory of God. We are doing that.
The other forum wherein we are helping our youths are every three churches come together, and every one of these three churches send in the youths into one of the churches for a period of about four hours, where the youth on that day (once in a year again) they get opportunity to be taught on what to practice for a long time. The 17 churches are on two fronts.
The two fronts are Nakuru side, which is more to the east, and Kisumu side, which is more to the west. The two sides, again, have time for the youth to have another time out as youths themselves. When you think of those numbers, we have the common conference. Then we have a small zone opportunity.
Then we are having a large zone or an area activity besides the regular Sunday schools. Where there is a time slotted for the youth to be taught. So yes, we are doing it, but we’re not doing it to the level that we would have desired.
Thoughts are, if we were able to interact with the public schools where our children go to and attend, there is a slot that is in those schools on Fridays. It’s just like the chapel time in the American Christian schools. The chapel time, they have that time. And I know when we go in and ask for an opportunity to teach in some of these places, we can be allowed to go in and teach the larger mass rather than just the smaller number of our own. That is something that we are seeking to explore if we would be able to really do it.
Sounds like a good opportunity to spread the teaching beyond just your own, but also to let them hear your own teaching, let your students hear your teaching in the context of the school where they’re mostly getting just secular education.
Exactly. And of recent, just out of, again, the ways of the Lord, this is coming from my own side, dedicating a portion of my home compound and my home time on Saturdays. If it were possible, that children from the neighborhood coming in, if it were possible to set up a playground, a playground where they think it’s coming into play. But I was thinking if it can be like say one hour and in this one hour because I’m allowed to, (we don’t have limitations in terms of reaching out even to the children of others). This Saturday time, the one hour, what if I used 30 minutes to teach them and they had 30 minutes to play, but I’m teaching them, building the inner man and building them in the word of God, then if you are responding, you get the opportunity to jump into the playground. I know the playground is not yet built, but that is something I’m trusting God for. He will provide in his own way. It’s just a thought.
I saw, out of an exposure by the Lord, that there are children in our neighborhood. What can we do about these children in the neighborhood? That may be a platform, even to build children and raise them into the membership of the Church. If they don’t come, still we would have reached out to them.
Sounds like another really good idea. You have lots of ideas.
I pray they can come to pass and that God is able to provide. Some of those things may be expensive to implement, but I’m glad the land, the land, the land that would be needed is already available. He has given me the land. If he gave the land, can he be defeated to provide a playground? I trust him. He has a way out. Yes.
So coming back to schools, I’m curious how you think American Christian schools ought to be more like Kenyan schools. What can we learn from you?
I am suspicious that the social fabric in the American schools is not as strongly knit as the social fabric on the Kenyan side. Children having what I’m together well under supervision, children being taught and allowed to relate with other children adequately under, well, supervision.
I see the Kenyan side giving the students more time with each other than the American side. You know, I’ve just observed the American side is likely more obsessed about timeliness, and it is timeliness even onto the negative side.
You can think of having been around the Mennonite churches and doing presentations in the Mennonite churches, and I am like it is five minutes to time; nobody has arrived.
Initially I was like, “Where these people, are they going to come then?”
I’m doing something at the front. My back is turned to the door, and in less than five minutes everyone, when I turn around, they’re seated and they’re waiting.
I’m like, “What happened?”
Then I’m like, “These American Mennonites, they never want to be late. They are so much in time. But again, they never want to be early.”
I wish there could be a correction on that. That there can be more time to visit. There can be more time to socialize, so that we teach our children other people also have value. And in that way, somehow prepare them for a ministry away from their homes when they’re able to connect and relate with the other people.
I am glad the missionary children that come over onto the Kenyan side, they are able to learn to connect with the other children. And sometimes I suspect they’re enjoying it when they hit the ground and have access to these other children. They’re enjoying it. And that is how I even developed the idea of I saw children being interested more in our compound when missionary children came visiting.
I looked at a picture. Then I forgot my own children and the missionary children in the picture.
The Lord showed me, “Are you seeing this?”
I was like, “What are you showing me really?”
“Are you seeing the other children around? They are more than your children and the missionary’s children. What are you doing about them?”
Allowing children to connect can even open the eyes of their parents, if you know what I mean. Can we allow relationships to thrive right from childhood? I think that’s going to be a plus.
The other thing is, and I don’t know how to say this, we are using the school uniform on our side.
The American side, I never know if this child is going to school or if this child is going to a Walmart. That difference is not there. If a child is lost, I may not be sure if this child was lost from school or this child was lost from [what are those?] Dollar-whatever. Dollar General! I’m not able to quickly position and be able to identify. School uniforms on our side, I know, provides an identity with the setting. That one, not necessarily a must, but it’s something to think about. It’s something that I see as a gap on this side, but I talk of the gap as a difference rather than a major thing.
I don’t know the story about no school uniforms in the US. There must be some reasons. The Americans tend to be different, even in accent.
Yeah. I heard you saying a little more flexibility on time and maybe being willing to all look the same.
I think our reason for not using uniforms is that students like to be individuals, not so much part of the community.
I think that, or not… They don’t want to be identified first by where they’re going to school. They want to be identified first as an individual.
And you know the misfortune with that. Sometimes that can bring in competition, where I dress better than they dress. But when it is uniform, it’s helping raise them from the feelings of unequal with the others. I think that’s the thing that I see in that in our schools. If it was just allowed to be with home clothes, there would be some level of competition.
The disadvantage with that would be things like jealousy. We may begin to be cultivating jealousy without knowing we are cultivating jealousy. We may be cultivating pride without knowing we are cultivating pride. Yeah.
Well, thank you so much, Amata, for coming and talking with us about schools and church there in Kenya. It sounds like there are a lot of really exciting opportunities going on there. I pray that God will grant you success in the various ventures. I hope, too, that we can learn from what you’re doing and get a vision for growing our schools as well. So thank you for coming and joining us.