We sit across the table from one another on the terrace of the coffee shop we make a point to visit almost every time she is in town. It’s a warm day but she is wearing a winter coat over a tank top. I laugh to myself because I know that I can relate all too well to this choice of clothing. Nairobi is often cold in the morning, overcast and gloomy during the rainy season, but never failing to become almost intolerably hot during the day.
She has just arrived via matatu (Kenya’s infamous public buses) and we are simply delighted to be together. I must confess I was all but falling out of my seat with the excitement of interviewing her.
Although we no longer live near one another, our friendship has endured. I first met Alice almost two years ago during my first visit to Kenya. We both were attending a missions conference and Alice sought me out during a tea break. I was struck by her kindness and tangible compassion. Whenever Alice enters a space she brings a certain energy with her. I can only describe the quality of this energy as effervescent. She walks lightly, matching her small frame. She speaks quickly, articulated, unfiltered – but not thoughtless – and laughs with ease. She radiates joy, never allowing negativity and the ugly parts of the world to become heavy.
I was incredibly honored to sit down with Alice. I felt such gratitude that she would trust me with her story and afford me the privilege of sharing it with others.
Alice lives and works in Gtown,* a city in eastern Kenya, roughly 100 kilometers from Dadaab where refugees and asylum seekers from the broader East Africa and the Horn of Africa regions live amongst the four UNHCR camps in the area. Alice describes Gtown as a harsh land – dusty, hot, unforgiving – with the local language and people resembling the abrasive landscape. Although Gtown is within Kenyan borders, its inhabitants are primarily Somali Muslims. Contrasted with Kenya’s predominantly Christian demographic, this land has a foreign quality to it. I get the sense that Alice navigates this environment with enormous grace. She possesses a keen awareness and understanding of the ethnic, cultural, and linguistic differences which distinguish her from her neighbor but does not allow these to inhibit her love.
In 2015, al-Shabaab gunmen forced their way onto the campus of a local university, killing 148 people, a horrific event which lingers in the minds of Kenyans to this day. Near the end of 2018, just weeks before Alice was launching to Gtown, al-Shabaab militants ambushed a bus traveling within the city and killed two people who refused to recite Shahada, the Islamic declaration of faith. These events in combination with the severe environment, cultural differences, religious disparity, and to her ears, the unintelligible language, many might wonder why a young, unmarried, five-foot-two woman would willingly move to such a place.
Her answer is simple: “I am propelled by love.”
Not only propelled but empowered by the love of Christ. She has been gifted great love, the greatest love, and therefore is able to love others. Alice is quick to point out that the quality of love she aims to give is not transactional. Due to His love, Alice is able to love others abundantly, unreservedly, with a willful refusal to let her love be hindered by the expectation of return.
“Even if they annoy me every day,” she adds while grinning.
Alice’s love for Muslims and commitment to seeing them reached with the hope of the Gospel was kindled by an experience in a mosque on Kenyatta University’s campus, Kenya’s flagship university. After several months of a CMM field worker walking alongside her in her journey toward learning about God’s heart for the world, she was then invited to learn more about Islam by attending Friday prayers at this mosque. Alice was initially skeptical, fearful even to set foot inside a place that was in direct opposition to the truth of the Gospel. That decision took strength and boldness. It took her giving God a simple “yes” and trusting that He would lead and guide her.
Alice left that mosque with three things. First, she left having encountered a community of people in desperate need of the Gospel. The lost were no longer an abstract concept; they had come to life as she watched them prostrate and offer prayers to Allah. Secondly, she left with a newly awakened passion to see the unreached reached with the hope they were living without. Lastly, she left with the strength to continue to give God her yes and continue taking steps of obedience towards the fulfillment of the beautiful end picture vividly described in Revelation 7:9.
That simple and unexpected yes drew Alice out of a place of fear of Muslims and into a new way of living. Shaped by that experience, Alice now possessed an earnest resolve to make Christ known among these very people she previously feared, no matter what it might cost her.
Alice now possessed an earnest resolve to make Christ known among these very people she previously feared, no matter what it might cost her.
I then proceeded to ask what the word strength means to her.
For Alice, strength means standing firm in her convictions, not subjecting herself to the intentions others try to impose on her life. Strength means giving value to her life-altering experience in the mosque and not succumbing to the judgments or pressures of a society who perceives her as foolish for forsaking the traditional notion of success. In essence, she believes strength is the resolve to stay focused on her deepest conviction – to see the name and fame of Jesus Christ proclaimed to the ends of the earth!
Reflecting on my modest understanding of the communal nature and collective thinking typical of African communities, I found her opinions rare.
“Where is this strength drawn from?” I ask.
“From God and the convictions he has put in my heart,” she replied.
I ask if she has faced opposition to her independent views, to which she confessed she has. Growing up in Kenya, there are certain traditions and expectations placed on children, especially girls. You must get an education. You have to get married to leave a legacy. Motherhood is the greatest honor for a woman and a way to respect her parents.
“Having kids is not entirely bad, but trying to please society is simply not possible. You have two children, then they want four,” she says.
In her community, wifehood and motherhood are linked to success and the fulfillment of unspoken obligations owed to the family. Alice expressed to me that she finds these endless expectations exhausting and unattainable. She wants to encourage her fellow women to release themselves from familial and societal expectations which, in her experience, often serve to suppress women’s autonomy. This suppression stunts the cultivation and realization of their dreams and comes at the high price of sidelining God’s daughters from partnering with Him in His mission to reconcile every tribe, tongue, and nation to Himself.
We both take a moment to reflect on a new vein of thinking: How can we honor those we love and preserve important traditions while championing the dreams and callings God has set in our hearts?
We sit in wonder, both a bit puzzled by the things that must take place and the conventions that must be called into question in order to see this accomplished. Then Alice picks up her phone, holds it in front of me, and asks me what I see. Since I’m looking at the back of the phone I tell her that the phone is silver in color with a camera lens and flash feature. She nods and then begins to describe what she sees. A black screen, a round button, and a front camera. Bringing the point home, she explains that we are both looking at the same phone but what we see, our perceptions of the phone, are completely different. I tell her that the example she just used is a variation of the parable of the blind men and the elephant. Like the parable, my perception, observations, and experience with the phone were subjective, as were Alice’s. Although what we see is true of the phone, our experiences are inherently limited in their understanding as they do not provide a full depiction of the cell phone.
In the same way, Alice wants to introduce a new narrative, a broader lens as to what single women are capable of, especially with regard to mission work. She craves to offer new perspectives and fresh ways of thinking about the role of single women in the mission field. With her life and legacy, she hopes to reshape the expectations that have been placed on women in the African context.
A few things she wants others to know? Women are resilient, competent individuals whose thoughts and ideas are a gift to the world. Women are capable of innovation and have the ability to break free from the limitations of traditional roles and methods demanded by their respective cultures. Her life does not need to be mapped by unspoken societal norms in order to impact her world for the name and fame of Jesus Christ. Her life need only be characterized by the simple yet powerful practice of saying yes to the King and Lord of her life.
Women are capable of innovation and have the ability to break free from the limitations of traditional roles and methods demanded by their respective cultures.
This is Alice’s greatest hope for her generation. She is eager to forge a new path of faith and risks in order to see this accomplished.
Inspired by her enthusiasm, I sought to gain more insight.
“This is quite a task. How can we initiate the change you are hoping to accomplish?”
She confessed that change will be difficult, especially in a place where traditional gender roles are deeply entrenched in society. Ever the optimist, she quickly added that conversations which inaugurate change are always characterized by people who ask “why” with an open ear. If those who come to the table do so with a willingness to listen, a teachable spirit, and mutual respect, “We’re off to an excellent start!” she says.
When I asked her how she might counsel other single women who long to share the gospel cross-culturally but are confronted with cultural expectations, naysayers, and the unique demands placed on them as women – she offered this piece of advice:
“Don’t let anyone make you believe the lie that you can’t be used or that you can’t pursue your call unless you’re married or that you can’t run off to a war zone because you need to stay close to the dating pool. Someone once told me that the majority of missionaries in the world are singles and eighty percent of those single people are women. So, you go girls! That means you are carrying much of the global mission’s workforce.”
She takes a moment to mention that she recognizes the unique challenges single women face – sexism, discrimination, harassment, and crippling loneliness. Alice’s words demonstrate her determination not to let her passion to see worship of God among the nations be compromised because of societal pressures to earn, get married, and have children.
“Not that these things are bad – I want to get married!” she remarks.
To close our conversation, I requested a candid answer to my last two questions,
“What excites you right now? What are you dreaming about?”
“This juice,” she laughs, taking one last sip of her drink.
Shifting to a more serious tone, she carefully considers her answer before she speaks,
“One thing that brings me joy is that I am chasing my dreams and trying to achieve them on my own without someone else coming in. It feels good to know that I have my own dreams that I am chasing; this is what I want for my life. If God wills someone else to find me, we might find each other going towards the same direction. It is not me going back into their dreams and visions. I never want to find that I didn’t achieve what God set in my heart because others think I need a husband or kids.”
She also expressed that she is delighted to wake up each morning with a purpose, with a joy to set out from her house and be a representative for Christ and his love in the midst of a community least reached with the gospel. Even more, she is encouraged by the fact that she has chosen Gtown. She fought for the opportunity to live and work there despite complications, overcoming significant barriers to be in a place she genuinely delights in.
Alice is an enormously brave soul and I truly believe she will accomplish what she has set out to do.
“If I can do it, anyone can!”
Not only has Alice faced great adversity in her journey to saying yes to a life on mission and in specifically moving to Gtown, she has now recently been met with heartbreaking loss. In September of 2019, Alice tragically lost her younger sister due to medical complications. Despite having to face the passing of a beloved family member, she wants people to know that in the midst of complete brokenness there is still hope even in the darkest of places.
“Everyone gets beaten by loss even though God gives us peace. This is the one time, especially on the week [my sister] left us, that nothing made sense to me out of all the things that people told me or even out of what I’ve been telling others myself. It’s only God who can surely answer most of the questions we get and whose voice can be heard. It actually made sense why He had to send us a Helper/Comforter because He knew during such a time, only He can really reach someone’s heart and mind with comfort.
The other thing was the prayers that people prayed, because it took those prayers for me to hear God’s voice at the worst times. Even when I couldn’t pray or read scriptures, I could still feel his presence.”
Alice is now back in Gtown, moving back after just two months since the passing of her sister, continuing to live boldly and serve faithfully. Please pray for Alice, as well as countless other African women like her, who are truly taking up their cross to follow their Savior to the ends of the earth. No matter the cost.
*City name changed for security purposes.