Thursday, November 13, 2008

Postcard from Nairobi

I’m sitting in the Nairobi airport waiting for the midnight flight to London . . . and relishing the amazing week I’ve just had here in the Kenyan capital. What a coincidence for an American to be here when the U.S. election results came out. Starting Wednesday morning when the Obama win was announced (local time), this country erupted in joy and pride. Local boy (or actually, son of local boy) had made good, arriving at the pinnacle of world power. The newspapers could talk of nothing else for, oh, the first 10 or 12 pages.

Thursday was promptly declared a national holiday; all banks, schools, and businesses were closed. My host and I worked anyway.

“Mama Sarah,” 86 (mother of Barack Obama, Sr.) beamed with delight and said she would be going to the inauguration. She lives in a small village in the west (right on the equator), has never even been to Nairobi or ridden an airplane. (The local authorities hurried this past week to get electricity to her home for the first time.) Can you imagine her landing in frigid Washington in mid-January to face the pomp and circumstance of her grandson’s swearing-in?

So I’ve been smiling along with everyone else here, never admitting that I actually voted for McCain-Palin before I left home. I did try to remind a few folks that their celebrity is the President-elect but not the Messiah.

Meanwhile, back in the everyday world . . . I got to work with Newton Ombete and his staff at Kenya Baptist Media. He’s a gracious man in his mid-50s who has been with the organization for 28 years. My job was to become his friend, ask lots of questions, learn the history, and then begin to frame what the future could look like. KBM was founded pretty much as a service to Southern Baptist missionaries here, who had big budgets to spend on evangelistic and discipleship materials. Well, those days are gone. Newton recognizes that he’s got to step up and become a real publisher going after real customers (Kenyans) in a competitive environment.

The good part is, this is a country of 38 million people that’s 45 percent Protestant. The Baptist Convention alone is 3,400 churches, to which KBM has open access. Other strong groups: the Anglicans, the AIC (Africa Inland Church), the Presbyterians, the Pentecostals, and the Seventh-Day Adventists. (We talked about possibly changing the name to something more generic, say “LifeWay Kenya.” He’s going to work on that with his board.)

We brainstormed fresh product ideas that could bring this publisher back to the forefront of people’s attention. For example, they used to be big in Sunday school curriculum—but have let their line get stale. It’s time for a new push here. In their facility, they have a recording studio that is currently used just for custom jobs (outside choirs who want to record their songs, etc.). Okay—how about doing audio books, which would be an innovation in the Kenyan market? (Dan, I wished you were there at this point of the discussion.)

Marketing has been almost nil in recent times. I pushed them to think in terms of investing 12 percent of net sales for this area, getting out to church conventions, concerts, doing twice-a-year catalog mailings, calling on bookshops, etc.

By the end of our time, we had worked together to set five clear goals for 2009, with an underlying set of strategies to achieve them. Newton is going to aim for net sales of 15 million shillings in 2009 ($200,000)—a considerable leap from the present. He’s working out his detailed budget now, which I’ll check over by e-mail in another week or two.

On Sunday he invited me to preach (with Swahili translation) at the church he pastors (along with everything else in his life)—a slum church of maybe 70 people. Concrete floor, corrugated tin roof, and the electricity was missing that morning. Oh, well, hakuna matata. We had Sunday school anyway (adults on one side of the room, kids in the opposite corner), followed by the morning service. The acapella worship was fervent, the prayer heartfelt (including prayer for Obama), and Communion at the end. What precious people who love the Lord, despite a hard, hand-to-mouth existence.

When I said good-bye at KBM, the whole staff (eight people) came around to thank me for coming and wish me a safe trip home. Their parting gift to me: a mahogany carving and a colorful African shirt.

This is what Prof. Philip Jenkins is talking about in his groundbreaking book The Next Christendom, which I assume you’ve read. This is the rising church of the Global South. Their numbers are soaring, and it is a privilege to do for us in GPA to do what we can to help mature the young believers, who will become more strategic with every passing year.

(To see more photos, go to: .)

--Dean Merrill