By Catherine Woodiwiss 12-17-2015

You can't get a good pilau at Amani Gardens Inn. The guesthouse, nestled behind tall gates on Church Road, boasts a menu of all-American food and three acres of some of the plushest gardens in Nairobi. Birds chirp contentedly from a 100-year-old jacaranda tree. Languages, tribes, and religions mix under tents and between flowers dotting the grounds.

The guesthouse is run by Mennonites, the historically peaceful Anabaptist tradition with a strong emphasis on community, tradition, and — for these particular Eastern Mennonites from Lancaster, Pa. — growing things.

The grounds are an island of stillness in the busy crush of Nairobi. In fact, it was this cool quiet that pinned it as a destination spot in the early 1900s from the land’s first owners — the Kings Africa Rifles, a British paramilitary force formed to protect British economic interests in the region.

And the gardens will soon become a destination spot of another kind: today, the owners are developing one acre of the gardens into luxury apartments to help fund their missions worldwide. It’s a strange tension for a peaceful people and their land, sitting between military past and commercial future. But despite the changes headed their way, the gardens on this sunny afternoon feel like a haven in the storm.

Community, Lost and Found

In the 1900s, Nairobi was a newly built city in the yet-to-be-independent country, a strategic trading hub for raw materials en route to Great Britain. The Kings Africa Rifles developed the gardens as a place for rest and relaxation for East Africa officers — defined as much by whom they kept out as whom they brought in. (It certainly lived up to its reputation as a place of leisure — story goes that shortly after purchasing the land in the 1960s, Mennonite owners of the guest house regularly had to shoo away prostitutes accustomed to getting business from visiting officers.)

Though Mennonite management today doesn’t lean heavily on the garden’s roots in military empire, they acknowledge the lovely irony of the lineage.

“There is something kind of neat about this Mennonite ethos, for the kind of spears to plowshares conversation,” Gary, manager of the guesthouse from 2001 to 2007, said.

When the Eastern Mennonite Missions came to the region in the 1930s, they came bearing much of the trappings of empire. Though relational-focused (“pray, give, and go”) instead of economical, white missionaries’ purpose nevertheless was conversion, building local churches and demi-leaders who would rely on Western funding and preach the word of God in Western constructs of thought.

In many ways, the aesthetics of Amani Gardens hasn’t changed much from its imperial days. Tea is served at 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. each day. The spartan (if largely unused) staff lodgings resemble servant quarters. The concrete top of an underground military bunker peeks up from the grass in one courtyard. In a bit of whimsy, a lone lamppost in a dark stretch of the gardens casts a Narnian light under the trees.

The work of transformation — of land, or of legacy — is never complete. And for Western Christians, inheritors of a religion built and carried by ethnocentrism and economic exploitation, the work to detangle faith from the structures that continue to support it is an extra challenge. When survival of the church demands profit, what do you monetize? When community requires boundaries, whom do you leave out?

Transformation or Development?

Since the 1960s, the gardens — known for decades as the Mennonite Guest House — embodied hospitable community. The majority of guests were missionary families or local pastors and families. A morning bell would call them to group prayer and meditation. Meals were served family-style, and all staff lived on the grounds. If still insular by faith and mission, the guest house provided a deep haven of welcome for multi-ethnic staff and guests alike.

“Apart from the need for us to provide a way to carry on, to give them some separation from the intensity of what they’re experiencing — I was just humbled by being able to be so close to people at a time when it’s not going all that well,” said Gary, who also taught for years at a school up the road from the gardens.

But Mennonite missions in East Africa have been significantly declining in the last 10 years, leaving far fewer lifelong missionaries in the field. As fieldwork has declined, so has the need for housing and services in Nairobi. So, too, has the sense of communal mission.

“Back then, guests would come to stay here for a month-long leave. By time I left in 2007, it was averaging barely one night per person,” said Gary.

Peace work is hard enough in community — it is nearly impossible in isolation. Debbie, manager from 2008 to 2014 with her husband Aram, and now a regional representative for the Eastern Mennonite Missions, compared the gardens to the family farm; the distant home, she said, that everyone loves and boasts of, but where few can or will commit to root.

“When we came, our daughter was two and a half years old, our son was six months old,” said Debbie.

“But my husband or I would get up at 7:30 every morning, come over to lead devotionals, pray. And a friend of ours had recently gotten killed. And every year our budget would decrease by 30 percent. We were really burnt out, and there was nobody else in the whole region. We just couldn’t do it anymore. We went to our organization saying, something significant has to change.”

Today, the Eastern Mennonites Missions Board is facing a new question, one already answered by many global denominations: how to generate money from these acres in order to keep funding their missions worldwide.

This comes at a time when Nairobi itself is changing. At independence in 1963, the city’s population was 350,000. Today the metro area is home to 6.5 million, with a burgeoning middle class and a local market for retreat getaways slightly outside of city center.

Management’s current solution is to divide the property: two acres will stay as-is, the other will be developed into 10-story luxury condominiums for local Nairobians. Revenue from the buildings will support the gardens and the larger church.

The building is already in process. A high solid-steel fence cuts through the grass: a tower of self-contained rooms on one side of the barrier, long dinner tables on the other. Along with the change has come a rebranding. Amani Gardens only recently dis-identified as the Mennonite Guest House (but kept a spiritual language in the Swahili word amani, meaning “peace”). Current management’s expressed attempt is to appeal to a broader audience — international journalists, for example, or the types who might buy a luxury condo next door and wander over for an afternoon tea.

Was it a big deal to remove the religious language? “I think everyone was kind of okay with it,” Debbie said. 

It’s a decision met with resignation from older generations of management.

“I can only hazard that once your clientele moves into a broader circle of people who come for a variety of reasons, it becomes a little more difficult to operate as homogenously as you might,” said Gary.

“People want meals brought to their rooms. That never used to happen.”

Peace and Profits

The competing interests of globalization and slow community is not a new story. Nor is the question of how a group can remain rooted, yet nimble enough to survive. But it’s hard — once I start hearing stories of all the people who have sought shelter in these gardens; after I stop at the tree planted by the community 30 years ago in honor of a volunteer killed on the Mombasa highway, whose name is now forgotten — to not wonder, almost viscerally, where this rush is taking us.

Nairobi is developing its own identity, working through decades of tribal enmity while simultaneously investing in its enormous economic, technological, and cultural capital. Church communities in Nairobi are doing admirable work to break down us-vs-them barriers in Kenya’s still-volatile political economy. And Amani Gardens is no exception — its employees represent a number of Kenya’s ethnic tribes, and is careful to not favor the Luo Mennonites over local Nairobi tribes. Guests of any and no religious persuasion can stay for as long as they’d like.

There are no barriers to entry. But as construction eats away at the green gardens, I wonder whether we’re instilling barriers to rootedness.

Vestiges of faith and community still seep through. One Sunday morning, a Mennonite hymnsing erupts from a side dining hall, voices soaring jubilantly around the gardens. The guesthouse library holds decades of Mennonite teachings and spiritual writings. And the hostess — the only such staff position in the region dedicated exclusively to helping guests feel cared for — spends her evenings building an open bonfire for disparate guests to gather around.

Gary and Debbie indicate a recent and decisive shifting of attitudes about how to spiritually navigate this season of change. Gary, for his part, remains focused on the potential for deep hospitality.

“For a large percentage of mission activity of Kenya, the presence of internationals in church work is still by these career people. They don’t have anywhere else,” he said.

“You don’t see that necessarily as a visitor — you don’t really know what everyone’s moving into unless you’ve got the time and space to open up. There’s no regrets to getting close to people’s lives and knowing you participated in some way.”

Debbie agrees with the unique draw of the gardens, but sees the change as required.

“I think of it as being a placeholder, a stake in the ground. A place can have spiritual significance, metaphysical significance. But it’s also a lot of work to keep up.”

Out in the gardens, the lamppost sits in the shadow of the condominium towers, right on the dividing line of the property. The wall, eventually, will come down, opening each side up to each other. As in wintry Narnia, the lamppost’s presence in these gardens is at once both confounding and nostalgic — is it pointing to the future over the wall? Or another stake in the ground, reminding us of the world it came from?

“It’s been a bit of a confusing situation,” Debbie said.

“We have all this land. And we’re saying, ‘What do we do with this?’”

This story was reported from Nairobi on a grant from the International Reporting Project, an independent journalism program based in Washington, D.C. 

Catherine Woodiwiss (@chwoodiwiss) is Senior Associate Web Editor at Sojourners.

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