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Sam Bretzmann on Fikisha’s Ministry to educate Nairobi Street Youth

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HH: Some people just don’t sit back and read the news like I do. Some people actually do things. And one of those people sitting in the studio with me, quite coincidentally, I did not realize it would come together to have Kristoff on at the same time as Sam Bretzmann. Sam Bretzmann is a friend of mine. I know him from Young Life activities in Southern California. He’s originally from Wisconsin and escaped Milwaukee, brought his Green Bay Packers sad disability with him, to Concordia College out down in Southern California, and has been active in Young Life circles for a few years, a young man. How old are you, Sam?

SB: 25.

HH: Got to get closer to the microphone. 25 years old. What year did you graduate from Concordia?

SB: 2010.

HH: And what year did you found Fikisha?

SB: Fikisha was started in 2009.

HH: All right, Fikisha is www.fikisha.org. It serves the street children of Nairobi. How people how, and how it came to be, Sam.

SB: I was in Kenya in 2009. We were with a group from Concordia. The first day that we got there, we were visiting a church. The church wanted us to help build a shower, and so we started to do that, and really just got in the way. I feel like they felt bad for us, and just kind of wanted to give us something to do, but the work was contracted out. So instead of doing that, we ended up hanging out with kids that were on the streets and that were coming to the church, because they had a special church service just for the youth there. We got to know some of the kids and wanted to be able to help out, so we started by putting one little boy, Isaac, back in school.

HH: And how much does it cost to put a kid in school who’s on the street in Nairobi?

SB: For our program, it costs $1,200 dollars. That covers all of his school fees, all of his food, all of his housing, plus medical coverage for an entire year.

HH: And so you and a couple of other people from Concordia College, at the ripe, old age of 21, decide you’re going to help some existing efforts in the churches there to bring American money, and some American love, and some American concern. How many kids are you helping take care of now for five years later?

SB: Right now, we have 36 kids in school, and then we also have program days where we get about, probably 40 more kids a week that we work with.

HH: And so the first thing is, I was just talking with Nicholas Kristoff about the disaster sweeping over the continent. I know you will say because Jesus tells you to do it, but why in the world try and do one kid at a time ministry in the middle of the Nairobi slums?

SB: That kind of is just in the core of who we were. I mean, we have staff and mentors that are in Kenya who are Kenyans, and they used to be living on the streets. They came from the same background that the kids we work with are coming out of right now. And it was because there are people at the church who invested into them. And as we got to know them, and hear their story, it just kind of moved us into wanting to help them to continue to do what they had started already.

HH: Now this is very not Lutheran. I know my Lutheran friends are going to be mad at me, like Carl Catlin, my painting friend from down in Fallbrook. And you know, Carl, he’s a Steelers fan, and he doesn’t do missions. He’s like me. He just doesn’t want to leave the country. And then I think of Justice Barry Anderson, great lawyer in Minnesota, and a great Lutheran, and I think of Chuck Manske, who started Concordia College. These are very square, I mean, these are square, square people. And for you to say oh, I’m just going to start a ministry with my pals in Nairobi, it just doesn’t seem Lutheran to me. So how outside of the box is this for your experience?

SB: I mean, everyone has their own culture and background growing up, and there are stereotypes that come with every denomination. And I mean, I know plenty of people who, I mean, whether it’s in Africa or whether it’s in downtown Milwaukee that step out and look for ways to be loving to their neighbor. It might go against the stereotype, but…

HH: Are hot dishes served at…I’m sorry, I’m just making fun of the Lutherans. I want Catlin to be involved in Fikisha. That’s what I’m doing right now. So now I was talking to you when we came up here about when you start something like this, Africa is immense. I mean, it’s like a drop of water in the desert. What do you think you’re doing?

SB: Our hope is to help a few people in our area of town, which is called Kawangware, there are…

HH: Spell that for people who are listening.

SB: It’s Kawangware.

HH: And what’s it like?

SB: Kawangware is technically a developing slum. There are a number of major slums in Nairobi, Kibera being the most notable. Kawangware is about the fourth largest slum there.

– – – –

HH: So tell me about the slum, and how you think it’s going to impact things long term.

SB: Kawangware is developing. I mean, it is not as bad off as other places. One of the, we work with a lot of families locally. We want it to be something that ultimately is entirely funded and run in country. There is development that’s happening, and providing education for not only the youth there, but working with families, jobs are being created, and it’s, there is positive benefits coming from that.

HH: So Fikisha, is it supposed to put itself out of business? Or is it, what’s it’s driving…to connect Americans to the really needy people in Nairobi?

SB: We want to encourage people to love and reach out into their own communities. We work with churches on different mission trips. The end goal of those trips is that the local outreach of both the sending and receiving countries would be strengthened, so that after I go to Kenya, that there are people in Kenya who are more equipped and prepared to go out into their own community. So the end goal is that we would no longer have to be working in Kawangware.

HH: What does, you told people about Isaac, you told me about Isaac. Tell people about Isaac.

SB: Isaac was the first boy that we put into school. We met him the first week that we were in Kenya. Every day, we would go back to where we were staying, and we’d have family time where we would talk about highs and lows of the day. Isaac was always brought up. He just stuck out to us. I couldn’t really tell you why, other than he did, and we wanted to help. So we were talking with the elders and the pastor at the church, and what’s the best way that we can help Isaac?

HH: And so now he’s in 8th grade, so he’s in four years, and how’s he doing?

SB: He’s doing fantastic. When we first met him, he was shy. He would not look at your face. I mean, he would just kind of like slowly follow you around, kind of hiding in the shadows. And now, he’s so much fun to be around. Being back there this summer, he’s joking, he’s just like talking with you, and pulling with you, and it’s…

HH: And you’ve verified the schools you send these children to, and you know they deliver a good product, and $1,200 dollars really does do it?

SB: $1,200 dollars really does do it. I have been to all of these schools that we send kids to. We have good relations with the leadership at these schools.

HH: Who runs the schools?

SB: They’re all run, they are private boarding schools in Kenya run by Kenyans that are there.

HH: And so it’s an alternative to being on the street, obviously. Now does Isaac know you’re doing this because of a person named Jesus? Is he, do they get that part?

SB: They do. Fikisha started…

HH: That’s the organization, Fikisha, I’m sorry, bad radio, www.fikisha.org.

SB: Correct. Fikisha started as some Kenyans in their 20s who wanted to reach out to street youth, and so they started a church service on Sunday mornings specifically for youth living on the streets. And it has grown to a lot of other things that we’re working with right now as far as food programs, working with family scholarships for kids, but we still have the Sunday morning church service. And the end goal of the mentors is that they would be able to walk along these kids, whether they get back to school or not, and that they would know that they’re loved, and that the mentors would be a manifestation of the love that Jesus has for them.

HH: Now you’re a Young Life guy. You did summer staff at Young Life. You do volunteering for Young Life. This sounds a lot like Young Life.

SB: There are a lot of influences that came from Young Life. I mean, Young Life hugely impacted me as I was getting out of high school and going into college, and it really kind of altered the course of where I am, and brought me out from Milwaukee out to California.

HH: And so that incarnational ministry that it’s called in theological terms, you’re doing that in Africa. A cynic driving around right now, one of my good atheist friends, is saying why don’t you just go help someone in the inner city of Santa Ana, California, which is pretty close to your college? Instead, why are you going to Africa to do this?

SB: We feel a burden for helping Africa. We also have, we’ve been asked that question a lot. I mean, there is a lot of need here. We don’t try to ignore that need. We’re developing programs to be working in local communities and areas in need, and just loving your neighbor here in the U.S. also.

HH: So do it all?

SB: Yeah.

HH: Now when you go to Africa, A) how well prepared were you for when you went, because you also went to Uganda, the Congo, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Rwanda.

SB: Rwanda, correct.

HH: How ready were you for what you found there?

SB: It was very eye opening. I mean, we were young and looking for an adventure.

HH: You’re still young.

SB: Yeah, we were looking for an adventure, and it was fantastic. I mean, the amount of experiences that we had, the people that we met, is, I don’t know, I would encourage everyone to go.

HH: But isn’t the…as I talked with Kristoff, who is a veteran of Africa, it’s so immense, and it’s falling apart, Sam Bretzmann. Do you run into the Muslim-Christian divide? Did you encounter that at all in Nairobi?

SB: Yeah, in Kawangware, the area that we work, there’s actually, I mean, it’s very much split. Half of it is Christian, half of it is Muslim. In that specific part of town, there are pretty good relations, and some of the youth that we work with are Muslim. And it’s just been another area that we can reach out and minister to people, and just walking alongside them, letting them know about Jesus.

HH: That’s interesting. So you are on the sort of the cutting line, the front line of where Islam and Christianity are connecting or not connecting?

SB: Correct.

HH: Is there an ominous sense to life in Nairobi these days?

SB: With the elections coming up, there is a lot of worry. In 2007, there was a lot of post-election violence and riots that had taken place. A lot of people lost their lives there. Obviously, the hope is that this can be not repeated this coming year, but there is a tenseness there.

HH: And can people help you? Can they contribute online?

SB: Absolutely. If you go to www.fikisha.org, you can donate there.

– – – –

HH: I want to thank Sam Bretzmann, who’s been in studio with for this half, first half of the hour with Nicholas Kristoff, New York Times columnist, Africa advocate, and Sam Bretzmann at the other end of the age spectrum, 25

SB: 25.

HH: And totally invested in Africa through the organization www.fikisha.org, calling on all Lutherans and other well like-minded people to help him out. That means you, Carl. $10 bucks, Carl, or more. Put a kid through college, change their life. $1,200 dollars, Carl. Just sayin’, Lutherans. But people can help you, right?

SB: Yeah, absolutely. They can help us by going onto www.fikisha.org.

HH: Have I mispronounced it fifteen different ways?

SB: A little bit, but that’s alright.

HH: Fikisha.

SB: www.fikisha.org. On there, you can donate, which is hugely beneficial. If you’re interested in being more involved through your local church or congregation, wherever you are in the country, there’s a program that we have called Fikisha Advocates. You can send us an email. All the information is on the website, though.

HH: And do you help churches who aren’t connected to Africa come along and…

SB: That’s one of the goals.

HH: …safely and securely, but nevertheless authentically understand what, as Nicholas Kristoff said in the first part of the show, it really does have lasting impact on people to go.

SB: Yeah, and one of the goals is to work with churches in connecting them with churches in Africa. I mean, specifically right now, our focus is in Kenya, and talking about mission trips and thinking through the benefits and the costs of the mission trip. And personally, our goal is that both the sending and the receiving countries would be strengthened, that you would be strengthened as a local congregation, that they would be strengthened as the Kenyan congregation.

HH: So people look back and they wonder how some countries end up in utter darkness and oppressed, and it’s because at a certain point in time, someone didn’t do something. And the opportunity now for Kenya and other places is right now.

SB: Yeah, absolutely. I really agree with Nicholas on education. I mean, just getting people educated about, I mean, starting in primary, starting basically, and then working your way up, and that will lead to just, I believe, a growth in the economy and production in jobs, and just going forward from there.

HH: And the schools that the children you serve in scholarship, how would they compare to our American experience. We’ve got less than a minute, but I mean, are they pretty similar in terms of curriculum, you know, the basic three R’s, etc.?

SB: I mean, in terms of the curriculum, it’s going to be decently similar. They have a higher emphasis on language. The physical buildings are going to be different. They’re not going to look the same as a lot of our schools, but all of the, just the education and learning will be there.

HH: Well, keep working away. It’s a great work that you’re involved in. Sam Bretzmann from…

SB: Fikisha.

HH: Fikisha. People are laughing. I can’t pronounce anything. Fikisha. Concordia is very proud, and right so. www.fikisha.org.

End of interview.

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