Grandmothers and pastors learn theology together in Maai Mahiu, Kenya | Esther Mombo and Pauline Wanjiru [ANVIL vol 36 issue 2]

“Create a forum for us to teach the pastors. We see the church and the brothels competing for space in Maai Mahiu. The church has no impact, and those who are bearing the brunt of HIV and AIDS are the grandmothers of Maai Mahiu.”


Esther Mombo and Pauline Wanjuru

Can grandmothers teach theology? Are they trained theological educators? What curriculum do they follow – is it structured? Whom do they teach and where? The aim and objective of theological education is to equip those who are training to serve the community of the church in the wider society. This is by accompanying or journeying with people in their daily activities. This may be in times of joy and/or pain as they seek to know who God is and where God is, especially when it hurts. Any form of theological education has to be contextual and relevant to the realities and needs of people to whom it is being offered. Both the curriculum and the delivery of the curriculum should be able to take into consideration the needs of the society – thus the need for curricula that are not static but have room to expand or are able to change with the changing times. The methods of delivery also require constant evaluation as the learners are not the same all the time.

The contours of theological education are changing, especially in the majority world as a result of the significant growth among the neo-Pentecostal, Pentecostal and charismatic churches. There are a plethora of denominational seminaries, public universities, unaccredited Bible schools, online and distance education, and short-term courses offered by different and varied groups. Training that is academic fits a particular group of people who can afford or who have the required grades for this training. Through training they are able to master theological constructs that have been handed down through history and are able to understand the issues around relevance and context. However, there are other groups of people that have no access to any formal theological training but feel called to ministry and are able to found churches and minister to the members. Lack of theological training for this group is at times a plus for them and at times a hindrance. Who teaches this group other than the members that they serve?

It is in this context that we look at the grandmothers teaching pastors on what it means to be church in the context of HIV and AIDS at Maai Mahiu in Kenya. The role of grandmothers as teachers in Africa is not new, but their teaching was confined to grandchildren through storytelling. In some communities, it was the grandmothers who taught the young people sex education. This is because of the relationship of grandparents and grandchildren being that of friendship, making them free to discuss difficult topics like sexuality. The unique group of grandmothers in Maai Mahiu was started by Comfort the Children International (CTC), now Ubuntu Life. We got involved with the group as we run workshops through the World Council of Churches Ecumenical HIV and AIDS Initiatives and Advocacy programme. Using the methods of listening to narratives and conducting contextual Bible studies we managed to get the grandmothers, the youths and the pastors to share their stories of HIV. When we asked the grandmothers what we could do in terms of training for them, they said that they would like us to create a forum for them to teach the pastors. So we organised a workshop that brought the grandmothers and the pastors together and then held two consequent workshops for the grandmothers alone and for the pastors alone.


 This paper uses two methods to capture the need for learning among the people in a community. The first method is the narrative in which the grandmothers locate their knowledge of God through experiencing the loss of their children to HIV and gaining new roles as mothers again to their orphaned grandchildren. Their narratives are a source of knowledge and a way of knowing the realities around them. The second method is contextual Bible study, which is an interactive reading of the Bible in community. In contextual Bible study, the community engages with the context of the Bible and their own context and then seeks ways of dealing with the realities that are a challenge to them. They also seek ways of dealing with these issues. In this study both methods created a safe space of sharing and learning.

Maai Mahiu town

The town of Maai Mahiu is in the Rift Valley in Kenya and has had a heavy burden of HIV and AIDS, having been one of the places where heavy trucks stopped overnight on their way from Mombasa to Uganda and Rwanda. Dervla Murphy’s book The Ukimwi Road, written in 1994, observed that Maai Mahiu was a growing town but it was vulnerable to HIV.1 Since then a number of young adults in the early days of HIV died so a unique situation was created where grandmothers took over the responsibility of raising their grandchildren. Today some of the children are adolescents and young adults, some of whom face the same challenges their parents faced as HIV has not been extinguished. According to the grandmothers, Maai Mahiu has many churches and pastors of different denominations and from different backgrounds. Some have pastors who have received some training to run a church but others are self-made pastors and they have churches or what they call ministries. As well as the many churches and pastors, Maai Mahiu has a lot of brothels. It seems like the growth of the churches is in competition with the growth of brothels. The situation is brought to light when one listens to the grandmothers and the pastors of the town on the HIV and AIDS pandemic.

Grandmothers Against Poverty and AIDS (GAPA)

The grandmothers of Maai Mahiu were under the umbrella name of GAPA. They were over 40 years of age and attended different churches and/or ministries in Maai Mahiu, but they had a common narrative that united them. This narrative was caring for children infected with the HIV virus, and those who were not HIV positive had lost parents to HIV-related complications. The grandchildren’s ages ranged from toddlers, teens and adolescents to young adults. Each grandmother had lost an adult child or children and she remained to care for the grandchildren.

The pastors in Maai Mahiu

The pastors came from the different churches in Maai Mahiu. A few of the pastors were from mainstream churches. The majority of the pastors were from independent churches and ministries without national membership. Most of them had not been through any formal theological training but were able to read the Bible and preach – they had felt God calling them to the ministry. For some of them pastoral ministry was not full time, but over and above other things they did. They saw their ministry as preaching to the sinners to repent. Their congregations were varied in number, as were their places of worship. Each of the pastors understood that for Christians to belong to their church or ministry, they had to meet some membership criteria. Committed members are known by giving offerings, gifts and most importantly tithing.

The grandmothers’ and the pastors’ meeting

The methodologies employed in the meeting were both contextual Bible study and personal narratives. The grandmothers shared their narratives. The storylines were the same: the number of children who had died of the disease, the number of grandchildren they were raising and how the church was not there for them. The grandmothers spoke one after the other. We have picked three for this paper whom we have named grandmother one, two and three.

Grandmother one was 75 years old and had lost five daughters to AIDS; her husband died due to shock after their third daughter died. She had watched her five daughters waste away and finally succumb to the strange disease, as it was known in the early days. She, like many members of her community, knew very little about this body-wasting disease. There was so much stigma, shame, denial and discrimination of those who had contracted HIV and now had AIDS. Her five daughters left six children and the youngest was three years old. The children lived in her house and she had to fend for them. She had been a member of the church but because of the stigma related to HIV, the pastor and the members of her church were not close to her.

Grandmother two was 80 years old, living with diabetes and high blood pressure. She had lost four children to HIV and was left with 13 grandchildren aged between five and 25. She could not manage to do any manual work to earn a living to feed the now too-large family and hence depended on well-wishers, who provided food and also helped to pay for the children to go to school. The older children went to look for jobs in the community and what they earned is what was used in the house. Some of the children went to school while others went into the town to fend for themselves. Her fears were that they would contract the virus that had killed their parents. She was not able to attend church regularly because of her age, but at the same time the church had not been there for her, particularly the pastors, because of the stigma cast on those people whose children had died with HIV.

Grandmother three was 70 years old, a widow and mother of 11, although four of them had died of AIDS. The first-born daughter died leaving behind three grandchildren; one had died and two are still alive. While she was nursing the two grandchildren, her second son died, leaving behind three children. The death of her daughters earned her negative judgement from the village. The neighbours said her children were dying because they were sexually immoral. She attended church but when her children died, the members did not come to console her or help her bury them. The pastor did not come to the funeral either because he feared to be identified with her family, which was accused of having immoral children. She continued to go to church but whenever the pastor preached, he would emphasise that HIV was the major way the sexually immoral were punished. He would argue that whoever had HIV was going to hell. Listening to her pastor say all this angered her and she contemplated leaving the church, but she decided against it because she thought that if she left, the pastor and the people would conclude that they were right in their thinking. She stayed in the church but did not believe what the pastor said about HIV and those who were HIV positive or who suffered from AIDS.

Grandmother three did not believe that her grandchildren who were HIV positive were immoral and that God would send them, or even all who were HIV positive, to hell. The reality and experience of pain helped her to believe that it was only God who understood her pain. She concluded that being a grandmother to her grandchildren was a mission God had called her to. The GAPA community for her was provided by God to be a space to share her story with others with similar stories and also a place to share God’s word.

The narratives of the grandmothers brought up the challenges of being parents again in the midst of old age, poverty and disease. Unlike in traditional society where grandmothers spent time with grandchildren telling stories, sayings, proverbs and riddles as they communicated sex education among other things, the grandmothers of Maai Mahiu found themselves doubling up as the mothers and fathers to their grandchildren, taking on the roles of nurturers and providers, and teaching them values.

The narratives were about pain, and loss, but on the other hand there were stories of hope and faith in God. The grandmothers’ pain and loss did not deter them from trusting and hoping in God. Some of them had reached out to the church but the pastors were not available to accompany them in their grief. The grandmothers’ narratives were about real experiences – they were about being ostracised from the community and especially from their spiritual families.

The pastors’ response to the grandmothers’ narratives

The grandmothers’ narratives raised issues with the church and the pastors. The issues they raised touched on the ministry of the church under the pastors’ leadership. The narratives of the grandmothers were a critique of the church and the pastors at the time of need. The areas of criticism from the grandmothers included the hermeneutics of the Bible, the doctrine of sin and the nature of pastoral care. Given the time to respond to the issues raised through the grandmothers’ narratives, the pastors had little information about HIV and AIDS; to them, and others in the community, it was a strange disease. Their theological interpretation of the disease was based on the way they read about the incurable diseases mentioned in the Old Testament, especially Deut. 28:28.

The pastors said that they had believed and taught that a believer in Christ cannot contract HIV – that HIV is a disease for sinners. HIV was a result of sexual sin and was a judgement from God for the sexually immoral. If one remained sexually pure through sexual abstinence for those who were not married and sexual faithfulness for those who were, HIV would not strike.

The pastors were afraid of the “disease”. They did not have adequate knowledge of the basic facts of HIV; for example, how it is transmitted, prevented and managed. This led the pastors to offer inappropriate interventions. From the faith perspective, they located their theology in Deuteronomy 28: on curses and blessings. Following this theology, some of the pastors prescribed faith healing, which is dependent on the faith of the person who is unwell or who is providing care. They claimed that those who did not get healed did not have enough faith. By treating HIV infection as a judgement from God, prescribing faith healing based on the faith of sick person or the caregiver, and claiming that those who don’t get healed have no faith, the pastors placed the burden of disease on the person who was suffering. This enhanced the burden of HIV – selfstigma as well as societal stigma where the person feels unworthy and sinful deserving death, resulting in selfstigma and denial. People around the persons living with HIV also stigmatised them.

It is this literal reading of the text that created more pain for the grandmothers when they listened to the preaching of the pastors. When they needed care and empathy they received condemnation and rejection deserving death, resulting in self-stigma and denial. The meeting of pastors and grandmothers was both a learning and a humbling experience for the pastors. For the grandmothers it was affirming for them to note that they were knowledgeable, and that their stories were a source of knowledge and a way of training the pastors about being church and offering pastoral care to the members of the church.

The lessons for the grandmothers and pastors

Theological education: Of the pastors who dealt with the grandmothers, only ten percent had any formal theological education; this was through online distance learning, which was not accredited by the Kenyan Commission for Higher Education.

Hermeneutics of the Bible: The pastors had no knowledge of the tools of interpreting the Bible, which was a tool they used every day. They applied simplistic and speculative readings of the Bible that likened HIV to the incurable diseases mentioned in the Old Testament, especially in Deuteronomy 28. This made it difficult for them to respond in a manner that was life-affirming in their use of the Scriptures. The pastors realised the Bible was not a simple text and that it could be used to destroy lives, but if it is understood well, it can be used to transform lives.

The doctrine of sin: The narratives of the grandmothers revealed the inadequacy of the theology of sin as understood by the grandmothers. The pastors linked HIV to sexual immorality, which was a belief that was popular in the early days of HIV. The pastors lacked the basic facts about HIV and how it was spread from one person to another. The grandmothers knew more about HIV transmission and understood that the orphans they were looking after had received it from the mother and were born with the virus. They had not been involved in any sexual immorality. The pastors had not been exposed to issues around ending Stigma, Shame, Denial, Discrimination, Inaction and Mis-action (SSDDIM) associated with HIV. The pastors were unable to deal with the shame and stigma associated with HIV because they did not have capacity and therefore they opted out of supporting those people living with HIV or those giving care.


In this narrative from one context of HIV, two groups of people meet and challenge each other, affirm each other and together seek to walk the road of what it means to be a church. HIV becomes a mirror for both groups to understand the Bible, the doctrine of sin and pastoral care. These three areas that are significant for any theological education are not learned in a formal classroom but in the field of ministry. Ministerial formation becomes a place where ministry is practiced in addition to institutions of training.

Esther Mombo is lecturer in the faculty of theology and director of partnerships and alumni relations at St Paul’s University in Limuru, Kenya. Her teaching and research interests span the fields of church history, with a focus on mission history, interfaith relations, and African women’s theologies, gender and HIV and AIDS.

Revd Pauline Wanjiru Njiru is a priest in the Anglican Church of Kenya and serves as the Eastern Africa regional coordinator of the World Council of Churches – Ecumenical HIV and AIDS Initiatives and Advocacy (WCC-EHAIA). She is a PhD student at St. Paul’s University in mission studies.

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[1] Dervla Murphy, The Ukimwi Road, From Kenya to Zimbabwe (London: Flamingo, 1994).

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