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Selma Cook

This article is based on interviews with Aisha Wangari Kaminjo concerning her work in Kenya.

My movement around Kenya can best be described as a whirl of activity that slows down from time to time only to connect with a new thought or a new person in my world, then it sparks off on a new fresh and clear direction.

Sometimes people ask me why I am always so engrossed in some activity or project, why I am always so busy. I love to be asked this question because it reminds me of the motivating force in my life. It's like this: If ever you've been on the brink of total destruction — I mean annihilation of the body, mind, and spirit — and if ever you have caught a glimpse of the shadow of Hell and then been recalled and given a second chance at life, wouldn't you be eternally grateful and be constantly propelled to cover the evil of your life with good? Wouldn't you want to give back to the world something of the eternal mercy of Allah that saved you, and spread it among His creatures?

As much as you might see me "good" now, I used to be the opposite. As much as I have a clear aim and direction in my life now, I used to be totally lost. As much as I am happy and vibrant now, I used to wallow in hopelessness and misery. What brought about this change? It was Allah the Almighty Who picked up a lost, broken-down wretch of a human being and showered His mercy and guidance on me and led me to people and events that helped rebuild me from the inside out. In human terms I was a lost cause, but in the sight of Allah anything is possible, and here I am today.

I work with my people because I understand them and they understand me. I know how to reach out to them. I know what to say to touch their hearts, and I recognize the pain in the eyes of many. My work in Kenya is one of finding the good and building it up, of seeing a need and seeking to fulfill it, and of recognizing the pain in someone's eyes and trying to relieve it.

I have met many people who touched and colored my life with a light brush of hope, inner strength, and ability to keep going and persevering when many others would have given up. Their strength and nobility humbles me, and I'm constantly looking for ways to serve my Lord by helping them in some small way, in any way I can.

So it was that one day not so long ago when I was coming out of a masjid in Nairobi that I saw one of my people standing begging. He was a strong, healthy looking young man and he was begging! The sight of him brought sadness to my heart and a thousand words to my tongue.

My people, the Gikuyu, are known as a noble, strong people with dignity. Each community in the world has its own pattern and design woven and handed down generation to generation, and my people are no different. Our forefathers endured the hardships of war, slavery, and colonization, but despite all that and despite the poverty we witness today, we still have the seeds of strength and nobility. Sometimes all that's needed is a reminder and a helping hand.

I knew this young man. He had become a Muslim some time ago. Why was he begging? I had to know. When I asked him, this is what he told me:

"In the masjid where I go to learn about Islam, I am told to say 'Subhan Allah, al-hamdu lillah, Allahu Akbar' one hundred times and many other forms of dhikr. It takes up so much of my time to do all this plus pray and read Qur'an. I find there is little time for anything else!"

"But my brother," I replied, "you can do dhikr while you work! It doesn't have to be done only in the masjid." I asked him, "Don't you have any land?"

"Yes," he answered, "I have a small plot left to me by my father."

I made him an offer.

"What do you say, brother, if I lend you money for some seeds and tools and bring someone with a tractor to plow the land? Will you grow potatoes and stop begging?"

He was very happy and willingly agreed.

I went with him to see the farm. It was indeed a very small plot of land and needed a lot of work, but he got started. After some time I saw this young man again and he came running.

"Sister Aisha! Look at this potato!"

He held up a big fresh potato — the beginning of his first harvest. If you understand the long drought Kenya had just gone through, you will know why we were so surprised and happy. The land had not been productive for a very long time. It had been such a long time since anyone in the area had experienced such a rich, plentiful harvest.

He now has a team of people working for him. He sells his "famous" potatoes to shops and restaurants in the area, and after his second harvest he bought a utility van. When he repaid the money that I had lent him in the beginning, he said, "Here you are, Sister Aisha, and how much more do you need? I mean, how much should I give to help someone else?"

I still remember the first time I saw him after he'd had his first harvest. He saw me and came running with one of the huge potatoes in his hand. "Sister Aisha!" he said to me with bright, shining eyes that were filled with hope. "Look what happens when you make dhikr while you work!"

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