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Pioneers in Christian Counseling
Gladys K. Mwiti, M.A., a counseling psychologist, is the Founder and Execute have Director of Oasis Counseling and Training Institute in Nairobi, Kenya. In addition to her work at Oasis, Gladys is the Chairman of the Christian Counselors Association of Kenya. Her husband, Gershon, is the national team leader of African Enterprise, an indigenous African counseling ministry. Gladys and Gershon have three daughters and one son. At the 1997 AACC World Conference in November, I spent some time with Gladys, talking about her pioneer work in Kenya.
Tell me about yourself, your background, and how you encountered God.
I was born in Meru District in Kenya, which is near the snow-capped, northern slopes of Mt. Kenya. Its quite a cold area indeed. I grew up in a Christian home. My mother loves the Lord. She has always been a woman of prayer, and Id love to be like her. She used to take me to church and to huge conventions.
In Africa, we have the huge, evangelistic meetings, people sitting on the green grass under the sun. That’s the kind of setting where I receive the Lord as my Savior. We were at a 3,000-strong convention and the gospel was preached from John 3:16. I remember that the preacher said, It is not so much the sin you have committed in your life; it’s that the Lord loves you so, so much, and what he is asking you is, Could you love me a little bit in return? As a seven year old, I did not see my sin as such a bad thing. I knew I was guilty of licking the cream off the top of the milk when my mom was not looking or taking and eating bread from the cupboard. What I really saw in myself that day was a heart that was desired and longed to know the love of God.
I probably should mention that my father used to be a Christian. He brought my mother to the Lord before they got married. She had never been to church, so when they met, my father took her to church, and she accepted the Lord as her Savior in the East African Revival of the late 1940’s – 1950’s that transformed most of the church is in Kenya to evangelical church is. Mom got to know the Lord in that revival, but then Dad backslid. He left Christianity he got richer, he became a businessman, a farmer, and its as if he did not need much from the Lord. He even married a second wife, and there was a lot of tension and stress at home. Sometimes as a child I wished there was more peace in my home. Dad would drink alcohol, come home sometimes, and rough up my mother. I longed for fatherly love, a father I could trust. There was so much insecurity with my dad, that when I heard the preacher talking about a God who loved me, I longed for that security.
I knew that if this God was the God of my mother, I could rely on him as a father. When the altar call was made that day, I literally ran to the front, joining hundreds of other people. Now, it’s not unusual to dismiss or take lightly the fervent commitment of children at the revivals. Some people think that young children cannot make a decision for the Lord. But when I went to the front among the crowd of adults that day, an old man around 70 years old he was wearing a huge coat, and he had such big, soft hand same to me, bent on his knee, and just gathered me to himself, hugging me. I remember disappearing into his coat, and it was so sweet and comfortable, I did not want to leave there. I still remember the smell of his coat today. He just hugged me to himself, and that symbolized acceptance of me, a child, in the church of Christ. It also represented security and a sense of belonging. I was one of the brethren.
From then on, the church took me seriously, because the next Sunday, they put me up on a table and asked me to share my testimony of what the Lord had done! I spoke out, and I am told today that some people were challenged and they cried as a result of my testimony. From that time, I have not stopped talking about the Lord. I have talked to thousands of young people in schools, women ministries, and couples ministries. After I married my husband, Gershon, who is an evangelist, we went on preaching together. I went to college, got my education, and taught physics and chemistry in school for about 14 years before the Lord called me to the ministry of counseling. How have you seen the field of counseling center and change the part of the world where you work? Some of us are literally pioneers in the field of counseling in the countries. When I began the Oasis Counseling Center in 1990, I knew very few people who were in full-time Christian counseling in Kenya. So I have actually been a part of the ministry of premiering professional Christian counseling. There’s very little lay counseling, so most of my time is spent in equipping the church to be a counseling community, rather than waiting for people to crumble and then coming to Oasis.
The changes that I have seen are changes that have come through some of us in the field. The counseling ministry in Kenya is professional, Christian, and boldly prevent have in nature. Many people have opened the door to us since my husband and I have worked with the church for a long time. We have been able to introduce programs like couples seminars along with our preaching and evangelism.
The credibility of our lifestyle encouraged people to trust us. We found doors swinging open from bishops to lay people, and I think this is what has helped counseling to progress through Africa. Yes, it’s true. The reason I decided to change professions was because of the students who kept bringing their problems to me. I discovered that the kids had so many problems that I was not able to help them adequately. What actually drove me into counseling was the following story. I was a deputy principal in a girl’s high school. One morning I was just about to do assembly for the Morning Prayer when a girl came running into school crying. I could see she was really stressed. Mrs. Mwiti, I need to talk to you right now. Susan, I cannot talk to you now, were just about to do assembly. But I have got to talk to you! She said. OK, I said. Go to my office, and I will talk to you as soon as I am through with assembly. When I finished assembly and went into my office, she was still crying. Now this girl was about 15 years old, and I had led her to the Lord the year before, so I knew she was a Christian. I said to her, Susan, what’s up? And she began to tell me this story: Since I got saved, I have been able to handle the stress in my family.
There has been a lot of stress in my family for a long, long time. Dad drinks heavily, comes home drunk, and then starts fighting with my mother. We live in a marionette, and often, I have to climb up the stairs when Dad comes home. I have to put my ear to the keyhole, because I know anytime he will start beating Mom up and I have got to jump in to separate the two. I am the firstborn and I have got three other siblings, younger than me, and the baby is about two years old. This week, the tension has been very high at home. Last night, Dad came in again at 3:00 A.M., and I stayed up to make sure he was fast asleep before something erupted. But last night they did not fight. This morning I came downstairs, dressed for school, and my little brother who never goes anywhere this early in the morning, was also dressed up.
Our house help, a young guy that lives with us to help with the baby, was also dressed up. I said, Mom, where is John going? and Mom said, We are leaving. Where? I asked. Who is leaving? Susan, stop asking so many questions. What I want you to do is go up to your room, get whatever stuff you think you need and come down. We are leaving in the next five minutes. Even Dad? I asked. I am not talking about your father; I said we are leaving. I knew something was horribly wrong. So finally I said, But we cannot leave Dad alone. If you think you love your father so much, then you can stay with him; if you think its me you love, you come with me.
But Mom, its not a matter of love. Who’s going to cook for him, look after him…I am confused. Someone has to stay with Dad! I finally said, I do not know what I am going to do, but I am going to stay with Dad. Then I picked up my schoolbag and I ran all the way to school. Mrs. Mwiti, I want you to tell me, did I make the right decision? Now, in teachers college they taught me how to teach physics, how to check substances in chemistry, and how to do lab projects, but they did not teach me how to minister to kids who are hurting. I examined my heart and said to myself, Gladys Mwiti, you have had enough teaching physics and teaching chemistry get out of here! For quite a while, I had been feeling this frustration of seeing hurting kids in class unfocused, hungry, in pain, emotionally frozen. I went home, and I told my husband, I am in the wrong place, and the Lord is saying get out! So by faith, I had to go back to school to study psychology. The only place I could study in Kenya was a secular university, the U.S. International University they have a campus in San Diego, California (the mother campus), and this campus in Nairobi. I studied psychology for fI have years. I kept reading and integrating the work of Larry Crabb, James Dobson, and others. Soon the Lord made it very clear that he wanted me to do a faith ministry start Oasis Counseling Center. The struggle has been mighty, I mean really big, in setting up this work in Africa, but it’s been very satisfying.
So, has your work been primarily with teenagers?
I work with everyone. When you are talking of a ministry which is out there with nothing else, you cannot say, I do families, I do youth. From the very beginning I have worked with youth, so I am very, very close to young people; I love them. We do a lot of youth counseling that automatically goes into family counseling to marriage counseling, which leads to depression, stress management, conflict resolution, leadership training, etc. We started out aiming at a small urban population in Nairobi. Nairobi is about three million today, and there’s almost nothing else around. We have people coming for counseling sessions from the rural areas, 200-300 miles away. I sat back and I said, Lord, what else can we do now? The answer was to train lay counselors at the community and church levels. Then the hurting people can find somebody who can work with them at least at the encouragement level of counseling, before they look for the professional. If we help lay counselors set up counseling departments in the church, they can train other lay counselors to help in the counseling. Then we train pastors in supervisory skills. This is how we got into the training of lay counselors to reach the rural communities and even the rest of the city that we cannot reach.
In 1990, we were focusing just on lay counseling in Kenya, but by the next year, people were coming from the rest of Africa for three-weeks of training in lay-counseling skills, and then returning to their countries to set up counseling ministries. Through that program, we have 500 people, scattered all over Africa, doing lay counseling. How did you get involved with counseling the United Nations staff when they were evacuated from Rwanda in 1994? In April 1994, the United Nations evacuated over 300 of their staff employees with their families from Kigali. All the hotels were fully booked in Nairobi. This was five days after the plane of the president of Rwanda had been destroyed and the onset of the genocide. I was just finishing devotions, and a car with a United Nations registration number drove up. The Christian dry hiver had a note on U.N. letterhead instructing me to report to one of the hotels in town. I told my secretary to cancel my appointments and I would call her from the hotel. When I entered the hotel’s lobby, there were bags and people everywhere.
A woman met me and took me to a small room: Gladys, she said, we need you to do something for us beginning now. We have a fax here from New York, from the U.N. headquarters, stating that all the people evacuated last night need to be debriefed. The instructions are that we debrief them before they are deployed anywhere or sent home because they have seen such horrific things in Rwanda. We have set up a room for you and you can begin your first group as soon as you are ready. I called my office and said, reschedule everything for the next two months! As I counseled and debriefed the U.N. staff, I was joined later by the head of a counseling unit from New York, and two professional counselors/consultants from Canada. For two months, we worked with the employees and their families, and it was such tiring stuff.
How did you care for yourself in the midst of that work?
I could not get self-care until the end of the two months; it was crazy. But my husband is a great guy; he can just sit and listen to me for hours, so he did a lot of debriefing for me. But by the end of two months, I scheduled some time with a professional counselor. I saw him for several sessions, but I was in such a state of mind that I could not go back to work for another month. What I realized about the U.N. staff is that very few of them had really experienced any trauma. Their experience of trauma was hearing gunshots and grenades go off. A few of them remembered seeing gory stuff. For example, one of them said, I remember seeing a dog chewing a human hand as we drove out of Kigali to Bujumbura in Burundi and then airlifted to Nairobi. I appreciated the fact that the U.N. wanted counseling for its staff, whether the people felt traumatized or not. And some of them did not think they had been affected until the middle of their sessions. Then they just broke down in tears. I had even more concern about the Rwandans left behind. The U.N. was so concerned about their employees, who hardly had lost a single member of their families (thought some of them had seen colleagues killed) but who was concerned about the millions of Rwandans? Men, women, and children who had seen blood, some of them lay under dead bodies for days, some of them live in holes for months who is counseling the Rwandans?
I asked the head of the counseling ministry, the offices in Nairobi, and the counseling unit in New York what they were doing to help the Rwandans. The answer came back the same: Nothing. So I went to the All Africa Council of Churches is, the overseeing body of the Protestant churches is in Africa. What are we doing about Rwanda? I asked. What can we do, Mrs. Mwiti? I went to the Association of Evangelicals of Africa, the body that looks after the evangelical churches is. Nothing! I went to people that I knew had regional offices working in Nairobi but working in Rwanda nothing! I got very frustrated, and so my husband one day looked at me and said, Gladys, you seem to be spending a lot of time asking people what they are doing about Rwanda. What are you doing about Rwanda? Me? I asked. I am too small. Too small? he replied. If the Lord wants you in Rwanda, is he not big enough to do that?
I started reading, writing, and researching. By the end of 1994, I had materials for training, but I did not know what I was going to do with them. Someone heard about me and published those materials. By February 1994 we had materials published. By April 1994, they were translated into Kenya and Rwanda, and we were beginning trauma counseling in Rwanda. Since 1995, we have trained 216 counselors in Rwanda. But they, each of them has counseled or trained 60 others since then. So we have over 10,000 people today counseling in Rwanda. Counseling and small groups are mushrooming all over the place. We take them through a process of healing themselves, because you cannot bring healing to others until you are healed yourself. They go home with Bible-study materials and pastor’s notes that we have prepared. In group counseling, they support one another as they complete their healing. By the end of the 10 weeks of Bible study, they already are addressing the needs of poverty, the needs of AIDS, and they are setting themselves up in small inter development projects, such as chicken and goat keeping. The are some of the programs that we are involved in at Oasis. Our three-week lay counselor training has evolved to other programs during the year, such as training for people working with disadvantaged children, street children, orphans, and abused children.
What are some of your goals for the future?
The need in Christian counseling on the continent of Africa is not in just addressing people and problems, but to be involved in helping to shape people’s behavior. I am referring to the whole issue of values. Values that keep families from crumbling, values that keep kids from drugs. I am talking about biblically-founded beliefs that people sometimes do not want to be bold enough to teach, and I think Christian counselors have the goal of teaching. More and more Christian counselors need to be trained to boldly analyze what is happening and then help parents to teach values to their kids, help leaders understand the principles of servant leadership, help fathers to be better fathers.
My dream for Africa is for an all-African training institute of Christian counseling, where people do not just learn the skills but are able to come up with materials and strategies for reaching the masses. If we do not teach people how to live, we are leaving them in a vacuum. We’ll continue with the training of lay counselors, but we need more professional counselors who will take a place in theological colleges, training schools, and universities, and make sure that Christian counseling is part of the curriculum in those places.
That’s my dream. What would you want to say to AACC members about their contribution to counseling in Kenya and Africa? I am excited about AACC members looking beyond America. Whether I like it or not, America is our world influence today. The dollar has become an international currency. The whole world is hard on the heels of America. We are getting more from you than dollars. When a movie is released in Hollywood, it hits Nairobi in the next couple of weeks. With the Internet, communication between Los Angeles and Nairobi is instant. My prayer is that AACC members will realize that they are shaping Christian counseling around the world by the very fact that we in Africa know you love the Lord and we are following your lead. You cannot stand back and tell us, Do not follow. So we hope that God is in people’s lives not just on their currency. Wherever the dollar finds its place, Christian counseling needs to find its place.
So I would like for AACC members to remember that Africa is bigger than a country; it’s a continent with Islam, Christianity, and animistic religions. It takes me eight hours to fly from east to West Africa. The Lord may lead AACC members out there to help us in other ways and we shall appreciate it, but basically, I want to encourage all of you to keep following the Lord, because we are following you. Sounds like a challenge to a higher accountability! Let me add briefly that about fI have years ago, the Lord put on my heart the need for a Christian counselors association to be an accrediting body. Because the need is so great, anyone can set himself or herself up as a counselor. We have individuals, who go for a week’s training, and they return saying, I have been through training and now I am a professional. I have been praying and working so hard, and finally in 1996, the Christian Counselors Association of Kenya got registered. I am the current chairman, and the accreditation committee is working hard to set standards of training and accreditation. Its a dream come true. Already, many other countries in Africa are saying, come over and help us to form our own associations. Very soon we are going to start visiting various countries, bringing all of them together, and helping them to set up Christian counseling associations in their countries.
This will encourage training, it will encourage standards, and it will also be able to push for universities or theological colleges in their countries to set up Christian counseling departments. When this happens, we shall be looking for AACC to send us people from time to time to come and teach in some of the places. At Oasis, we hope to have a diploma in Christian counseling, teaching it at the Institute, and also a Masters program. We need people from the America to come and help us set it up as well as people in publishing to help us with book old_resources. How large is your staff at Oasis, and how would you characterize your approach to Christian counseling? There are six full-time staff members, including myself, and then four part-time professional counselors. We have 33 professionals on the training staff, because we have got a huge training program. The professionals include pastors, medical doctors, psychologists a few of them teach in universities psychiatrists, and university lecturers. All of them are committed Christians who love the Lord and follow our model of Christian counseling. Our approach basically assumes the fallen nature of man, the fact that God wants us to be transformed, not just to be spared but to be changed from within, and that when Christ comes in, he turns things upside down, and we need to live in obedience to him. I can actually say that around 75% of those who come to us, if they were not Christians first, they become Christians during counseling. Or if they are weak in their Christian walk, they get encouraged before they leave. Our approach is not direct have; its more of an eclectic model. But it is basically a model that helps people get to know the Lord and live in obedience to him by the end of therapy. Phone Therapy is a wonderful medium to help you.
What kind of problems do you deal with at Oasis that might be unique to Kenya?
There are not any that I need to tell you, because you see, with this global model issue, we are as sick as everyone else! High on the list are marital problems, family issues, youth rebellion, drug abuse, stress, and depression. Basically the problems are due to the changes taking place in Africa. I am told that by the year 2000, 45% of Africans will be living in the cities. Child abuse is very much on the increase, so there is not anything that is unique there. Kenya is a nation where most people go to school, so we get the same problems that any other money-centered, material-centered society experiences. Most of our tribal structures were pretty solid, but with all the mobility of people, were encountering all of the community structure crumbling, individualism coming in, and self-worship. When the problems arrive, they eat from the core. The difference is that you do not have the tools and old_resources that we have in North America. Exactly! And that’s why the disintegration will be faster, thus we need to work ever so hard. That’s why my belief is that the church presents the example. I want to work myself out of business very quickly. The more the church does what the church is supposed to be doing, the better for society. God wants each person to use his or her gifts, and the gift of encouragement can belong even to a child. So, I must multiply myself, and the sooner I do that before the year 2000, the better.
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