Street-Knowing: an Interview with Jude Nnorom

Conducted by Lyle Enright
May 27, 2022

Jude Nnorom is a Catholic priest and bridge-builder. He builds spiritual bridges between people, but is just as concerned with the physical structures they use every day. For the past 10 years, he has worked and studied at the University of Pretoria’s Center for Faith and Community in South Africa. In a place riven by apartheid, where city planners see people as a nuisance, Jude inspires us with his hope, creativity, and eye for beauty.

Originally from Nigeria, Jude is familiar with the “liminal spaces” where fields and cities overlap. Rapid urbanization creates tension in many African countries, as young people move away from their rural roots. Economic and racial divides are even starker in post-apartheid South Africa. Many urban plans also borrow from Western models, raising new and valid questions about colonialism.

In this complex context, Jude has committed to listening to those on the margins, to discovering not only their needs but the talents and insights they offer their cities. “The poor have much to teach us,” he says, and their voices are vital for heading off potential conflicts. How might their diverse, local imaginations shape the continent’s future?

Today, Jude represents his religious order, the Congregation of the Holy Spirit, at the Vatican. We had the privilege of sitting down with him before his move to Rome to talk about his many “conversions”, about theology’s unlikely place in urban planning, and about how cities like Tshwane can become wellsprings rather than siphons of life.

We have edited this interview for length and clarity.

What early experiences led to your interest in peacebuilding, Jude?

My mother grew up in a rural area–and when I say rural, I mean you come back from school and go to the farm. My mom kept saying things like, “You shouldn’t take this for granted, that you guys play and have toy guns and all those things. You don’t know what violence is all about.” That began to shape my story.

As a young person, I began to realize that the world is organized such that, if you have might, you have power. It could be in terms of financial resources, intellectual resources, whatever. Within this dichotomy [between having and not having power], where would one place oneself? If you say you are right, do you shout about it, or do you seek alternatives, especially if you’re not very strong? You begin to negotiate.

So I began to understand that violence is not actually the right way to do things, because in violence, you don’t talk. The problem is not really solved. You use force to overcome the problem, but it still persists. But if one can engage in discussion, one can begin to realize that, yes, there are places that I’m wrong or right and there are places the other person is right or wrong. That was the first thing I learned. 

Then, when I came to [South Africa] in 1994, it had just come out of a very, very racially abusive past. But what I read was different from what was on the ground. I never imagined that you could come here see White folks living on their own, Black folks living on their own, Indians, and colored. Then I realized that these were constructed spatial issues.

What do you mean by “spatial issues”?

I was working with the Black folks in the townships who were telling stories about the injustice of apartheid. There was an elitist story, which is that the Blacks are lazy; but there is also the story from the Black perspective, that we are hated for who we are. We do not have opportunities. Confronted with such a dichotomy, I asked myself, “How does one approach this pastorally? In terms of charity or in terms of justice?” 

Being a tennis player, I decided to register in a White-only tennis club. I was provoking people; but then I got my second conversion. 

Everybody wanted to play with me. They wanted to get to know me. From there, they invited me to their houses, to their barbecues. I told them stories of the township, and realized that White folks couldn’t visit the Black areas either. They lived very close to each other, but they couldn’t visit. 

So then, the folks who taught me to play tennis started giving employment to the people in the townships, using me as a reference. I was a lens that let them see: not every Black person in the township is violent. 

That was my second conversion, between 1996 and 2000; [Maria] Montessori calls it a “birth of conscience.” Not every White South-African supported apartheid. So, it wasn’t [just] about color. We began to work together.

You were already doing pastoral ministry; what made you want to pursue higher education in peace studies?

By 2013 (after receiving my MA from the Kroc Center), I had gotten in contact with Stephan DeBeer while doing pastoral ministry. It was Christmas, and people brought a lot of gifts to the church. Our store was full, and I said, “Who do we give this to?” 

One of the young people said, “Come, let me show you.”

They call it a dumping site, where people lived with vultures and pigs. I’ve never seen such a thing before. I didn’t have a very good Christmas in 2013. 

The next day, I requested to meet the mayor of the town and the city council. “It is to our interest that these people not live in such conditions,” I said. “If there is a virus or something, all of us will be affected.”

“We know that place,” the council said. But all of them but two refused to follow me, to interact with the people. I was transferred soon after. Unfortunately, those people are still living in that dumping site.

Moments like this caused me to rethink my theology. How do I find Christ in the dumping site?

I also wanted more tools for engaging. I saw that I didn’t have a proper language, a proper vehicle for communicating with fellow faith-based actors about how we transform and accompany people. How could I trust the process and understand that no one has a monopoly on knowledge?

What does the future of this community look like 50 years from now? Some will tell you, oh, 50 years is too long. We laugh about it. But then we begin to think about it. When they think 50 years down the line, they begin to own the community, the city. They understand that it is theirs. Once that happens, there is a change of attitude.

What questions emerged for you, out of those experiences and education?

I learned it is easy to join the bandwagon and label people, to criticize their stories. But I need to listen to people’s stories to understand where they’re coming from. I need to allow even their silences to speak to me. So I’m learning a language of justice that is not aggressive. I’m not blaming people; I’m not saying, “Why are you rich? You are responsible for poverty in the world.”

But that’s my question: how can we develop new languages, new tools? How can we draw some form of learning from this liminal space between the urban and the rural? And how can the urban [area] become a classroom?

Here’s an example: in South Africa, we have [unemployed people] who collect the [garbage] bins, because sometimes the municipal guys do not do the job well. They began to do this so that they could sell [the waste] to recycling companies. 

This is a new form of labor that is not regulated by the city council or the government. It came from people. These men and women go around doing that which the city is not able to do. 

Who initiates this question of going to collect the garbage, and how is it collected? How is it sorted? There are things to learn in all this. Maybe not in an institution of higher education. But they are the learnings of the people, the epistemology of the streets. Labor produces some form of knowledge about relations between people and the environments in which they live. For me, that is a new language that needs to be understood within African urbanization.

But there’s also potential for rivalry and competition, it sounds like?

It is also a form of contestation. There is a part of [Tshwane] called Marabastad. You see a lot of informal traders selling their wares. They are no longer keeping quiet. They are saying, “We need space.”

This is where a question of violence might come in. I spent about five years in Enugu [Nigeria], and you have these ladies there who are informal traders. They sell oranges on the pavement. From time to time, the city council comes to collect revenue. And they consider the women to be a nuisance. 

We were out one day, and this woman had oranges beautifully packed in her store. The city council guys came, and before she could even pack her things, they rushed her, and the oranges were on the ground. She looked up and said, “Why are you stifling the life in me? This is the only income I have.” But the people from the council had their guns; they were not there to listen.

The mentality is that cities shouldn’t have people. When [important people] come, they should only see trees and good street lights. They shouldn’t see people. These are the opinions of those who claim to represent us.

This plays out in many African cities. We have many artists and other people who sell by the side of the road, who want to gain some form of life by participating in the city’s economy. They are saying, “We also need to be strong. We need to be firm.” In some cases they are actually violent, trying to protect themselves. They pay militias to protect them while they are selling their wares.

It is important, I think, to engage them, and to engage the city, and tell them that there are alternatives. Instead of closing off spaces, opening them. We could have a city that is very vibrant.

Is religion complicit in the kind of conflict you’re talking about?

Africa is said to be the religious continent. A lot of people go to different churches. Religious actors here have a lot of clout. They are in education, they’re in agriculture, they’re in all spaces of life. People trust them and trust what they do. He or she attracts people, in many cases because the state is dysfunctional, unable to meet the needs of the people. 

But some religious actors also align themselves with the states, becoming so powerful that they’re out of reach of the people they serve. Because of the trust people have, they’re able to convince them of what to do. Who challenges the religious actor who has power? Here in South Africa, a few years ago, we witnessed a pastor who taught people to eat grass as a way of salvation. Where is that in the scriptures? And who supervises such a person? 

That use of power can be very, very negative. We need to challenge it. We need to see a way to engage religious actors so that they don’t become too powerful that they are above others. That’s one thing we’re trying to do with the Center for Faith and Community, to engage pastors.

How can theology have a positive impact in Tshwane?

I admire theologians who are really getting their hands dirty by working in their communities [like in Latin America]. Sometimes, there is an arrogance in those who have studied systematic theology. But when you take them out of their spaces and bring them to the informal settlements, the story begins to change.

Theology needs to interact not only with the social sciences, but with the physical sciences, gathering data about human relations. Geography, architecture, all these other sciences about space: theology needs to interact with [them], to understand patterns of rainfall and river belts and all that. Theology can no longer say, “We are in that ivory tower, only looking at God.” We need to realize that all these other disciplines are centered on the human person, on how to make the life of the human person better. Theology says that the human person is created in the image of God, so if we distance ourselves from these other disciplines, then we are failing in our theological inquiry.

Here in Tshwane, for example, we still live in the apartheid city–a city specially planned to care for a particular part of the population: the White folks. The Black, Indian, and colored folks are supposed to live outside the city and labor for it. For theology to engage the apartheid city, it needs to ask, “Are we going to advance this type imagination? Or could we have an alternative?” 

That is where architecture comes in.

Really? Theology and architecture?

In preaching, for example, we ask who has access to the parks in the city, who has access to the hospitals in the city. How can they be located so they are accessible to everybody? 

Africa needs to come out of this colonial city frame of mind and reimagine our city as a commons, as a place where everybody should have access, not just a particular group of people. When I mix with people from other cultures, I always learn a lot. I come from the Igbo culture, and oftentimes we try to defend our culture because that’s what we know. That’s what we grew up with. 

But when I mix up with people like the Zulus here in Tshwane, and the way they do things, I see that God is great. In mixing with other cultures, you learn even ordinary things in different ways. I use preparing vegetables as an example. In your culture, it might be one way, but when you get exposed to another culture, you see it from another perspective. We all fit together in God’s imagination; we are meant to complement each other, not be exclusive or divisive.

And there’s another discipline that theologians can learn from: the arts. Those involved in poems, drama, the Feast of the Clowns, the people who create movies. They challenge us with their creativity, tell us that it is possible to think of alternatives.

How have the arts challenged you, personally?

Beauty plays a very big role [in Africa]. Weaving baskets, making traditional chairs, forms of buffaloes, elephants, crocodiles. People from Zimbabwe, Malawi, the Zulus, they even draw on their sand. It’s amazing.

But it’s the tourists who are often most attracted to this form of beauty. Everything has become so commercialized. A very young person told me, one day, “Beauty does not fill my stomach.” 

I said to her, “Don’t you think that there is something that the beauty fills which is different from your stomach?” But beauty is connected to the economy. You produce something, but then you cannot get some reward for it. That discourages people.

Thankfully, there’s a young man that we work with in the inner city of Pretoria [Tshwane]. His name is Ali. As we contest injustice in the city, Ali keeps saying, “The beauty that comes from the arts are so satisfying that they diminish our greed.” 

This touches me deeply. That beauty, that makes us so calm, makes us appreciate what we have, and removes the greed to acquire more. Ali himself is an artist, and he says, “Look, sometimes when [artists] are painting for a day or two, they don’t eat, they just smoke. They’re happy with the painting.” His happiness is that greed is reduced when others appreciate beauty, when they see beauty in other things.

Who are the first people you think of, who are creating beauty in South Africa right now?

Homeless people. They come in the evening, they put their tents in order; it’s not haphazard. Lined up on the sidewalk, it looks like a summer sale. The migrants, too, come with different kinds of fabric, and when they put it on the sidewalks, with the street lights, it glows. It really does glow. They sleep there without electricity. In the morning, they clean up, and they’re on the move. 

They have such a community life, too. They share their bread with each other. It’s amazing. Sometimes I’m challenged. That is a big challenge I’ve faced every day, I have to be honest with you. I mean, I go to the informal settlement, driving a car; I’m going to work with people who have no access to a bicycle, who do not have the luxury of electricity, who have no water. Sanitation is a problem. I was so ashamed one day that I had to park very far away. And yet they welcomed me into their shack. Even during COVID, they are so generous. They even share their masks.

What are the three most important practices you’ve developed as you’ve engaged cities like Enugu and Tshwane?

First of all, to engage the people on the ground. To map their assets; what do they have? The people who are there have great capacities from which I can learn. I don’t come in as an expert; we begin with what they think and how they feel. Somehow they’re surprised, because the conventional narrative is that the experts, the peace builders, have all it takes to make things work. But they are the experts: the people on the ground, the informal settlement dwellers, those who are carrying garbage. So the first thing I like to do is acknowledge their capacity. 

Secondly, I let them know that what they are doing can be improved. They don’t have to engage in unhealthy competition. They can create relationships.

Thirdly, I ask them, what do you think about this community? What does the future of this community look like 50 years from now? What are your dreams for your children, living in Tshwane or Enugu?

50 years is a long time! Are people skeptical about that kind of investment?

It takes time to explain to them that we are not trying to create a rivalrous context, but a context everybody could share. It’s not easy. Some will tell you, oh, 50 years is too long. We laugh about it. But then we begin to think about it. When they think 50 years down the line, they begin to own the community, the city. They understand that it is theirs. Once that happens, there is a change of attitude.

I came [to South Africa] as a young priest, full of ideas, thinking that when you preach you convert people and you baptize. Then I realized, it’s not so much what you say, but how you live. It is by listening to people’s stories that we begin to understand them, that we begin to understand the actions they took. 

It was from these stories that I began to see possibilities. That we learn a lot from people whom we might consider not to be educated formally. When I was interacting with the people in the dumping site, one of them taught me how to tie the lace of my shoe in a very easy way! Indeed, God has equipped all of us with something. The poor teach you a lot. How can we amplify that type of local knowledge so that other people can learn from it? 

It’s a journey of ongoing conversion. Each day I’m grateful for my many conversions – for the people I work with and that they are teaching me to be generous. They’re contributing to the growth of the city. They’re making it beautiful. They’re making it African.