The fact that it can even be Sunday morning seems strange, as days blend into a cacophonous fabric woven haphazardly while running from here to there all over eastern Kenya. As a pastor back home, my life is pretty much governed by Sundays; you’re never very far away from another one, and every single one represents a mountain of its own to climb. Here in Africa time takes on a completely different rhythm, and that, coupled with jet lag and 8 lost time zones, I couldn’t have told you mid-week even what day it was. But since Friday and Saturday always flow in an unchanging sequence—then Sunday it must be, and indeed, Sunday it is! We are in the Turkana region now, far northern Kenya, after catching a prop plane yesterday at an airport near the equator. We took off against the backdrop of a thunderous blackening sky that I personally wouldn’t have chosen when flying in a prop-plane! Nobody asked for my vote.
After an hour long flight in which both propellers somehow remained attached, we landed on an airstrip that must rank among the most primitive I’ve ever seen; there are four or five old trashed jet engines piled near a rock outcropping at one end of the runway, none suggesting the ingredients of a happy story! Once unloaded, we rolled from the airstrip with our CRF team into the surrounding town, a dirty, dusty, small collection of people, the businesses they go to, and the businesses they run. Lodwar is not a country village, and the stores are not tiny box huts like in the Kipkaren slum we visited on Saturday, but they are anything but modern, and I’m reminded that we are indeed a long way from home! The grocery store we must frequent for essential bottled water has no electricity when we make our first visit. In Amarillo that would shut down the store, as no registers would work and no clerk could possibly make change. But here in Lodwar, it slows nothing down and you get the feeling it happens fairly often.
Our search for lodging finds us at a church hostel on the outskirts of town because the place we intended to stay has given away our rooms. It’s nice enough, by Lodwar standards. We eat family-style with other guests, more rice and chicken-jerky; before long we head off to bed. I am tired, so I manage to sleep well even though it remains in the 90’s outside through most of the night, and about that same temp in the rooms. A tilt-rotor would have nothing on the ceiling fan in this place, and once we overcome our fear of the sparking antiquated switch that operates it, we make good use of it. This is the desert of Kenya, and it is the Africa in our mind’s eye, the part that’s not the jungle, the hot sandy desert part where your vehicle breaks down and months later they find your bleached bones in the sand. As the sun comes up we find ourselves hurrying around this morning because our plans are to go to church in the bush, at a village and church that were not even there 18 months ago. Not until water came to town.
This is the day Travis and I have been waiting for all week, the day to see for ourselves, with our own eyes, what water can do where there was none, and where there has been no significant rain for most of 6 years. We bump down desiccated and dusty, almost imaginary roads for about half an hour, then come to a fenced area that has been partially de-fenced by camels. That doesn’t happen where I live. We see a crowd of people as we turn into the compound, and a smattering of round thatched huts with conical grass roofs. Relatively early on Sunday morning there is a crowd gathered out here in the seeming middle of nowhere, and soon I see why; they are clustered together around the only water source for miles–a CRF water well, that up until now I had only seen in pictures. Those pictures were what started it all! It is surreal to actually be here. There are 20 or so people around the well, all ages. Most of them have yellow 12 liter plastic containers that used to hold cooking oil, but now hold the stuff of life itself–water. The wells are basic, a spout on one end and a t-handled lever system for pumping; and they are efficient, powered by women and children and visiting white missionary-type munguzus like us. I can only stand in awe as I think of the miracle this well represents here; each of us take a turn pumping as the gatherers eagerly harvest liquid life. It turns into hard work, this pumping, but the result is spectacular: clear, clean, sparkling drinkable water, which is strangely warm. We are told that even we could safely drink it, but I am not feeling brave today. I have a choice, you see. I can buy my water. They cannot. I take about 300 pictures here of the amazing scene of something so simple, yet so precious. Water is the very gift of life. Besides the people, there are goats and cows and camels and chickens that come to drink. Every living thing needs water.
This would be enough if it were all there was to the story. But it’s not. Not even close! With water came people. With people came a few goats, and then more. A church was planted under a large shade tree nearby, about a year ago, and now already there is a building that holds the church on Sundays and serves as a school during the week. The church is the center of the new community, as it should be, and the Turkanan people who were previously almost unreachable nomads, and beginning to settle near these wells and are turning to Christ by the hundreds each week as they get a taste of Living Water. Today they have called on several other churches that also meet under trees in the Turkanan wilderness, and come they have, scores of them. Many of the women are dressed in traditional Turkanan tribal wear, brightly colored dresses and capes, with tall beaded stacked collars around their necks. A lot of them have babies tied behind them in sarongs, a very efficient means to tote the tots, who are always hungry and in this way conveniently close to the food source.
We mill around the water well for a while, meeting those who are drawn to draw. We pump water, we take pictures, we play with the children. Then we are summoned to worship which arbitrarily happens when enough people arrive to start; our entourage of rare white guests are given seats of honor near the center of the shade tree in the only 4 wooden chairs in the community. (Travis doesn’t get one; he’s not so old as to garner that much honor. He looks funny seated across the way, his face looking very white surrounded by very black Turkanans). We old guys get the chairs; others are not as fortunate, and some sit on benches in the sun or on the ground. It does not seem to bother them. I suppose when you walk 5 miles to come to church, little inconveniences are little. After a good bit of Kenyan protocol, which always takes time, the pastor in charge (one of about 8 pastors in attendance today, when you count the white dudes) makes some explanations of what will happen and then we jump in. First we sing a couple of congregational hymns, with words that mean nothing to me; then we hear musical numbers by each of the three churches present. They are amazing, melodic, rhythmic, well-choreographed. They have drums, but need only their voices besides. They sing for almost an hour, about half-way through which the crowd of beautiful ragamuffin children begins to squeeze in tighter and tighter around we enthroned white guys. Before you know it, you have one in your lap, and two on each arm of the chair. If you scoot forward in your seat, you’ll have one shortly sitting in the chair behind you. It gets hot, with the crush of all these little 98.6 degree bodies in the 92 degree heat. I can understand their curiosity, since most of them have probably never seen a white person. Some of them are dirty, and some bear the typical shapes of malnutrition. But most of them look happy, and most of them are healthy enough, thanks to the food programs of the Christian Relief Fund. After about 30 stifling minutes literally surrounded by the natives, a church leader shoos them all away, and we have back our precious American personal space. For a few minutes.
After what seems a long time, it then comes time for the honored guests to share. We have prepared the leaders for the fact that we have other things we must see and do today–so they are planning for the service only to last two and one-half to three hours, instead of the typical all-day. I get in trouble at home when the hour runs over 10 minutes! Each of us speaks, and as my turn comes I struggle a bit to consider what I could possibly say to people who live on the same globe I do, but not in the same world. My typical repertoire of Sunday messages seems impotent, irrelevant, totally inappropriate. So I give them greetings from our Amarillo church, and I talk with them a bit about the Living Water, Jesus Christ. And I remind them how much God loves them, and how he truly is able to meet all their needs. It’s easy for me to say these words, having never known a time when he did not, and having never had to walk more than about five steps for a drink of water.. And in a way, since they are still alive, perhaps it makes sense to them. We have a translator for our translator, another regional pastor, because the dialect of Turkana is not the same as that of our many friends in eastern Kenya. I’m speaking in three languages! Up last is Dr. Milton Jones, the man who brings the water. He is not as famous, perhaps, in Turkana as in Kisumu and Eldoret, but after an impressive introduction by Francis Bii who is the director of so many relief projects in Kenya, I’m wanting Milton’s autograph myself. Milton takes the dirt floor under the tree, and teaches about Christ’s command that we love each other as he first loved us. Milton says it’s the hardest commandment of all; I suspect even Turkanans understand this truth.
After he finishes, we sing some more songs, then take an offering (which with all the white folk in attendance will likely be equal to ten times their annual budget) and we are told that there will be baptisms today. It’s a big deal. And it should be. By now it’s coming up on 1:00, and after closing words we are dismissed to head to the baptismal, a river about 3 miles away. Everyone is walking. We take the truck. White guys have it easier than Turkanans, that is for sure.
This has gotten a bit long, just like the morning at church. But before I land this blog I must not miss the point. Through the generosity of Believers a world away, water came to Nadabal. And with water came people, a school, a community, a church—all to this place where there was nothing 18 months ago. Water brings life. Most importantly, water makes it possible for people to find Living Water. I can’t help but think of God’s words in Isaiah 35: “The desert and the parched land will be glad; the wilderness will rejoice and blosson…Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert…” I must stop now, but I’ll continue my story of this amazing day the next time, when I invite you to join us for Sunday at Nadabal–the feast.