Jul31WedLife and ministry in Kenya's arid Turkana County. July 31, 2019 by Lt-Colonel Wanda Vincent
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- Opinion & Critical Thought
(Above) Lt-Cols Morris and Wanda Vincent, chief secretary and territorial secretary for women’s ministries in the Kenya West Tty, with the district leaders and Lt-Col John Olewa, secretary for program
As Canadians, Morris and I know we are visitors in Kenya. We work and live side by side with Indigenous Kenyans, yet we never occupy their space in the same way. Nowhere is this more evident than in Turkana. Bordering South Sudan, Uganda and Ethiopia, it is the hottest and most barren area in our region. We had the privilege of being there again recently for our third visit. Our secretary for program, Lt-Colonel John Olewa, accompanied us and, despite his fear of flying, he was excited because it was his first trip to Turkana, though he retires at the end of this year.
Flying into Lodwar, the central township, we saw how the long periods of drought dry out the land and the rivers, leaving miles and miles of scorched terrain. (Ironically, the long-awaited rains often cause flooding.) Either way, people struggle to sustain their livelihoods. Recently, the territory dispersed food and water supplies from international headquarters emergency response team due to the drought. Our trip was an opportunity to visit and encourage Salvationists and conduct a district review.
For three days, we drove in nearly 40-degree heat, across desolate, rugged roads and bleak riverbeds. We saw herds of camels, sheep and goats roaming from place to place as the nomadic pastoralists seek better conditions for their animals. I kept reminding myself that in spite of the harsh conditions, people survive here. They build a life. They are resilient. They have families. They work hard.
Welcome to Lokitaung
The first stop of our tour was Kaeris Corps, where a new lieutenant is leading the congregation. The locals are doing well and have constructed a church hall on their own. When I asked, “Where is the quarters?” I was told, “The lieutenant lives in the office.” At the back of the church, the office has been converted into a one-room living space, with a curtain for privacy. His shower is outside and his bathroom is an outdoor latrine. In December, the lieutenant is getting married, so they are hoping to have quarters constructed by then.
Our visit also included two Salvation Army schools. One of the secondary boarding schools was so clean and organized. About 320 male students were placed here by the government from all across the country. Fortunately, many of the 16 teachers stay on site, which we hope means mature mentoring and helpful security. The principal of the school has been on sick leave for six months with a very serious medical condition. The teaching staff are working extra hard to help improve the students’ academic achievements. The sports trophies on the filing cabinet indicate the boys are physically active. We stop to greet the boys, encouraging them to keep investing in their education and reach their full potential.
As we left the school and ventured up the hill to the adjacent corps, we heard the strains of African songs. Women dressed in their colourful kangas (a type of printed fabric) and beaded neck jewelry were dancing outside. What I didn’t know until halfway through our visit was that they were singing “Welcome, Madam Vincent, to Lokitaung!” I had been with these women in January at a district women’s seminar, and they were so excited that I was now visiting their corps.
Lokitaung is the hub for the northern area of the district. The corps is small and the attendance sporadic. We can tell there’s a lot of work to be done. The people are kind and generous with their traditional gift-giving to visitors. Morris and Lt-Colonel Olewa were presented with handmade walking sticks and sitting stools, as well as a Maasai blanket. I was also given a colourful blanket and a lovely beaded headpiece. These gifts all represent respect for their “elder” leaders.
Through the Hills
Then it was on to Nachukui and Nashechubeni. To reach these corps, we drove “through the hills” and across more parched riverbeds, with Lake Turkana peeking through some foliage in the distance. It felt like off-roading through desert sand dunes. Finally, our guide said, “There it is!” The corps was a tree—a first for us! About 30 people, adults and children, were seeking shade from the hot sun under the canopy of branches. This small group of worshippers comes every week to sing and dance and hear a Bible message from a retired envoy.
There had been several attempts to build a church and a house, but each time an infestation of termites destroyed the structure. The people appeared happy with our visit, but deep down, they seemed like the parched ground, groaning for a better day. The needs are huge. We looked into the faces of the children and several young women carrying babies on their back, and wondered what their future will be. One of the men asked if he could speak. He shared his longing for a way to have resources to help them, including support for the children’s school fees. We knew there was a much bigger conversation needed. All we could do was shake their hands, encourage and pray with them. More dialogue would have to happen in the coming days.
Because the Turkana district covers such a large geographic area and the roads are so rough, we are mindful of the financial burden and time it takes for people to travel. Only two of our Salvation Army corps have motorbikes for their officers. The others depend on public transportation, which in this area is often a business truck that could take two to three days to get an officer to divisional headquarters.
There to Serve
Following the district review, we visited a corps just outside Lodwar, on the outskirts of a camp for internally displaced people. When violence broke out in 2007 during a rough election year, many residents were displaced around the country. Hundreds of families landed in Turkana. The young officers here are so loving and innovative. They were appointed two years ago, with no church building and six people to call church members. Initially, their living space was a one-room apartment—they had one little boy and she was pregnant with their second. They must have seen how much work was before them, but they weren’t discouraged. They were there to serve.
The people who previously attended the corps had been chased away from their building through a land dispute and were left without any place to worship, thus many abandoned the church. The new officers immediately began doing outreach, visitation and making connections in the area. They now have a two-room house and a church structure built from iron sheets, and are working on replacing their dirt floor with concrete. To date, they have about 25 adults attending each week, as well as an active youth and children’s ministry. They are committed to seeing the corps grow. While they, too, are “visitors” in this northern land, they have requested to stay.
Our excursion concluded on Sunday following the morning worship service at Lodwar Corps. We were inspired by the quality of music they have. The band and songsters were exceptional. Many young adults have moved into Lodwar for employment, due to the decentralization of many government services, and the corps has benefited from the commitment of many young Salvationists.
A visitor comes and a visitor goes. The people remain. It is their home, their space. They are resilient and proud. They deserve our respect and support. We leave this northern land of intense heat and waterless clouds with our notes. We will never occupy their space as they do. We will come again.
Lt-Colonel Wanda Vincent is the territorial secretary for women’s ministries in the Kenya West Territory.