Last night in Africa
I can’t sleep. I’m tossing around in bed. Thoughts of the last three days are jumbled together. Cattle rustlers. Dry arid lands. Men in red blankets carrying AK47’s over their shoulders. Orphans. Lack of food, lack of water. Too many goats on one side and not enough on the other. Mothers being used for target practice. Amani Center for Peace.
Craig and I have just returned from Kapedo along with Jacob and Ann Beles and Samuel Limaris. Let me see if I can take you there with me.
The journey north is arduous. We left Nakuru at about 9 a.m., traveling north along the road past Lake Baringo. Watching for potholes kept us entertained. We joked that where there are no potholes to slow traffic down, there are speed bumps. We reached Nginyang about four hours later. A major highway is under construction there, connecting the center of Kenya to the South Sudan border. Nginyang and the church we constructed there in 1996 will be right on the main highway. We visited the rough stone church we built for the Pokots and reminisced about the time we spent together. Young people in green and blue outfits met us there and entertained us with singing. The green roof has faded to off white. The interior is largely unimproved. There are still no windows in place. But the presence of this church has been a force for change in this community.
The water project supplying water to the community came because some Americans connected with this church brought in a borehole. That provided stability to the community and allowed for people to stay in one location and settle down. The presence of water allowed children to attend school since they didn’t have to chase goats all over the desert. The presence of the borehole opened the way for a government grant to put in water pipes throughout the community. Cattle rustling has stopped here because people are settling down. There is less pressure on the land. People are thinking about other crops, small gardens. We discuss planting mango trees and citrus trees here. Our project will make a small pilot project out of it over the next two years. Based on our experience, we will make a larger investment for the community, a backyard tree growing project for anyone who is willing to take care of the trees. We’ll put in the trees, the community members will take care of them. We’ll ask for 10% of the crop to fund additional projects. People are dreaming of change, improving things.
Of course, it is never enough. The laundry list of projects and needs starts growing the minute we step into Nginyang. Maybe we could put in some pipes for a demonstration garden ($80). How about ceiling sheets for the pastor’s home? ($1000). A camping trip for the kids? A septic tank? ($1000). Sponsorship for someone’s kids? ($1200). What about the parents? ($2400) Window panes for the house? ($500). Something to take the ugly brown color out of the water due to iron and manganese? (??). An improved breed of cows for the Pokots? The list goes on. We decide to limit the investments we make to those that have a direct impact on peace, or at least bring us additional information that will help us to build peace. Hence, we are buying some fruit trees in Nginyang, which will tell us which trees will likely thrive in Kapedo and surrounds. We’ll make better choices for Kapedo’s tree project.
We drop off a friend, then head into the interior. I think we are already in the interior, but apparently there are more remote sites. We are crossing Pokot land now. These people are in conflict with the Turkanas. It’s a long and complicated history which I will discuss a bit later. Suffice it to say for now that the Turkanas have their backs against the wall and the Pokots are the aggressors now. This is quite a shift from a few years ago when the opposite was the case.
We travel over rough stony roads, along sandy riverbeds, ford flowing rivers past abandoned washed out bridges built on sand, over hot dry wasteland and fertile scrub tree covered ground. Buttes and eroded hills stand all around the valley, reminding me of the American southwest. I am hoping the car rental company isn’t tracking where I am right now, at least doesn’t know the condition of the roads I am taking their vehicle on. We pass a grassy meadow near a swayback bridge. “This is the place where our people used to meet,” explains Samuel. “We used to trade cattle, the Turkanas and the Pokots. We haven’t met together in quite some time.”
An hour later we arrive in Kapedo. We connect with a couple of people and make plans for the night, then move on to the site where the Pokots are waiting for us. Samuel has arranged a visit with the warring Pokots, hoping that our presence will convince them to move toward peace. The road gets worse. One spot is so washed out that we have to drive leaning at a thirty degree angle with our driver’s side rubbing against the brush in order to avoid the dropoff on the other side of the road. We dodge goats and cows, lots of them, and head further northeast.
We stop at a place called the Patipat pan, our first project investment in the area. It is dry at the moment, because we just rehabilitated it. It hasn’t had a chance to fill with the rains that occur seasonally and then evaporate. This is the first in our efforts to move people toward peace. We will provide a more consistent water source for the Pokots year round so that their animals have water. We hope this will stop them from stealing the water pumps and driving the Turkanas out of the area.
We drive up the wash a bit further and come over the crest of a small hill. There under a miniscule grove of trees are the Pokots. They sit on stones in the shade, almost invisible against the hillside, perhaps one hundred of them. They have come out of the hills where they live to meet us and get some help. Samuel’s friend Joshua has organized the group. Joshua is a teacher at a place about 60 kilometers away called Chemolingot. He is also committed to peace.
The people have been sitting here waiting for us since this morning. They are not angry with us for arriving so late. A couple of local leaders stand up and speak. They are happy that we have come. They know we are on a mission for peace. There are young mothers with their sick babies. They can’t go into town for medical help because they fear the Turkanas with whom they are at war. They fear that they will be treated badly. Though they have control of the land and the animals, they are impoverished in areas of education and health care.
Somebody breaks out some bottles of soda they brought for the occasion. I remember that I saved a container full of cashews for this occasion. We sit together and eat and drink. The Pokots are murmuring about this strange food I brought. Their diet consists of meat, milk and blood. They will go for years without eating anything green. They don’t grow vegetables. The health of their children reflects this lack. We hope to change their nutrition options with our project.
I look out at the crowd, sitting on stones or the bare ground, nakedness, poverty, lack of education, hoping that we can offer them something better. I realize that they are just people. Scared, sick, hurting, willing to sit here all day to talk to us, or at least get a little medicine. Though they are the aggressors, they are marginalized by the Turkanas who have more access to education, healthcare and electricity. I am beginning to see a clearer picture. The Pokots need what the Turkanas have. The Turkanas need what the Pokots have. They need to share their resources more equitably. We can help them develop what they have. They ask me to say a few words. I mutter a few things about the need for peace and about the nature of our project. They nod and clap their hands. We see a few of the sickest and promise to be back tomorrow to see the others.
We head back to the guest house and consider the situation. Turkanas cannot cross this area held by the Pokots. The town of Kapedo is a Turkana island surrounded by a sea of Pokot land. Steven, a Turkana student that we are sponsoring for nursing school and a good friend of Samuel’s (Samuel is also a nursing student that we are sponsoring, a Pokot. The two will return to this town in exchange for sponsorship for their education, and together will change the culture of war and promote peace) cannot pass through this area to get to his home. He has to travel around another way to reach his ailing grandmother. As a Turkana, he cannot cross Pokot land except at great peril to himself. We are allowed to pass because Samuel is Pokot, and because the people here know that we are about helping both sides of the equation. Steven is waiting to enter school until we can get the funds to enroll him. I hope to accomplish that while I am here in Kenya.
We sit and eat at the guest house of a woman named Esther. She along with a friend named Lydia have put together a fine supper for us. These kind hearted Turkana women have opened their guest house to us. Well, it’s not as if business is booming here. Who knows when the last visitors have landed? Prices are very reasonable, but tourists don’t seem to be that interested in risking their lives to sit here in this lonely spot in the desert. You can get a great meal here of carrots, greens mixed with onions and garlic, ugali (stiff corn porridge) and tea at a very reasonable price, and eat at a quiet table under dim lights. True, you have to bring the carrots, greens and corn meal, but still, it’s a nice atmosphere.
Early the next morning, I wander around the yard a bit. I am intrigued by the sound of rushing water. Sure enough, just down the hill is the river. A waterfall dumps into the river just below us. Someone has installed a hydroelectric generator here, which allows the town to enjoy nearly constant electricity. Apparently there is a saltwater spring over the hill that has been tapped for this electricity. Men bathe down at the riverbank. Women draw water from the river nearby. Every woman is followed by an armed guard, a Turkana man dressed in a red blanket with a rifle over his shoulder, watching the hills on the other side of the river. This is where the women are the most vulnerable.
The town is closing in on all sides. It was once more spacious, but people have left because of the fighting. Those who remain are captives, committed to trying to keep life at a somewhat normal rhythm, under guard from a combination of government forces posted nearby and the Turkana militia staying here from a nearby town. The Catholic girls’ school has had to move into town, after a guard and a teacher were shot. Someone stole the solar panels off the well, so the best water is now not available to the town, just the salty water from the local well and the salty water from the river. I don’t see any crops being grown in town. The remaining animals are few. All of their cattle and the great majority of their goats have been stolen. Many of their men have been killed. They speak of many orphans within the town, though they are not apparent to us. We suspect that many of the orphans are being cared for by family or friends. The town is almost entirely dependent on government food supplies which are sporadic and easily interrupted.
Today, Tuesday November 6 is the big day for us. We visit the hospital to look over their supplies. There are many needs. They could use water inside the hospital, but the pipes are plugged up or broken, so they just carry water from the river. The autoclave doesn’t work, so they just rinse off the surgical instruments with alcohol. There are twenty beds but only two mattresses in the female ward. The male ward is only slightly better. There are plenty of good quality, though older, medical instruments, relics of the missionaries who established this hospital years ago, but no updated instruments have come in since they left some years ago. The lab could use an updated microscope. In fact, the lab director, a tall, impressive looking man named John, gave us a list of things he needs. There is one nurse and two clinical officers for the hospital. They aren’t here right now. Their ambulance is broken down, and has been at a garage in Marigat for the past three months. Before that, it was broken down somewhere else for six months. The people who come to the hospital suffer a lot. Those who don’t come suffer even more. The lack of peace is wreaking havoc on the medical community and on the care of patients. The babies are being delivered by a community health worker, not a nurse. The Pokots deliver at home and suffer horrible complications. Mary, the community health worker, is a fine Turkana woman who receives us graciously and shows us around the facility. All of the hospital workers are advocates for peace.
John shared the story of the night when the Turkana chief was killed. The chief was traveling from Kapedo to another place to the east to take his son to school. Their car broke down along the way, and the chief was shot down by some Pokots. This took place in January of this year. John remembers that night at the hospital in Kapedo where he was working. When news of the murder of their chief reached Kapedo, a mob developed. They wanted to kill any Pokot they could lay their hands on. A few happened to be recovering in the hospital. Stones started flying, and John had to lock the Pokots into one of the rooms for their safety. When rocks started coming in through the windows, John and another man moved the patients into the laboratory where they were safe. At six and one half feet tall, not much intimidates John. John is a force for peace. My respect for these people is growing with each person that I meet. I am surrounded by people who desire change.
The people speak fondly of the days when the missionaries were here, members of the full gospel mission church. These were the people who started the hospital, the schools, the mission work. There is also a Catholic mission nearby, but no missionaries remain, phased out or moved out as they were. The schools remain, as does the hospital and the churches, remnants of the gifts those people brought of healthcare, education and spiritual care. We are here standing with the appreciative recipients of those gifts wondering if there is a way to honor their legacy by bringing peace to this place.
We walk together to the water project in town, a deep borehole with a generator attached. The generator is reduced to filling two large side by side tanks, since all of the pipes have become corroded or broken. We look up at the hospital where a reservoir stands empty on the roof, and wonder what it would take to reconnect the pipes to the reservoir, supplying running water to the hospital. Another project for peace.
A young girl stands before us, two years old. She has something she wants to say. “My name is Rubena. I am a child. This is my land. I have a right to live. I have a right to education. Thank you.” She curtseys. I don’t know who taught her this, but it is powerful.
We walk to where the chief has gathered all of the community leaders. They want to meet us and extend their welcome. We walk into the crowded room where we are given the place of honor. We sit for a moment and the chief makes some introductory remarks. He points out that we have already heard from him, so he wants to give the others a chance to speak. A man to my left stands and addresses us. He says that while he is for peace, he doesn’t want us to wait for peace to occur before we do something. They need food. They need support. They need jobs. We can’t wait around for peace to come before we act. He has a valid point, but what I want to say to him, but don’t, is that I can’t ask people to bring in supplies if the tires are going to be shot out from under them. (This happened recently when supplies were coming to the Turkanas through Pokot land). I can’t ask my friends to invest in development if everything is going to be stolen. Peace is key to any development. I hope he understands that.
Another man stands, a pastor in the community. He was there during the stoning incident at the hospital. He, a Turkana, was hit by some stones while rescuing the Pokots. I want this guy on our team.
A woman stands, a teacher. Her hair is braided tastefully. She is slender and dressed professionally. Her eyes are tired, from too many tears. She speaks passionately to us. She is looking at us, her visitors. She is pleading with us for the orphans, the children, the innocent who are victims of this conflict. She has lost both her parents to this conflict. She speaks to Samuel, hammers him with questions. “Where are the Pokot leaders?” she asks. “Why are they not here? They speak of peace, but they should be here. It has been months since we last spoke together.” I look over at Samuel. He nods his head, smiles at her. He is prepared for this. He, though a Pokot, is viewed by the community as a native son. His mother is Turkana. His father was Pokot, killed in the conflict in the early 1980’s when Samuel was just a child. Samuel could retaliate at these people, but he doesn’t want to. He would have every right. He was robbed of his father when he was just a small boy, hidden in a cave by his mother while his father was still outside, perhaps protecting his family. The loss of his father has affected him every day since then. He has struggled to get an education. He recognizes that he has a role in this place, and he embraces it. He chooses peace as his way rather than revenge. He listens to this Turkana woman venting her pain on him, knowing that it is really not him she is angry with. She is hurting as he is. He can’t be angry with her. She too is committed to peace. She is on our team.
Another man stands, a leader. His face is chiseled by hardship. “All of us are orphans,” he reflects. He is right. “Where is our government in this conflict?” he asks. “If someone steals a cow in Mombasa, a police response is immediate. Here we have six soldiers who patrol the entire area. No one looks into who has taken our livestock.”
Others speak. The morning is growing long. We had promised the Pokots we would be back this morning by 9 a.m. We are long past that time now.
A woman stands. “Now it is the women’s time,” she begins. She speaks with authority. She is a grandmother in her 70’s, her hands bent by years of hard work, but she stands straight and proud. She wears a blue headdress wrapped around her sparse graying hair. Her orange t shirt says “Aadmondt Holistic Health Project”. Her wrap around skirt is red checked with patterns of white. The men protest that the hour is late, but she doesn’t back down. She has something she wants to say.
Our translator Pastor Jacob tries to keep up. For a while he does well, but then she moves on, shifting into high gear, unable to hold back her passion. She looks deep inside of us, inside me with her eyes. She speaks with a pain that is beyond tears, and she keeps firing. I have never experienced a sermon like this. She speaks in another language, but I can hear every word. She tell us of how this conflict has escalated into something unheard of, where women and children are now the targets. Women can’t even draw water without an escort. She tells in graphic description of how a woman was bending over to pick up some firewood when someone shot her from behind, ripping out part of her womanhood. She is pointing at me, her eyes are pleading with me to do something. She is driving her pain deep into my soul. “God,” I’m praying, “what am I supposed to do with this?” We have stepped on a hornets’ nest.
The chief tries to wrap things up. A couple of others speak. Now they want to hear from us. Would I like to say a few words?
I clear my throat. I take a deep breath. Then suddenly, I can’t speak. A flood of emotion comes over me. I am having a meltdown right in front of all of these people, these warriors. I bury my face in my hands. I can’t hold it back. The women are comforting me with their voices from across the room. A hand is on my shoulder. It is Samuel’s. The men try to gracefully move on, but I stop them. No, I explain, there is something I want to say. Just give me a minute please.
I look out through my tears at them. “You know,” I begin, “today is our national election day. Today my country is deciding what our future will be. But when I heard from my friends about how you were suffering, I couldn’t pass up the chance to spend today with you. So I am here. I can only tell you how sorry I am for what you are suffering. Thank you for sharing this with us.
“When I raised my sons, I told them that there is a reason you are given strength. It is never to be used to harm someone else; certainly not the innocent. You were given strength to protect those who need your protection. So to hear of how the innocent are suffering hurts me deeply.” I choke for just a moment. The women are nodding. Their voices are encouraging me to continue speaking.
“We are here on a mission of peace. I know this is not easy. Peace takes time, it is hard work. But I can’t get these words out of my head, that we are to pray for our enemies, that we are to love our enemies. I know that what I am asking is impossible, it is beyond our humanity. It is something that comes from outside of ourselves, from the presence of God in our lives. But if this is what you are committed to, then you are the people we want to work with. I have pledged five years to this project. I have promised these friends of mine and I have promised God, and now I am making this promise to you. We have limited resources, but we will stretch them as far as we can. So if you are with us, we will begin. What I ask you to do is to set your priorities. If you tell us the shelter for orphans is your first priority, then we will begin there. If you tell us water, we will begin there. If income generation, we will being there. But we are committing ourselves to peace. And we ask that you do the same. We may fail in this process, but if we fail, let us fail together. But let us not stop trying.” I pause for a moment. “I think that is all I have to say.”
We stand for prayer. We make our way across the room, preparing to leave. The people are holding onto my hand just for a moment longer, cheering for me with their eyes, hoping that somehow this crazy notion of peace will become more than a pipedream.
We travel back across the harsh terrain to where the enemy is gathered. As we pass just outside of town, we are met with flocks and herds of sheep, cattle and goats, lots of them. We have found the livestock of the Turkanas. They are in the hands of the Pokots.
Out to where we reworked the Patipat reservoir, to the gathering under the trees. Here we will have a heart to heart talk with the Pokots. They have been waiting here all morning for us. They are not bitter, not upset. They are still glad to see us. Sitting on stones and on the ground, finding a spare scrap of shade to rest, scattered here and there along the sandy dry river bottom. The men have hidden their guns in the shadows, but they are there at the ready.
Samuel’s friend Joshua stands and addresses the crowd. He speaks to them of peace. He asks the elder to tell us what it would take to bring peace between these people. How can we help. Samuel speaks as well. The elder stands and represents his people. He says Pokots are not the kind of people who share their feelings easily. It takes time to know these people. But once you know them, you will find they are true friends, they will welcome you.
The priorities of the people, he continues, are water first, then education, a church, a health center. They welcome teaching about peace, about a better way of life. But none of them have gone to school. No one.
It is clear what has happened. The Pokots are asking for what the Turkanas have- water from a well, opportunity for education, spiritual teaching and access to health care. Though they have all of the animals, they are just as impoverished. The women and children are suffering. They have been marginalized because they were not city dwellers, didn’t have access to the schools (they report to us how they tried sending their sons to school, but an incident occurred where the children were ridiculed because they were Pokot and thrown into the river). Now they are asking for the things the missionaries once brought to Kapedo, to the Turkanas, but which they never had access to.
For the Turkanas, their requests are for the things the Pokots have; freedom, land, animals. The two sides are fighting over resources, each trying desperately to hold onto what they have, wrestling from the others what they don’t have. We are beginning to see a way to bring peace. We will bring as a peace offering to the Pokots the resources and opportunities they crave, but at the hands of the Turkanas, those who will work with us. We will bring to the Turkanas the rights and freedoms they should have, as a peace offering from the Pokots. We will develop trust again between the two sides. We will call a meeting between the two groups. We will make the right choice the easy and clear choice for both of them. I have the feeling that I have the right people on my team.
We share a bottle of soda together, Pokots and visitors. We see as many patients as this short afternoon allows us, about 80 or so. We work our way through the women and children first, teen mothers without access to family planning or nutrition education. I am formulating a plan for an adult learning center/health outpost/worship center all under one roof, multiple purposes in one building.
It is getting dark now. I can see that Ann is getting nervous about being out here after dark. I can’t blame her. Now all that is left are the warriors, the teenage young men with their spears and knives. I politely tell them that we are sorry, but we don’t have any more time to see patients. They crowd in a little closer. Couldn’t we at least give them something? I ask the group to pack up the medicines. We keep out the acetaminophen, and while we are apologizing for not seeing them properly, since they have been waiting here all day, we can give them a few pain medicine tablets. They are grateful. We pour a few into each of about thirty envelopes and pass them out with smiles on our faces. They grin back. They are boys like my own sons. Playful, strong, courageous, a little crazy. They walk away up the wash and disappear into the scrubby hillside. We climb into our vehicle and take a deep breath.
We are off across the darkening landscape, hoping that word has gone ahead of us to the warriors hiding in the bushes that we come in peace. Nightbirds play chicken with our vehicle as we pick our way as quickly as the road allows back to Kapedo. An African porcupine runs ahead of the vehicle, quills raised high in the air. A rabbit darts in front of us and races us for twenty yards before giving up and jumping into the grass.
It’s a crazy job, being a peacemaker. I look over at Craig in the front seat. He is silent except when a bird flies up in front of our bumper, then we laugh. This is his first experience in Africa. I realize what a wild experience I have invited him to. I listen to the chatter in the backseat. The three Kenyans are discussing passionately how we can make peace work. I smile. These are the people I want to work with. We’ll succeed, I believe, because we are partners with the Almighty.