Shortly before I left for Kilimanjaro, I was contacted by Alex Goodwin, Communications Director for the OCMC. He and OCMC Executive Director Fr. Martin Ritsi had planned an extended visit to Kenya and Tanzania in order to film a new video for the OCMC and further assess future mission prospects for that field, and they wanted to know if Maria and I would be interested in traveling with them to Kenya and being part of this! The experience would take me to a part of Kenya that I had wanted to visit anyway–Turkana, in the northwest part of the country. The OCMC began sending short-term mission teams to this region only a few years ago, and Orthodoxy has already gained a strong foothold there. I knew I wouldn’t have a lot of time to rest after climbing Kilimanjaro, but I also knew that I couldn’t pass up this opportunity.
Maria and I were greeted at the Lodwar airport (a dusty landing strip in the desert with a small covered waiting area serving as the main gate) by Fr. Martin, Alex, and Rob Orr, the cameraman who would be documenting our visit. We strapped our bags on top of the Land Rover (there wasn’t enough room for them inside) and started our 3+ hour journey into the desert. Fr. Martin mentioned that the last time he made this journey, the vehicle he was in got stuck in the sand three times. Fortunately, with the combination of our amazing driver and rugged Land Rover, we didn’t get stuck once.
Our first destination was the village of Loupwala. Loupwala has been visited before by OCMC teams, but it was my first time there or anywhere like it. It was the Africa that I had seen before in National Geographic magazines and on Public Television when I was growing up.
The Turkana are nomadic pastoralists and rely mostly on their goats, camels, and donkeys not just as a source of milk and meat but also as currency for things such as bride-price negotiations and dowries. Not many crops are grown, but they do eat maize, beans, and ugali (maize porridge). During our brief stay, we had nothing but boiled cabbage and ugali–all of which we had brought with us from Lodwar. The Turkana also make use of a fruit that I had never heard of or seen anywhere else. It is called yangole in Turkana, and it is pretty much a fibrous pulp on the outside of a large inedible pit. The pulp can be ground off with stones and mixed in with flour or it can be chewed right off the pit [I tried the latter and can understand how the Turkana can easily wear down their teeth].
The Turkana dress very traditionally in the villages but not quite as much in the larger cities like Lodwar. Girls and women wear sarongs that range in color from purple to red to orange, and even bright green. Many of the women and girls wear their hair in a way that looks like a mohawk of small braids. The men also wear wraps, some covering the whole body, some just from the waist down, and less traditional shirts. Additionally, some of the older men or distinguished members of the tribe, such as shamans, wear hats decorated with ostrich feathers. One night, we all watched a movie about the life of Jesus that had been translated into the Turkana language. I was sitting toward the back, and one of the tribal elders was sitting right in the middle toward the front. Throughout the movie, I enjoyed watching the silhouette of a lone ostrich quill waving back and forth, brushing the faces of the actors on the screen. Both men and women wear beaded necklaces and bracelets. Many of the women wear a high-collared, brightly-colored beaded necklace that I can imagine takes a long time to make.
The video shoot began almost immediately after we arrived. Fr. Martin, Alex, and Rob started interviewing individuals who had become or were in the process of becoming baptized. Maria and I interviewed some of the women and children about medical issues with the help of one of the Turkana priests, Fr. Moses, who speaks English, Turkana, and Swahili fluently. We spent the night sleeping in a boma (thorn enclosure) of another priest, Fr. Zachariah, who himself was originally from Loupwala. A few of the people in our group had tents, but I braved the elements, sleeping only on a mat and having a loose mosquito net resting on top of me. It was the first time I had ever gone hard core camping, and I enjoyed looking up at a clear night sky illuminated by stars, knowing that I was about as far away from the nearest city as I could be.
The next day, we visited a well that had been installed by the OCMC only a few years ago. The well was about a 10 minute walk from our campsite, but I learned that before the well was put in, people would have to walk up to 13 kilometers (each way) to get water that wasn’t necessarily very safe to drink. This well made getting cleaner water a lot easier for the people of Loupwala.
Later, we were honored with a celebration. The community members greeted us with traditional singing and dancing. As we arrived, a group of women, doing what I could only describe as a tightly-packed line dance, moved toward us while singing, blowing whistles, and waving around what I later found out were cow tails. Some younger people then sang and danced for us, and then we all joined in the fun. I especially enjoyed the high vertical jumping dance (if you’ve ever seen movies of Maasai dancing, it is exactly the same).
That afternoon, we walked for about an hour and a half to our next stop–a village called Nacabousan. To reach Nacabousan, we had to cross the Kerio River. The Kerio River, Fr. Martin explained, was usually bone dry in this area, but that every time he had visited, it was always flowing. This time was no different. Lightning flashes in the distance the previous night forewarned us that this would probably be the case. The river was only two or three feet deep at its deepest point, but the water was moving at a good clip. I had not anticipated this, and was concerned about 1) getting completely drenched and dirty, and 2) getting valuable possessions wet, namely my iPod. Before we crossed, I decided to give my valuables to Maria, who is much taller than me and who had a nicer backpack. That decision paid off. As I neared the opposite bank, I discovered (too late) that there was a sharp, slippery rise that wasn’t visible through the chocolate-colored water. As I went to my knees, I decided that I had nothing to lose and went all the way in. It was a decision that paid off because I felt much cooler against the mid-afternoon sun. Despite the fact that everything I was wearing was completely drenched and now a light brown color, I felt better and my iPod was safe.
On Sunday morning, we celebrated liturgy in the bush, just outside the village of Nacabousan. The altar table was built on the spot using sticks, palm leaves, and a small blackboard. The congregation sat in the shade of a large acacia–much needed because even at 9AM, the sun was already starting to beat down on us. I was surprised to see that there were matins and liturgy books translated into Turkana. The Turkana are a part of the same language group as the Maasai (different from the Bantu-based Swahili that I’m used to hearing), and I immediately noticed a similarity to the Maasai language when I first heard the Turkana speak. As with Swahili, it didn’t matter if I couldn’t understand every word that was being said during the liturgy. I still knew what was going on. Even with aggressive flies buzzing around, which are ever-present in the desert, I was lost in the experience. This was the first time an Orthodox liturgy had ever been held in Nacabousan. I began to wonder if St. Paul or the other early Apostles had similar experiences on their missionary journeys.
The liturgy was immediately followed by a mass baptism. 110 men, women, and children were baptized in the Kerio River. What was a curse for me on the way over had become a blessing. There was plenty of water for full-immersion baptisms! While several children splashed and swam nearby, a line of people from the river bank went into the water where Fr. Martin baptized them one at a time–again, like experiencing the early church but in the 21st century. The first one baptized was the head village elder from Nacabousan, named Salale. He and Fr. Martin had developed a strong relationship over the past few years, and I could tell that Salale’s conversion and baptism were monumental for himself, Fr. Martin, and the entire village of Nacabousan. There were at least 200-300 people watching from higher up on the river bank. Many of them went into hysterics at seeing their friends being immersed (some of them very reluctantly) in the river. We all went back to the “survival” altar that had been constructed for the liturgy and concluded the service. Watching dozens of people walk around the altar table together toward the end of the baptism was something I’ll probably never see again but won’t soon forget.
After the video shoot, we all returned to Lodwar where we met up with a short-term OCMC teaching team that had arrived the day before. Fr. Martin, Alex, and Rob stayed with the group for a couple of days before moving on to the shoot in Tanzania, but Maria and I stayed behind in Lodwar with the team for the duration of their teaching mission. They had each prepared different lessons to present Turkana faithful who had come from Lodwar and surrounding villages (including from over 3 hours away in Loupwala!). Fr. Moses, Fr. Zachariah, and Fr. Vladimir (who is a Turkana priest based in Lodwar) translated for the team and at the same time taught their people about church topics such as the Creed, death & resurrection, the Sacraments, and icons. I was even allowed to do a health education session. Based on a session I once gave back in 2008 during a short-term mission in Tanzania, I asked the group of about 70 “youth” to divide up into groups and come up with their own songs, dances, or sketches that highlighted major health concerns in East Africa, such as AIDS and malaria. The Turkana, like many other cultures in Africa, have a strong oral tradition that is passed along through songs and storytelling. Why not tap into that and use it for health promotion? I gave them 20 minutes to prepare, but they only needed 10. All of the groups did an amazing job, and I told them that I would put all of the videos I took of their presentations on the internet so that people all over the world could see how the Turkana use storytelling not only to pass along history but to teach others the importance of promoting good health behaviors.
Our visit happened to be in the middle of a paralyzing famine that affected the horn of Africa and spilled over into northern Kenya. Crops were failing and there was a severe food shortage. The Turkana, being pastoralists, were especially hard-hit when their livestock began to die off. People were literally starving to death. I had done a blog entry early on about African stereotypes, and I mentioned that a common misperception is that most Africans are starving and impoverished. I followed that up by mentioning that this was more of an exception to the rule–overall, they may eat much less food, but that doesn’t mean they are starving. Also, “poverty” is a relative term. If most of the people who live around you don’t have a lot of material possessions, that doesn’t necessarily make them poor. In fact, I regard most of my friends here as being richer on many levels. That said, whenever a disaster such as a famine happens, it throws what was once a delicate balance into complete disarray. Tribes like the Turkana, who can live comfortably on a basic diet and without a lot of possessions really feel the effect when the food or water supply is thrown out of whack.
I had no idea how bad the situation really was until after I got back to Bukoba. While waiting at the Lodwar “airport” for the plane back to Nairobi, I met a BBC journalist and cameraman who had just been to the same region we had. They told me that a piece they had just filmed would be airing a couple of days later and that I would be able to see it online.
Here is a link to that report: http://www.vimeo.com/27583238
Finding out about the severity of the famine after the fact made me appreciate my time with the Turkana all the more. I would have never guessed from the celebrations and fellowship we shared that they were in the middle of a major crisis. Please remember the Turkana, especially the newly-baptized, in your prayers.
Thank you to my support team!
[Video from my Turkana experiences can be found on the OCMC website or my YouTube channel, username: mpagedas]