When I traveled to Kenya a few years ago, I saw things that astonished me. A man beaten with a stick, a toddler nursing publicly, bare-breasted women, and children dressed in plastic bags. But interestingly, what surprised me the most was meeting a remote desert tribe that lacked something fundamental to human existence: water.
I was on a mission trip and, as always, I expected God to change people. But this time, he changed all of us one evening as we rolled along the dark desert sea, waves of sand billowing in the night under a heavy purple sky. But let me take you back to my time in the desert so you can see what I mean.
Into the Desert
It was April 11, 2009. We had left Nairobi hours ago. Our van was swishing through the hot sand, and we were packed tightly within the vehicle, us white musungus dispersed amongst the Kenyans.
The roof was raised so we could stand and feel the hot, dry wind whip against our faces. The sound of the wind snatching at our clothes was accompanied by the clattering of open windows and the loud complaints of a goat stumbling around in the back.
Hot, dripping sweat, and parched. We had handed out most of our water bottles miles ago to the solitary figures striding along the road. Most of these wanderers were members of the Maasai tribe.
They carried tall spears and wore deep expressions on their long, dark faces. Their crimson garments flapped in the breeze, the vibrant red a stark contrast to their black skin which seemed to soak up the sun.
Clean drinking water was a rare treat for the desert tribesmen who lived beneath the blazing sky. But now we had to conserve our water—what if our van broke down or got stuck?
We could send out a motorcycle if we needed to get help, but the nearest town was hours away. No one came this way anymore. The road was narrow and broken, and drifts of sand made it swampy and treacherous. We began to feel that we were truly reaching one of the remotest parts of the earth.
When we arrived, the tribespeople invited us to fetch water with them. They carried large, yellow barrels, flimsy plastic weathered by the sun. We had to hike for nearly a mile before we reached our destination, but when we arrived, I was confused. There was no water at all, only dry, sunbaked clay. Where was the river or stream? The oasis or watering hole? I wondered if we had not walked far enough.
The ground was cracked, fissures zigzagged across the parched earth, and black holes plunged deep into the wounded ground. When I looked to the hot, trembling horizon, I could see nothing but desert sand.
One of the tribesmen pulled back his brilliant red dress and lowered himself into a yawning hole at my feet. I suddenly noticed this hole with renewed interested. I approached the lip of the cavern and watched as he did a precarious dance to the bottom.
Bony fingers clutched raw handholds, toes stretched eagerly for chunks of murky earth. His lean body reminded me of a gazelle leaping through twilight gloom.
He reached up his thin arms to accept a dingy, yellow barrel that one of the women lowered down to him. I could see now that his ankles were immersed in a couple inches of muddy water. Somehow, he managed to fill the barrel partway, and it was hauled up again.
These people were beautiful. One woman stood with her hip thrust out, her body all curves, a barrel poised delicately on her head. She smiled and beckoned for me to carry one too.
Someone coiled a cloth on my head, and a flurry of hands positioned a barrel on top of it. I quickly reached up to balance the barrel. As we started the long trek back toward the village, I could not walk as the other women did, with their hands at their sides, graceful bodies swaying beneath heavy burdens.
I had both of my hands around my barrel and still I felt like it would fall. The water was sloshing around the inside of the plastic tank, throwing off my balance. I only walked a short distance before I eagerly passed it off to someone else.
I was so nervous that one of us might spill water. Despite their reassuring smiles, I knew better. On our van ride that morning, I had seen children running up to us because they were thirsty.
Now here, I finally saw how little water these people had. They told us they had dug many holes thirty feet deep to find water, and most of these holes had dried up by now. Only a few holes still have water, and there are only a couple inches left at the bottom. It has not rained in six months. If the rainy season does not come soon, we will have to move on.
But where would they go? They would not move into the city because the city dwellers did not speak their language, and they would not go to the city because it was a few days’ walk and the young and old might not make it.
Our translator told us they beat their children for trying to wash the sand out of their eyes. Water is for drinking, not for cleaning. That is why some children go blind.
Sharing a Meal
That evening, we feasted on goat as the blazing sun roared below the earth, plunging beneath the fiery sand. One of my teammates had killed the goat we brought for dinner.
The tribespeople stood around the slaughter, white smiles on their wrinkled faces, chattering in an unfamiliar language as he gutted the goat and yanked out the entrails. We are pleased you have brought the meal. We are happy to feed our guests, but now we will not have to kill one of our own goats.
I sat on the ground with my back against a hut. I reached into the wooden pool passed my way and pulled out some goat intestines. They were lumpy brown and the texture of a wrinkled raisin, cut into pieces about the size of my thumb. I tore off a bite with my teeth and observed that it was very chewy, and not very good.
At home, I would never have eaten goat intestines, but here I had no choice. Eating their food (or the same food they eat) was a way to show that I accepted them and their culture.
If I rejected their food, it would be as if I rejected them. In this part of the world, great value is placed on guest/host relations.
Because the people of Africa do not always have much food, a gift of food often requires sacrifice from them, and a meal takes time and effort to prepare. So, when they share meals with their guests, they are essentially asking two questions: Do you like our food? Do you accept us?
Today was different because we were the ones who had brought the goat and slaughtered it for them. But I still ate it with a smile on my face and thankfulness in my heart because I knew how much a meal like this would have cost them.
That night, the moon was huge. Wispy clouds stuttered over the moon, casting moving shadows over the cooling sand. The desert shone bright in a bath of moonlight, and the stars were crisp and brighter than I had ever seen them.
I lay in my sleeping bag stretched across the sand, two of my friends beside me. We were something of a spectacle to the tribespeople. They were sitting huddled in the darkness some distance away, watching us. Within the long shadow cast by a fragile hut, their eyes gleamed white, bobbing orbs of liquid curiosity. A low murmur reached us, their musings and mild speculations. I guessed they did not have much entertainment out here.
“Do they understand why we’re here?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” my friends responded.
We figured they would know tomorrow. Tomorrow we would speak to them in the low-roofed church. We would give them a message of hope, telling them that God had not abandoned them and that He had not forgotten them.
As we shared stories in the night and talked about our lives and our reasons for being here, our awakening hearts grew bigger. How many people had had the opportunity to share their dreams beneath a starry desert sky?
How many people had slept on the sand beneath an African moon? This was the night we three friends knew each other most deeply. And this night, I felt an immense thankfulness to God for how much he had blessed my life, and for how consistent and faithful I felt he’d always been. I was hopeful and excited for what the next day might bring.
I fell asleep, but awoke once in the middle of the night to a strange sound—drums and wailing and cardboard silhouettes undulating past the huts. This dance was not for me. I felt keenly that it belonged only to them, this mystic rite that was a part of their sacred past, a preservation of their identity. I closed my eyes again, and the drum beats echoed in my sleep.
April 12, 2009 was a Sunday—Easter Sunday, as a matter of fact. The morning dawned fresh, and distant mountains watermarked the cool sky. We gathered in the church, which was a tin building that had been built years ago by a hopeful pastor.
This same woman still pastored this church. She was small and lively with a broad smile that revealed missing teeth. Black hair bobbed to her shoulders, and she wore a long, brown dress that featured orange stripes and bright blue flowers. A purple scarf wrapped tightly around her waist.
Most remarkable were the many layers of necklaces she wore. Strings of beads rested heavily on her chest and rose high to bunch beneath her chin. All the tribeswomen wore these colorful towers.
She addressed the tribespeople in an unfamiliar tongue, happy garbled words chasing past her lips. I had no idea what she was saying, but she looked happy. More people had come to church today than usual. In fact, the whole village had arrived because we musungus were there. She introduced our mission team leader to the tribespeople, so that he could finally tell them why we had come.
Clenching a microphone in his hand, he spoke with fervor and passion, his intensity crossing a barrier that his language could not. “You are discouraged,” he said, as the radiant pastor translated rapidly beside him. “We have come to give you a message of hope.
You feel isolated in the desert, like no one remembers you are here. You are not forgotten in Kitale. You are not forgotten in Nairobi.
God has not forgotten you; He has not abandoned you. That is why He sent us here to encourage you.” He reminded them of God’s goodness and of how Jesus remained in the wilderness, often going to lonely places to pray.
He told them of the love Christ has for all of us, a love so infinitely deep that He chose to die on a cross to pay the penalty for our sins so that He could restore our relationship with Him.
The people responded overwhelmingly to the message. They came forward, and we touched their chests or shoulders to pray for them. The old women kneeling on the ground were weeping, dark streaking their faces. As we prayed for them, I thought that perhaps the tears were wetting dried hearts.
Soon the pastor began to lead a song of praise, shaking a tambourine and singing in a loud, clear voice. Everyone joined in with singing and dancing. The tribespeople lifted their faces and moved their arms and danced wildly around the room.
There was no escaping this surge of humanity, nor did we want to. The surf heaved with the rhythm of the music. Who said we couldn’t worship in a different language? We did not know the words, but our hearts resonated with their hearts. Our ribs were tied to theirs, for we had come from the selfsame earth.
When the service ended, we did not want to leave. But it was time for us to pack up our things and be on our way.
I took a photo of a little boy I wanted to remember for years to come. He was looking up at me with pleading eyes, clear yellow and squinting from the sun shining directly into them.
Fuzzy black hair clung to his head, and his expression I can only describe as quizzical. To this day, I have never figured out what it meant. His dirty brown shirt hanged loosely over his thin shoulders, and the misshapen neckline exposed the shallow cavity of his chest and the faint impressions of his ribs.
I loved him and all the tribespeople whom we had met. Would I ever see them again? Where would they be ten years from now? I suspected I would never know.
That night we drive home through the desert, through a vast sea of sand. The sky was stained navy blue and dark purple, and lightning flickered wildly around us. I gloried to see it.
I felt I would soar sky high if my spirit could rise above my body. The van top was open, so I stood in the darkness with the wind violently whipping my hair. Only I and a few others were awake to triumph in the storm as the van rocked forward in the night; everyone else was asleep, curled up in chairs in the darkness below.
Because of the lightning, I could see the clouds. Smudges of purple-gray in the darkness. Scattered sheets of rain were falling on the desert all around us. The air was cool and fresh, and I could smell the rain. It has not rained in six months. If the rainy season does not come soon, we will have to move on.
What are the odds that the dry season would end for the desert tribespeople, on the day we reminded them that God had not forgotten them? What are the odds that this day would fall on Easter Sunday?
No travel experience has had a greater impact on me than my encounter with the tribespeople in a remote village in the Kenyan desert.
Rain seems like such a simple thing, and so easy for God to do, but what an extraordinary blessing to desert people who have not seen it in six months.
Now all of us were reminded of God’s goodness and faithfulness as He ushered in a new rainy season, and faith flourished in my own heart as well, as I left the desert behind me.
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