Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Kenya Diaries: What I Got Up To In Tuum

During the month of April, I lived in Samburu in rural northern Kenya. I posted the first part of that time here: going to live in villages with the Samburu people. After those four days we returned to the town of Tuum, to the compound of some Northern Irish missionaries, to run two children's camps.

[Thursday April 20th]

I’m sitting under a tree in a blue plastic chair. A camel is browsing not many metres away.

Camels are fantastical creatures, like something from a myth or a dream: their series of curves like an undulating sea; the long, swinging, wrinkled necks that don’t look like they should hold the head; the way they sway when they walk. Their skinny legs, ending in huge, bell-shaped hooves; their pronounced knees. Their round noses and smiling mouths. Isn’t it amazing to think that the God who made stags and goldfinches and porpoises and all the other animals of Scotland also made the animals of Africa? That He created such distinctly beautiful landscapes: the mountains of home, and the bleached vistas here with their regular, flat-topped trees? And elsewhere there are icebergs and rainforests and prairies and turquoise-lipped beaches, and all in the same world. It is a vast and wonderful place, and He made it all and dwells in it all. And still our planet is only a blue speck in His universe, wreathed in clouds.

There are two bulls who live in this compound. I think every camp should have a couple: walking to a teaching session, it lifted my heart to see one strutting across the volleyball court. One is horned and black and entirely amiable. The other is brindled, red-eyed and not to be trusted. Ten minutes ago I sat here, about to start writing, when I looked up and saw him bearing down on me like a warship. I scarpered, and he began to sniff, worry and eventually knock over the chair on which I’d been sitting. Talk about near death experiences.

It is mid-afternoon, and after two back-to-back camps, the final busloads of children have gone. I feel like a deflated balloon, or maybe a long-term prisoner who has been released and emerges, blinking, into a forgotten sunlit world. The time before camp is a far-off memory.

The camel is eating shoots, its black feathery tail flicking.

Last week was the junior camp; our theme was Who Is Jesus? My group was all girls (apart from two little boys added the next morning). I was glad when I saw all the skirts filing past. Girls are much easier to understand. They were sweet and they loved me; by day two, one of them announced, “you are my mother”. I wonder if she had a real mother. There were sad moments like these, for example when we played a game involving choosing a character (lady, lion or warrior). “Who do you want to be?” I asked my girls. “I want to be a mzungu [white person],” one replied. I didn’t have time to talk to her about it. 

I pray they learned about Jesus. Sometimes they seemed receptive; other times they appeared to have listened and responded to nothing at all. But there were nearly four hundred of them; surely one child must have come to know the Lord in a new way, and if they did, our work was not in vain.

It was a strange dynamic; I felt like less of a leader than a teacher, sleeping up in my separate house, eating away from them. As with every aspect, it was nothing like camp at home. But I hope they felt loved, and enjoyed themselves.

One particularly brutal feature was the 6am devotions and exercises. We only had to do this one morning each, but for the children it was the daily routine. We started before it was light, the children huddling in the church like little ghosts wrapped in shukas, wan and sleep-hazed. After singing and preaching we ran and played games, and saw the sun rise over the mountain. The land is still and hushed then, in reverence of the light breaking out of darkness in hues of pink and grey. In such light worlds are made.

When the children departed we wanted to fizzle out like spent toys, but we had to wind ourselves up again in preparation for youth camp. These ones were older, wilier, harder to impress. Some of them were older than me.

One thing that made me laugh on the first night – something that has struck me throughout this time in Kenya – was how the English Premier League has infiltrated. A boy, one of the campers, came up to me. I said, “Supa?”, which means “Hi, how are you?” in Kisamburu. He said, “Manchester United?”

Over the camp we studied 1 Thessalonians. Did they learn? Were they changed? It’s so hard to say. Kenya is a confusing country. Churches are everywhere; buses blare synthetic worship music, their windows plastered with stickers saying IN GOD WE TRUST and THIS VEHICLE IS PROTECTED BY THE BLOOD OF JESUS. Christian Religious Education continues all the way through school, and pretty much anyone you asked on the street would tell you they loved Jesus. For high schoolers, owning a Bible is a legal requirement. But when the whole education system is based on learning by rote, it’s quite possible – even common? – to slide through school without really learning who Jesus is, CRE lessons notwithstanding. On camp, when we tried to do Bible studies with the youth, it was plain they’d never done anything like it. We were trying, almost desperately, to show them that truth and joy and life can be found in the Bible’s own pages, that God is not a thing we have to learn from others, but can learn through His Living Word. We studied a passage from Mark 1, trying to help them see that in the text itself – not through a pastor’s words, not through a school lesson, but in the text – it says Jesus is the Son of God. “What does this mean?” I asked, wanting them to find a response in the passage.

“It means He died on the Cross for our sins,” a girl replied.

Yes, of course, that is what the Son of God did, but she hadn’t got it from those few verses; it was answer she had learnt. Her concept of Christianity was a collection of empty creeds and confusion. I can only pray that these teenagers will open their Bibles and be amazed by the living and active Word they find, shining there with a light they have never yet seen.

A combination of poor English, shyness and disinterest made the teenagers hard to befriend. Interacting with the children was easy – they stroked my hair, and if we didn’t speak the same language we made faces at each other until we both laughed. Not so the youth. All my early efforts at conversation were met with silence or laughter. But I learnt that you should always keep trying, because on the Tuesday afternoon my efforts paid off and at last I made friends with a group of fourteen-year-olds.

Felister, Alice, Rafaela, Gladys, Lydia, Pauline, Christine and Lucy. They taught me words in Kiturkana, and when I told them I’d done Spanish at school they asked for each word “in Spain”. Every time someone drifted past where we sat on the ground, the girls beckoned them over and, pointing at my knee, say, “say in four languages!” “Acong, goti, knee, rodillo”: Kiturkana, Kiswahili, English, Spanish. It amused us all no end. They wanted to know everything – my parents’ names, how many brothers, how many sisters, nephews and nieces, what grades did I get in school, had I been to uni, how old was I, what was my surname, how much did it cost to get to Kenya from the UK, even what were my dogs called? Then they could rattle the details off in quick succession.

The next day I saw them again and they tested me on Kiturkana words – mountain, tree, sky, child. I taught them to say “¡Hasta luego!” They were some of the best girls I’ve ever met. Being with them was the best time on that camp.

[Saturday April 22nd]

On the last afternoon it rained. I was chopping carrots when it began. At first it was light, dancing in the sun and the wind in frenetic diamonds. Then it grew heavier, and there were real puddles, great drops splashing in them and rippling out in circles. It was the first time I’d seen rain in puddles since leaving home. It was almost British. And yet, standing in the open kitchen door, I could feel the heat of the sun, yellow through the water.

We ran outside, laughing and shouting, and found a tiny, perfect rainbow stretched over the valley, so close we could have run to the end. It was a flawless curve, the colours jewel bright against the dark bruise of the sky, and I thought of Noah emerging from the ark. For him it was the first sunshine after the horror of the rain; for us it was rain after relentless sunshine. For all that, I don’t think our feelings were very different.

Now the teenagers have gone, and here we are, and it seems ever stranger, this mini Gap Team life. Real life would never be like this, the lack of autonomy most of all. But I have love this micro-climate existence, all the same, the community of it, the love, my team, the unending cycle of laughter. I am used to being a team member. It will be so odd to go back to being only myself.

I just frigging love camels, man.


  1. I honestly thought that was a dun coloured horse and just scrolled on past the first picture...then did a major double take lol

    love hearing about your adventures and time in Kenya! you describe it so vividly!

  2. That next-to-last photo is gorgeous.

    With your teaching there, it is my belief that they can only ever truly understand what it is the Lord wills and what He does and who He is by first having the Holy Spirit within them. You can certainly have knowledge of the Word without the Spirit and you can love the Lord without the Spirit, as those who came before the Pentecost did, but it is often too strained a relationship (perhaps not a relationship at all, at least with Christ).

    1. Very true! We cannot convert; we can only proclaim the good news, and pray that the Spirit will change hearts. An important lesson to remember in all types of ministry. Thanks, Patrick!

  3. Beautiful! I love getting a peek into your Kenya trip, journal style.

    Your reflections on teaching the kids reminds me of the day camp I ran with my college classmates. (Minus the language barrier.) Our leader told us beforehand to pick our favorite kids. It sounds contrary to most advice, but you're drawn to certain kids for a reason. Love all of them, of course, but realize you will have a greater impact on those few you really connect with than on ALL the kids at once. So it sounds like that group of 14 yr. olds was that "favorite" for you! ^_^

    1. Thanks, Trace! I loved those 14y/os so much ... <3

  4. That was a very interesting post to read.

    Yeah, I can kind of understand why that girl said she wanted to be a white person. I'm not self hating of myself but I guess a lot of people in Africa see Europe and America as The Promise Land (I know this because of relatives).

    I like how it's such a Christian country but I guess the bad side is that it's almost kind of forced? And they might not get to work out their salvation for themselves.

    On the brighter note, the kids seem really cute!

    1. Thanks, Grace. It was really hard to navigate ideas of race and cultural difference. The ways in which Britain and Kenya differ; the ways in which each are better and worse than the other.

      The Christianity was also really challenging. Yeah, I think a lot of people think they're Christians and go along with it, because that's what everyone does, rather than having a personal faith. And a lot of the teaching in churches is very poor! It's heartbreaking. But we can still praise God for the real gospel work He is doing in Kenya!

      So cute! <3

  5. Camels are awesome, there is nothing like rain in Africa.

  6. It sounds like you had a good time with the girls during the youth camp. :)

    I never realized that the teens legally had to own a Bible? It kind of turns the Bible into a textbook or requirement.

    Also, love the camel photos and that paragraph about it. :)

    1. I really did! Yeah, they do, which I guess is a double-edged law; it promotes the Word of God in one way, but also institutionalises it?

      Thanks! I love camels.

  7. Wow. This sounds like such a cool experience. I didn't know Christianity was that integrated into Kenyan culture. It's sad though how they've become a bit numb to it though. :/ Also camels are cool. ^ ^ I've seen them at fairs and zoos.


    1. It really was. And yeah, it is, like everything, a double-edged blessing and hindrance!

  8. "I want to be a white person." Oh my goodness, that makes me so sad. It's also sad that a lot of the kids you met were, as Victoria put it, "numb to it".

    But this was an absolutely gorgeous piece of writing and I absolutely love reading about your Kenyan experience :)

    1. It was so, so sad, but I loved meeting the children! Glad you enjoyed this series :)


Thanks for commenting! :)