Home of Wheaton Bible Church's Quarterly Magazine
By Bill Oberlin, Global Outreach Pastor
The Turkana region (northwest Kenya, bordering South Sudan), desolate under the best of circumstances, had become nearly uninhabitable as the result of a decade-long series of droughts—2011 being the worst in more than 60 years. The absence of rainfall led to crop failure, widespread loss of live-stock, and severe malnutrition. Tens of thousands of Turkana were on the brink of starvation by mid-2011.
Learning of that desperate need, our church stepped in to provide emergency food aid in partnership with others. Parklands Baptist Church—a large, missions-focused church in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi—had sent teams into Turkana over recent years to share the hope of the Gospel. As the crisis deepened, they were among the first outsiders to recognize the extreme need and respond, harnessing the resources of World Relief to intervene in the desperate circumstances there.
Near that same time, WBC’s Heart for AIDS leadership team was considering how God might want to expand our holistic ministry in Kenya beyond Nakuru. Once we learned of the devastation in Turkana, we decided that our Fall 2011 MissionsFest giving project should engage the crisis there.
But providing emergency food aid alone would not address deeper-rooted issues. What could reduce Turkana’s vulnerability to future droughts? What about the threats of HIV/AIDS and tribal conflict? We were also confronted with the reality that only about 2 percent of the people in Turkana are followers of Jesus. How might God use our church, in partnership with others, to further His Kingdom in this rugged region?
God had long ago called us to ministry in Kenya. Those familiar with our Global Outreach involvements know that in 2004, Wheaton Bible Church embarked on a daunting initiative to reach out to the most vulnerable in African communities. Heart for AIDS—WBC’s first global initiative—was launched to address the Goliath of HIV/AIDS in Kenya.
With the encouragement of WBC members Dr. James and Cindy Judge, WBC missionaries Scott and Barb Harbert partnered with courageous Kenyan believers like Josephine Kiarii to bring hope to AIDS victims, their families, and their community through training, discipleship, and holistic development. Over the years, the ravages of AIDS have been reduced, and hundreds of lives have been transformed by the grace of Christ through this ongoing cooperative effort
in Nakuru, Kenya. We are continuing to deepen our partnerships in Nakuru, believing the greatest impact is still ahead as those mentored, in turn teach others to choose life and to follow Jesus.
In February 2012, at the invitation of World Relief and Parklands Baptist, our church sent a team to Turkana in northwest Kenya to explore how we might work together to empower the Turkana people, transitioning relief (urgent food aid) into development (long-term solutions to deal with their survival needs) and belief (spiritual transformation).
We asked, “Lord, do You have a role for us in interweaving holistic development and authentic discipleship in this austere environment among one of Africa’s least-reached people groups?”
Life has changed little for the Turkana over the centuries; they exist in this harsh climate much as their ancestors did: shepherding their herds (cattle, goats, camels, and donkeys), gathering food, living in small huts constructed of dry stalks. The severity of recent droughts, however, has caused the Turkana to become dependent on the outside world for their very survival.
Upon our team’s visit in February, the drought conditions were obvious from the moment the group disembarked at the Lodwar, Turkana, airstrip.
After hours of travel north by Jeep over rugged dusty paths, our group stopped at a site marked along the dirt track we were following. Across the scorched plain, silhouettes appeared on the horizon. A few men and boys were walking toward us.
This area, near the remote community of Lokitaung, had been an epicenter of the famine. Some had died before emergency aid reached them, and many more would have fallen victim but for a local Turkana pastor named Peter, who had alerted World Relief and Parklands Baptist to the severity of the need.
We continued on to other sites near Lokitaung. As members of the community saw us, they approached—tall, thin men, each carrying a staff and a small wooden stool—useful and meaningful cultural items used as they walk, work, and rest. The women, equally tall and physically strong, were adorned with brightly colored beads of red, yellow, blue, and green, many wearing strands stacked more than six inches tall, giving the illusion that the necklaces elongated the women’s necks.
With the assistance of translators, our team listened to these men and women describe how the drought had affected their families and how they long to develop their land into a place where they can grow food for themselves. Turkana
pastors accompanied us from site to site, bridging us with the communities, offering encouragement to the people, and fostering prayer.
Lokitaung is home to five project sites where World Relief Kenya has purposed to dig wells, share Christ, launch agricultural and community health programs, and establish new churches in partnership with local pastors and with the empowering of Parklands Baptist and Wheaton Bible Church. An ambitious undertaking!
Four months after our first visit, a WBC team returned to Turkana in June. An agreement was being formalized for a joint endeavor of World Relief Kenya, Parklands Baptist Church, and Wheaton Bible Church, and our team was there to gain further understanding and to gather images and information that would enable us to communicate this expansion of our initiative in Kenya to the congregation of WBC.
In spite of reports that plots of land at the five project sites had started becoming “green,” our team could see no dramatic change in the drought situation as we flew from Nairobi to Lodwar. The green and lush foliage of central Kenya once again faded to dusty tan as the flight headed northwest into the Turkana region.
Clearly the drought continued, and our team’s caravan traversed a dry and desolate region—as on the first visit. One team member reported, “As we drove the six hours from the airstrip to the project sites, we wondered how the Skype and email reports about the ‘greening’ of Turkana could be true.” We prepared ourselves to be enthusiastic about spindly seedlings, struggling to survive.
Approaching the first site we’d visited just four months earlier, those of us who had been on the earlier trip were dumbstruck. The color palette had transitioned from tans to greens. No dusty silhouettes on the horizon, but a beehive of human activity. The stark plain had been transformed into a mosaic of cultivated plots! And in the center of it all, a tall solar panel that ran a pump for the new well.
In the four months since our first visit, World Relief’s development and agricultural experts had been conducting trainings and investing resources (from WBC, Parklands Baptist, and others) to bring hope to this community. A deep well, outfitted with solar-powered pumps (Turkana gets lots of sun) and two massive black water-storage tanks, now provides water for household use, irrigation, and animals.
Barren land at the project site had been cleared of dead brush and stones. Soil had been shaped into trenches to catch any rain and maximize the impact of irrigation. The farming area was divided into small plots—each managed by local families whom the local pastors had mobilized to participate.
The change in this community—in four short months—has been dramatic. Since Wheaton Bible Church first learned of the need in Turkana, the severe malnutrition rate of young children there (as measured by local health officials) has dropped from nearly 40 percent to 12 percent. And if the thriving green fields didn’t tell the story dramatically enough, an encounter with one elderly Turkana man crystallized the experience.
Grabbing the arm of Global Outreach Pastor James Misner, he gestured for James to follow him deeper into the farming plots. Bringing along a translator so he could talk to the man, James followed the man’s laborious, seemingly painful steps. They walked almost twenty minutes past plot after plot, learning along the way that the man was a leader in the community. He was also a polygamist with four wives. Others from the community joined them, forming a small band as they continued.
Reaching the low-lying plot, James could not believe his eyes. The man’s entire garden was covered with vines that spiraled across the ground. Looking carefully, James saw that every few feet there was a round object protruding above the vines. He thought to himself, They look like watermelons!
But how could there be enough moisture in the soil to produce a fruit with “water” in its name?
In fact, the vines were full of watermelons—dozens of them! And as the old man walked through the field, he thumped each one with his staff, until he found one that sounded just right. He picked it and presented it to James for the team,
as a token of his appreciation for the work our church and our partners are doing. Enjoying that watermelon as we took a break for lunch, we all agreed that it might have been the sweetest we’d ever tasted!
This elderly man is not yet a professing Christ follower, but he is working closely with one of the local Turkana pastors who is focused on sharing the message of Christ and planting a small fellowship of believers that gathers under a tree
in that community.
On the flight back to Nairobi, team members reflected on how transformation has begun in a handful of communities in Turkana—and how hundreds of others still need intervention like what we had just seen. Discussions began about other needs of the community that have only begun to be addressed. HIV/AIDS, maternal and child health, tribal conflict, and others lurk in the background. And while a few church plants have begun to be formed, the need remains so great.
Even so, doubt turned to faith as we remembered what we had seen: evidence of what God could do in four short months.
Where we had witnessed a vast and overwhelmingly dry and dusty barrenness, little plots of green and thriving vegetation have begun to appear. And they are spreading—as fast as watermelon vines—and bringing hope to the landscape.
As the Church, we are called to be a light in the darkness, to do away with the yoke of oppression, to spend ourselves on behalf of the hungry, to satisfy the needs of the oppressed. We have felt the call to help the people of Turkana, Kenya, redeem their land, restore their relationships, and build their church. We are responding to that call.