(Note: This is a journal written by Wayland Missions Center and Kenya Program director Dr. Rick Shaw, who is currently assessing the needs of Wayland’s campus in Kenya.)
(Jan. 23, 2008) — This morning Dr. Don Ashley, Linus Kirimi, and I headed off from the beautiful and lush Brackenhurst Baptist International Conference where we stay, to the Displaced Persons Camp in Limuru town, about four kilometers distant. As we approached the Red Cross facility, I noticed hundreds of people in a relatively small area, enclosed by wire and wood fencing. Today is a beautiful summer day here in Kenya, and the sunshine is warm and refreshing, following many days of rain and clouds.
Linus drives the KBTC truck into the compound, and as he carefully edges forward, persons scurry out of the way, often with the deer-in-the-headlights expression characteristic of persons in such liminal conditions.
Even though an eminent person such as Kofi Annan has arrived for mediation in Kenya, the violence continues unabated, with 60 homes burned last evening. Three hundred newly displaced persons have just arrived in this camp designed for 350 persons.
The camp is already overflowing, and the new arrivals stand or sit in groups, exhausted from the journey, looking utterly lost and abandoned. As we get out of the truck which is such a source of pride for Linus, persons cautiously gather around us wazungu (white men), silent, tenuous, wide-eyed, desperately expectant.
For this missionary, it has been several years since I have walked among people in this situation. In 1999 Martha and I were called upon to minister to tens of thousands of refugees flowing out of Kosova, due to the genocidal politics of Slobodan Milosevic.
Yet half a world and nine years distant, I look at similar eyes glazed over in hunger and terror, smell the overwhelming stench of hundreds of bodies packed together in a grossly confined area, hear the cries of babies and children longing for the most basic of necessities, feel the warm and calloused hands of Christian sisters and brothers who are here simply and singularly because of their ethnicity, and sense the dormant, tender ache deep in my being that tears at my spirit. “But for the grace of God” I silently whisper as Don, Linus, and I are introduced to the Camp Director from the Red Cross.
The camp director is a native Kenyan, articulate, apologetic, ashamed, and frantic. He is torn between an ethic of hospitality to American visitors, and the impossible and inexcusable responsibility of 650 lives. We chat ever so briefly, and Linus, Don, and I lumber away to meet the physician and social worker assigned to the camp. These two stalwart Kenyan women, one no-nonsense, the other cordial and congenial, greet Don, Linus, and me with due courtesy, thankful for our presence.
There is a moral and spiritual responsibility we are under, I acknowledge, and that’s what places us in this place at this time. We hand the two women the bags of pain-killing medicines we have brought. Don explains what types of medications they are, informed at length by his wife Heather, back at home in Anchorage, Alaska. Heather is a post-op nurse, and has trained Don well.
The Kenyan physician takes the medicines, shakes her head vigorously up and down, and says, “Thank you, American men. Thank you. We need these medicines very much.”
Silently I thank my wife Martha, my pastor Dr. Travis Hart, my good friend Don Smith, and the other volunteers and church members who purchased and bagged these pills. A small gesture that is already helping so many (thank you!).
After a brief exchange, we exit the ramshackle building housing the infirmary. I look across the hard dirt clearing, and I watch a middle-aged Kenyan woman, bent over, scrubbing her clothes in a purple, plastic basin. I amble over to the woman, and in my halting Swahili, greet her, “Hujambo!”
She pauses in her work, smiles a toothy smile (with some missing), and looks at me, “Sijambo!”
“Habari gani?” [How are you?] I ask.
She responds in the traditional Kenyan manner, “Nzuri sana” [Very well.]
I ask her name, and she tells me “Caroline.” Most Kenyans I have discovered have Christian and/or British names, which they take upon their baptism. She returns to her work, and Iconsider this woman’s life and predicament.
Caroline tells me her story with a strong British accent, at times struggling to find the correct English term. This ebony-skinned Luya tribeswoman hails from the town of Eldoret, a laywoman in the Baptist church, neighboring the church which was burned several weeks ago, and in which a number of her friends and extended family members perished. For fear of her life, she fled with many others to this camp, believing that she would find shelter and refuge here.
Caroline and family have been here for three weeks, she tells me. When I ask her, “When do you anticipate returning home?” a man nearby interrupts and says, “Only God knows.”
I ask her permission to take a photograph, and to tell her story to you.
“Absolutely,” she replies. “The Christians in America will not forget us,” she adds confidently.
From Caroline we move through the camp, greeting some, engaging others in conversation. A young girl child chases Don and me with a switch, aggressively striking the back of our legs. I turn around and see what could not be more than a three-year-old child, dressed in a royal blue silk dress, barefoot, dirty-nosed, and smiling from ear to ear. I bend down and make to grab the stick. She runs away, giggling excitedly — a fun moment in the middle of an unknown and confusing place, a scary and monotonous day.
After a moment, she turns around, and I chase her down the path. I am struck for a moment with the thought of my seven-year-old daughter Grace, at home in safety and warmth right now, far from war and poverty and want, sleeping soundly in Plainview, Texas.
“Thank you, God, for the blessing of children,” I whisper.
Eventually, we depart, and Linus takes us to View Point, overlooking the Grand Canyon-esque Rift Valley of central Kenya. Both Don and I audibly gasp as we approach the pull-off area to park the truck. Five kilometers from the displaced persons camp lies one of the most breath-taking places I have ever gazed upon. From the direst of squalor and poverty and the mass of humanity, to the majestic and splendid Rift Valley — my emotions are having difficulty keeping pace with what I am perceiving with my physical senses.
After a few moments, we head back to have some lunch, and then back to campus for Don’s class, and administrative meetings with our Wayland staff here. As we head out of town, a skirmish breaks out immediately to the left of the truck. Gangs of young men (Linus tells us from two warring tribes — how can I tell?) begin to strike each other with sticks, metal rods, shock absorbers, and other instant weapons. Linus drives us away hurriedly, and we begin to hear gunshots.
Later, during one of my meetings, I learn that three men have been killed in this skirmish, and many others injured. Our Wayland students are anxious, on edge, and preoccupied.
Education and mission in a war-zone. Thank you for reading, and praying.
I have posted accompanying photographs at our blogspot. The address is: