Beyond the Safe Zones

Preaching the gospel to the nations of Kenya

Our prop plane descends from white-grey clouds to the red dirt airstrip of a small Kenyan village. When the aircraft grabs the earth, stones kick up, smacking our windows like a swarm of bronzed bees. Landing in the bush is a new experience, so we yelp with excitement at our safe landing as we taxi past the Pokot people who stand ready to welcome us to Orus.

Evangelist Benson Ekuwom climbs to the top of a mountain to pray.

We’re a small team from the States, flying into four key regions of Kenya to report on the growth of the gospel among the least-reached tribes of this nation. For In Touch, we’re listening to see how the Messenger audio Bible, including sermons from Dr. Stanley, is aiding the church. With us are friends from World Mission, led by Greg Kelley, who’s invited us to come and see the great kingdom work among the Pokot, Rendille, Turkana, and Waata peoples.

Missionary Art Davis greets an old friend.

While over 80% of Kenyans identify as Christians, many in remote areas remain overlooked, unreached, and without the resources available to people in places like Nairobi. Kenya, in a sense, is a geographical construct, made up of over 40 ethnic tribes. Each, in its way, is a nation unto itself. So to reach Kenya, believers must go and make disciples from every tribe, who in turn become disciple-makers to their own nation.

Despite a fierce reputation, the Pokot gather around us with smiles, comfortable behind their hand-crafted walking sticks. They treat us to a traditional goat roast just off the runway. It’s a tough time for the Pokot people, who’ve been enduring one of the worst droughts in recent memory. But a drilling rig has come into the area, and tomorrow they hope it strikes water.


The Pokot

While five men in white safety helmets see to the drilling, blasts of fine dust puff across the cracked earth of East Pokot, a semi-mountainous region of Kenya. Missionary Art Davis leans in, his eyes intent, watching over this effort to provide a new water source to the nearby village. A parched riverbed, pockmarked with hand-dug wells, winds through the area, housing camels and other thirsty livestock.

A boy watches the drilling.
Pastor John Nambair speaks to Pokot children.

The team has been at work since before sunrise, first at one borehole that came up dry, and now here. Even with geological surveys, drilling is fraught with the potential for myriad failures.

Kapelle Peuna, a Pokot warrior, guards a drilling operation.

But Davis has grown patient with the uncertainty. A third-generation missionary, he has dedicated his life to the Pokot, a commitment that has earned him and his wife Mary Ellen a place in the local people’s hearts. Some were just children when the Davises arrived, and they have grown up to be pastors of their own people.

One of those men, John Nambair, joins Davis inside the frame of what’s become a new church in the valley; he plays snippets of Scripture from the Messenger for several young people, remarking that they’re as important as anyone else to this church. When he was a child, Nambair had a severe hip issue that could have ended his life. Davis took him to Nairobi, which must have seemed a world away, and paid for corrective surgery. Just as Christ’s love was poured into his life through Davis, Nambair today pours out love to the next generation.

Davis and Nambair pray that the water comes, because this church endeavor depends on it, though the needs of the Pokot run deeper still. “Without water, these people will die a physical death,” says Davis. He points to the Messenger and adds, “And without this water, they will die a spiritual death.”

A Pokot church seen at dusk.
A rainstorm moves across north Kenya.

The Rendille

Back on the plane, we fly over north-central Kenya to see the work of national pastors among the Rendille tribe. A nomadic people group, they inhabit the wide, flat expanse of the Kaisut Desert in this region. We drop below the clouds, and oval patterns emerge on the flat landscape below. They are clear indications of community, of homes in relationship to one another, and the faded white lines reveal how these nomadic people have moved along the sands. For centuries, the Rendille have survived by raising camels, goats, and cattle.

A Messenger charges on a Rendille hut.
A Rendille woman.

On the ground in the city of Korr, we’re met by Joshua Galigmola, a Bible translator, who leads us to one of several tents in a Rendille village outside the town. There we find Ahada Bahante, clad in a headdress and wearing a necklace made of hundreds of beads, stretching up for her Bible. Around her, everyday items like utensils and water vessels dangle from the wall of her dwelling—the typical dome-shaped, semi-permanent tent of her people. When the village elders decide to move camp, the home can be broken down within hours.

A warm smile crosses her face. “I am so grateful to all of you,” she says. “It is such a joy to know so many people brought this Word to us.” When she opens her Bible, we spot an audio device holding her place like a bookmark. Bahante—a new reader, thanks to the assistance of a literacy organization—listens to Scripture in Rendille as she follows along in the text.

“Before, I knew of God, but through this audio Bible, I now know Jesus,” she says.

Signs of a Rendille village relocation.
Ahada, a Rendille woman, gives thanks for her Bible.

Her device, a model with fewer features than the Messenger, doesn’t have sermons from Dr. Stanley, but there are hopes these will be translated soon. His messages are already making a difference among English- and Swahili-speaking Rendille leaders.

Galigmola says it’s common for women like Bahante to come to Christ before Rendille men, who are often unwilling to upset tradition. Yet the church is growing among the tribe, which is known for its resistance to the spread of Islam throughout the region.

One day, Bahante and her people will move on, somewhere across the windswept desert landscape. Only this time, she’ll carry the immovable rock of God’s Word. 

The Turkana

Small stones tumble past larger rust-colored rocks as Benson Ekuwom ascends a mountain overlooking Lodwar, a town in northern Kenya. Several miles to the east rests Lake Turkana, the world’s largest permanent desert lake. Ekuwom, a member of the Turkana tribe, climbs nimbly as we pant and wheeze after him. Aside from some prickly brush snagging our pant legs, there’s nothing else alive on the mountain.

Turkana gather for church beneath two trees.

Ekuwom steps across the rickety stones at the peak and settles into his place of prayer. He removes his tribe’s traditional tartan wrap and kneels with his face tilted heavenward. Lately he’s grown ever more burdened for his people, who have endured a debilitating drought. According to the Kenyan government, more than one million people in this region have severe food shortages. As he travels great distances by foot, ministering the gospel and planting churches, Ekuwom grieves their intense need.

But it’s the joy of the Turkana that makes us breathless again. Ekuwom takes us to a flat desert patch where a low stick fence encircles a pair of trees. Here, a couple hundred Turkana jump and sing in unison. The bright hues of red, blue, and green jewelry pop against the whitish gray sand. Some of the Turkana have walked countless miles across the arid land to worship and commune together. In the distance, a tractor approaches, pulling a load of food supplies donated by an American church. Ekuwom and the Turkana leaders call for the women and elderly to be served first.

Turkana believers in worship.

This is one gathering of several throughout the region, each church planted by prayer. Ekuwom prays for many more to follow. In Lodwar, he operates a training center for future church leaders. And as he recruits throughout the region, Ekuwom places together people from opposing tribes—each one represents a vilified group, but together they represent Christ. In that way, they become ambassadors, as they go, for the God who provides even in times of want.


The Waata

Some 60 miles west of Somalia, we land in Garissa—one of the largest cities in eastern Kenya. Greg Kelley cautions us to be careful, as the work of the gospel is under fire here. In 2015 armed men attacked Garissa University College, killing 148 people. The terrorist organization Al-Shabaab, which has links to Al-Qaeda, claimed responsibility, saying it was targeting non-Muslims.

We drive our SUV through the entrance of a small compound. A man going by the pseudonym Thompson climbs out of the driver’s seat, makes sure no one else is around, and then closes and locks the gate. Distant storm clouds glow shades of blue and purple as a bright orange sunset illuminates the sky.

Thompson, a teacher who has expanded educational programs for the poor, wants to introduce us to two men from the Waata tribe, a band of traditional hunter-gatherers. They’re the only Christians in the village, with the elder of the two having converted just six months ago. For many weeks after, he asked his younger friend to try out the special device that Thompson had given him. Finally relenting, the man listened to the Messenger and trusted in Christ.

A Turkana mother listens to a Messenger presentation.

The two men light up when they talk about Jesus. They tell of their unshakeable peace. When local imams heard rumors of their decision, it led to intense questioning. But the younger of the two, well versed in the Quran, navigated the interrogation winsomely. Eventually, the imams took to arguing amongst themselves about what to do and left in confusion.

With the help of people like Thompson, these men have grown rapidly in their faith. They listen to the Messenger daily, memorizing passages at a rapid pace. And though they know their choice could lead to death, these new believers live with the hope that God’s grace and peace in their hearts can be replicated throughout their tribe and beyond.

Thompson, who serves the Waata.

Off the Well-Trod Path

At a watering point in the Kaisut Desert, a traveling band of Rendille is met by a pastor on a motorbike. A man with a Messenger steps from the group and opens the device, dust sliding from its back panel. “I have a problem,” the man says to the pastor. “This died last night. I can’t live without it.” Like many people in this part of Kenya, he is here today and somewhere else tomorrow—living in the bush, without a church to call his own. But a Messenger moves with him. Though it’s a resource that can make all the difference in the world, it travels only where servants of Christ are willing to go.

Each missionary, pastor, and teacher we’ve met in Kenya lives and works where roads haven’t been laid, and where great scarcity and vast distances make for treacherous work. Too often, unreached areas exist because people want their safe zones—safe from conflict, safe from discomfort. But faithful believers like Art Davis, John Nambair, Joshua Galigmola, Benson Ekuwom, and Thompson know the well of water springing up to eternal life within their own lives, and they want nothing more than to see the Holy Spirit give this life to others.


Photography by Audra Melton

Related Topics:  Growth of a Believer

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