Sitting in the empty classroom in a remote part of the desert up in Turkana County, a gentle breeze would occasionally come through the open window and provide a brief respite to the otherwise dry, hot, stagnant air. We were sharing the large, open room with a class of young children who, just minutes ago, had filled the space with their singing, laughter and other joyous sounds that come from children of that age. Now, we could hear them outside as they were being served their lunch of beans and rice.
Wiping the sweat from my brow, I briefly looked up from my laptop, which was running on about 1/3 of the battery. I suddenly noticed a pair big, brown eyes full of curiosity gazing in at me through the window. I smiled, and she smiled back. Without saying a word, I slowly reached for my camera and snapped a couple pictures. Unlike some other children in this village, she didn’t seem afraid of the camera. Her gaze was firmly locked on me.
As she was peering in at me from the outside, I noticed she didn’t have a plate of food to eat. Immediately, I began to wonder… Does she attend school here? Does she have anything to eat? What’s her story? I knew right then I had to find out…
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It was 5:00am on Monday. I was packed, showered, and ready to go. Along with my four colleagues in child sponsorship (known as “Team CS”) and a few others, I was preparing to spend the week up in Turkana County in the northwesternmost part of Kenya. Although it was early, I was eager to get going, as I needed to pick up a few people along the way before we were to meet at our designated pick-up location. I didn’t want to be late… Our driver was to pick us up at 6:00am sharp to dart us across town to Wilson Airport for our 7:30am flight up to Turkana.
Turkana County is the largest county in Kenya in terms of physical area. It is also primarily comprised of a desert landscape, with an annual rainfall of less than 10 inches. The Turkana people are some of the most marginalized people in Kenya. As stated on the Missions of Hope website:
Without education, very few opportunities exist for residents to support their families and create a healthy life. Only 40 percent of school-aged children in Turkana County attend school, often infrequently. School-aged boys are expected to help the men tend livestock (sheep, goats, and camels), while school-aged girls help at home and often marry as adolescents. Thus, without affordable and accessible education, Turkana children will follow the same path of poverty and subsistence living as their parents and grandparents.
Missions of Hope International is working to change that. We currently operate one school in Turkana and partner with two other government schools there. My colleagues and I were going to gather and verify information and photos of the children across these three schools. Others on the team were conducting teacher or medical-related trainings.
Although we were outside and waiting at 5:45am, in typical Kenyan fashion, our driver wouldn’t arrive for another 45 minutes. With only an hour remaining to get across town for the domestic flight, we knew we were in trouble when we turned onto the main road into town and came to a complete stop with nothing but brake lights ahead. It seemed an impossibility that we would make our flight. However, much to my amazement, our driver knew a “back way,” and, only by the Grace of God, we found ourselves at Wilson Airport with about 20 minutes to spare!
Our home base for the week would be at the Stegra Hotel in Lodwar, the largest town and capital of Turkana County. My first and last visit to Turkana was just about a year ago in early September 2015. This hotel is new since that time, and consists of single rooms with individual bathrooms and even air conditioning! Our prop plane landed in Lodwar just after 9am and we were quickly whisked across town to check in and drop off our bags before heading out to our first destination for the week: the remote village of Kangagetei.
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Kangagetei is a small village around 20 miles east of Lodwar. Because of the desert terrain, the trip takes just over an hour from town. Our team split up into two Land Cruisers for the journey across the sandy landscape. The school at Kangagetei was actually started several years ago with the help of another CMF team that focuses on church planting in rural communities. It was only during our visit there last year that an agreement was reached for Missions of Hope to step in and partner with the school and fold the existing sponsorship program into theirs.
Our mission this time was to verify and update information on the students in the school. We thought we had a good plan, and it started out well, but quickly things unraveled into what I can only describe as controlled chaos. Working in teams of two, we proceeded to verify each and every child in the school to be sure we had the correct name, correct class, and correct picture for each one. For any information that was incorrect or missing, we gathered what was needed. For photos that were older or missing, we took new ones. If we had no record of a child, he or she was sent to another station to be “recruited,” meaning we filled out a new recruitment form, grabbed a photo and processed them from scratch.
As the line of children in front of me got increasingly longer, I was reminded of my days working in a box office, where – in an effort to not feel overwhelmed – I would just focus on the person in front of me and not the growing line forming behind them. The difference here was that it was hot, and any breeze we did feel brought with it a fine layer of sand that covered everything it touched.
We eventually wrapped up our work just as the sun was starting to set. Though class had long since let out for the day, many of the students hung around to visit and play with us. As we prepared for the drive back to Lodwar, a crowd formed to see us off. It was already getting late, and we still had an hour drive ahead of us. Sitting there in the middle of the desert where everything moves at just a little slower pace, it was hard to believe that it was only just that morning we were stressing out in bumper-to-bumper Nairobi traffic, wondering if we’d even make our flight!
The next two days – Tuesday and Wednesday – were spent at MOHI’s Napuu Centre, which is just a short 10-15 minute drive from where we stayed in Lodwar. This school was started by MOHI in January 2013 with just over 300 students. Today, that number is closer to 900! We arrived at the centre and were met by a group of students who greeted us as we got out of the van. Once we had gathered our things, the students led us in a procession through a breezeway in one of the school buildings. We emerged in the main courtyard of the school only to find that all of the students had assembled to welcome us!
Next, we were treated to a performance of the school choir. As the beautiful voices of these precious children rang out in perfect harmony, I couldn’t help but look out across the courtyard at all of these students and wonder where they would be if they weren’t in school. I couldn’t help but wonder what opportunities lie ahead in their futures now that they are receiving a quality education. Snapping out of my thoughts, a pair of young girls caught my eye. They were too young to be in the choir, but they certainly were singing and dancing along behind them with all the energy they could muster!
As the performance came to an end and the students were dismissed back to class, it was time for our work to begin. This time, our job was much easier. We already had a list of students for which we needed updates, so we were able to provide those names to the social workers who brought them to us to get what we needed. Also, since we had not been there in the past year, we took the time to gather information and photos of all the students who had started nursery class since our last visit. One by one, we lined the students up, put a piece of masking tape across their chest with their name, and took them out for a profile picture.
Near the end of the day, it took my eyes a moment to adjust from the harsh sunlight as I walked back into the room we had been using as our makeshift office. Suddenly, I heard what sounded like a gasoline engine growing louder outside. I quickly looked out the window and saw a four wheeler wiz past with what appeared to be a “muzungu” (white person) on it. I stood there for a moment as the sound of the engine grew quieter as it moved further away. After only a few seconds, the sound grew louder again. I ran over to the window to see what was happening. As the four wheeler zoomed past again going the other direction, I clearly saw it was one of my teammates having a good time. I decided I needed in on the fun, so I went out to investigate.
Turns out, I was one of the last ones to finish my work, and most everyone else had been passing the time before we left taking turns on the four wheeler. I didn’t want to be left out, so I walked over and asked if I could have a turn! My request was granted. After a brief “orientation,” I took the controls and was off! The scene had attracted quite a few of the students (who were already out of class for the day) who looked on as each of us took a turn. I started off one direction, made a 180, came back, took a left around the other side of the school, made another 180, then took a right turn back toward where I started. It was a short ride, but just the thrill I needed to end the day!
The following day, we only had a few things to finish up at Napuu. Mostly, we had to finish getting the photos of the nursery students who had joined the school since our last visit. At one point, after we had marched a class out to the photo spot under some shady trees out behind the school, we realized that our photo spot was also, apparently, the area where the kids like to play during their recess. Trying to keep the background free of any other children, we had no choice but to wait a few minutes until recess was over. While sitting on the steps of a nearby classroom block waiting for the landscape to clear, I was suddenly surrounded by a mob of kids! Eventually, the bell sounded, the students returned to class, and we could continue our photo shoot.
Near the end of the day, we were invited out to the main courtyard once again. After a few minutes, the students came marching into the courtyard singing. As they passed in front of us, I noticed that several students were carrying small tree saplings. One by one, each member of our team was handed one of the saplings and encouraged to follow the students as they continued to sing and march on. Along the way, a 6th grade boy named Silah asked if he could carry my tree for me. I immediately handed it over to him as we continued walking.
Our final destination would be the construction site of a new dormitory that is being built to eventually house high school boarding students on the campus. It’s scheduled to be completed in December. Behind the nearly-finished building were several freshly-dug holes in the ground. While the singing continued, each of us placed our tree into one of the holes with the help of a student. Together, Silah and I tore off the black plastic around the roots and placed the tree into a hole. We then poured water in and covered it over with some loose soil.
Before Silah ran off, I asked him his name and what class he was in. I discreetly noted this information in my phone so that I could come back to it later. When we returned to pick up our things in preparation to leave, I quickly fired up my laptop and looked up Silah’s ID number on a spreadsheet I had of all students at the Napuu Centre. I wanted to know if he was sponsored… Because if he wasn’t, he was about to be!
With no time and a very spotty and very poor internet connection, I found Silah on the spreadsheet, but I wasn’t able to look him up in our system to see if he had a sponsor. Armed with only his name and ID number, I fired off a quick text message to a colleague at the CMF home office in Indianapolis. Somehow the message remarkably made it to the US, and I was able to find out that Silah was already sponsored. My reaction wasn’t disappointment as much as it was happiness that he has someone supporting him. Still, I had gotten my hopes up, but tucked the thought away.
Thursday morning was an early one. All week long, I had been dreading this day. The journey out to the village of Napusimoru is not an easy or relaxing one. At around 40 miles to the southeast of Lodwar, the journey clocks in at around 2 hours and some change through the sandy, desert landscape. Driving through sand is like driving through deep snow. If you’re not careful, you can lose traction and get yourself stuck. This means putting it into four wheel drive and gunning it over the banks and through soft, sandy, empty riverbeds. Alternatively, there is a “road” you can take, but the pavement is so worn away that you end up driving slower on it than you can through the sand. It would actually be better if they just removed what is left of the pavement altogether.
There were eleven of us traveling to Napusimoru, including the driver, and we had one Land Cruiser. There were three in the front seat, and eight in the back – four each on two long sideways benches. It would have been a tight squeeze at just that. But we were also carrying three camera bags, a few cartons of bottled water, lunch food, and bags and backpacks with laptops, Christmas letter stationary, and more.
Our departure time of 6:30am was quickly delayed when we realized the front left tire of our Land Cruiser was completely flat. After taking several minutes to change the tire, it was determined that we should pick up another spare before leaving Lodwar. We didn’t want to risk driving through the desert with nothing around and not having a useable spare tire. So, instead of driving away from town, we drove into town to pick up our new spare. By the time we were finally heading out of Lodwar, we were already at least an hour behind schedule.
Our driver opted not to take the “paved” road, and so we veered out into the sandy landscape following only the tire tracks of those who had travelled before us. The ride was bumpy, and with no seat belts in the back, we had more than our share of “air time.” We also caught a few accidental elbows to the face or ribcage as we tried to brace ourselves along the way.
Suddenly, as we crested a small hill going at full speed, we were tossed out of our seats like rag dolls. As our driver tried to navigate the particularly soft patch of sand that followed, I could feel him shifting gears to keep us moving forward. I could see the desert sand spewing up behind the vehicle like steam spewing out of an erupting geyser as our movement forward became slower and slower. We cheered him on as he floored it trying to keep our momentum going. After a few seconds more, we came to a stop. That was it. We were stuck.
As we all climbed out of the Land Cruiser, it was clear that the back tires had dug themselves down into the sand pretty deep. Fortunately, we had some shovels on board for just such an occasion. Immediately, the driver and some others went to work trying to dig the sand out from around the tires. Meanwhile, branches from some nearby plants were stuffed below to hopefully give them enough traction to get free. After the first attempt, the vehicle lurched forward maybe 4 or 5 feet before getting stuck again. It would take several more attempts of lurching forward a few feet at a time to finally get out of the soft sand and onto some more solid ground. Each time, it took 10-15 minutes to dig out the tires and stuff the branches underneath. What had to be more than an hour later, with six of us pushing, we finally broke free!
More than two hours behind schedule, hot, sweaty, and covered in a thick layer of sand, we piled back into the Land Cruiser and pressed on.
Arriving at the Napusimoru school, we were greeted by a small group of older students singing and dancing as we unfolded ourselves and climbed out of the vehicle. After some brief discussion, it was decided that the teacher training would be held in one of the classrooms in the main block, and the sponsorship team would work out of a larger hall the next building over.
The hall that would serve as our makeshift work space was open and spacious. At the far end were several desks with 20-30 students in maybe kindergarten or first grade. At the other end were several tables for us to use for our work. As we got ourselves organized, the students entertained us with songs, dancing and laughter.
We were way behind schedule and got right to work. Much like at Napuu in the previous days, we had a spreadsheet of kids that were missing either biographical information, photos, or both. We setup two stations, one for bio information and one for photos, and gave the list of children we needed to see to the social worker.
The social worker is a gentle Kenyan man by the name of James Chapman. Many years ago, a missionary doctor with the last name Chapman lived and served among the Napusimoru people. James was just a young boy then, but was named after this missionary. While not a trained social worker, he has grown up in this community and knows the people living there. I had the honor of meeting him during my visit last year, and it was good to see him again.
As I fired up my laptop to begin the day’s work, I realized that I had not charged it the night before. I had just over 1/3 of my battery left, so I knew we needed to work fast. Fortunately, my teammate also had her laptop that was fully charged. We worked through our list quickly, and it seemed as though things were going pretty well.
Knowing that we were limited on time, we decided to focus on straightening out the details of the students we already had in our system for sponsorship. I think in the time since we first gathered their information last year, only two students had been sponsored at the Napusimoru school. We talked with the staff and were given the class rosters for each grade. We then began copying down the rosters by hand so that we could have a record of which students are in which class. After a while, we were told it was time for lunch and our food was available in the teacher training room.
I finished my PB&J sandwich relatively quickly and was one of the first to return to the now-empty hall where we were working. On the walk back, I noticed the children all sitting outside with their plates of beans and rice. I sat down and popped open my laptop to continue working with what little power I had left. Just moments later, I would be captivated by a little girl and her big brown eyes peering in at me.
A few moments later, my teammate returned from lunch and joined me. Pointing to my new friend standing outside the window, I wondered aloud if she was in school or if she had anything to eat. Of course, we didn’t have those answers. Using what little Kiswahili we know, we attempted to ask her name. In her soft little voice, I could barely make out something that sounded like Mwali, but I wasn’t confident. We had learned that many kids use nicknames, so I wasn’t even sure if that was her real name or not.
After a few minutes, I found James Chapman and called him over. I gestured toward the girl and asked if he knew her or if she attended school there. He said yes. I asked if he knew her name. He responded, but I had to ask him to repeat it a couple times to make sure I got it. I typed in my phone “Ikuchanait.” I just knew I had to be her sponsor.
Based off of what I thought James had told me, I went to work looking for her on my spreadsheet of Napusimoru students. I couldn’t find her. I went back to James and asked if he could spell her name for me. He did: Ekurichanait. He also spelled out her last name as well. I went back to my laptop and searched for her again. First name first. No result. Her last name got three hits, but none with a first name anywhere close to Ekurichanait.
I took my laptop over to James and read off the three names I got when searching by her last name in the off chance that we maybe had a nickname for her in the system. None of the three names belonged to her. This confirmed that she was not in our system, and therefore not eligible for sponsorship. But that didn’t stop me. I went over and asked our department leader if it would be okay for me to recruit a new child into the sponsorship program even though that wasn’t on our agenda. She said as long as I had verified that the girl is attending school there, it should be okay. With that, I abandoned anything else I was working on. I had a new mission.
By this time, we were working on sorting Christmas letters according to the class rosters. But I found myself searching for blank child recruitment forms. Trying not to make a big deal of it, I discreetly sat down next to James and started asking him for the pieces of required information I would need to get Ekurichanait into our system. Ever the curious girl, by this time she had wandered into the room and was standing nearby. As I asked James the questions, he asked her then translated back to me. I meticulously filled in the information, pausing only when James was interrupted by people who needed help with the letter project. Once I had all the information I needed, I grabbed my camera and motioned for Ekurichanait to follow me outside.
I quickly scanned the landscape looking for a shady spot to grab a profile picture. A nearby tree provided just enough shade to do the trick. “Simama hapa,” (stand here) I said as I pointed my camera at her. I needed to get two shots. One headshot for our database in Nairobi, and a full head-to-toe profile shot to send to CMF in the states for their system.
It didn’t take long for us to attract the attention of some other students nearby. Soon, Ekurichanait was joined by others wanting to be in the photo, too! I had gotten a couple of shots off before they crashed the scene, and then I just snapped a few more with everyone so they would feel included, too!
For the rest of the afternoon, Ekurichanait hung around the room where we were working. Eventually, even as other kids had left, she remained there, just watching with curiosity, taking it all in. As the time drew near for us to leave, we began packing our things. A couple of us wanted to walk down to see where the people living in the village go for water. There’s a river nearby, but it has long since dried up.
Just as we were preparing to go, a group of young women dressed in traditional Turkana clothing passed by walking in the same direction we were heading. As we started to walk with them, they seemed very amused that we were venturing out into the desert. Likely speaking in their mother tongue, we had no idea what they were saying, but we were sure we were providing them with some afternoon entertainment. It didn’t take long for them to be joined by some of the kids from the school, including Ekurichanait. Soon, we had attracted quite a crowd following us along!
Once we reached the river bank, we paused for a moment, then turned back. It was time for us to go. The village women continued on, presumably to gather water. We walked into the big hall we had been working out of for the last time to gather our things. Right on schedule, Ekurichanait appeared shortly thereafter. As everyone else headed out toward the Land Cruiser, I held back for just a moment.
Ekurichanait was sitting at a desk all by herself. At that moment, I realized I had never told her my name. So, I quietly walked over to her and said, “Ninaitwa Mark,” which literally translates to “I am called Mark.” I repeated my name again, “Mark.” She smiled, and then, in her soft voice with her beautiful Kenyan accent, she repeated, “Mark.” I let the sweet moment linger for just a few more seconds before I said, “kwaheri,” which means goodbye. Then I turned and walked out the door to join the others already waiting.
As we prepared to load up, we were treated to a few more songs by the same group that had greeted us when we arrived. Then, we settled in for the long trip back to Lodwar. As we pulled away, all of the students waved goodbye as we drove off. I spotted Ekurichanait in the crowd and waved back until I couldn’t see her anymore.
For the return trip, our driver wisely decided to take the “paved” road. While that all but guaranteed we wouldn’t get stuck going back, the ride was longer and bumpier. But I didn’t mind it so much. To me, the whole thing had been worth it.
With our work finished and ready for a change of pace, we spent our final day visiting Lake Turkana, which is about 35 miles east of Lodwar – not too much further beyond the Kangagetei village. We got a “Team CS” photo before grabbing some lunch and heading to the airport to return home.
Our flight home was full, and we were one of the last groups to board. With an open seating arrangement similar to Southwest Airlines in the US, we were stuck with whatever was left. For me, it was a seat in the very last row behind a very large man. The row I was in seemed as though it was wedged in just so they could get in a few more seats. The legroom was less than any other row, perfect for a tall guy like me. Being up against the back wall, the seats didn’t recline at all. So, when the gentleman in front of me decided to recline his seat to sleep, the back of his head was literally 6 inches away from me! With my legs in the aisle, my teammates and I got into a laughing spell because the sight was just too funny. Fortunately, one of them got a picture:
Our flight made a stop in Eldoret on the way to Nairobi, and I took the opportunity to move up to some seats that became available as others disembarked there. The rest of the flight was relatively uneventful. After fighting Friday evening Nairobi rush hour traffic, I finally made it home around 9:00pm.
While I’ll openly admit that I was happy to be back in Nairobi where the temperatures are a bit more moderate and where I have access to many more comforts, I would be lying if I said I didn’t leave a small part of my heart back in Turkana. What started out as merely a work trip with a long list of things to do became something much more. For me, it’s too easy sometimes to get lost in the weeds of the day-to-day work and forget about the bigger picture. This trip was a refreshing reminder of the huge impact we’re making in the lives of these children. A reminder I saw in the eyes of a young girl in a remote village in the middle of nowhere. A young girl named Ekurichanait.
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