An African conflict of an ambiguous kind

David Mansfield
January 26th, 2012

I have just spent four frenetic days in Kenya visiting Anglican Aid partners.

These wonderful partners are delivering the emergency aid programmes made possible by the generosity of Sydney Anglicans and their friends.

But I spent those days deeply conflicted, and the inner turmoil hasn’t subsided. For, only hours before boarding for Nairobi, I received two critical pieces of information.

Firstly, the Australian Government issued a travel alert for Kenya, warning people not to leave Nairobi for any areas where Al Shabaab have been creating havoc in the famine affected regions of the east and north east of the country. Even in Nairobi, extreme caution was advised.

Secondly, one of our partners, Canon Francis Omondi, the director of The Sheepfold Ministries (TSM) sent me an email urging me to come with him to Garissa, where his home is, where his wife and family are, and where he longed to extend family hospitality to me. His longing would be my longing if he were my guest in Australia.

But Garissa is five hours drive, north by north east from Nairobi, and only 100km from the Dadaab Refugee Camp, the largest in the world.

North, By North East

My heart wanted desperately to go with him. My head said not to contemplate it. I felt, and still feel the internal conflict. How can I (and we) empower him with the resources to lead convoys of lorries with life saving aid to make dangerous forays deep into the Horn and be unwilling to personally partner him in those dangers? I feel so western, so weak, so soft, so precious.

But I knew I mustn’t go. The colour of my skin would draw the attention of the wrong people who might then inform the wrong people. I would place my partners in greater danger, quite apart from the danger I would face. I would come home to such a deserved tongue-lashing from my archbishop, board chairman and wife that I feared every layer of skin being stripped from my muscular skeletal system. I wondered what would be the most life threatening!

Then, only hours after arriving in Nairobi, I received another piece of news. My mum had been admitted to hospital in a critical condition. Now I was dealing with another layer of personal conflict. Would she die? Would she pull through? Should I immediately head for home?

We spoke on the phone daily. Though pumped full of morphine, Mum spoke clearly and realistically. We reiterated the mutual love and final words we had been saying to each other for the last couple of years. Signs of improvement eased my inner turmoil and we resolved that I should press on, taking it day by day.

Our Kenyan brothers and sisters in Christ prayed constantly for my mum, and asked, it seemed, on the hour if I had further news of her condition. I knew I was in the hands of very caring extended family.

South, By South East

The Archbishop of Kenya, Eliud Wabukala, confirmed my decision not to travel into the north east of the famine and terrorist traumatised areas. But he encouraged me instead to travel three hours to the south and south east of the country where our second partner, the Directorate of Social Services (DOSS) of the Anglican Church of Kenya (ACK), under the leadership of Eliud Njeru, is involved in emergency famine relief and rehabilitation amongst very remote Maasai tribes.

This region, near the Tanzanian border is very isolated and beyond the reach of Al Shabaab insurgents, and, as it seemed to me, beyond the reach of the most minuscule drops of moisture.

The lives and land of these semi-nomadic agro-pastoralists were in deep trauma. We followed cattle tracks, dry riverbeds and through vast areas of dusty, dry wasteland. We passed occasional Maasai herdsmen who were droving weakened livestock in search of shallow water holes. We waved at young Maasai children leading water laden donkeys over large distances from shallow muddy water holes back to their villages.

We met and exchanged greetings with Maasai tribal chiefs and elders who showed us some of their diminishing water holes. They thanked us, through translation, for the help they have, are and will receive in the coming months through Anglican Aid’s partnership with the ACK’s DOSS in water security, food provision, herd restocking and school feeding programmes.

These Maasai people fascinated me. Traditionally, their food, clothing and shelter are sourced almost exclusively from the meat, blood, milk and hides of the animals they herded – that were fast diminishing as the animals were slowly dying.

Their clothing was a curious mixture of traditional dress; animal hides and local fabrics, but with polo shirts, caps and beanies emblazoned with Man. U, Chelsea and Liverpool logos. On their animal hide belts were hitched machetes and mobile phones. Their ears were adorned with jewellery, carved from bones, dangling from ear lobes with holes in the lobes as big as marbles.

One man caressed what seemed to be a cross between a machete and grandma’s prized carving knife for Sunday’s roast. I imagined the litres of animal blood that had been wiped from its blade. And I tried not to imagine the amount of human blood, through adult circumcisions and tribal conflicts, which had dripped over the decades from its proudly and carefully sharpened edge.

But these were no air-brushed, photo-shopped, popular culture images of the Maasai people, ecstatically bouncing on the balls of their feet around roaring fires, like those depicted in movies such as The White Maasai.

These people were in trauma, hungry and anxious about the future.

Yet, here I was with a team of aid workers from the ACK, with local clergy and lay people, bringing gospel hope and material help to people living with overwhelming need for eternal hope and daily bread.

This day, my last in Kenya, started at 5am and finished at 10pm as I sank into a steaming hot bath. The dust, sweat and tearstains dislodged from my grubby body to form a dirty thin film on the water and the side of the bathtub.

As I did so, I reflected on the words of one of my indigenous hosts. He told me of a saying his people had,

What I hear, I forget.

What I see, I remember.

What I do, I understand.

It was hardly radical educational theory. But shared with such gentle sincerity I was struck to the depths.

Submerging myself fully into the gritty, grey water I thought, perhaps, I was somewhere between hearing and seeing – and, by God’s grace, moving forward to the beginnings of some understanding.

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