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A dry and thirsty land: Church-supported ministry seeks lasting relief for drought-stricken Kenya

LODWAR, Kenya — Grass here is green again, thanks to recent rains. Camels and massive turtles roam, feasting on their newfound bounty.
But evidence of East Africa’s months-long famine, which claimed an estimated 100,000 lives, remains — in the form of four-wheel-drive vehicles marked with the logos of Oxfam International and other non-governmental organizations.
The food crisis brought a flood of relief workers from Europe, the Americas and other parts of Africa to Lodwar, the heart of northwestern Kenya’s Turkana region.
Wearing cargo pants and sipping coffee, they fill the town’s stick-and-thatch hotels and engage in daylong discussions about the best way to help the impoverished souls who live here.
Meanwhile, the people of Turkana grow weary of being helped.
“We cry for relief, relief, relief … but it doesn’t last,” says Jackson Erus, an instructor at a preacher training school on the dusty outskirts of Lodwar. Many of his people have left their traditional faiths and embraced Christianity. Now, instead of calling on a “dreamer” or “diviner” to slaughter a camel and ask the spirits for rain, they pray to God for sustenance.
But the Christians here want more than handouts, Erus says. They pray for real, sustainable development — to be good stewards of God’s provision.
Enter Ebenezer Udofia, agricultural representative to Africa for Healing Hands International. He and other workers with the Nashville, Tenn.-based ministry, supported by Churches of Christ, have crisscrossed Africa teaching drip irrigation. The farming method uses buckets and long, plastic tubes to deliver droplets of water to seedlings.
Udofia also teaches composting — turning vegetable waste into nourishment for the plants.  
Drip irrigation isn’t just sustainable, it’s biblical, Udofia says. He cites Jesus’ feeding of 5,000 people, a story recorded in all four gospels.
“That’s the only miracle where Jesus asks them, ‘What do you have?’’’ says Udofia, referring to the five loaves and two fish that Christ used to feed the multitude. “Jesus took what they gave him and blessed it, and everyone was satisfied.”


Last year Udofia and his family moved to Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, where Healing Hands has registered as a non-governmental organization with the Kenyan government.
Udofia teaches agriculture across the country — and to students at the Nairobi Great Commission School, where Church of Christ members from across Kenya train in ministry.
As they study the Scriptures, students make regular, 40-minute walks to a garden in Nairobi. Using drip irrigation, each student tends a small crop of vegetables.
Learning to farm gives Christians a means of support as they preach, says Eunice Opondo, who helps tend the model garden. Her husband, Tom, is the school’s registrar. The training also is changing the way Kenyan Christians view agriculture itself, she says, as she stands among rows of cabbages and tomatoes in the garden.
“We are culturally pastoralists,” she says, referring to her people’s reliance on livestock. “It’s hard to break away from pastoral living.  
“For you to preach the word of God, you have to be full in the stomach,” she adds. Christians who can teach sustainable farming serve as living examples that “God can provide physical food and spiritual food.”
Sometimes, however, physical food is needed to get starving Kenyans through another day.
Back in Lodwar, Udofia and a small group of aid workers load a transport truck with cooking oil, ground corn and milk. The truck’s wheels spray dust into the air as the vehicle arrives at the village of Nablon.
In the scant shade of a small tree, women stomp and chant in the Turkana language — a song of thanksgiving for the bounty they are about to receive. Rows of brightly colored beads clack from their long necks as they jump.
“Brothers and sisters in Christ send this food to you,” Udofia says, as a villager translates his words into Turkana. But “this won’t solve all your problems.”
In a garden a short walk from the site of the giveaway, shoots of green force their way through the arid soil — the first fruits of the village’s drip irrigation project.
“We are training you to make food for yourselves,” Udofia says, “but we know until that time comes, you have to eat.”
The Turkana people, who herd sheep and camels, are accustomed to drought. But month after month without a drop of rain killed their livestock and led to a full-fledged crisis.
“I’m very hungry. I have seen many people die,” says 15-year-old Joseph Lokai. “Some children here are orphans. Some women there are widows,” he says, pointing to a line of mothers waiting for food.
His father, 75-year-old Alaku Echemee, says this famine is one of the worst he can remember. Three members of his family have died.
The villagers pray that the recent rains will nurture their newly planted crops, says Lokai’s mother, Margaret.
Meanwhile, they are thankful for the means of making it through one more day.
“God has brought food,” she says in Turkana as her son translates. Gesturing toward the heavens, she adds, “And he has also brought water.”
A few days after distributing food in Turkana, Udofia and representatives of the Great Commission School travel south to the village of Kajadio, near Kenya’s border with Tanzania.
They bring drip irrigation kits and water filters, but no food. The people here haven’t had to buy vegetables for six months, Udofia says.
The villagers are eager to show the visitors why — their community “shamba,” or “garden” in Swahili.
The villagers, all of the Masai ethnic group, have grown tomatoes, onions and carrots in their drip irrigation garden — plus a leafy cabbage that Americans call kale, known here as “sukuma wiki.”
The name means “to push the week” and refers to the fast-growing plant’s ability to make people’s food supply last through the week.
“It means … they get another day for this one,” says minister Joseph Olesaoli, pointing to one of the green plants he helps tend in the garden.
Making it through the worst of the drought was difficult, even using drip irrigation, the villagers say.
The water shortage became so severe that parents had to decide between tipping the tiny cups of liquid they could procure into the drip irrigation buckets or the mouths of their thirsty children.
The community needs a well, but drilling it to the depth required for clean water would cost tens of thousands of dollars, with no guarantee of success. 
Despite the water shortages, the Masai people “have tasted and they have liked” the fruits of their labor, Olesaoli says.
The farming technique allows poor, hardworking people to feed themselves and sell their abundance for profit. They no longer beg for money, the minister says.
Among the smiling Kenyans showing off the garden is John Sankaen, who just graduated from the Great Commission School. The elders of his congregation, the Kumpa Church of Christ, recommended him for the two-year training program.
He traveled to Nairobi expecting to study preaching. Instead, “the first day, when I arrived, they were doing a workshop on gardening,” Sankaen says. “I said, ‘What is this?’”
The ministry student soon learned the value of the technique. When the drought hit, he traveled back home to distribute food aid.
“Two days later,” he says, “they sent me a message, ‘Please come back with more.’”
Drip irrigation is a long-term solution to the problem, Sankaen says. It also “helps me to raise funds for myself, even when I am preaching.”
As the visit concludes, David Tonui, principal of the Great Commission School, encourages the villagers to pass on what they’ve learned, and to keep their focus on eternal life.
“We have come this far, guided by the love of Christ,” he says. “As we talk about food … let us never forget the journey toward heaven.”
Olesaoli assures the visitors that they will spread the good news of farming — and the good news of Jesus — to the villages around them.
“You are not working for nothing,” he says. “Now we are going to show others. It’s going to grow, grow, grow.”
FOR MORE INFORMATION on Healing Hands International and drip irrigation, see www.hhi.org.

Filed under: International

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