Nigerian farmer plants hope in Kenya
TIMAU, Kenya — The journey from Nairobi to this remote…
‘They cover the sky like a lunar eclipse,” said David Bikokwa, describing the waves of locusts that have ravaged his homeland, Kenya.
The swarms, which originated in the deserts of the Middle East, are so dense that they’ve forced airplanes to divert, including an Ethiopian Airlines flight that in January made an emergency landing with bugs caked to its cockpit.
Nowadays, of course, there are almost no commercial flights in East Africa because of another plague — COVID-19.
Bikokwa, who worships with a Church of Christ in the West Kenyan town of Kitale, is sequestered in his home. So are Christians across the region, including Michael Mutai, a minister in the coastal city of Mombasa, Kenya.
“Wow! Having this pandemic after the desert locusts is like a curse,” Mutai said. After the first wave of locusts, “we were just about to thank God for the advent of long rains so as to bring back the vegetation.”
Then came the pandemic — and the news that the rains could mean a second, even larger wave of locusts.
“It’s a double tragedy,” said Francis Kipsang Bii, a program director for Christian Relief Fund, a poverty alleviation nonprofit supported by Churches of Christ.
“Locusts and the virus have brought everything to its knees, especially in a country where the majority of people live on a day’s wage,” said Kipsang, who lives in Eldoret, Kenya. Few Kenyans can work from home. Food insecurity already is a problem, “and the future food is destroyed by locusts.”
“Having this pandemic after the desert locusts is like a curse.”
The Christian Chronicle interviewed more than 20 East African church members about how people of faith are responding to “the pandemic and the plague,” as Mike Karabu called it. Karabu directs a Christian Relief Fund program in Malindi, Kenya.
Although the future looks grim, all of those interviewed by the Chronicle expressed trust in the Lord to provide.
As they wait, Karbu and his family spend their isolation in prayer and fasting. “We pray for God to heal the world from this terrible and scary pandemic,” he said. “We are also praying for the U.S.”
Other African Christians are doing the same, and several told the Chronicle that, as they learn more about the spread of COVID-19 in the U.S., they feel a newfound sense of solidarity with their American brothers and sisters.
“We are together,” Mutai said, “and we believe that God will get us out of it. This is the time that we need one another more than ever before.”
“In the near future, if help is not available, we will have more people starving to death due to famine than coronavirus,” said Geoffrey Kirima, a minister in Meru, Kenya.
Several other East African Christians echoed that sentiment, noting that many of their people work in what economists call “the informal sector,” selling food and necessities on the streets or running unregulated taxi services. The International Monetary Fund estimates that such businesses make up 34 percent of the economy of sub-Saharan Africa.
In Kisumu, Kenya, the bicycle taxis, known as boda bodas, aren’t running. That’s a loss of nearly 6,000 jobs, said James Were, another program leader for Christian Relief Fund. In many parts of East Africa, open-air markets have shut down.
In the impoverished neighborhoods of Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, daily wage earners “may see that their only option is to steal or starve,” said Charlotte Hackett, a longtime missionary who serves women and children and worships with the Nairobi Church of Christ, Eastleigh. She and her late husband, Berkeley, founded the Kenya Christian Industrial Training Institute.
Hackett and Don Tingle, the institute’s director, said they’re worried about a COVID-19 outbreak in the Mathare slums, where many of their students come from. “Clean water in Methare is scarce,” Tingle said, “and social distancing is impossible.”
Across the region, Christians are stepping up their efforts to serve during the pandemic and the food shortages that are sure to come:
• The Eastleigh church has started a food pantry and helps those in need pay rent and buy medicines, hand sanitizer and soap. Working church members, other Churches of Christ and individual donors supply the funds for the ministry. Deacons have surveyed the church’s most vulnerable families and make efforts to stay in contact with them and assure that their needs are met, Hackett said.
• Workers with Christian Relief Fund “are feeding every sponsored child as we have in the past,” said Milton Jones, the nonprofit’s president. “But we have also added children, family and other community members to our vast feeding programs. We have continued drilling water wells and hope to double the amount that we drill as soon as possible.”
The ministry also addresses spiritual needs in the places it serves, said Priscilla Wairimu, a program director in Kitale, Kenya. There, “most of the community members, especially the children, join us for daily devotionals in the morning, where we remain very socially distant and pray. We practice fasting through this pandemic.
“We have also been praying for forgiveness, for hope for the future,” she said.
And they pray for a vaccine.
• Healing Hands International, another relief ministry supported by Churches of Christ, has drilled water wells and taught drip irrigation and sustainable agriculture workshops across the African continent.
“There are two ways you can deal with these trials. You can either let them break you, or you can trust that God will use them for something good.”
Ebenezer Udofia, the ministry’s director of African agriculture, lives in Nairobi.
Once immediate needs for emergency food relief are met, the ministry hopes to implement long-term strategies including “massive food-production training for individuals and communities together,” he said. Healing Hands will continue drilling water wells and offering special courses for African women focused on business skills.
“There are two ways you can deal with these trials,” he said of the locusts and the virus. “You can either let them break you, or you can trust that God will use them for something good. God will always leave the choice with you.”
Dennis Okoth sees blessings in the trials.
He’s endured plenty already.
In the late 1970s, when he became interested in Jesus, his father, a traditional ruler in his village, had him poisoned by a witchdoctor.
Okoth survived and preached to his village. Eventually his family, including his father, was baptized. Now Okoth trains church planters at the Messiah Theological Institute in Mbale, Uganda.
“The locust invasion and now COVID-19 have basically turned the lives of people upside down,” Okoth said. Because of the lockdowns, people are looking inward at their personal relationship with God, and “false spiritualists who used to dupe people with fake miracles have vanished into thin air.
“In Africa there is a saying that, at the end of life, the rich and the poor are buried in the same size of grave,” Okoth said.
More and more, Africans are seeing the truth in that saying as they follow the news from Europe and the U.S. Wealthy nations are struggling with the same virus.
“People are realizing that we are all equal, irrespective of our stations of life,” Okoth said. At the same time, “the West is coming to terms with the reality that guns and missiles cannot protect human life, but God can and always has.”
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