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Stuck in the mud: The rest of the Kenya story

New on The Christian Chronicle’s website is a series of stories, photos and a video from my recent trip to Kenya.
I traveled with two U.S. representatives of Healing Hands International, a church-supported relief ministry, and met up with one of their workers on the ground in Nairobi — Ebenezer Udofia.

In my profile of Udofia — a native of Nigeria who moved to Nairobi to teach agriculture for Healing Hands — I talk about the women we met in a village near Timau, at the foot of Mount Kenya. The trip there took a few hours longer than expected, thanks to a couple of wrong turns. (But we did get to see some zebras and cross the equator three times.)

A roadsign sign near the equator in Kenya. Immediately after I snapped this photo, a Kenyan appeared out of nowhere, offering to sell me souvenirs of my equator crossing. (Photo by Erik Tryggestad)

The part of the story I didn’t tell involves what happened when we finally reached Timau. My Healing Hands companions, Chris Gingles and Burt Nowers, said they would love to read my impressions of the events of that afternoon. I’ll do my best to do them justice here.
When we arrived in Timau, I already was irritated. After riding in a truck for nearly seven hours — much of it squished in the middle of the back seat — I was ready to give up and go back to Nairobi. It already was mid-afternoon, and I have a fear about traveling African roads after dark. It was rainy and cold, and I had forgotten my jacket.
Nonetheless, we waited for a guide to arrive and take us the rest of the way. A Kenyan pulled up in a jeep that was significantly smaller than the vehicle in which we had traveled to Timau. And we had one extra person for this leg of the trip — a local preacher who worked with the women we were going to visit. He and Ebenezer squeezed into the front passenger seat and the three Americans crammed into the back.
The driver introduced himself as Kip — a safari guide who spoke with a slight British accent. He lived near the village we were visiting, and this was his personal jeep.
I spent the next 20 minutes hanging on for dear life as Kip’s jeep sputtered, shimmied and slid across great swaths of jet-black mud. This part of Kenya — strikingly beautiful — rarely received rain, Kip said. That’s why Ebenezer had taught a drip irrigation seminar to the women in the village.
But when it did rain, the volcanic “black cotton” soil turned became sticky tar.
“We’ll be fine so long as we don’t get stuck,” Kip said.
Shortly, the jeep lurched to a 45-degree angle. All Chris could see out of his window was grass. All I could see out of mine was sky.
“We’re fine,” Kip said.
We made it to the site of the drip irrigation farm. A group of women, all of the Masai ethnic group, was waiting for us. They danced and sang a song of thanksgiving, running toward us and yelling something akin to “Whoop!” when they got close.
I guess it was a traditional Masai greeting. I replied with the traditional Georgian greeting, “How y’all doin’?”
The women laughed gleefully as Ebenezer told us about training them in drip irrigation. We saw their newly-planted garden (still waiting for its first produce to grow) and learned more about their situation. Many of the women were widows. Their husbands went to Nairobi looking for work to support their families. The Masai are regarded as fierce warriors, so many of them got jobs as security guards — a dangerous profession in Nairobi. A lot of the Masai men don’t make it back home, Kip said. It’s a big problem in their community.

Masai women listen as Ebenezer Udofia talks to them about drip irrigation. (Photo by Erik Tryggestad)

The garden will help, said Margaret, one of the Masai women. It will allow them to feed themselves during Kenya’s long dry spells and to sell what they don’t eat. To show their appreciation, the women brought out a long flask and cups. I had no idea what to expect. It turned out to be milk from one of their cows — boiled milk, Kip assured me.
The women had another source of revenue — Masai crafts. On a blanket near the garden, they set out a colorful spread of handmade necklaces, bracelets and keychains.
Instead of haggling over prices — a fine art in African markets — Chris said, “We’ll take it all.” (Healing Hands sells these crafts at fundraisers for its relief work.)
He thought that would save time. He was wrong.
For the next half-hour the local minister squatted over the blanket, swarmed by Masai women pointing and debating who made what and how much it should cost. Counting numbers above 100 is tricky in the Masai language, Kip told me, so figuring out prices in Kenyan shillings takes time. (One U.S. dollar is worth about 83 shillings right now, so the numbers add up quickly.)
As the debate went on and on, I stared nervously at the sky, hoping it wouldn’t start raining again.
Finally, our bag of Masai crafts in hand, we headed back to the jeep. As we retraced the bumpy path that brought us to the garden, we came upon the small stream we had crossed about an hour earlier. It was no longer a stream, but a raging river. A group of Kenyans was standing at the banks, making a human chain as they attempted to cross.
Not good.
We would have to take the long way out, Kip said. Countless bumps, skids and hold-your-breath ditch crossings followed. On occasion the jeep lost traction, but Kip was like a cat with nine lives. Just when it seemed we were stuck for good, he found a way to dislodge the vehicle.
Then, on a flat stretch of mud, his lives ran out. The jeep became hopelessly stuck in black cotton. We got out and stood on the goopy, squishy ground as Kip attempted to dislodge the vehicle. Each attempt seemed to bury the jeep deeper and deeper in the muck.
Burt would later describe my demeanor during this part of the trip as “unusually quiet” (that is, unusual in the sense that I was quiet). As I contemplated our situation, I couldn’t help but think of the number of obstacles we had encountered just to get to this point — the wrong turns, the delays, the rain. Had God been trying to tell us to turn back? I envisioned our heavenly father looking down on us, rolling his eyes and saying, “I told you so.”
A small group of Kenyans emerged — seemingly from nowhere — with a couple of shovels. They dug tirelessly to free the jeep from the soil. Their progress could be measured in inches at first. Occasionally, the jeep would take a great lurch down the path before becoming stuck again.
The mud clung to our shoes as we walked alongside the jeep. My sneakers felt like they weighed 30 pounds each. I wish I could say that I sang out a hymn of praise during this time of anxiety, walking through the cold dampness, but all I could think of was “California Dreamin’” by The Mamas & The Papas.

My shoes after our trip to Timau. (Photo by Erik Tryggestad)

All the leaves are brown
And the sky is gray
I went for a walk
On a winter’s day
I’d be safe and warm
If I was in L.A.
California dreamin’
On such a winter’s day

After nearly two hours of digging and slow, slow progress, the Kenyans nudged the jeep close enough to a line of trees that they could use its winch. The sky was pitch black. Clouds covered most of the stars. I jumped over a dark chasm of mud, nearly losing a shoe in the process, and stood on a “street” of mud and rocks. It had a bit more traction, but still felt plenty sticky.
On the third or fourth winching, the jeep careened onto the rocky street. We hugged the hardworking Kenyans who had gotten this far and piled back into the vehicle. My companions started celebrating, but I urged caution.
“We’re not out of this yet,” I said. (That phrase was my nickname for the rest of the trip.)
“We’re out of it,” Kip said, assuredly.
He was right. The rest of the trip back to Timau was blissfully uneventful. We piled back into our truck and headed for Nairobi, arriving about 1 a.m.
I’ve reflected on that experience many times. I’m ashamed by my lack of faith and impressed by the loyalty and determination displayed by a group of Kenyans who didn’t know us. I praise God that he is not like my expectations — not a god of “I told you so” but a god who provides.
Psalm 40:2 has a new relevance to me: “He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; he set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand.”

  • Feedback
    Chris Gingles just told us this story the other day while he was here at HHI-Ft Worth! You re-told it very well, Eric! Amazing! So happy you all made it back to Nairobi and safely home! God used you all big time!
    Marilyn Holland
    February, 16 2012

    That’s true,life in the jungle has the same characteristics, I hope you enjoyed my beloved my country Kenya,visit again and get used.
    Geoffrey Kirima
    February, 20 2012

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