For six years I went to Washington DC based Church of the Saviour and we had a retreat centre in the county about an hour away called Wellspring. There was a dam there and one of the pastors used to baptise people in the dam. I remember a friend of mine telling me that this paster would hold people under the water by their hair, long, until they struggled, and then bring them up and say in his Texan accent “How much did you want to breath? You have to want Jesus that much!”
We are meeting in a dirt floored church, miles from anywhere, no dams full of water here. We are within the ADP at Wema in Kenya’s Rift Valley. A skinny dog pauses briefly at the open doorway and looks in expectantly, then ambles off. The dog is starving, the ground is starved for rain and the people here are hungry. The rains did come in April but only for a month and it needed to rain for nearly three months. This means that without a miracle the crops will fail and most people here have already eaten last year’s maize stocks.
We have been talking for about 20 minutes. Mr Chepkuto the president of the Mbogoini Economic Empowerment Group has just given an update on the work the group has been doing to improve roads, plant trees, and dig water pans to harvest much needed rain, that is what they call it here, rain water harvesting ….. for when the rain finally comes. I know from previous meetings that Mr Chepkuto is a struggling farmer and has four children, he is more formal than most of the committee members, a wide smile but something in reserve and though he is president of the Mbogoini Economic Empowerment Group, when I look into his eyes there is a resignation as to how things are. I think he is an unlikely president, but how would I know what it will tak in this place. Today he is dressed in a cream double breasted suit that looks good from a distance, I wonder if it was his wedding suit. A sigh of his respect for the committee and the process that we are working through together, he looks substantial in his suit but look closely and you see he is very thin.
I have been coming to Wema every three months or so for the last 18 months and now can remember most of the names of the 35 committee members, and for many I know something about their lives. Leah is in her mid thirtees, she is a joyful singer and I always ask her to lead us in some songs at the start of each session, she is a farmer and has 5 children. James is a gentle man with compassion in his eyes, a primary school teacher he has four grown children. He is around 45, mostly wears a ragged sweater and suit coat and white tennis shoes. Harun is the chair of the Matarui committee and has four children , he is also a farmer. He has a quiet dignity and the respect of his committee,.
There is a small wooden table at the front of the church where I stand, and I have the thermos of green tea, I prepared at the hotel , I carry it with me everywhere, no matter where I am or the circumstances, my thermos faithfully provides predictable consolation. The table has a nylon lace cover and a small vase with some plastic flowers in it. Often the pastor sits in on the meeting for the day. Today I didn’t ask Leah to start us off with songs to, there is a seriousness today and it didn’t feel right to start as we generally do.
I greet everyone individually, shaking hands, desperately trying to recall everyone’s name, of course they all remember me “How is it in Australia? Are the rains coming in Australia? Is there are drought there?”
I shake Mr Chepkuto’s hand and it is noticeably clammy and I ask if he is sick?
He says “I am okay” in the way Kenyans do meaning there is nothing bad.
We begin as we always do. I remind them of our first meeting and then tell the groups history and achievements as I know them and they remind me of things I have left out , and nod and murmur at the important parts. It seems important that I validate how they have grown. I think that we are all amazed at what they have been able to achieve. We talk about the hopes and aspirations they have and how working together has given them hope and confidence that they do have power to make a difference. How Jack went to ask the government officer about what their commitment is to improving water supply, and how before “representing” the committee he would never have had the courage to go. How Peter recently went to the local government planning meeting and asked questions about the plans for road upgrades. Someone makes a joke and quoting Barrack Obama says “yes we can” and everyone nods and laughs approvingly. Then the various subcommittees give reports on what they have done. One subcommittee has banded volunteers together to dig 72 water pans, (small damns) another cleared the under growth from 70 km of roads, marshaling over 100 volunteers, they have stated three plant nurseries and are currently nurturing 11,000 seedlings which they will begin to distribute to the community when there is more water. They are lobbying the local council to grade the roads and have 12 km graded and a promise of nearly 60 km more. And now World Vision as committed the funds necessary to employ a Business Facilitator to assist people in the community to gain better access to the networks, advice , markets finance and expertise that will help them to expand whatever enterprises they are engaged in. The people here come from two communities, one from each side of the ADP which is separated by an almost impassable rocky ridge. The two groups come from different tribal groups who normally would be clashing with each other like rival gangs and when inflamed by politicians people have died here. The working together of the two committees has been an important part of peace building since the post election violence early in 2008.
Mr Chepkuto is in the front row, he leans towards me and whispers that he is not feeling well. stands up and begins to walk down an isle between the timber plank wall and the rows of pews. I see him sway a little, catch his balance then collapse into a row of pews, a gut wrenching crash, pews domino like a wave and Mr Chepkuto ‘s twisted body has fallen amongst them at an impossible angle. We go to him, he is unconscious but breathing steadily and five men pick him up horizontally and lay him on three narrow plank benches that someone put side by side. One of the men unbuttons his shirt and loosens his pants. His skinny chest, now bare is shiny with sweat and he looks very small. He is out cold. Leah tells me, “he has dropped from hunger”. We call the ADP office which is about 15 minutes drive away and ask them to send the car so that he can be taken to the clinic. I look at this man so helpless, so without resources to take the responsibility for himself and his family that he would wish. Someone has removed his shoes, the soles of his socks have disintegrated, mostly holes, and I am struck that these are probably his only socks, and he wore them just for this meeting, to go with his suit. I know that he had to walk about 20 km this morning to pick up the Matatu the ADP had arranged to bring the Mbogoini Committee across the ridge. Peter one of the committee has someone sit with Mr Chepkuto while we wait for the ADP Toyota and someone suggests we continue with the meeting and there is general a general murmur of agreement.
I am facilitating a discussion about the characteristics of a strong community groups and we are talking about how important transparency, good governance, clear policies and commitment. But suddenly this has become so very hard; I have to believe that hope is what will keep these people alive, what will keep them going and continuing to work together , to make better futures for themselves and their children. I fully believe that there is no sustainable alternative to self help. I have to believe that wherever I come from I am a messenger who can help them see anew what they already know in their hearts to be true but which is parched by the unforgiving sun, beaten by the crusted clay, eroded by the red dust that gets into everything, especially the energy for change.
Mr Chepkuto is still motionless on the benches at the back of the church.
I am the only one in the room who has eaten today, everyone else will eat only once….later. Most did not even take tea this morning, there is no milk now. No one I spoke to has had a meal since yesterday. I am talking, probing, leading, listening, but my mind is also running a parallel track. Which goes something like, how dare I sit here with my wealth, my idealism, my full stomach, my ticket out, my clean bathed skin and face moisturiser and masquerade as someone worthy of respect. Yet these friends are so thankful that I come, they always make a sincere speech of gratitude, that I journey to them from my life of wealth and prosperity and I remember them and I come back to them and sit and talk with them .
The mystery is that these friends need someone, even from the other side of the world, to help validate the things they know in their hearts to be true and someone to believe in them. None of us know where this will lead, and none of us seems to have a better alternative. And I am thinking, how much do I really want to help these friends, where does professionalism stop and a relationship that transcends this begin, and in the business of hope and belief is one possible without the other?
The day after I drafted this piece a friend from World Vision sent me the following quote from Thomas Merton, and it seemed to fit very well.
“Do not depend on the hope of results….you may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results, but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself….You gradually struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people….In the end, it is the reality of personal relationship that saves everything”.
A few weeks have passed and I am now back in Indonesia. I have been in many more meetings, some are sprung, others postponed, rescheduled, shortened or extended, by someone who has a special “meetings” power. We are all very important and we all have other meetings we must get too, no one “drops from hunger’, one or other of us generally has a stronger agenda than the others and there always seems to be at least one person who doesn’t want to be there and finds ways to make that known.
And I know from my meetings in Wema there is something important for me to learn about my participation in meetings and I am wrestling with that now. I think I need to practice being a bearer of hope, as that is something that seems mostly to be passed from one person to another, so also is despair. I think I need to be about building relationships, as we don’t know where the path of the meeting will end, but I do know we will be stronger together. I think how badly Mr Chepkuto wanted to be at that meeting, because the meeting really mattered to him and think that if I am in a meeting the meeting really does have to matter to me, personally. For Mr Chepkuto it was not that hunger will be solved soon in Wema , but it was a matter of personal urgency that we could work together. I think I need to find a way to have this sense of importance about all my meetings and to take personal responsibility for hope, relationships and urgency……like I would if my hair was on fire!
Rift Valley Kenya, July 2009
Post Script: Mr Chepkuto is apparently fine for now, at the clinic they put him on drip and the ADP Manager got him a meal and someone helped him get home. I have emailed our area development project for an update but haven’t heard back yet.
 A van with seating for around 12 passengers that forms the basis of the Kenyan transport system.