I climbed into the co-pilot’s chair, excited for the opportunity to have such a privileged view on my flight to Lokichoggio. I turned around to check on Joe. This was his first flight and he was understandably anxious. Very few people fly for the first time on such a small aircraft, especially in Joe’s seat, a bench-seat behind the cargo. Though only several meters apart, we were as far away from each other as possible without leaving the plane. I was thankful for MAF (Missions Aviation Fellowship) for making it possible for us to visit our feeding program in Lokichoggio, Kenya, without having to travel by car for over 24 hours through dangerous and difficult terrain. I gave Joe a quick thumb’s up. He smiled anxiously and returned the gesture. I slipped on the co-pilot headset and listened as air traffic control cleared us for take-off. Within a few moments we were airborne and the Nairobi skyline vanished, being replaced by rolling valleys, ridged mountains, and a sea of clouds.
After a short 2 1/2hr. flight we landed at the Loki airstrip, greeted by the beautiful Mogilia Mountain Range, which serves as a scenic backdrop. Lokichoggio may be in an isolated corner of Kenya, but it would be difficult to find a more beautiful place to land a plane. The town sits in a narrow valley between the Songot Mountains and the Mogilia Range, so there are beautiful mountain vistas in nearly every direction. I inquired as to how Joe had faired on his first flight. Overall, he enjoyed the experience, but was quite perplexed by the pressure that was overwhelming his ears. Anxious to meet with Pastor M., the director of the feeding program, we quickly made our way to our camp, had a bite for lunch, and then departed for the church. As we bounced a long the bumpy roads, I was struck by the greenness of the land. Most people would have looked around and only seen a dry and arid semi-desert, but compared to my previous trips to this area, there was a copious amount of vegetation. I found out that in the month prior there had been a very heavy rain season, accounting for the growth. We arrived at the church and I, again, was shocked by the amount of vegetation on the compound. Quickly that shock turned to dismay as I looked beyond the green banks to see the familiar dry riverbed in the distance. The heavy rain that had fallen in the previous month had caused the river to surge, nearly doubling in width, leading to incredible vegetation growth on both banks of the river. However, the river had dried up since, offering a glimpse as to what was in store for this land. Lokichoggio, because it is situated in between the mountains, actually gets a decent amount of rainfall, but the sandy soil quickly absorbs most of it.
In our meeting with Pastor M, I quickly realized that there was a lot of work to do if this program was going to be sustained. The surrounding community is overwhelmed by need. The church is doing it’s best to help meet some of those needs by offering a feeding program for children, but resources are limited and the members of the church have needs of their own. We made plans to have a small service the following day, as well as to prepare a feast for the church members and all of the children that may show up. My primary focus was to get updates on the People to People sponsored children, but we also wanted to bless all that may be present. After the meeting, Joe and I returned to Trackmark Camp and spent the rest of the hot afternoon relaxing and swatting mosquitos.
Early the next morning we arrived at the church compound, surprised to find only a handful of children. We began making preparations for the day and within minutes the number of children doubled, and continued to multiply over the next hour. By the time we were ready to begin there were over 150 children present, not counting adults. Following a short program for the kids, I began the process of completing updates on the PtoP sponsored children (Correspondence Letters, Photos, Artwork, Crafts, Personal Info, etc.) while Teacher Joe engaged the rest of the children with games and activities. After several hours we gathered back together in the church. Then members came forward to make a beautiful presentation to us. Northwestern Kenya is home to the Turkana tribe, a semi-nomadic people. As with other Nilotic tribes, many Turkana women are gifted bead-workers. They make beautiful beaded jewelry and ornamental decorations. As a token of their gratitude, several women of the church presented me with a custom bracelet and a leather/beaded belt. The women gathered around me and placed the bracelet on my arm and buckled the belt around my waist…which provided only a few moments of awkward invasions of privacy. I looked closely at the bracelet and saw the words “James Dunning” displayed in bright white beads. The pastor presented us each with a freshly carved Aburo (traditional walking/fighting stick) and ekicholong (a traditional stool/headrest carried by Turkana). The women gathered around me singing words in a language I could not understand, but their joyous dancing and exuberant faces needed no translation. This was a celebration. I found myself feeling overwhelmed with conflicting emotions. On one hand I was deeply honored by this outpouring of gratitude and respect, but at the same time I felt awkward because I had done nothing to deserve it. Sure, through PtoP we’ve provided funds for the feeding program. We strive to bring awareness and work to foster communication with sponsors to ensure that their assistance continues, but compared to the needs these people face every day….there is so much more to be done. I decided in that moment that we must find a way to better support this program, this church, and these people. One idea that the ladies brought to me was to assist them in starting a business selling their beadwork. This is something that we are prayerfully considering because we would love the opportunity to partner with and empower these women. There is a lot to consider and to take into account, but we are hopeful, because this could be a way to generate income for members of the community, which would also benefit the church and the feeding program.
I thanked them for their generous gifts and then made a presentation to them. I presented them with a bag of Moringa seeds….hundreds of Moringa seeds. Moringa is a type of tree that grows well in dry and arid regions. It can thrive with very little water. It also produces edible leaves that are packed with nutrients, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties. It is even used for medicinal purposes, both internally and externally. It is often referred to as a miracle tree. We recently made a great connection with a supplier in Nairobi that offers large quantities of moringa at a low price. Lokichoggio has the climate for the plant and the church has a decent amount of land. We gave the seeds with the hope that it will be the beginning of a sustainable farm. The plants can provide supplemental food for the feeding program and church members, as well as provide potential income source through the selling of seeds and leaves in the community. At least that is the hope.
After the presentations, the feast began. It was both rewarding and humbling to see the amount of joy that a simple meal of rice and beans brought these children. Such a small gift can go so far.
The next day we would be making the journey south, to the Kakuma Refugee Camp. So we headed back to the Trackmark for an evening of resting, reading, and mosquito swatting.