18 Apr A Miracle in the Desert
“Pack a bible, a notebook, comfortable walking shoes and mosquito repellent.”
“Sun huts and sun screen if needed. And sandals.”
“Light clothing (the place is very hot, exclamation mark), and a bottle for your drinking water.”
“This assignment must not be among your fails.”
It was an email, received a few weeks ago, from the coordinator of a course I’m studying.
I was scheduled to travel to Yatta, one of the furthest parts of Machakos County, together with about forty other classmates, as part of the course on Transformational Leadership.
It was an overnight trip, at a property run by a renowned Christian mission.
So the following Friday afternoon, my classmates and I boarded two hired buses and headed out; two bus-loads of excited, eager, students. We were about to witness how an entire community had been transformed by a single individual – one focused, determined, visionary leader.
And we could hardly wait.
“There’s no running water in the showers so prepare for a bucket shower,” the email had warned.
Er.. tick that too!
Yatta, home to about one hundred and fifty thousand people, is classified among the arid and semi-arid areas of the country, and as we left Thika Road on Highway A3 and progressed along Makutano-Kithimani Road, the reason became glaringly clear.
The road was lined with dry, scrubby vegetation – a few trees interspersed with grass and shrubs really – and the air was punishingly hot and dusty. We could almost feel the dryness in our throats and I was glad I had carried that bottle of water – a solid two-liter one, hurriedly purchased at the last minute.
But as we neared our destination, we were surprised to see unexpectedly green vegetation in the homes along the road, and well-built houses, suggesting a certain level of affluence in the community.
I took stock of this, as I gulped down the last of my water. Three hours into the journey, we had arrived.
We spilled out of our buses just before dusk, and were pleasantly surprised to find ourselves on a large property, housing a number of well-built conference rooms, hospitality cottages, and a farm.
It was the property of Christian Impact Mission, founded by Bishop Titus Masika, and his wife, Dr Agnes.
And later, it was quite a relief for the tired travelers to settle down for supper – a delicious meal of nyama choma, with a choice of rice or chapati – and a good night’s sleep.
And sure enough, morning came with a nice, warm bucket of bath water, delivered right at the doorstep of each cottage. We later learnt that, though each had a shower, the bucket bath was necessary for the preservation of water, during this exceedingly dry weather.
“Welcome to Yarra,” Dr Agnes said, to hearty laughter, as we began our morning session.
“Well if Twitter is Twirra, then Yatta is Yarra,” she offered, a twinkle in her eye.
I suspected that this was a running joke around here, one that our hosts had shared more than once, perhaps to enable their guests feel at home. Nonetheless it tickled our funny bone, and we enjoyed a few moments of merriment together.
There’s joy in this place, I thought.
And when the history of their county is written, I trust a good part of it will include the incredibly inspiring story of Bishop Masika and his wife.
As the Bishop tells it, their lives were forever changed one evening, when he received a call from their daughter.
“Turn on the TV,” she had said. She had been watching a report covering a severe drought in Yatta. “People are dying, Dad. What are you going to do?”
Bishop Masika had just retired from a fulfilling teaching career, settled his family into a beautiful house – on a hill, no less – and was focused on establishing churches.
But then the call came and, with it, more news that people were indeed starving to death, while others were reduced to eating dogs and donkeys, in the county of his birth.
“In the culture of our people,” he told us, “this was the worst form of insult.”
It was the lowest they could go.
So he considered his response, packed up his bags, and together with his wife, bid city life goodbye.
He was fifty-one.
Yatta was not his original home, he told us that morning; he hailed from Masii, in the neighboring Mwala Constituency, almost an hour’s drive away.
To Yatta he came to solve a problem.
“You cannot transform a community by satellite,” he said. “You have to live with them. You have to understand their anthropology – how they feel, think, what they value, their culture, their world-view.”
So, upon arrival in Yatta, he began by doing just that. But not before mobilizing an urgent delivery of relief food, to help stave off the deaths.
“When people are dying, you give emergency relief first,” he said.
Having done that, Bishop Masika then began crafting a strategy to bring an end to starvation, once and for all.
“Operation Mwolyo Out,” he and his team called it, OMO in short. “Mwolyo” being the local term for relief food.
Of utmost importance was that the plan be a well thought-out process, however, and not an event; a systematic solution to a systematic problem.
“People are governed by their mindset,” he started by saying, “their ‘Box’ you might call it.”
“Or ‘mboksi’ in Kikamba,” he joked, to thunderous laughter.
But despite the humor, Bishop was dead serious. A change in mindset is the most important step in bringing about permanent change, he taught us.
And so, after sharing the relief food, Bishop embarked on teaching the community the Word of God.
“In the traditional setting, where ancestors are worshipped, the devil is in control,” he shared with us. “You cannot prosper in the devil’s kingdom.”
Among all the interventions he instituted, spiritual warfare was the first and most important, he stressed. And after several months, having enabled the community overthrow the grip of the enemy, the Bishop was able to roll out his next plan.
“When a woman got married,” he told us next, “other women would pass by her house the next morning, greet her and invite her to join them, as they fetched water. But the nearest source was twenty kilometers away.”
So his next target was water.
He immediately embarked on teaching the community how to harvest rain during the wet season, by use of a water pan – a small dam – so that the accumulated water could then be used the rest of the year.
By the time of our visit, for example, the last time it had rained in Yatta was April, almost a year earlier. But the community still had water in their dams and, even though the levels were going down, there was still enough to cater for their needs.
“Previously, when there was drought, broadcasting stations would come to Yatta, sure to find stories of death and starvation. But as we speak, some homes have dairy cows still producing over thirty liters of milk per day.”
“No one is going to die!” he told us emphatically.
We believed him.
With more than four thousand water pans in the area, one for every forty residents, we could see how such a simple solution could impact the lives of the people so effectively.
Next on Bishop’s plan, he shared, had been food. And because the people now knew how to harvest water, they were able to comfortably grow food crops for their own consumption.
The days of Mwolyo were over.
But now they needed a consistent income. So he taught the people how to grow high-value crops – onions, tomatoes, mangoes, chilly, paw paw, sweet potatoes and others.
“The secret was to plant off-season, when farmers in other parts of the country were not,” he shared.
And because of the availability of water, the community was well-able to do this. While other farmers were dependent on rain, Bishop taught them to plant only during the dry season, irrigating their land with water from their dams. This effectively raised the value of their crops, sometimes by two times or more.
Another simple – but impactful – strategy.
And later, as we came to the conclusion of our lesson, we were able to take a guided tour of Bishop’s expansive farm, which he developed as a model for the community.
It was nothing short of amazing.
Dairy cows, fish, geese, rabbits, bees. Cranes and ostriches even!
We could hardly believe the range of livestock, birds and fish he had been able to rear, beneath the scorching Yatta sun.
And finally, we were shown to the bakery.
“We buy sweet-potatoes from the farmers around, mill and use the flour to bake bread,” our guide said, to our amazement.
The Bishop had gone even further, and created a ready market for produce from the surrounding community.
“Yatta Bread – Sweetness from the Drylands,” read the brand.
We were floored.
And as we walked around the farm, we couldn’t help but marvel at what Bishop and his wife had accomplished, for themselves and the community, under some of the most challenging circumstances one could imagine.
“This is a miracle in the desert,” my classmate *Ken said in wonder.
And as we spoke, I recalled Bishop’s earlier words:
“We are created in the image of God, and He uses us to make any changes He needs to make,” he had said.
“So, find a problem and solve it. Whether physical, political, educational – whatever – do it!”
That’s what transformational leaders do, you see.
They create miracles in the desert.
I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. Philippians 4:13
*Thank you, Ken Mugo, for permitting the use of your words for the title of this article!