Kairos News Missionary Update: Katie Defries
May 7th, 2014
Three years ago, on September 1, 2010, I did one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I stepped onto a plane and left behind every person, place, and thing I’d ever known. I was headed for a new life in Kenya.
I’d spent the months prior trying to see everyone and say goodbye, knowing that I might not see some of my family and friends for another 3 years. But, God had been working on my heart and preparing me for this adventure for almost 8 years through things like the “Perspectives” course (www.perspectives.org), the annual Global Missions Health Conference (www.medicalmissions.com), and a short-term trip to Kenya 5 years before.
He’d given me dreams and desires of starting up a community health development program in rural Maasailand. And I couldn’t picture myself anywhere else. So, the adventure began—going where I felt God was leading me.
The Maasai are a minority tribe in Kenya who has traditionally been semi-nomadic pastoralists. They’re well known for being fearsome warriors with distinctive customs who wear bright red colors and intricate jewelry.
In the mid-19th century, they occupied most of the Great Rift Valley and surrounding lands through Kenya and down into central Tanzania. But following epidemics, droughts, eviction by the colonizing British, and the government creation of wildlife reserves and national parks, the Maasai were left with less than 40% of what land they had. Now, they’ve settled in southern Kenya and northern Tanzania.
In recent years, the Maasai pastoral way of life has become more of a challenge due to increasing population, cattle diseases, and decreasing rangeland. As a result, they’ve been forced to develop new ways to sustain themselves through things like farming. While they’ve traditionally not seen value in education (nor had access to it), it’s now apparent that their children need it for the modern world infringing upon them.
Influences of the outside world have brought about these things: a need to join the monetary system (instead of trading livestock); NGO and aid organizations trying to help while preserving their traditions; and changes in the sources of their clothing and jewelry (cotton fabrics from Tanzania and glass beads from Europe are now available in local markets and have overtaken their use of animal products and things from nature).
God sent me to work with AfricaHope (www.africahope.org), a ministry of New Mission Systems International (www.nmsi.org) in Narok, the main hub of Maasailand. It’s a town of about 50,000 people, consisting of mostly Maasai and the 10 or so western missionaries that tend to stick out like a sore thumb.
AfricaHope was started in 2003 by a Maasai man named Tim Mantai, who continues as the director today. The goal of AfricaHope is to share the love of Christ with communities and meet some of their needs. The core of that work is through the Church Ministry, which works to share the gospel, plant churches, and mature existing churches. The other programs include Health Development, Education (through school partnerships), Orphan and Vulnerable Children, and Food and Water Security (breaking the worsening cycles of drought in the area).
My job with AfricaHope was director of the Health Development program. And my hope and heart was to share the love of Christ with the Maasai through a sustainable community health outreach program with a focus on prenatal and infant healthcare needs and education.
There were many times in preparing to go serve in Kenya, and even after I got there, that I felt unqualified. All of my previous experience was hospital-based as a nurse and nurse practitioner in the NICU (Neonatal Intensive Care Unit) with sick and premature babies. When I started the work at AfricaHope, it was easy to get overwhelmed at the task at hand, but the first part of John 15:16 was a good reminder to me: “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit – fruit that will last…”
Most Maasai living in rural areas don’t have access to basic medical care—some walking 12-plus miles to the nearest clinic or riding in a wheelbarrow or motorcycle if they’re lucky. But 80-90% of those problems seen in clinics are preventable (e.g. diarrhea, malnutrition, water-borne diseases, malaria, respiratory diseases, childhood diseases like Measles, and maternal health issues).
The Maasai also face water scarcities that lead to issues with hygiene and sanitation, that then leads to dirty water, that then leads to other illnesses including diarrhea (one of the leading causes of death in children around the world.)
They’re also challenged with food scarcities that then lead to a poor diet and eventually malnutrition—another leading cause of death in children around the world. Their diet is heavy on foods that make them feel full for a long time and that don’t require refrigeration since they don’t have access to electricity out in the rural bush areas.
The 3 most common foods eaten in the village I worked in were: ugali (a staple food in Kenya made by mixing maize flour with boiling water), beans, and milk. Generally, vegetables are only part of their diets on market day—one day a week on that same 12-mile walk. And fruit is a special treat, as it costs significantly more than the staple foods.
Some other issues the Maasai face include high infant, child, and maternal mortality rates.
About 40% of Maasai in Kenya profess Christianity, but only about 20% are living an Evangelical life. My director at AfricaHope, Tim Mantai, usually described the church in Kenya as “a thousand miles wide, but only an inch deep.” Some of the issues I saw in the bush churches that add to that statement are illiterate pastors, a thin faith and knowledge base, and little discipleship.
CHE, or Community Health Evangelism (www.chenetwork.org), is a model for ministry that's centered on the idea of holistic health—that health isn’t only about our physical body, but is also dependent on spiritual, emotional, and social health. It integrates evangelism and discipleship with community-based development through sharing the gospel, Bible stories, and biblical principles along with teaching and promoting principles of disease prevention and healthy living. It’s designed to be a sustainable, long-term, community-owned, multipliable, and adaptable solution to wherever it’s being implemented.
I started a CHE program in the rural Maasai village of Isinon in April 2012 alongside one of my teammates, Elizabeth, and our friend and national staff, Eunice. Before that, we’d spent three months building relationships with the community and learning about who they are. We’d go out every Thursday—a 2-hour drive one way (though only about a 40-mile trip)—to teach and train both the Committee and Educators who had been chosen by the community to pass the information on.
We started by teaching the foundation of what CHE is and their roles in that, then progressed on to teaching about the health and Bible topics of their choice. We completed a screening of all the children in Isinon Primary School (preschool to fifth grade) one week, and saw the top two health problems were diarrhea and severe malnutrition.
When the CHE members heard the results, they chose those two topics as their top priorities. We taught about things like clean water, sanitation, hygiene, dehydration, malnutrition, and a balanced diet—and we also started chronologically sharing Bible stories. It was such a joy to see things click, to see understanding come about, and to share in their excitement about things that could change their own.
In the relatively short amount of time that I did CHE before returning to the States last
September, I was blessed to see some of the fruit God was bringing about. Our CHEs shared that they had taught others in the village to boil their water so it was clean and safe(r) to drink. They were already seeing decreased diarrhea rates in the children because of that.
An older woman came to one of our meetings one day and said she wanted to build a choo (a pit latrine). It hadn’t been considered before by many, as they’re content with the way they’ve heard their ancestors lived for centuries. The pastor tithed a part of the first crop of maize (similar to corn) ever grown in Isinon to us last summer. It was so heart-touching. We also ate our first meal ever grow in Isinon that day—beans, maize, and potatoes!
Now, even 7 months after I left Kenya, I’m getting updates of sukumu (kale) being grown in kitchen gardens in Isinon! Eunice attended a CHE training called “Women’s Cycle of Life” last October, and she’s started a monthly gathering open to all women in Isinon to share these teachings about women’s health. The first meeting last month drew a crowd of 30 women!
The pastor in Isinon attended a training at AfricaHope last year on how to use a solar-powered audio Bible from a Nairobi-based organization. Now, he has the ability to access the Word for himself in his heart language and preach it despite being illiterate. And the CHEs have started Friday night prayer meetings in their homes.
Many missionaries don’t get to see fruits from their work before leaving the field, but I’m incredibly thankful. God gave me that gift. And I’m thankful He’s continuing the work through Elizabeth and Eunice. They're talking about starting CHE in another village next year!
God not only worked through me in Kenya, but he also worked in me. My relationship with the Lord grew so much during my time there, but mostly through the challenges. As amazing as my time was in Kenya, it was also just as challenging. God helped me get through the hard stuff—high levels of stress, exhaustion, loss of control and freedoms, broken expectations and disappointments, constant car issues, crime, corruption, terrorist threats, being a single woman in a very patriarchal area, and staring at the poverty all around me that my friends were living in.
God loved me, provided for me, protected me, and comforted me through all that and many other things. Through the big struggles and daily differences of a new place, language, culture, and life, God was the only constant. My faith was strengthened through that, and my identity is now more grounded in Christ.
I’ve heard a lot of 2 Corinthians preached since I returned from Kenya. Paul shares about his mission journeys and adventures, but also doesn’t shy away at sharing about the challenges. In 2 Corinthians 1:9, we’re reminded that there’s purpose in His work not necessarily being easy: “But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God…”
Every bit of these experiences were worth it—for myself, for the 60% of the Maasai that don’t know Christ, for the 3 billion people in this world that don’t know Christ. “What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish that I may gain Christ…” (Philippians 3:8).
I saw God fulfill his Word by working through my weaknesses and inexperience (2 Corinthians 12:9)—in learning new languages, working in a field of nursing I had no experience in, and teaching the Bible with no formal training. I saw Him answer prayers—big and small.
He taught me to be truly thankful for things—a hot shower, evening walks with no concern for my safety, my favorite foods, a care package full of my favorite treats and candies, my education, less corrupt leaders, arriving to my destinations safely with no tire punctures, and His daily provision for me. Yet I still have teammates and friends in Kenya and around the world living the challenges and serving God.
I’m so thankful for opportunity and privilege God gave me to be a part of His work in Kenya and the grand adventures that came along with it. It was life changing. I wouldn’t change a thing about my time there as it helped shape me into the me I am today. Kenya is a part of me—as is the Maasai name I was given, Nashipae, which means “happy.”
This ministry and the other work AfricaHope is doing in southwestern Kenya is still continuing on—even though I’ve finished my 3-year term there. And there are opportunities for you to be involved! Here’s what you can do:
• GO – A short-term trip, a 2-month summer internship, a 6 month to 1 year apprenticeship, or
even long-term! You can find out more at www.nmsi.org.
• Pray – For AfricaHope, the staff and missionaries, Kenya, the ministries, the leaders, etc. You can
follow what’s going on at AfricaHope by signing up for the mailing list (africahope.org/news) and by liking the Facebook page (Facebook.com/africahope).
• Financial Support – Everything takes money. AfricaHope is working hard towards being self-sustaining,
but all of the projects require start-up capital. Visit AfricaHope.org/sustainability to find out more.
• Encourage – Support missionaries on the field through e-mails, prayers, birthday/holiday cards, care packages. Let them know they are supported and loved. There are people serving all over this world.