God's Spirit at Work in Africa
Today’s believers are building on the foundation laid by former generations of missionaries.
By Jean Thomas
“I am Solomon,” he said. “You have been inquiring about my work?”
“Come in,” we said.
As he placed his computer on the coffee table he explained, “A doctor on a mission trip from North Dakota gave this to me. I thought you’d like to see a few pictures of the members of one of my churches.”
And there they were, Masai women sitting in a group under a thorn tree, dressed in brightly colored wraps, wearing traditional beaded necklaces and ear pieces.
“How many members are in your church?” we asked.
“One church has about 300, including children, and the other about 120 members,” he replied. “Masai men think religion is only for their wives, so our congregations are made up mostly of women and children. But with God’s help this perception will change.”
Those of us who worked as missionaries in Kenya and Tanzania in the late 1950s see today’s progress as a marked evidence of God’s grace, a demonstration of the power of the gospel. People who, until recently, have not been exposed to the gospel are learning to trust the true Ngai, the ruler of heaven and earth.
Blazing a Trail
When missionaries first came from England in the early 1900s to establish mission work in East Africa, they found that the colonial government in Kenya was allocating specific areas of the country to various missionary bodies.
Adventists were given the territory around Lake Victoria among the Luo and Kisii tribes. That area became predominantly Adventist. The Gendia Mission, the East African Publishing House, and Kendu Mission Hospital were established among the Luo people; and Nyanchwa Mission and Kamagambo Training School were located in Kisii country. Masai land bordering these two areas was placed out of bounds, to be left untouched by mission outreach.
By the mid-1950s, with many churches now established among the Luo and Kisii people, church leaders were led to share the gospel with their Masai neighbors. However, the government had mandated that this tribe not be evangelized. On several occasions the matter was discussed by the South Nyanza Field (Kisii) committee.
They came up with a plan to open a medical clinic just inside the Masai border and invite Kendu Hospital medical staff to participate. The doctors were enthusiastic, and soon a monthly medical clinic was in operation. For several months the doctors, accompanied by mission personnel from Kisii, worked together providing medical aid to the Masai who came from the surrounding villages.
But one day a letter arrived from the district commissioner in Kilgoris, headquarters for monitoring Masai concerns. “It has been brought to my attention,” the letter stated, “that you are entering Masai territory illegally. Therefore, as of this date, you are to cease and desist from crossing their border or interfering with their lifestyle.”
That ended the first outreach endeavor to the Masai from its northern border. But by a strange turn of events, a change soon came about.
While on one of his trips from the Kisii mission to Kendu Hospital, the mission president, Fred Thomas (who had helped initiate the medical clinic), was surprised to meet a Masai chief at the hospital.
“What brings you to Kendu Hospital, Mafuta?” Thomas asked.
“I became very sick and went to every hospital I knew of, even as far as Nairobi. But I found no doctor who could cure me, so I came home to die.
“Then my wives, concerned about their future welfare, said, ‘There’s one hospital you haven’t been to.’
“‘Which one?’ I asked.
“‘You haven’t been to the hospital at Kendu Bay,’ they said.
“‘No,’ I told them. ‘I could never go there. We Masai despise the tribe that lives near that hospital. And in any case, I was the one who had asked the district commissioner to put a stop to the medical clinic they started in our district.’
REUNION: Fred Thomas, retired missionary, stands next to Solomon Lenana (in gray coat) and other Adventist Masai who have come to know Jesus and the power of the gospel.“My wives just laughed. ‘Go,’ they said. ‘Since you have no hope of living long, you might as well take your life in your hands and go there.’ So, here I am, and these doctors are healing me. I will be going home soon.”
Back in our living room, lay pastor Solomon Lenana told us his story. He was born to a traditional Masai family and was expected to spend his childhood and youth herding cattle on the hills around his father’s manayatta (“hut”). But Solomon had noticed that young men with an education were no longer herding their families’ cattle and goats, but were holding down good paying jobs.
When Solomon told his parents about his desire to get an education, his father objected. His mother, however, used her powers of persuasion. They sold several cattle to enable Solomon to attend a boarding school in Nairobi.
“There was only one other Masai youth in my school,” Solomon said. “The other students were from tribes whose background was different from ours. Their customs and beliefs were very foreign to ours.”
After completing high school in 1989, Solomon went looking for work. Maxwell Adventist Academy, a boarding school for children of missionaries in East Africa, was being relocated out of the city of Nairobi. With a working knowledge of English and other skills he had acquired in school, Solomon applied for a job and was given the responsibility of keeping track of building supplies as they were delivered to the new campus.
The lifestyle of the missionary teachers he worked with so impressed Solomon that he expressed a desire to learn more about their beliefs. His questions led to Bible studies and eventually baptism. In the excitement of finding such joy and satisfaction with what he had learned, he began sharing his faith with other Masai, some of whom were living on the hill directly behind the new school. Solomon and a missionary named Gwen Edwards began holding classes with these villagers, teaching them how to read the Bible.
In 1994 the first six converts from that group were baptized in the little pool built at the base of the school’s amphitheater. But once the school building projects were complete, Solomon’s employment came to an end.
“Then what happened?” we asked.
“I was sent to the ASI-operated Riverside Training Institute in Zambia, where I was given a six-month course in theology and health studies. Now I work as a self-supporting pastor. I travel around Masai country making friends, interesting them in God’s Word, and teaching them about cleanliness, health, and AIDS prevention.”
With Masai territory mostly rural, and undeveloped areas stretching for hundreds of miles across Kenya and Tanzania, paved roads are few and often impassible except in four-wheel-drive vehicles. This means that Solomon, who has no transportation of his own, travels where he can on buses, then walks long distances to reach interested people. Both of his churches are difficult to reach. He spends many nights away from home holding health seminars and Bible studies. This is all done on a volunteer basis with no remuneration from the church.
The poor roads and lack of communication make it difficult to get an accurate count of how many members and churches are in Masai land today, but lives are being changed by the gospel.
Jean Thomas recently returned from Kenya, where she and her husband, Fred, served nine months as volunteers at Maxwell Adventist Academy.