A first glimpse of Africa

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Landing in Nairobi, Kenya, after 40 hours of travel, we stay overnight before heading to the Sudanese interior.

The bishop greets us and shuffles us into small cars for our night journey.

I get to know our driver, Ngumbai, at breakfast. I ask, "When did you become a Christian?"

His village was destroyed by bombs, then fire in the civil war. His family was driven into the bush. His mother and father and siblings were killed when he was 13 years old. He was left alone, crying himself to sleep under the stars, "without a daddy." One night in a dream, he hears, "You do have a father, the One whom Jesus calls Father."

When he awoke he was surrounded by supernatural light, which he took as confirmation of the dream's truth. The next day, he found a friend and told him the dream and his conviction that they could follow Jesus to this Father, just as Matthew and James and John and all of them had, leaving all behind and following Jesus to the Father.

Ngumbai and his friend set out into the bush with no guide but signs in the sky. He crossed over into Uganda, and eventually into Kenya, "with no passport," he said, "except the cross." In Nairobi, the center of Kenya, he was led to the exiled Moru Christian community, where he began a radically new life. I realize we are going to meet his new extended family.

A small, one-engine bush plane awaits us at the regional airport. Six of us will ride with a portable gas-powered generator, boxes of books, bottled water, clothes and medical supplies donated by churches. Our pilot is Dan, flying for AIM, which is in business to drop off missionaries and supplies to African villages. We buckle up and he says, "Let's pray."

I don't know whether to laugh or cry. I assure myself, but of course, I always pray before take off and landing.

We fly along the ridges of the Great Rift Valley. What I can see below reminds me of Wyoming. But it is dry season, and I am told it all greens up when it rains. If it rains. Somewhere in here are the headwaters of the Nile River, the lifeline for everything north of this place.

Two and a half hours later we land in Loki, on the Kenyan side of the Sudan's southern border. This is our last cold drink and flushable toilet for a while. Loki is a sprawling town, a village which has grown up around this drop-off point for international aid. I count a half dozen U. N. planes. They don't want us taking photos. Pilots out of Loki are rumored to file bogus flight plans and then head into dangerous or prohibited regions to make their food and medicine drops.

Two more hours into Sudan. From 12,000 feet I am looking at wilderness. Only a few trees dotting a rosy, sand-colored landscape. But as we descend, I begin to see life, well-camouflaged mud houses with thatched roofs made of bundled tall grass. We touch down on a nice flat dirt runway and step out into 100-degree sun. Two vehicles, one from our hospital and one from our cathedral meet us. Sixteen miles to go to the town of Lui, our mission base.

I get my first close look at the African savannah. It's baked from drought and the dry season. Less than a half-hour on the ground and I am thirsty. We pass a clearing on the left. That is going to be the new Anglican Trinity Bible College. My roommate, Rick, is going to be asked to help build it. I will be asked to help teach in it. I realize I have just been promoted, we all have, due to the privileges of our education, our training and the resources we have at our disposal.

These, Ngumbai's new family, are also our new family. We are long-lost cousins. Our people brought a Word of hope to the Moru in the 1920s, but these folks need it more than ever now, as they emerge from decades of civil war. Now I am praying really hard.

The Rev. Bob Towner is pastor at Christ Epsicopal Church in Cape Girardeau.

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