Joy, oh Joy! – Christmas in the remote North
I must admit, I am not too sure where to start nor how to tell this tale. Over the past few days, I have found myself wondering how I would be able to keep this short and precise. However, I consider that task impossible to fulfil. Let me explain why.
In 2019, my friend mentioned that there was a plan to celebrate Christmas in Lodwar. Excited as I was to be part of this experience, I did not take part in it. When I met her early on in 2020, she could not stop singing praises of this land that I only heard of in the news. “The people are so nice,” “The Missionaries are doing an impeccable job” “It is so hot!” are some of the phrases that stuck with me. Fast forward, in February 2021, four of us (2 staff, 2 alumnae) made a trip to this distant land. Goodness! It was hot. Hotter than a heator (ifykyk). Despite being there for less than a week, the experience was truly memorable. At the end of that year, covid no longer being a threat, a group of eight ladies (5 staff, 2 students and an alumna) spent the last week of 2021 in Lodwar.
This past year – 2022 – was no different. I could not contain my excitement for what the trip would bring. Before the trip, the distance between us and this transformative experience were the 14 or so hours; the total time it would take my friends and I to arrive in Lodwar, Turkana County, by road. I eagerly waited for the daybreak as I longed to see, once again, the breath-taking views of West Pokot County characterised by winding roads with hilly ranges in the far off distance.
We arrived in Lodwar well into the afternoon, tired but very happy and hungry. With the basic necessities taken care of, the adventure could commence! We met our ever-gracious host, Fr. Bassols, the parish priest of St. Michael Catholic Church, who took us around to visit the different ongoing infrastructure projects, including a maternity clinic, a primary school and resource centre. To say I was impressed is an understatement. Eyes heavy with sleep, we had dinner and with the plan for the next day laid out, we retired to bed.
The next day began quite early. We visited the Anna Nanjala Library that was a stone-throw away from our residence. We were met with enthusiastic smiles and arms by the Education Secretariat of Lodwar Diocese, Mr. Wilson. A banner hanging on a wall caught my attention. It read “The Anna Nanjala Library ICT Hub. Powered by Strathmore University.” The computer lab was equipped with desks and computers, a generous donation by the University. Some students were in the library getting started on their revision exercise, which was made possible by the University’s generosity. A heart-warming moment this was.
As soon as we completed our rounds at the ongoing projects, we started yet another journey to Kokuselei, a village located approximately 204 km from Lodwar town. On arrival, yet again, we were met with open arms and warm smiles by the Missionaries. We were ushered in and in no time, we had a delicious meal. Later that evening, we walked to the community Library where we had a makeshift karaoke session, as we put order on the bookshelves. In these two hours or so, we told jokes and stories that had us almost in tears.
The next few days were spent in a hive of activity. Those that made an impression on me were training mothers of infants on the use of the Toto Care Box that we received as a donation from Citibank. John, a nurse at the Kokuselei Dispensary, appreciated the training for it helped the mothers to understand that children ought to be raised in an environment that upholds their human dignity. The hours spent mentoring the young people in the community also left a lasting impression on me as we got to explore different topics, including fostering fortitude in the face of difficulties, role modelling and the importance of education. My friend and I were also privileged to lead a conversation on menstrual health and hygiene with 20 young girls where we debunked myths and misconceptions related to the topic of the day.
I also got to spend one Saturday afternoon in the company of 15 children. As they were too young to attend Catechism classes, I volunteered to keep them busy. For the first part of the afternoon, we made figurines using homemade playing dough. The children, seated round a table in groups of five, explored their creativity with some making ‘chapatis’ and others ‘kitchen cutlery’. In the second activity, I tasked the children to model the different shapes which they did wonderfully. I also kept myself busy moulding a figure of an angel although the children disputed the work of art I had so attentively created. This activity ended abruptly when I spotted one of the children taking a bite of the moulding clay.
Goats and guardian angels
We proceeded to have a brief conversation on the presence of guardian angels. These wide-eyed, joyful children were intrigued by the thought that each of them had a guardian angel assigned to them by God. Excitedly, one boy exclaimed that his parents’ goats too had guardian angels that ensured their safe return home. Who was I to disapprove of this belief held dearly by a four-year old boy?
I asked the children to teach me a song they learnt in school and they were happy to oblige. We sang and danced to various songs, some of which were in their local dialect but I had two self-appointed interpreters. The joy! Oh the joy that was in the air! They sang their hearts out despite the fact that they did not know all the lyrics to the songs. I always imagined that I could bust some dance moves but the laughter that ensued when I attempted to join them in song made me think otherwise. Nonetheless, I did my best to move to the rhythm. I really enjoyed myself. As the sun was setting, the children and Catechumens gathered together for a bowl of uji that they had prepared. Their coordination and sense of responsibility was admirable.
From beginning of life to the end
It was now time to leave and head back to the Mission Centre. Unbeknownst to me, the day still held more surprises. I met my colleagues and the missionaries at the gate and they asked me to join them. As I soon came to find out, we were headed to a dedication ceremony in accordance with the Turkana customs. Hurriedly but carefully, we walked to the homestead where the ceremony was already ongoing. Like everyone else, we sat on a sisal mat and tried our best to follow the ceremony which was in Turkana dialect that was led by a very animated Catechist. This ceremony impressed me for two main reasons. Firstly, we got a glimpse of the significant role played by the Missionaries who over the past many years have journeyed with the Community from the very beginning of life to its end. As I came to learn later, these Missionaries are part and parcel of the community to an extent that they have conducted burial ceremonies for the young and old alike. It is a great blessing, isn’t it?
Secondly, the family hosting this ceremony offered the guests present to partake some tea and mandazis. This moved me greatly as I was reminded of St. Pope John Paul II’s words that “nobody is too poor to give.” Their generosity to share the little they had challenged me to be unafraid of giving for indeed, it is more blessed to give than to receive.
Sunday morning, after a cup of tea, I began my walk to the church. Providence was surely on our side because a priest was available to celebrate Holy Mass that day. On other days, owing to the absence of a priest, the Missionaries led the community in a celebration of the liturgy of the word. Accompanied by a young boy, we walked as we conversed. I was struck by the fact that he was headed to grade 5 yet he was old enough to be in form two. This served as a gentle reminder of the privilege I have and an affirmation of the fact that where there is a will, there is a way even though it may take others a longer time to arrive at the intended destination. Needless to say, the novel feeling of attending Mass in Turkana dialect was exhilarating. It was wonderful to experience the inculturation of the Faith with the local cultural customs. Additionally, it was impressive to see the Missionaries assimilated to the culture with each of them speaking and understanding Turkana language, albeit at different levels. The priest who celebrated Mass, a Spaniard, spoke kiTurkana fluently.
After a sumptuous lunch, we each went our different ways. Some to a siesta, others to play football and others lost in conversation characterised by a hearty laughter every so often. My friend, Lydia, even got to have a manicure and pedicure treat from one of the young girls with whom she had struck a friendship. After the last whistle was blown signalling the end of the World Cup, we converged for a late dinner where we had very engaging conversations, as was the norm. It was great to hear perspectives from people of different backgrounds, including a Spaniard, two Ethiopians and two Kenyans, one being a true child of the community for she was born and raised in Turkana and had given her life to serve the people, her people.
We left for Lodwar the next day, but not without a joyful encounter. Earlier that morning, I hopped on the Landcruiser and accompanied the Missionaries on the first of week-long activities. Riokomor, a village slightly away from the Kokuselei Mission, was the destination. The activities of the day entailed a brief session on the importance of caring for the environment. We then took part in a clean-up exercise under the scorching sun. At the tail end of the activity, I sought shade under a tree and in no time, a small group of children followed me. Their joy was palpable and infectious. I could not stop smiling and chuckling at their quirky questions and answers. I was caught by surprise by their uniform response of ‘Uongo, uongo hiyo’ to something Lydia had said and we all burst into laughter. The children told tales of their experience with their headteacher who was a martinet. When asked about their reaction to the strokes they endured, Elijah, an exuberant boy, led the children in song to which they danced jubilantly. The joy in the air was palpable. It occurred to me that this deep joy and warmth we experienced in different ways each day was a true reflection of the values held dear by the Turkana. We left for Lodwar later that afternoon, with our hearts and bellies full. I could not stop smiling. Surely, this was a beautiful Christmas celebration and way to end my year. I remain optimistic that this yearly tradition will be observed once again in 2023.
This article was written by Teresia Maina.
Photos by Victor Owino.
What’s your story? We’d like to hear it. Contact us via email@example.com.