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FIELD REPORT: Kenyans give sacrificially

KENYA (BP)–A noisy crowd squeezes around the Red Cross table. Most have the clothes on their backs and nothing else. A few hold small plastic shopping bags.

Each person scribbles his name on the clipboard and falls in line.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” my Kenyan friend says proudly. His tone makes me stop and take a second look.

At first, I thought these people were among the more than 250,000 Kenyans displaced by recent post-election violence, arriving at a camp by the truckload every day. I look closer this time and overhear a conversation between a Red Cross volunteer and an old grandmother.

“Please, I want you to take this,” the grandmother says, handing over a half-filled bag of corn. “Use it to feed my brothers and sisters.”

I’ve never been more humbled. I know this grandmother has given all she has. She’ll probably go without a meal today just so one person in this camp of 3,500 internally displaced people can eat.

Everywhere I go, I see the same thing -– Kenyans lining up to help their “brothers and sisters.”

Jack and Bert Yates, International Mission Board missionaries in Kenya for 30 years, say they’ve never seen a response like this. Churches and stores host donation drop-off points. During their school holiday, youth groups stay up all night cooking for total strangers. Men chop firewood so the women can cook hot meals for the thousands of displaced. Musicians and comedians entertain. Some even open their homes to total strangers, offering a safe place away from the crowded makeshift camps.

Jack Yates explains that responding to massive needs like this may be second nature to Americans but it is not something taken for granted in Africa.

“For many, this is the first opportunity in this country to minister to themselves. I love seeing what people are doing for each other,” Yates says. “There’s no need for ownership, people are just doing what needs to be done. It’s remarkable.”

The Yateses work with Kenyan Baptists and Baptist Global Response in reaching these internally displaced with food and supplies. Part of their job is to partner with local Baptists in this outreach, which Bert quickly found can be a humbling experience.

As Bert and a young Baptist woman walk through a displaced people camp, they stop to watch a group of women sorting through a pile of used clothes. Bert mentions that she cleaned old clothes out of her closet to donate. The young woman nods and says she, too, donated clothes.

“I really only need three shirts and three skirts,” the Baptist woman says. “So I gave them the extras that I had.”

These small acts of self-sacrifice and kindness steadily reshape this nation in the midst of conflict. Ordinary people do extraordinary things every day but do not stop long enough to reflect and realize they’ve become heroes.

If you praise Kenyan Joseph Ribiro for his contributions, he’ll lower his head in embarrassment and quickly change the focus to the current needs of the internally displaced staying in his community compound. There are so many people staying with him that his church opened their grounds for the overflow -– which now numbers more than 300.

When the violence first started Dec. 30, Ribiro’s brother called from one of the hardest-hit areas to ask for help. Their father burned to death in his house during the riots. As the eldest son, it was Ribiro’s responsibility to go into the conflict area, claim the remains of his father and get the rest of the family to safety.

The Kenyan made arrangements for a truck to go in and rescue his family. His brother called to say they were on their way. But Ribiro heard cries in the background, and the two brothers immediately decided to load the truck with as many people as possible, leaving their father’s remains behind.

Five truckloads later, Ribiro and his brother still have not evacuated their father’s remains -– which totally goes against Kenyan culture. Their main concern is getting people to safety and providing them with food and water.

“We don’t think our father would mind,” Ribiro says, looking away as his eyes well up with tears. “He is in heaven now. He knows this is a way of expressing God’s love.

“Helping out like this is a practical way to bring God’s peace to our country.”
Sue Sprenkle, an overseas correspondent for the International Mission Board, has been reporting from Africa for 10 years.