News Articles

Kenya’s Samburu people studied by seminary duo for gospel readiness

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–They don’t read or write, and there’s a good reason why — they have no written language. Sadly, they have no Bible.

They may be far from American culture, but they are still near to God’s heart.

They are the Samburu people group, a semi-nomadic tribe in the African country of Kenya. For five months last year, two Southern Baptist Theological Seminary students, Jason Lee and Matthew DiCapua, lived and worked among the Samburu people, studying their culture and beliefs.

It was part of what the International Mission Board calls an “unreached people group profile” — so named because less than 1 percent of the approximately 150,000 Samburu are Christians. By some estimates, there are no more than a few dozen believers. But whatever the number, there are not enough Christians to reduplicate themselves by beginning a church-planting movement.

“It’s a huge task,” said Lee, a master of divinity student from Douglasville, Ga. The number of non-Christians, he said, is “certainly overwhelming compared to the few number of workers.”

On paper, Lee and DiCapua’s task was simple: study the Samburu so that future missionaries will have a head start before setting foot in the country, with the ultimate goal of starting a church-planting movement within the tribe.

“The whole key is to reach a central group of people who will reduplicate themselves,” said DiCapua, a master of divinity student from Cocoa, Fla. “We have not gotten to that point at all.”

During their stay, Lee and DiCapua were to discover both “bridges” and “barriers” to the gospel. Bridges are those beliefs that can be used as a vehicle to spread the gospel — such as the Samburu belief in one god. Barriers are those practices that go against the teaching of Scripture — such as polygamy.

Lee and DiCapua were a sort of Lewis and Clark — mapping pathways for future missionary work. While Southern Baptists had previously sent missionaries to the Samburu, a people group profile had never been done.

Before leaving for Kenya the two men trained for one month at the IMB’s Missionary Learning Center near Richmond, Va. But once in Kenya, they had no supervision.

“There was no headship, no missionaries,” DiCapua said. “We were just out there.”

Using interpreters, Lee and DiCapua performed literally hundreds of interviews with Samburu of all ages. Of course, they also shared the gospel and saw 30 to 40 Samburu come to Christ.

But as tempting as it was, their primary task was not to preach. Their task was to lay the foundation for a future movement of God among the Samburu, to someday see the whole tribe come to Christ — a task that becomes much easier once the tribe’s culture and beliefs are understood.

The logic is simple: A long-term church-planting movement among the Samburu can win more people to Christ than Lee and DiCapua could in five months.

“We have to see the big picture,” DiCapua said. “It’s easy to want to go and preach, but we’re laying the groundwork and we’re going to pass on the [information] to career missionaries who are coming in after us. We’re going to save them six months of their life and a lot of heartache and trial.”

DiCapua said he and Lee “could have gone and done evangelistic campaigns, and we could have seen maybe a couple of hundred people saved. But with this research, our goal is to see the whole tribe — those members who have been purchased with the blood of Christ — be evangelized and come to faith.”

Although the Samburu have no written alphabet, attempts have been made to produce a Samburu Bible by borrowing another language’s alphabet. By using phonics, a translator could use the Swahili alphabet — the dominant language in Kenya — and reproduce on paper the sound of a Samburu word.

But so far, all attempts have been unsuccessful. Some say it would be just as easy to teach the tribe Swahili, a language that already has a Bible translation. But in a tribe that sometimes frowns on public education, teaching another language is a tall task.

For now, the gospel will have to be taught orally — something that was done successfully during the seminary students’ stay. DiCapua said the Samburu people have a great memory capacity.

“Their memories are phenomenal,” DiCapua said. “I can tell the story of Hosea, and they can all know it. If I tell it right, they can all repeat it.”

Both men said the hearts of the Samburu are ready for the gospel. DiCapua helped lead one man to Christ who had killed several members of an opposing tribe — something considered heroic among the Samburu.

Music plays a large role among the Samburu. After learning the story of Daniel, tribal members came up with a song that included the line, “The God of Daniel is the one true God.”

“They were very open to us,” Lee said. “They were very receptive to us and very hospitable. They are people who are very open to the gospel.”

The Samburu lifestyle made for a challenging yet rewarding five months for Lee and DiCapua. The Samburu have no electricity, running water or permanent housing. The entire society revolves around cattle. When a drought hits, the tribe and the cattle move, searching for rain.

During their first few weeks, Lee and DiCapua worked out of a base house — traveling to the Samburu people each morning, conducting research all day and then coming back to the base house at night to record their data. Soon, though, they discovered this was a somewhat ineffective use of time. So they began staying with the people for several days at a time.

“At one point I asked Jason to drop me off for several days in the inner part of the district,” DiCapua said. “He took a translator and went one way, [and] I took a translator and stayed for several days out with the people, living with them. … We saw more people saved during that time than the whole time combined. We got more research done that time than the whole time combined.”

Among the bridges to the gospel they discovered: a belief in one god who created the universe; the use of a Shofar horn similar to the one used in the Old Testament; and the wiping of animal blood over doors — much like the biblical Israelites practiced during Passover.

“These are bridges that God has left in the culture for us to carry the gospel to them,” DiCapua said.

Among the barriers: polygamy and promiscuity.

“If you were to go in there first and deal with those issues, you would shut the door to the gospel forever,” DiCapua said. “We want to be sensitive to the bridges and the barriers, and then form a strategy that will take us over those bridges. And when the people come to know Christ, allow them to work through their barriers on their own.”

The differences between Americans and the Samburu may seem vast, but DiCapua said that they are actually few.

“We were once all formerly alienated from the truth apart from the children of Israel,” he said. “There’s no difference between a man in Africa and a white man in America, because [we] are all Gentile … formerly alienated, without hope.”
(BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: HEARING THE CHILDREN, WITH THE SAMBURU and SAMBURU CELEBRATION.

    About the Author

  • Michael Foust