In 1979 I was 18 years old and living with my family on a mission outpost in Northern Kenya. I was invited to go with a similar organization on a two-week trip to show a film called “The Jesus Film” and meet people in several area communities. There was quite a mix of young people. We had youth from several tribal groups including Maasai, Samburu, Kikuyu, a German, me- an American and an old Somali man named Mohammed. (From my vantage point 20 years later, I realize Mohammed was probably early thirties-but to an 18 year old he seemed old.)
Mohammed was along for several reasons. I suspect the number one reason was as my chaperone. Mohammed was a trusted family friend who went on trips with my family and, several times, with me on short day-long safaris. He and I were already friends but on the trip became very close and he became almost a father figure to me. Another reason Mohammed went on the trip was as a translator and facilitator. We were visiting tribes that were of various faiths and we wanted to be certain we showed respect for other cultures. Mohammed was able to help us understand the differences of those we visited, keep us from showing disrespect by our dress or our behavior and, as he spoke several languages, was able to explain the purpose for our visit.
The trip was hot. There is very little vegetation in Northern Kenya. The desert stretched as far as the eye could see when the sand wasn’t billowing into every crevice of the truck and its passengers. Four wheels bounced over huge rocks on what someone mentioned was the road. The Road differed from the rest of the terrain to the extent that it appeared that more than one vehicle had traversed the same rocks. Essentially, it became a road by default-the other rocks were just a little bit bigger and thus impassable.
The truck was a large army truck, stuffed to the gills with everything needed for our two-week trip. There were no quick-stops or stores available to us and precious few places to find water. So we either brought what we needed or we did without. FIfty gallon drums of water and fuel were on the bed of the truck followed by 50 pound sacks of cornmeal and sugar, along with tea, tins of powdered milk, Crisco, and a few other staples. Then came the big cooking pots and utensils and finally our duffels of clothing. Topping it was a bunch of hot, smelly, happy youth singing and joking our way through the wilderness.
Our goal was to visit 5 or 6 villages and stay for two or three days each. We would stop early in the evening and our group leaders and Mohammed would meet the community leaders. After explaining who we were and our purpose for being there we would ask for permission to stay a few days. Without exception we were made welcome.
Camp would then be pitched. Mostly it consisted of making a fire and starting the evening meal and then everyone found a soft patch of sand and thorns to lay their blankets on. A few tried to find a not-too-lumpy spot in the back of the truck which sole advantage was to be out of the dirt and the path of the occasional desert creepy crawly.
Dinner was cornmeal. Yup, that’s what I said. We had cornmeal mush(kind of like grits), and ugali, which is grits cooked to death and sort of gummy (rhymes with yummy), and then we had it for breakfast. Actually, it kind of grows on you. You don’t get too hungry because it stays with you. We washed it down with as much tea as we could hold. Now, for those of you who haven’t been in Africa let me explain tea. First of all, that fancy stuff they call chai at your local coffee house. Well they stole the idea. You see, the real thing is called Chai and it is a whole lot more elemental. Boil your water, dump a bunch of tea leaves in it til it is good and strong, add a bunch of milk(best tasting is evaporated, but goat or camel also works in a pinch), and then, the most critical part of chai is to add lots and lots of sugar. So now we are a bunch of hot, smelly, hyper, happy youth, singing around a campfire. Trust me on this, it is one of the best times you could ever have!!! At several of the villages they gifted us with sheep or goats. Ugali tastes a lot better when it is accompanied by a stew of goat meat which is eaten mostly by dunking your ugali in the pot and scooping out some stew and broth. OK, this group did have spoons and bowls, but if memory served we still enjoyed doing it the old-fashioned way.
The following day was spent meeting people, making new friends and seeing if any of us could be of service in any way. Language was a barrier but friends are made from the heart so we managed to communicate quite well. We played with babies, demonstrated simple ways to wash children eyes with minute amounts of water to prevent eye disease, dispensed extra stuff that we realized we could share and drank more chai, that being a way of connecting in any language. Tthat night we showed the Jesus film and then spent much time discussing it with any interested people. The next day we would head to the next community.
One of the things I personally tried to do was hunt up any sort of water for any sort of bath. But for much of the year water is extremely scarce in the desert and used primarily for drinking. So mostly I just had to grin and hope I didn’t smell any worse than my friends.
So, what ever happened to the crocodile? Patience, my friend, this is Africa. Chai first then down to business.
We started on our last leg of the trip and passed near a large lake called Lake Turkana. This is a huge freshwater lake, smack in the middle of the desert. You are plodding a long on an endless dust rock pile. Suddenly you crest a hill and there it is. It is called the jade sea and is breathtakingly lovely. There are no big hotels to spoil the view or mobs of people, just turquoise water as far as you can see with a big dark island jutting out in the middle giving it depth and dimension. As you might guess, there was a collective cheer as we begged the driver to speed up and get us there.
We camped near the lake and did our usual preparations, then we raced to the water to bathe. After days of heat and dirt and sweat our skin craved the soothing water. Most of us immediately took baths(modestly clothed, of course, we were on a church trip after all). Then after scraping the gunk out of our hair and washing half of Africa off our bodies we started to swim and play. Keep in mind that this lake is home to quite a large population of big crocodiles some of whom are man eaters. We certainly did. So with all of our yen for the water we did not venture very deep. Most went only thigh deep. Mohammed and I, both very good swimmers, went slightly deeper to our waists but were still quite close to shore. About 100 yards off shore was a bed of reeds and beyond that we could see occasional crocs which made us nervous. Still, with the exuberance of youth we all splashed and dunked each other and pretended to be crocodiles. I even went so far as to bite Mohammed’s leg. He was not amused.
After awhile, the group began to dwindle and eventually only Mohammed and I were left. We were floating and talking and then just quietly enjoying the beauty around us. As the sun began streaking the horizon purple, I decided to dry and change while it was still light and I left without disturbing Mohammed who was happily floating on his back a few feet away.
A couple minutes late Mohammed felt me bump him. “Stop it Bobbi”, He said. I ignored him and did it again. “quit” he said. Again I bumped him. That’s enough, Bobbi!” he began to get cross. A chill suddenly struck him as he realized, “That’s not Bobbi”. Mohommed came out of that water so fast we later teased him that he walked on water like Jesus. Fortunately, the crocodile which he mistook for me did not quite know what to do with this prone creature that wasn’t moving and Mohommed’s sudden retreat allowed for a safe escape.
After this incident baths were ankle deep and very short and not nearly as satisfying. However, one escape was all any of us wanted to risk.
We laughed around the campfire that night and for many nights after. But I gave thanks then and still do that a Muslim Somali man and a Christian American teenager were safely delivered from a crocodile and were able to forge a friendship that went beyond beliefs and culture.