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Unrest in Kenya

By Julie Ooms

“It makes you wonder how humans can do this to other humans,” says Steve Hoekstra, Dordt alumnus and airplane mechanic for Africa Inland Missions (AIM). His words come via e-mail from where he and his wife, Jami, are living in Nairobi, Kenya. He’s responding to the overwhelming violence that shook the country aft er the elections on December 27, 2007.

Since it gained independence from Great Britain in 1963, Kenya has been one of Africa’s more politically stable countries. It’s also a popular destination for tourists, especially for those who want to experience an “African safari.” And Kenya has a strong Christian population—Christianity is the country’s major religion, in fact. Mission work has had a signifi cant impact on Kenya, and democracy has a strong foothold, despite the persistence of tribalism.

Steve (ex ’07) and Jami (Smith, ’07) Hoekstra are in Kenya and have been for several months because, as Jami says, “While we were dating we felt a tug at our hearts to be involved in missions. Once married, we started looking at organizations that needed airplane mechanics, which is what Steve does.” Someone with information about AIM came to Dordt one day, and aft er praying and discussing it with friends and each other, the Hoekstras applied to serve with them. “By signing on to work with AIM, we knew we would be serving in Kenya, since that’s where AIM Air’s main hangar is located,” says Jami. “We decided to serve for nine months to see how AIM works and operates.” Th eir service in Kenya is, according to Jami, a direction rather than a fi xed destination. “By the end of our time here we hope to have a clearer picture of where the Lord is leading us. It seemed like the Lord opened all the doors for us to come to Kenya.” Aft er their nine months in Kenya, they will probably live in the States for a few years while Steve goes back to school to train to be a pilot. A big part of mission work for the Hoekstras is learning to trust in God fully for guidance and direction.

Andrea Dykshoorn, a 2007 Dordt grad with majors in history and political studies, worked in Kenya on a fi ve-month internship with the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA). “During my years at Dordt, I became interested in international development work,” she says, also writing via e-mail, although she is now back home in Canada. “Aft er graduating, I decided to pursue this interest by gaining hands-on experience. I also fi gured that a short-term development project in a country like Kenya would perhaps give God the opportunity to show me the ‘writing on the wall’ and give me guidance for the future.”

Heather Kooiman

Heather Kooiman

Dykshoorn’s work soon became less of an opportunity for God to guide her into the future, and more of an opportunity for her to experience his will and presence in what she was doing right then.

As a Christian, the experience was... wow, I don’t even know what to say. I think that maybe the best way to say it is through a story. About a month into my fi ve-month stay in Western Kenya, the other CIDA intern I was working with had to return to Canada for a family emergency, and she was not coming back. Aft er a twelve-hour ‘African massage’ to Nairobi over the worst roads I’ve experienced in my life, I said good-bye to my colleague. At that time, I started to worry about loneliness— because although I’d made friends in the village, I would now be the only ‘muzungu’—white person—around. But from the time I left the airport to the time I returned to the Western Province, God showed me in so many ways that I was not alone.” Dykshoorn spent a weekend with the Hoekstras before returning to her Kenyan host family. There she was welcomed with enthusiastic hugs from two Kenyan friends and her host father. Her host mother had supper waiting when she arrived home, and another Kenyan friend brought her fresh tea. Then her parents called, out of the blue, just to see how she was doing. “By that point, it had become pretty clear to me that I was not alone.” She knows God was with her, guiding her, and he was with the people in Kenya, guiding them. Even-perhaps especially-in the worst circumstances.

Another Dordt alumna, Heather Kooiman, working in Uganda while the Hoekstras and Dykshoorn were in Kenya, was in Kenya celebrating Christmas with Dykshoorn, her former roommate, when violence broke out over the elections. Kooiman works with an organization called Save the Mothers, which strives to reduce the numbers of women who die in childbirth or from pregnancy complications across the world. Kooiman felt called to the work she is doing because of experiences she had at Dordt. She studied for a semester in Hungary, and what she saw left her changed. “

Roommates and 2007 graduates Jena Helmus, Heather Kooiman, and Andrea Dykshoorn took a break from
their work in Bahrain, Uganda, and Kenya to spent Christmas together in Kenya before they were evacuated.

Roommates and 2007 graduates Jena Helmus, Heather Kooiman, and Andrea Dykshoorn took a break from their work in Bahrain, Uganda, and Kenya to spent Christmas together in Kenya before they were evacuated.

After visiting Romania, Hungary, the Ukraine, and other areas in Eastern Europe, I felt that I could not go back and live my life in Canada the same again. If there was something I could do to help, I wanted to do it. So during my time at Dordt, I went on a number of short mission trips. But I didn’t know how much we were actually helping. I felt that short term mission trips just make people dependent on aid from outsiders, which will not break the cycle of poverty.” When she found out about Save the Mothers, she thought it offered a way to make real changes in the developing world.

These four Dordt alumni are full of stories of hope and human kindness—and just plain good humor—from their experiences in Kenya and Uganda. A good chunk of Dykshoorn’s bulleted list of funny anecdotes involve experiences with chickens. Memorable moments include “Holding in one hand a live chicken brought by a student to the staff room of a local school, while collecting data with the other hand,” “riding the ‘chicken bus’ to the nearest town forty-five minutes away,” and “realizing that there’s no such thing as a non-chicken bus.” Dykshoorn, Kooiman, and the Hoekstras say they saw God’s hand—and humor—at work.

But the strife surrounding the elections—and the way these four believe Christians in North America need to respond to it—follows shortly after. All four have seen both sides of life in Kenya. On one hand is a prevalence of churches and people who are content with what North Americans would consider very little. On the other hand are tribalism and government corruption. Tribalism, in particular, led to the hatred they saw displayed in the post-election violence.

“One thing that has struck a chord with us is the bitterness these people feel towards those of other tribes,” says Jami. Kenya’s thirty-seven million people are split into around forty different ethnic groups, and conquering the division between groups is a difficult task. When Raila Odinga, who led in pre-election polls, was defeated narrowly by incumbent Mwai Kibaki in what many people considered a rigged election, tribal violence broke out across the country. By New Year’s Day, more than three hundred were dead.

“The trust is gone, the caring for one another is gone. Why? Because of their hatred for those of other tribes. Tribalism, the root cause of the hatred and violence in Kenya, has never really been addressed. Peace here was like a tasty frosting over a rotten cake. It looked good, but if you checked out the center you would be disgusted with what you were eating,” says Jamie.

“While all the election chaos was going on, we stayed in our house and didn’t go out much,” Steve says. “We could hear yelling from the crowds and hear the police shooting tear gas, but we still felt somewhat isolated from it in the neighborhood. During the worst of it, AIM was doing evacuations from Eldoret and I went along on several flights. The first flight I went on was in the evening, and the sun set just before we got to Eldoret. As we flew in, we could see fires across the land before us, and each one was a house or a farm. We got there and loaded up the airplane, and I had to tell the small crowd of people that we had only three seats left—the rest would have to sleep in the airport and wait for us to return in the morning. That was very difficult. The worst I saw was the fires, but our passengers told us worse things. No one picked up the bodies in the street, they said, and dogs were eating them. The first flight AIM took out had forty-five passengers, and they brought with them 170 kilograms of baggage. That was all the earthly possessions they had left. Their homes and farms were burned. It all averaged less than four kilos per passenger.”

Kooiman and Dykshoorn were still together after celebrating Christmas when election day came and the violence broke out. “We spent our time in the village because we could not go out to the main street. There were shootings, riots, and road blocks,” says Kooiman. The pump for their well stopped working, followed by the power, and neither were fixed because the roadblocks kept people from coming to do repairs. After several days, they were told to pack their bags and prepare to leave.

“A huge pickup truck full of soldiers with guns came to pick us up and bring us to the Kakamega airstrip,” Kooiman continues. “Once we hit the main road, it became obvious that Kenya was changing. The streets are usually filled with people walking places, but there wasn’t a person in sight. Stones filled the roads to make roadblocks, and there were burned buildings and markets all along the streets.” They took a six-seater plane to Nairobi, and Kooiman flew back to Uganda shortly thereafter.

“There are good stories, too,” Steve says, “that happened during the violence, although not enough to overcome it. The first flight I was on out of Eldoret filled up, and there was still a pregnant woman on the ground. One of the passengers came back off the plane and gave her his seat. Then there were the three men who kept the Eldoret airport open—they couldn’t go back to their homes because they were burned or it was too dangerous for them to go back and see if they still had houses. They stayed at the airport and kept it operating for evacuations. The fuel truck operator at Eldoret worked tirelessly from morning to night without the prospect of being paid. But there aren’t enough good stories to drown out the bad ones.”

How should Christians respond? Though it’s true that hardship in other parts of the world makes us more truly grateful for the freedom and peace we enjoy in North America, such a response doesn’t seem to be enough.

“Each of us needs to look at how our personal skills can help someone else, and pray that God can use us as his servants in his kingdom, wherever and however that may be,” Kooiman says.

Dykshoorn agrees, and elaborates. “I’ve always felt a conviction because of the words of Luke 12:48. This verse says, ‘From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded.’ I’ve been so blessed already in this life—both materially and through experiences. But now, I also have a responsibility to act on these blessings. Sometimes that terrifies me, because I don’t know where God is leading me, and whether, in my selfish and individualistic human ways, I really want to follow. Yet I have seen so clearly that wherever I do go, I will not be alone.”