As an international war correspondent, my work takes me to more than a dozen far-flung war zones every year. In my travels, I am often reminded just how thin the veneer of civilization really is, and get to meet many families caught in crisis and see the different ways they manage to survive.
A recent trip to Africa brought one of the most powerful examples, where I met a family of missionaries who have built their lives in one of the most harsh and inhospitable corners of the planet. While for most survivalists, prepping for “TEOTWAWKI” is a “what if” scenario, for these missionaries preparedness is an everyday, life-or-death reality.
They are what you could call “extreme missionaries;” Christian families who move far beyond the end of the pavement to bring the good news of God’s love to people who have no concept of things like peace, forgiveness, redemption, grace or even civilization.
When my oldest son, Mason and I landed in Nairobi, we were picked up by the T. family. They’ve been working in Kenya for four generations, and live in the far northern part of the country on the shores of the world’s largest desert lake – Lake Turkana.
When they moved there twenty years ago, the four tribes living in the area (Rendille, Samburu, Turkana and El Molo) were all at war with each other. They would often raid each others’ villages and steal each others’ camels, goats and women. There was little fresh water, (the lake is barely potable, since it has no outlet) and since the tribes considered fish to be unclean, food was also scarce. The ground is volcanic rock, and almost nothing grows in the infertile soil. Temperatures often top 130 degrees in summer, and rarely get below 100. To call it a hard, inhospitable place would be the height of understatement.
The trip to their home took 23 hours of driving from Nairobi – most of it on desert two-track and much of it requiring 4-wheel drive. We made the trip heavily armed, as Somali bandits are known to ambush vehicles in that area. Not long ago another mission family was ambushed and the wife shot in the leg. We kept a sentry posted on top of the truck at all times to keep an eye out for bandits and make them think twice when they saw a man with a shotgun. Jim has worked with the Kenyan government to be able to legally carry a firearm wherever he goes. This is necessary because of the large number of wild animals – both human and otherwise. Lions were the biggest danger, but during our drive to Loiyangalani, we enjoyed seeing camels, dik-dik, topi, and many others. Mason and the T.’s daughter spent most of the trip riding on the rack above the truck’s cab, spotting wildlife. It occurred to me that such a thing would probably get a guy arrested back in the states, but here in Kenya, the nanny state was nowhere to be found. A refreshing feeling, to say the least.
After a grueling two-day trip, we arrived at the mission station. When the T.’s first moved to Lake Turkana, they lived in a shipping container and camped out in front of it. They cooked on three rocks, like the locals. Eventually Jim identified a spring near the only stand of palm trees in the area (which all the locals used as a bathroom since it afforded the only privacy for miles). He talked the local elders into allowing him to fence off the area and then dig out the spring. He installed a cistern once he hit bedrock and then put in underground piping to four water points – one for each tribe. The spring today pumps out 230 gallons a minute of water so pure you could bottle it, and serves almost 10,000 people. Without the spring to fight over, the four tribes now live in relative harmony together in the village, something which previously would have been unthinkable to them. It’s a great lesson on survival – working to make allies of one’s neighbors, thereby making everyone safer.
Jim and his family must be completely self-sufficient for up to four months at at time. They have a larder which can sustain them for over a year, but gardening is impossible due to the high temperatures, desert climate and volcanic soil. Camel meat is available from time to time in the village, but other than that, they must plan, and shop for only a few trips a year to the nearest grocery store – in Nairobi. Jim’s wife, Barb, has become an expert at planning, cooking from scratch and coping with unexpected visitors from time to time. Jim and his sons supplement their the family’s protein by fishing Lake Turkana for giant nile perch. He says they have enough fishing tackle to survive on fish for “at least a thousand years.” They took Mason and I fishing during our visit. We spent two hours trolling the lake in a tiny john boat, which made me a little nervous since the lake is known for its giant salt-water crocodiles. Our afternoon on the lake yielded two “small” Nile perch, which fleshed out to about forty pounds of meat. We feasted on the succulent fish that night and Barb canned or froze what we couldn’t eat.
An engineer by trade, Jim has built a very comfortable and secure fortress for his family in this desolate place. A year after moving to Loiyangalani, Jim identified a seam of limestone that protruded from the lava rock in an area near the village. He then taught two local men how to quarry the limestone and make building stones of it. He then agreed to purchase all the stones they could make until his home was built. Those men are today two of the most prosperous (and hardworking!) men in the village.
From these stones, Jim constructed a two-story home that is a model of a secure survival retreat. Built in the shape of a squared-off horseshoe, the main part of the house holds the sleeping quarters (upstairs), kitchen, bathroom, living and dining areas, and a large pantry. Beneath the larder is a large “panic room” accessed through a blast-proof metal trap door. Inside are supplies for at least six months, camping gear, etc. The air vents for the panic room are disguised around the house, and built such that if some Goblin were to get the bright idea to drop a grenade down one of them, a hidden trap at crotch-level would absolutely ruin his day.
The windows are secured with built-in iron bars, and the doors made from plywood laminated over plate steel thick enough to stop small arms fire, machetes, et cetera. The stones from which the home is built would stand up to anything up to rocket-propelled grenades.
The home is situated on a knoll above the village, and Jim has made use of an old bulldozer and backhoe to ensure that there is only one way into and out of his redoubt by vehicle. The third-floor rooftop of the home is constructed with four-foot crenellated walls with flip-up metal firing ports, commanding unobstructed fields of fire in every direction. The roof also holds two 1,000-gallon potable water tanks which gravity-feed the plumbing system in the house. Two more 1,000-gallon tanks sit in the back of his old Mercedes deuce-and-a-half truck, and every month or so he drives to the spring and pumps them full, then uses them to re-fill the tanks in his home. He keeps all four tanks full at all times. His plan is to eventually dig a well on his own property to further secure his water supply.
Jim has two wind turbines (Lake Turkana is one of the most consistently windy places on the planet) and a solar array, from which he generates his power. The battery bank sits in a small locking closet in the laundry/guest bedroom.
There is a garage attached to the house, fully stocked with tools and other supplies. Between that and the laundry on the other end of the main structure, a large raised concrete patio provides shaded outdoor living space with gorgeous views of Lake Turkana in the distance. A shortwave radio enables periodic communication with other missionaries around the country. A detached petroleum, oils, and lubricants (POL) shed holds drums of fuel, oil and other petroleum products, enough for at least a year of use for vehicles and back-up generators. Most of their local transportation is accomplished on the four Honda ATVs which are always kept in top running condition, and are customized with winches, spotlights and small air compressors.
The T.’s have worked hard over the years to improve the lives of the people to whom they minister, physically as well as spiritually. Jim recognized that security was an absolute must for the local populace before he could bring them the good news of God’s love. So he set out to train and equip the men of the village to protect their families. By working with the Kenyan government, a local police force was established, and the men of the village were recruited into a kind of “neighborhood watch.” He taught them how to use the same limestone block he used on his own home to build stone huts for their families. For about the price of a camel, the villagers can replace their mud-and-stick huts, which are unsanitary, fire-prone and give no security, with stone huts that are much better in every way. He taught them about sanitation and convinced them that fish from the lake were safe to eat. Jim and his family are all trained in EMT and wilderness medicine, and his sons became the village ambulance service in their early teens. They constructed an ingenious “floating” litter trailer which is pulled behind the ATV that enables them to transport an injured or sick villager the six hours to the nearest clinic, run by fellow missionaries.
They started a church by holding a family Bible study every morning in front of their home. Curious tribesmen and women would come and listen as they had their devotions, eventually asking questions and one by one being converted to the Christian faith. Today the church has nearly 100 members, who have pooled their resources to build a limestone church building, which Jim designed in such a way that it also serves as an emergency shelter for the villagers in case of attack. It is flame proof, highly secure and boasts a three-story tower with firing ports covering all angles of approach.
The first night of our visit with the family, I was jolted awake at 3am by the sound of gunfire in the village, about 300 yards from Jim’s front door. I sat up in bed, but before I could react further, I heard Jim’s voice booming out of the upstairs window, “Holton! Get inside quick!”
My sleeping teenage son was exhausted from our two-day trek to Loiyangalani. Tired enough that the gunfire failed to rouse him. I jumped up and dragged his limp form the fifteen yards or so to the main house. (we had been sleeping in the laundry room). By the time we got inside, he was awake, though may not have yet remembered what country we were in. He was further perplexed when Jim appeared at the bottom of the stairs dressed in level-III body armor, kevlar helmet and boxer shorts, carrying two pump shotguns. He tossed one to me and the other at Mason, and stationed each of us near windows overlooking the front and rear of the house. That cleared the cobwebs out of Mason’s brain in a hurry.
Tense minutes passed as the sound of sporadic gunfire drifted up from the village below. Jim was back upstairs, calling the local police commander on his cellular telephone. I marveled that there was cell service this far from civilization. After a half hour or so, the firing had subsided and Jim was able to piece together what had happened: Somali bandits had raided the village intending to steal a herd of camels. To their credit, the men of the village had driven the bandits off with some well-controlled bursts of gunfire from their personal arsenals of aged AK-47s. Jim commented that several years ago, the men had no weapons other than spears and knives, and likely would have abandoned their camels, homes and families and run away. Jim’s example of preparedness has led the villagers to be much more willing to stand up for themselves and protect their families. In so doing, he has made his own family that much more secure.
Loiyangalani is still a dangerous place to live. But Jim has done just about everything possible to safeguard not only his own family, but the entire community. In addition to that, the T. family has established a training center in North Carolina called “The Master’s Mission,” where would-be missionaries spend eleven months learning skills like construction, alternative energy, animal husbandry, civil engineering, auto maintenance, personal protection and more. This enables them to survive and thrive in a third-world ministry field. But it’s not just missionaries who need these skills. Anyone serious about being prepared for uncertain times could learn from the example of this intrepid missionary family.
For photos of our trip to Kenya, visit this Flickr page. I also made a news feature about our trip which aired on the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN). An extended version of this video is available here.