Oh, the mud splattered victims
Have to pay out all along the ancient highway
Torn between half-truths and victimization
Fighting back with counter attacks
It’s when that rough God goes riding
When that rough God goes gliding
And that rough God goes riding
Riding on in.
– from Rough God Goes Riding (Van Morrison, The Healing Game, 1997)
Thirteen years after we first stepped onto the plot of land God drew us to in 2005, an unexpected stream of water began flowing across the center of our Naomi’s Village property in late 2018. Surprised and dismayed, we sent a facilities department worker to track it up the mountain road to its origin. He discovered a pile of sandbags blocking a roadside drainage ditch that normally carried rainwater downhill towards a bridge equipped with large culverts feeding into a sizable riverbed. Despite the infrastructure constructed to accommodate it at the bridge, these sandbags were now diverting water from the drainage ditch to our community and our children’s home property.
Puzzled and annoyed by the blockage, we sent workers to remove the bags. The stream at Naomi’s Village dried up within minutes. We discovered that a group of motorcycle drivers who make money by ferrying passengers up and down the mountain road were the culprits, and they had a viable reason for placing the sandbags. Because the drainage ditch had not been completely dug all the way down to the bridge by the Kenyan government, any rainwater would flow to the end of the ditch, spill over, and flood the road surface down to the bridge crossing. During rainy season, this made motorcycle and small vehicle travel difficult. Additionally, the surface water threatened the integrity of the bridge itself. In fact, in 2012 and 2014, the bridge had been entirely washed out by improperly managed surface water from the mountain road.
While we waited on the government to finish their work on the drainage channels before the next rainy season, Julie and I were in the US for a large part of 2019. Unbeknownst to us, the people of the community around the sandbag site and a collective of motorcycle drivers agreed with government officials to construct a more permanent fixture to divert water our way. A large stone channel was designed and built where the sandbags had been found, complete with a wall on its downhill side. The wall was intended to bank flowing water into two large round culverts which passed perpendicular to and underneath the road surface. This meant that all future rainwater had to travel towards the community around Naomi’s Village. This manmade diversion was completed in September, one month before a record 8-month spate of rain began falling in October 2019.
Meanwhile, we were constructing our 4-year-old LEAP classroom building on NV’s property, including adequate drainage based on historical precedents for the area and our property in particular. Construction finished up in late September before the rains began. Because of the sandbag incident from the prior year, we installed a large culvert as a precaution so that any future diverted water could safely pass under the building’s foundation. Sure enough, some water began flowing through it as soon as the rainy season began in October. Our staff paid little attention to it in our absence, however.
After we arrived back in Kenya in November, the amount of water flowing across our property suggested a problem at the sandbag site again, so I drove up to investigate. Discovering the newly constructed setup that was diverting 100% of the mountain’s rainwater to Naomi’s Village, I was unhappy and felt that our community and ministry had been wronged. I called an area government official, who came to site. We met with a community elder and were told that the course the water was currently taking was “the natural course of the river that had been there since I was a boy.” Despite Julie and I protesting to the contrary, plus the obvious fact that the manmade diversion was the only thing making the water flow towards NV, he and others kept promoting that position over the coming weeks. Meanwhile, the rains kept falling in greater volume. Our preschoolers’ available play space became more compromised and dangerous. Government officials were informed several times and did nothing of substance for us. A few weeks later, in exasperation, we asked Naomi’s Village facilities workers to knock down the end wall with sledgehammers. This left the stone channel and culverts intact and maintained about 50% of the water flowing in each direction, a reasonable compromise.
All hell broke loose. Our water line from the mountains, which travels underground alongside that road, began to be severed intentionally. Death threats were made by another local elder from the mountain community to many people, including directly to Julie and me. Despite meetings at the diversion site to try and allow a government engineer and administrator to work out a compromise, the people would only accept one solution – that 100% of the water be diverted again towards Naomi’s Village and take “its natural course”, which they insisted it had once done in decades past. When we disagreed, they told us we should sell our property and move. We were lied about, threatened, and treated with contempt for offering to provide funds to dig the necessary drainage channels near the bottom of the mountain road to accommodate water. We tried to speak up and be understood and we pled on behalf of our children. But every point we made only caused the rift to grow deeper. Shouting and violence seemed inevitable at every turn, and our Kenyan staff were especially vulnerable during these meetings.
With machetes and clubs in hand, a few arrived at meetings looking ready for more than discussion. Some spoke of burning us and killing us if we ever came back up the hill again. While standing in the midst of angry shouting from both sides one day in Feb 2020, surprisingly unafraid but unable to be understood any longer, I had an epiphany. Though I’m not normally one to walk away from a matter of right and wrong, something suddenly relented inside me and all contentiousness dissolved. I could only hear and see real people that God loved this time around. And with just one more spark, they were about to erupt in terrible violence towards one another. Calmly, I began to raise my voice above the din, begging for them to stop yelling and fighting. Naomi’s Village was surrendering the matter. No water drainage issue was worth the cost of people killing one another.
In order to restore peace, we rebuilt the wall that same day with NV money and returned to our daily lives. We then met to figure out an internal solution at NV, considering the idea of adding a river water feature for the preschoolers. A private engineer designed a few options to help us, but expenses held us up. Meanwhile the rains fell harder each week. Inside, we felt increasingly defeated as we watched the on-site river growing in width.
Every time I passed a motorcycle driver on a nearby road, bitterness welled up in my spirit, like acid spoiling my peace. The faces of Kenyan locals, once lovely to me, seemed tinged with a scowl. Was I projecting my own frustrations back upon them? Something was just not right anymore. We had come with a vivid call from God to this community, willing to surrender ourselves for those in need, and to never allow discouragement to send us packing. Where had all the grace gone? Why couldn’t we get some from them in return when we needed it? We felt wounded and alone, though not among our staff and kids, who were suffering in the same way.
On the evening of May 5, everything changed. After months of rain, a massive section of earth supporting the Kijabe Railway line along the escarpment above us suddenly gave way. This disaster released millions of gallons of stagnant water, stones, and mud in a vicious flash, sending them straight down the mountain road and through its communities.
At around 8 PM, with the roads empty due to a government mandated 7 PM curfew, an ominous rumble began. Fearful locals streamed outside their homes among hills overlooking the sunken mountain road, which had always looked as if it had been built on top of an old riverbed. The sound grew louder, portending a catastrophe. Unable to run away, those with a view watched in horror as a gigantic torrent of mud and stones hurtled past, destroying the manmade diversion and gutting the road. The flow uprooted large trees and demolished numerous farms in its wake. Although nobody was injured or killed, livestock were swept away and lost forever.
A significant part of the flood waters struck Naomi’s Village, flattening and twisting fifty yards of heavy steel fencing on each side, wiping out the center one third of our property with mud and debris, and causing significant damage to the LEAP 4-year-old building. Only the day before, we had approved a budget for a drainage system for the smaller river that had been flowing through our property. God had other plans.
As day broke the following morning, we drove around in our Honda Quad and 4-wheel drive Land Cruisers to survey the damage. Only one of the four local bridges remained partially intact, making access to Naomi’s Village tenuous. Roads were devastated, with few being passable. Fences were down everywhere.
Two local community members died in the coming days, unrelated to the flood. Families held traditional Kikuyu burial services within the devastated area, so we provided assistance from our drivers and four-wheel drive vehicles to carry caskets and mourners from a mortuary across the muddy bridge and to their homes. Sorrow and joy mingled on faces, much like the mud and rainwater swirling around our feet.
Every day, the rain has continued to fall as we repair roads with loads of quarry stones, tow stuck vehicles out of the mud, ferry passengers across raging waters, deliver food, water and other supplies, and struggle to repair our fencing and finish the drainage system. What might seem like drudgery is instead a constant adventure, a chance to serve and be served in the middle of a purposeful maelstrom.
We have supplied masks, a forehead thermometer, pulse oximeter, medication, construction supplies, tools, and workers to the community elders who are leading relief and repair efforts. On Sunday May 10 we participated in a day-long meeting at a local church, wisely mediated by our Member of the County Assembly (M.C.A.), an elected official. This meeting led to reconciliation between Naomi’s Village leaders and the community leaders from the mountain area where the water was being diverted our way. Both sides publicly apologized, multiple community members spoke about the effects of the tragedy and gave suggestions for how to solve our water drainage issues, and there were numerous compromises achieved.
Having our fences down at NV for the past 10 days has opened more than our property. Our hearts and actions towards our community have been much more outwardly focused and intentionally loving. Without God’s sudden and deliberate action of sending this flood to strike Naomi’s Village, we might never have made those changes. And other community members have helped us around NV by pitching in to work, giving to our efforts, and praying for us.
The destruction of the manmade water diversion on the mountain road took away the motorcycle drivers’ business and opened up two-way discussions about the need to better handle the water flowing down the mountain. Ever since that time, unimpeded rainwater has followed the road’s course. These lessons were painful ones for the entire community. Yet despite some initial stubbornness, we all came to the table, reconciled, and agreed to work together. God had to make those things happen. We know now that those doors would not have opened in another way. New friendships have begun to spring up from the soil of enmity, and hope is now our community’s mantle.
In the end, we will finish the robust drainage system that diverts the majority of water around NV and LEAP, allowing most of it to pass through our community instead of down the mountain road. Barring any further catastrophic events, we are confident that future rainy seasons can be accommodated with this system. But if not, the group agreed to consider adding 2 other solutions on Sunday, which was another step in the right direction.
So, if any of you feel your trials have gone on far too long, or that the storms in your life may not end, I say remain faithful to Him and wait. Perhaps God has yet another storm ahead, one with greater purposes hidden in every drop of its glorious and healing water. Do not fear His ways. Remember that when the hearts of His children are at stake, He will do whatever it takes to keep them soft and full of love for one another. And He knows how to do that best in the most surprising of ways, even if it means you end up covered in life’s mud, laughing and crying at the same time.
By Bob Mendonsa