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What 10 days in Kenya taught me

Watching missionaries at work in a parched and remote region, I was both awed by what the human spirit is capable of and aware of my own limitations

There is a question I've been grappling with since I got back from Kenya last month.

Invariably, friends who knew about our itinerary would ask: "How was your trip?" And invariably, I would be tempted to sum it up as great. But "great" is both inaccurate and inadequate, an overstatement and an understatement.

Overstatement because it was not a great holiday by conventional standards - if you could call it a holiday at all. There was no pretty scenery to boast of and certainly no luxury pampering.

It is also an understatement because the word fails to convey the awe and wonder that filled me every day.

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Over 10 days, I observed missionaries at work in villages scattered across a parched, unyielding landscape. I left feeling inspired by what the human spirit is capable of, but also painfully aware of my own limitations.

It all began when my husband and I got to know Father Francis, a Malaysian priest in his 50s from a Catholic mission based in Kenya.

ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE

Called the Missionary Community of St Paul the Apostle or MCSPA, the group is made up of priests and lay volunteers who put their faith into action, improving the lot of the most marginalised people in the most remote regions.

When Father Francis was in town last year to visit friends, my godmother arranged for him to meet a group of us and talk about the work his community does in Africa.

From digging dams and boreholes to building schools and dispensaries, from training the locals in agricultural know-how to teaching them about hygiene and nutrition, MCSPA has set up 10 mission bases in four African countries in the last 30 years.

"Come and see for yourselves," he urged. He now helms a mission house in a poor area of Metro Manila in the Philippines that serves as MCSPA's base in Asia, but still spends a few months each year in some of its African missions in Kenya, Ethiopia, Malawi and South Sudan.

What started as a fanciful idea for us grew into a feasible itinerary. My husband and I, along with my godmother and her husband, began planning our trip earlier this year.

The prospect of setting foot in Africa for the first time was exciting, even as doubts niggled at me: What will I do there? How can I be of help? As it turned out, nothing I did made an iota of difference to the people there. But meeting them has left a lasting impact on me.

Getting to MCSPA's mission headquarters in Nariokotome took a 25-hour journey, which entailed two flights and a five-hour, bone-rattling car ride on dirt tracks.

The village is in Turkana, Kenya's second largest county, which has been tagged the cradle of mankind. It was here in 1984 that the 1.5 million-year-old skeleton of a boy, the most complete early- human fossil to date, was unearthed.

Though rich in archaeological finds, Turkana, about the size of Ireland, is one of the poorest regions in Kenya, not to mention among the driest and hottest.

The double whammy of perennial drought and barren land leaves its more than 900,000 inhabitants teetering constantly on the brink of starvation. Food insecurity has, in turn, led to armed conflicts as tribes clash over water points, grazing land and livestock.

Mr Peter Lokoel, the county's deputy governor, has been quoted as saying: "Almost everything in Turkana is an emergency."

It is no coincidence that the four MCSPA missions in Kenya are all located in the isolated region.

Survival is a real and daily battle in this vast, arid scrubland, where people can walk for hours each day in search of water.

And yet, the locals still take joy in simple pleasures: hitching a ride in a rare passing truck, chatting around a well or playing with a discarded tyre.

And yet we were shown nothing but unbridled warmth everywhere, from kids who clamoured to hold our hands as we visited the schools and villages to women who grabbed us by the arm in church, inviting us to join their joyful after-mass ritual that was more prancing than dancing.

And yet you have people who were lucky enough to be born elsewhere, but chose instead to sink roots in this inhospitable land, devoting their lives to bettering those of others.

This was what moved me the most because it is what I believe myself least capable of doing.

"Why?" I asked Cecilia, a nurse who arrived from Spain 30 years ago and has since called Kenya home. Along with a team of female volunteers, she runs the mission in Kokuselei village, about an hour's drive from Nariokotome. "What made you stay on?"

"Oh, I don't know," she replied with a laugh. "I guess God called me to."

Others gave variations of the same answer.

Pedro, a 27-year-old economist from Madrid, first visited the Kenyan mission in Lobur with a group of volunteers for a month-long stint. He returned last September and is in no hurry to leave this time.

"Something in this place touched me," he said, ruffling the hair of the kids who swarmed around us as we toured a local nutritional unit set up by MCSPA. It was where the younger children went to get their daily meals and some basic education.

The community draws many priests and volunteers from Spain, presumably because its founder, Father Paco, hailed from there. He died of cancer in 2013, but his indomitable spirit lives on in those who have taken on the mantle.

These people don't just preach about the love of God, but live out their faith. They roll up their sleeves and jump into the trenches, meeting the people's basic demands for food, water and shelter even as they minister to their spiritual needs.

Over in Todonyang, where tensions between the Turkana people and the Dassanech tribe just across the border in Ethiopia often erupt into violence and bloodshed, the MCSPA has the added task of promoting stability.

While its schools emphasise the learning of English as a passport to brighter prospects and thus a means to break the poverty cycle, the boarding school in Todonyang has a special focus on peace initiatives. It takes in children from both sides in the hope that, with greater interaction and understanding, future generations will grow up to be friends rather than foes.

Nothing comes easily in this neglected corner of north-western Kenya, where we Singaporeans struggled with the blistering heat and ubiquitous flies. But nothing seems to faze the hardy MCSPA folks, who are focused only on what can be done next and done better.

We got lost at least twice and had car trouble three times while traversing across Turkana's unforgiving dirt roads. Each time, Father Francis and a young, genial Kenyan seminarian called Stephen would hop out, survey the situation and do the necessary to get us on the road again. No hand-wringing, no calling for back-up - not that there were phone signals or a towing service anyway.

And for those who doubt anything green can be coaxed from Turkana's barren soil, the avuncular Father Albert will gladly share the success story of Lobur's mission shamba, or garden. About five years ago, he roped in a group of Israeli scientists with expertise in desert agriculture. Today, he proudly gives tours around the 2ha "model farm" which teems with assorted fruit and vegetables, including kale and kangkong.

To date, the project has trained more than 150 people from the semi-nomadic communities in desert subsistence farming, boosting food security and generating income for the locals as they return to their families and start their own plots.

The MCSPA community is hardwired to be resourceful, resilient and entirely self-reliant.

The Nariokotome mission base, for instance, is a tightly run ship, self-sufficient in not just water and electricity. The community grows its own crops, raises its own fowls and cattle, runs its own carpentry and auto repair workshops and even produces its own wine.

Their can-do spirit put me to shame. I contributed nothing but inconvenience to the people there during my stay. I came down with diarrhoea after a week and then developed a heat rash that was so bad, they had to dip into their medical supplies to give me an ointment.

"I'm embarrassed to tell people I'm here on a mission trip," I told Father Francis. He redefined it for me quickly: "It's a mission awareness trip."

He was right. We are greeted each day by news of what people around the world are doing to one another. During those 10 days, I became acutely aware of what people can do forone another instead.

My time in Turkana has changed something in me. For starters, my newfound appreciation for Singapore's immaculate tarmac roads has made me a lot more patient behind the wheel.

I pray that I may one day be an agent of change for others too. That, then, would be great indeed.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 09, 2017, with the headline 'What 10 days in Kenya taught me'. Print Edition | Subscribe