Sunday was our first experience going to our new assignment called the Kulunga Hills Area (four branches there). It takes about 2 1/2 - 3 hours travel one way (when you know where you are going!) The young elders, Assistants to the President, went with us the first time to show us the way. It has been raining hard here and the roads through the hills are clay-slick. The elders had been in touch with the Mitini Branch President who assured them that the roads were okay to come; but we were surely grateful for our 4-wheel drive pickup.
On the way coming and going we saw zebras, antelope, and about a dozen giraffes, close to the road like animals at our Sunridge property. Three giraffes were eating at one tree, close to the road. It's like being in a different world. The Masai tribesmen (men and boys) work dressed in their native red plaid blankets wrapped around them and are seen herding their cattle along the sides of the roads, in the village lawns and fields. It's almost like a dream and we have to pinch ourselves to see if it is real.
People don't drive with rules here and there are few road signs. If someone's car or truck stops, they just leave it where it is, often unmarked or with big rock or tree branches along the road to signal a problem. Driving is very stressful (for the driver and for his companion!) We passed through several native villages that looked like what we would call slums at home, but it is where people live and have small, open front stores made out of sticks. They just sell produce or whatever they are able to get. As we drove through the villages they would all watch us as we were very conspicuous as white people in a white truck! The tribe in our area is very peaceful and we didn't feel threatened. We are just careful.
The country up in the hills is like I picture the country in Italy. It is mountainous and green with terraced farms. Part of the drive was up so high we were in the clouds or mist as we drove. The roads were wet and slick. Even with four-wheel drive I was glad Elder Blake was driving and not me. It took skill to stay on the road and out of the trenches at the sides! Even up in the mountains there were Matatus everywhere (small, van-like buses) taking the people here and there. (They drive crazy, like they were in a race!)
Pictured above: Terraced land where people live and their "shambas" or gardens for growing their food.
Now for the important part. When we finally arrived at the Mitini Branch there were people out watching and waiting for us. It was raining and the Branch President was out in his suit and gum boots to direct us where to part (the only vehicle there and on the side of a hill). They meet in an old abandoned school. They were proud to tell us that they had painted the walls of the larger meeting room (chapel) just that week and that they hoped to have glass in the windows soon. The president invited us to meet in his office before meeting for prayer. It was a small room, about 9' by 10', with just room for a desk, 4 chairs and a 4-drawer file cabinet (all provided by the church.) There was no electricity so if the door was pushed closed it was totally dark. We met with the president, first counselor, the elders, and Elder Blake and I. What a spiritual prayer. You don't have to have all the amenities of home to have the spirit present. They then took us on a tour of the different "classrooms" which were sizes up to about 12' x 12' (for the larger one), with dozens of small chairs packed together, to hold up to 50 people. Most of the rooms were leaking water through the tin roof. For restrooms (they call toilet rooms) there were two small outhouse looking structures with just a square hole in the middle - pit toilets - no sit downs.
We went back to the room where sacrament meeting was held. As we were 1/2 hour early we were able to greet people as they came in. They were so friendly. Some were quite shy. The elders had taught us how to greet the children by saying, "Watja" and the children would answer "aya", (sp?) The children would keep peeking at us and then smiling. They all came in clean Sunday clothes, many quite humbly dressed, and some without shoes. The priesthood boys all had white shirts and ties and took what they did very seriously. The children sat on their chairs very reverently, without cheerios, Crayons, or anything else. I'm sure many didn't even understand what was being said as it was all in English and many don't speak as yet, but they listened reverently.
People kept coming and coming until every chair was full and some were standing. There are about 150 members in the branch and they had 206 people in attendance that day because of the rain. Last week there were 266 because of investigators, which meant that 50-60 had to stand in the two doorways, or listen through the windows (because no glass). It is overwhelming. They read their Books of Mormon and are very serious about gospel study. The spirit is touching the hearts of these people like we've never seen before. We were totally humbled by what we saw and felt. It was a very moving, emotional experience for us, even before the service started.
The Branch President spoke and then all four of the missionaries bore our testimonies. They sang the hymns without any accompaniment (no piano or electricity for keyboards) and they sang with all their hearts. They sang from a few LDS Hymn books, and the hymn melodies aren't quite as they are written; but they put their hearts into it!
After sacrament meeting I visited the primary and fell in love with the cute little children sitting on their little chairs, some without shoes even in the cool and rain, and listening and repeating back the lesson and singing the primary songs (even "Once There Was a Snowman" which they loved, when they had never seen snow or ice!) The older primary class was studying the pioneers in Winter Quarters. They love and identify with the pioneers as that is what they are in this country. Elder Blake attended priesthood and was directed to teach the class on the "Oath and Covenant of the Priesthood" (D&C 84). We love the people already. I even got to hold a cute little baby about four months old for a few minutes. She'd keep looking up and smiling at me. It made me a little homesick.
Pictured above: Two of the Mitini Branch sisters with Sister Blake and the branch building in the background.
We will be going back up there Wednesday if it doesn't rain too much. (Some one will need to help us find the other 3 villages - branches, so we haven't been to them yet. There are no road numbers or maps, and names of villages we pass through are not evident.) Starting at 10:00 a.m., we've been asked to teach two of the three baptismal preparation classes of investigators, which means teach them to understand English, since that is a requirement for baptism here; and teach them the gospel for baptism readiness. We are a little nervous as we are used to teaching together; and because it is hard for us to understand what they say to us. We think of teaching one or two or a family and not as a group and alone. (Please pray for us. We can't do it alone. We also pray that we can find our way back there without the elders!)
Our hearts are full of love for our family and friends. Thanks for your love and support and email notes. The other missionary couples here are wonderful and have been so good to us, but we still are experiencing considerable culture shock and enjoy hearing from home.
Our love to you all.