the jacob’s well and pokot, kenya story
You might wonder how God managed to connect two such out-of-the-way places as the village of Asilong in the county of West Pokot, Kenya and Jacob’s Well in Kansas City. The best place to start the story is in Uganda in the mid-2000s. Edward Simiyu, a pastor of a church in Nairobi, was at a conference in Kampala, Uganda where he began to hear about the specific needs of the Pokot people who live in western Kenya and eastern Uganda. Although reticent to begin ministering among the Pokot because of the ongoing violence in the area, perpetrated by warriors from the Pokot and neighboring ethnic groups over livestock and water resources, Pastor Simiyu felt called by God. Edward would bring a group of Pokot out of their homeland and introduce them to the development of Nairobi and the peaceful ways of the Maasai, who are culturally similar to the Pokot. The eighteen Pokot warriors who attended that trip were inspired and asked Pastor Simiyu for his help in their community. They explained that their first need was water.
Tim Keel and Edward Simiyu’s paths crossed for the first time at another Uganda-based conference in May of 2007. They forged a friendship and Edward came to visit Jacob’s Well near the end of the year. That Advent season, our community was striving to disrupt the accumulation discourse around Christmas and use our resources, instead, to fund a project somewhere in the world, maybe a water project (inspired by our church’s name). Water needs were heavy on Edward’s heart when Tim picked him up from the airport. When Edward shared the need for boreholes (or wells) to be dug in Pokot communities and his ministry’s lack of funds to do so, Tim was able to share that Jacob’s Well had the funds but had not identified a need yet! Just like that God connected two faraway places in a divine way. In June 2008, the first four wells were dug, followed two years later with six more. During this time, three teams from Jacob’s Well visited West Pokot, staying in the village of Asilong, to continue the relationship with the Pokot and to evaluate the water well project.
Those ten wells meant that children and women would not have to walk and herd animals to distant wells or dirty, shallower, water holes, providing more time for children to go to school and healthier water for drinking, cooking, and bathing. More wells meant less fighting over scarce resources and, strangely enough, fewer issues with swarms of bees that would dominate water holes when water is scarce. The story could have ended there, but in 2010, the Asilong community asked Jacob’s Well to construct a secondary school where only a primary school was easily accessible. Since 2011, nearly yearly trips have been made to Asilong to do just that, and in 2017 the first class of students began at Asilong Christian High School. We have since graduated two classes with a statistically surprising number of students scoring highly enough to continue their education at the university level.
While this telling focuses on our church’s part in the story, the story is not complete without understanding the other strands that God has woven together. Like Jacob’s Well, Glen Lake Church in Michigan, through the leadership of Andy and Olivia DuPont, was introduced to Pokot by Edward Simiyu. After funding the digging of a well in the area, the DuPonts felt God calling them to commit their time and energy to long-term ministry in Asilong, which includes biyearly trips, equipping a well maintenance team, and planning and implementing seminars around women’s issues and discipleship. Likewise, God called Julius Sawe, a member of Pastor Simiyu’s church, to leave a promising career in Nairobi as a teacher and live as a full-time missionary in the community of Asilong, becoming a pastor, teacher, leader, and director of ministry within the community. Jacob’s Well, Glen Lake Church, and Julius Sawe with the help of our friends at Redeemer Covenant in Fort Worth, TX work together weekly, if not daily, in our partnership with the Asilong community, to build and facilitate a school, to respond to needs, and to rely on God’s love for his people all over the globe, even in out-of-the-way places in the U.S. and Kenya.
The story of God’s provision for the Pokot people does not start or end with Jacob’s Well. We are just a tiny paragraph so far. The Pokot are primarily pastoralists, meaning their economic system, livelihood, and culture depend on livestock. While agriculture played a more prominent role in their economic system prior to the late 1800s, drought pushed them into a near total dependence on pastoralism, a nomadic system well-suited to the arid and semi-arid climates and rough terrain of western Kenya and eastern Uganda where the inhabitants move seasonally with their herds to seek more well-watered areas. Most of the Pokot’s neighbors, notably the Turkana, Karamojong, and Maasai, are also pastoralists and have a long history of warring over livestock and resources. Historically, the role of Pokot men was to protect the village and to steal (a culturally legitimate action) livestock from other neighboring ethnic groups. Women were (and largely still are) busy with every-day tasks, including building and maintaining the family’s hut complex, maintaining garden plots, gathering water, and caring for children. The traditional religion of the Pokot is monotheistic, surrounding the great creator god Tororut.
Often when visitors are first introduced to the place of the Pokot, their attention is seized by what makes the place peculiar to them. Many live in huts with no running water or electricity; they marry more than one wife; some men wear a loose shuka or sheet and brightly colored, beaded necklaces; women walk to gather water and carry it in large containers on their heads; goats and cows wander everywhere. It is tempting to think that little has changed in this place for centuries and that maybe no outsiders have ever come here; however, western exchanges with the Pokot began, albeit slowly, more than a century ago.
By the early 1900s, the British colonial government cordoned off northwestern Kenya to outsiders, allowing only a few missionaries in to work with the Pokot. The Anglicans were the first to arrive in 1931, followed by the Catholics in 1943. Evangelism was slow as those proclaiming Christ were few, and the Pokot were proud people, content with their way of life, proclaiming superiority to any outsiders, Africans and wazungu (white people) alike. Missionaries attempted to introduce development projects, through schooling, agricultural training, medical services, and the like, experiencing
Independence came to Kenya in 1963, and by 1970 the restrictions that protected and isolated pastoral people in northwestern Kenya were lifted. This isolation on top of the Pokot’s resistance to change meant that the development of West Pokot county (the home of most Pokot people) lagged far behind other areas in Kenya. New missionary groups and development projects came to West Pokot, altering the landscape and the culture. By the 1970s, well-trained missionaries sought to build on and learn from the strengths of Pokot culture, such as their value of community, their hospitality, and the importance of dance and song, while equipping them with the tools needed to engage in the world system. As missionary culture and training has evolved to increasingly value positive aspects of nonwestern cultures, people like the Pokot are more and more interested in Western ways of doing things. While the Pokot have become more sedentary and less nomadic, have given up their goat skin skirts and “natural” dress, and have begun to eschew tradition rites of passage for formal schooling, it is important to realize that culture is not stagnant. Today, missionaries and Pokot leadership struggle through what the West has brought, good and bad. However, Christianity has taken root strongly in West Pokot as long-term Western missionaries become fewer and Kenyan- and even Pokot-led churches grow. (Julie Morris, June 2019)