Kutana Kenya: Considering how the environment intersects with development & mission

By Melody Harrell

Mornings in the Masai Mara start at 5:00 AM with a cacophony of birdsong. I come into consciousness in my tent with immediate awe at being surrounded by such jubilance! As I lie there listening in the dark, I wonder how in the world a thousand birds could be ringing out their own symphonic melody, yet no tune clashes with any other. I giggle at the show-offs, the ones who have decided the concert is a jazz performance.

I’m here because I’m participating in Kutana Kenya, an 18-day program of Africa Exchange in partnership with CBF that considers how the environment intersects with development and mission. I feel deep gratitude that after a two-year hiatus due to Covid, I am here again in the place in which I have deep and life-long rootedness. It’s always the utmost joy to introduce others to Kenya and its people, knowing full well the magic will happen and those in the group will be touched at a soul level to be changed forever. My thoughts move from birdsong to reflecting on our two-week trip which is coming to an end.

Luke McBrayer interacting with a young boy

It strikes me that like the morning birds, we too are a hodge-podge of participants, all bringing our own stories and experiences, yet very quickly finding ourselves in sync around the purpose of Kutana. In Swahili “kutana” means to meet or encounter. Of course, as we like to say, when you meet an elephant in the path, the elephant also meets you! There is a very real exchange for both parties. In the communities around the country, the group encountered a mutual exchange of perspectives, understandings, and even experiences of God. At the outset, my husband Sam who facilitates Kutana invited us to take on a beginner’s mind: “Try to take in what you see and experience here without too many preconceived notions about why things are the way they are. As Richard Rohr says much of what trips us up is not what we don’t know. It’s what we think we do know.”

With the sunrise of the very first morning, the beauty of the highlands at the Brackenhurst Conference Center captured us with flower and fauna brimming with color and variety. The air was cool and crisp, rays of sunshine beckoning us to spend the day outside. We heard from Jono who has worked with the reclamation of the indigenous forest at Brackenhurst, sharing his observation of a marked increase in birds, monkeys and butterflies as a result. We followed our knowledgeable guide, Maina, around the beautiful premises as he explained about the trees and shrubs and how local people have generational wisdom of medicinal uses for each one.

Kasey Jones brings greetings from CBF to Ridgeways Baptist Church, Nairobi during Sunday morning worship (far left). Sam Harrell, Coordinator of Africa Exchange, with Dr. Caleb Oladipo, of Campbell University Divinity School (center left). Kamilah Jones, a CBF Leadership Scholar, and Hannah Turner looking up in Kakamega Forest (center right). McBrayer embraces Mark Okello, Project Manager of Africa Exchange (far right).

A few hours later, our understanding of the ground on which we had spent the first two nights exponentially expanded and we recognized the loss it would have been to have seen the conference center only as a place to sleep. This awareness of the environment around us set the stage for our way forward and became the lens through which we saw the rest of our experience.

This year’s Kutana included Kamilah Jones (MDiv student, Emory), Kasey Jones (Associate Coordinator for Development, Outreach, and Diversity, CBF), Jeff Lee (field personnel, Macedonia), Hannah Turner (Global Service Corps, Welcome House Raleigh), Luke McBrayer (Mercer, engineering), Jared Moore (Chowan College, sports management and business), Dr. Caleb Oladipo (Campbell Divinity School), Clement Oladipo (landscape designer, New York City), Angela Adeya (University of Nairobi, business) and Wes and Olivia Browning and their daughter (Sema Films).

A group of students walking through Kakamamga Forest. (right)

We moved from the highlands west across the country and experienced homestays near Eldoret as well as time with the community of Sisit in North Pokot. We were struck by the self-sufficiency of most of the homestay families with vegetables, fruit trees, cows, goats and chickens tended on their parcels of land. We encountered the development initiatives Africa Exchange has done at Sisit, including a foot bridge across the Wei Wei river, a water pump system that allows for access to water for the school at the top of the hill, as well as an integrated child development center providing education to the community’s young ones. We witnessed how the community has thrived and brought its own priorities and assets to the table. And we spent a whole afternoon participating in a most beautiful community meeting where everyone had a chance to speak; where time moved slowly and no one rushed to the next thing; where the cups of tea slowed our breathing and opened our hearts to the people who lived here and the relationships that matter so deeply. We understood mutuality in a new way as the community expressed thanksgiving for what Africa Exchange has afforded them and we in turn pointed to and celebrated the hard work this community has undertaken for the sake of their children.

Members of this year’s Kutana

Further stops at the lush Kakamega Forest and the adjacent Wamaganga community as well as worship at Ridgeways Baptist Church Nairobi gave more opportunity to see, learn and process what mission means in these contexts. We recognized that our mission must include God’s mission of love to all people as well as the responsibility of love for the earth. We saw clearly how deeply the two are connected and how very dependent these communities are on the health of the land. We heard our own invitations to carry this same mission back home and to our lives in the U.S., incorporating the principles from our text for the trip, Wangari Mathai’s “Replenishing the Earth.” We agreed that healing the earth results in the healing of ourselves. We recognized that stepping out of our own contexts into this one in Kenya had allowed us to see with new eyes.

As my thoughts pull back into the bed where I am lying in my tent in the Mara, I realize the sunrise has shifted the light and the birdsong is quieting as the day warms. My heart is full of gratitude. I find myself whispering, “Praise God from whom all blessings flow.” And let those blessings flow through me to others. And to the earth—today, and in the days to come. Amen

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