he year 2020 was going to be a big year for Maranatha Volunteers International in Kenya. The organization had planned to build 100 One-Day Churches, drill 10 water wells, construct school campuses, and mobilize four volunteer groups to serve in that country.
So in March, when the World Health Organization announced that COVID-19 had become a pandemic, it seemed logical to lower expectations for the year. After all, travel in and out of Kenya was shut down almost immediately for an indeterminate amount of time, and all scheduled volunteer projects were canceled. In the capital city of Nairobi, where the Maranatha staff is based, everyone and everything was on strict lockdown.
Fortunately, in the more rural parts of Kenya, Maranatha’s crews were able to keep working on select projects. One team finished construction work and landscaping at the Kiutine Adventist School. At the Kajiado Adventist School and Rescue Center, another team steadily continued work on expanding the campus. At both school sites, the campus had been emptied of students, and crews were able to shelter in place on-site.
But One-Day Church construction and water-well drilling had come to a halt. It wasn’t until May that Kenya began slowly opening up again. Restrictions remained in some parts of the country, but Maranatha sought out regions that were open to travel. One such place was a remote area in central Kenya, east of Nairobi, called Ukambani. There is little Adventist presence in the area, and it is a new mission field for the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Already, the crew had constructed 20 churches in Ukambani before the beginning of the year, pre-COVID. But the plans for Ukambani had always been much greater.
“The Adventist Church in Kenya has had Ukambani on its wish list for a while, and we would regularly get inquiries from locals about why we weren’t drilling water wells in Ukambani,” Kyle Fiess, vice president of volunteer projects, said. “The answer was we just hadn’t gotten there yet. We started on the churches this year, but we didn’t have a chance to start on the wells before COVID hit.”
In May, all that changed. “Geographically, where the team was located, we could get to Ukambani without having to go through restricted areas. It was accessible,” Fiess said. “We drove the rig over to start the process of drilling wells and just stayed. It’s gone really well.”
Maranatha also restarted its One-Day Church efforts in Ukambani, building 61 more structures in the region over the next several months. The churches and clean water have brought a tidal wave of blessings for communities in Ukambani. Ron Kedas, Kenya country director for Maranatha, said that the gratitude has been abundant. During a recent trip to Ukambani, Kedas was showered with gifts from the villages where Maranatha had worked.
“I think of all the places that I have ever worked in my life; I have never seen this kind of appreciation for Maranatha. On one trip, I got seven goats and 12 chickens! It speaks volumes,” Kedas said. He tells the story of a village where the congregation waited for hours to meet him and say thank you. At another site, where Maranatha had drilled a well, a man approached Kedas to express his gratitude.
“He said, ‘I am 60 years old, and for the first time I have drunk clean water from a well,’ ” Kedas recalled, marveling.
At a town called Matu, Maranatha constructed a church at a border security training school, where there are several Adventist members. When Kedas and his wife visited the campus, one of the officers came out to greet him.
“He saluted me. I think it was something to show his appreciation,” Kedas said. The officer told Kedas he was grateful to have a church on campus where employees can come back from potentially stressful situations at the borders and refocus with their faith community.
At many sites, Kedas noticed that the congregations had already started building the walls to complete their new One-Day Churches, despite having had them for only a few months. Some were already done. “Every place we visited, people were baking bricks for the walls,” Kedas said.
Overall, he said, people are excited at the developments, and it has recharged the congregations and given new motivation to the pastors. “The president of this new mission field is saying that there is no way they could have accomplished this much on their own. The leadership and the pastors are saying this is very good, and it’s drawing people to the church,” Kedas said.
The work in Ukambani, along with several other locations, has resulted in Maranatha meeting the goal of building 100 One-Day Churches in 2020, as of November. Maranatha has also started fabricating another 20 kits at its local shop in Nairobi. Those will bring the total number to 120 churches. Crews have also drilled 44 water wells, surpassing the initial goal for the year.
In addition to the expansion at Kiutine and Kajiado schools, Maranatha’s team completed several classrooms at Chumviere, a village near the city of Isiolo in Meru County. That project was initially scheduled to be constructed by volunteers in March.
“Other than the volunteer component being reduced, I don’t think COVID has slowed us down,” Fiess said. “What we were able to accomplish was beyond what we thought we could do this year.”
As Maranatha wraps up what has been a memorable time for the organization and world history, Fiess said he is already looking forward. In 2021, Maranatha will start its sixth year in Kenya, which is unusual; Maranatha typically doesn’t remain in one country for longer than a few years. But, Fiess said, “the need is enormous,” and the impact of the work is significant and continues to grow. So far, the scope will include Ukambani and Kajiado. Maranatha is also setting the groundwork for drilling water wells in Ileret, an extremely remote village near the Ethiopian border. There is also talk of heading into Lodwar and Eldoret, both areas in need of much help. There’s significant work ahead without solid projections on how long the pandemic will last. But Fiess said he isn’t worried.
“As I look back at the 25 years that I’ve been here, and the 50 years that Maranatha’s been in existence, I can see so clearly now how God has led,” he said. “And it gives me confidence to know that it’s OK that I don’t know what is going to happen next week in Kenya or what’s going to happen next month in Peru. As long as we’re allowing God to lead us, and we watch for the doors that open for us and we go through those doors, it’s going to be OK. That’s a lesson that I’ve taken to heart.”
The original version of this story was posted in issue no. 4 of the 2020 The Volunteer magazine.