Marsabit is less than 300 miles from Nairobi, but by truck the drive takes 14 hours. The town in the north of Kenya's East African Rift is the center of a district populated by about 120,000. Most of them are pagan tribespeople who are largely unreached by Christian teaching and prey to Islam in a region sometimes called "the devil's walk," the border between Islam and Christianity in Africa, where in the case of Marsabit, both Sudan's Islamic regime and Somalia's radical terrorist groups surround the region.
Faith-based work to reach these tribes meets many obstacles. Lack of funds recently halted an effort by Africa Inland Mission workers to teach primary school to over 1,000 children of the Rendille tribe. But none of that stops Pastor John Hirbo from hosting teams of medical workers from the United States in the Rendille area and Marsabit regularly.
Hirbo, a former Muslim from Ethiopia, said he wept the first time he saw the level of poverty and illness among the tribal families. "Most of the women were beautifully adorned, but underneath their colorful beads, emaciated," reported nurse Linda Grosskopf after she visited the area as part of a team with Partners for Care. "Nearly every child had pneumonia, bronchitis, and bacterial and fungal infections on their hands, feet, and scalp."
And life is hard, said the Petoskey, Mich., resident, who has made another medical trip to Kenya but never to this tribe. Women leave the village at sunrise in search of water, leaving their children largely unattended. They walk on average six hours, digging for springs at the bottom of dry river basins. Water is so scarce, said Grosskopf, that when clothes become soiled and worn out, villagers burn them rather than use up water to wash them.
The area has all the components for a mission field, reports Partners for Care president Connie Cheren: "starvation, drought, unreached people groups, extreme poverty, HIV/AIDS, and a heavy Muslim influence."
So Hirbo moved with his own family to Marsabit and began a church there built and funded entirely by locals. Its walls are made of rocks and mud, with old grain bags for inside wall coverings. Members of nine tribes now meet there to worship, and in the past month the chief of the Rendille tribe has offered land to Hirbo to build a church closer to his village. Over 60 people there, about an hour from Marsabit, have made professions of Christian faith.