Usually stories mark the pages of our blog. But there are times when reports are necessary as well. Otherwise how would our supporters grasp the importance of their prayers or know how we’re spending their money. So in the spirit of good stewardship, I’m humbly submitting the following report of my time in South Sudan back in January. Enjoy.
On January 22, 2015, sixteen men and women gathered in a quiet compound in Narus, South Sudan to make final preparations for a survey trip to Toposa land. Our group was a diverse gathering of Americans, Kenyans, Ethiopians and South Sudanese representing a variety of organizations; SIM, AIM, IMB, E3, AIMAIR, AIC, CVM all with the single unifying purpose of reaching the Toposa with the gospel of Jesus Christ. The Toposa are an agro-pastoralist people with an estimated population of 500,000. The people group occupies three counties in the East Equitorial State (EES) of South Sudan; Kapoeta North,.East, and South. Our survey, however, was confined to Kapoeta East, an area referred to as the “wild wild west” by one worker in South Sudan. According to Joshua Project the Toposa population is 80-90% Christian. As it turns out there is much debate about this number. Some government officials make the same claim referring to the population as Catholic.
After introductions and a meal and just before bedding down for the night, we all gathered for the Lord’s supper and prayer, a gesture that was to set the tempo for the rest of our time together.
Due to unexpected delays, day one of our trip didn’t begin until after the noon hour the next day. Before leaving Narus, we visited the commissioner’s office where we were asked to take on a government observer for our trip. Unfortunately, the observer had to squeeze into our already overpacked car occupying the seat right next to me. To make matters worse, the young man reeked of alcohol, which made the stuffy dusty air all but unbearable.
Finally underway we made our way northeast through the vast county of Kapoeta East. After a few stops along the way to look at former sites of AIC work, our dust-covered bunch finally arrived at the Carter Center compound in Nanyangachor just after dark. This small town is the government administrative center for the Kauto Payam having five Bomas. The Carter Center is an organization single mindedly committed to the eradication of the Guinea worm. They’ve got a reputation for being unaccomodating, which is probably why they are so successful at what they do. Thanks to the Carter Center the Guinea worm eradication program is now said to be over 80% complete.
After some confusion we were finally given permission to camp within the compound but it was 11:30 pm before we finally laid down in our tents. The next morning we rose to a chapati breakfast before five in our party were called to meet with the head administrator of the Payam. The administrator was hospitable as he shared information about the people and the area, and when asked about opportunities to place missionaries in his area, he invited us to work on the Kauto Plateau, an area said to have over 53,000 people, without a church, school or clinic. A casual observation of the map suggests an area that is 40 km long by 20 km wide.
Interestingly as we met with the administrator a scene developed outside with our government observer. Stephen, the inebriated government observer, had a seizure injuring his face as he fell, just as the others were packing our vehicles and preparing for our departure. (I’ll relate the rest of Stephen’s story in another report). We finally made our departure mid morning heading east to the plateau, up the bone jarring road toward Lotimor, the last place before Ethiopia. A couple hours outside of Nanyangachor, up a series of steep rocky climbs, we reached the top of the plateau where we spent some time investigating the possibility of an airstrip, making measurements and such.
Finally on our way again, we started on what would be the most difficult part of the trip bouncing up and down paths unsuitable for wildlife, much less vehicles. After a whole day of punishing travel we finally arrived at our final destination, Lotimor. Lotimor is a Nyangatom village just on the edge of South Sudan. The Nyangatom people are very similar to the Toposa in language and culture, but boast of a much smaller population around 90,000 in both South Sudan and Ethiopia. The first noticeable thing was three separate bush churches in among a population so small it would be hard to imagine supporting one church.
Mark Keter, one of our group, has been serving with his wife and children as a missionary with AIC in Lotimor since 2008. Mark was also part of a recent CPM training conducted by an indigenous Ethiopian organization, Horn or Africa Evangelical Mission which I was keen to investigate since they are one of our partners in the South Omo providing training for church planters and disciples. In an earlier discussion with Mark, he reported that there are as many as 35 active discipling groups as a result of the CPM training,
Our second day in Lotimor was a Sunday, which gave us a chance to worship with local believers. On this day, all three churches agreed to assemble under one roof for a unified worship service. This day also gave me the chance to interview 7 participants from the three church denominations of the aforementioned training. These participants reported of being involved in the planting of 6 new churches among the Nyangatom. Also before leaving Lotimor that day, members of our group also investigated possible airstrip sites.
After another grueling day of back tracking we finally arrived at Peikim, again on the Kauto Plateau for the night. In the morning, we spent some time in a meeting with elders, as other members of our party told Bible stories, and still others searched for airstrip possibilities. From meeting with the elders we heard of their desire for a church, school, and clinic. One from the group of elders stuck out from the rest because of his western clothing and hat. His was also the prominent voice in the group. I learned later that he was a catechist trained by the catholic church. Catechists are local people trained as teachers by the Catholic Church. Catechists are the vehicle by which the doctrines and prayer rituals of the Catholic faith are delivered to the masses as they return to their villages and teach others.
After our meeting with elders, we continued our journey heading back to the main road and then North to another center of population are called Namorpus. Namorpus is a former site of an AIC work from 2006-2012. At this location we found an abandoned school house and a working hand water pump. Mark Keter’s mother and father had worked in this area teaching local Toposa children. The school has been closed since the AIC work there stopped in 2012. It was through this work that Mark became familiar with the Nyangatom students who traveled many miles to this school to get an education. Upon arrival Mark was greeted quite favorably. Many said that they thought it was his parents returning to the area. We informally designated the next morning to meet together with elders, although we did meet with them informally for nearly one hour. The next morning none came to meet with us before we left. We did not find any fruit of the former AIC work. No body of believers congregated in the area and any student that continued with his/her education moved on to Kuron, an area 35 km (?) to the North, where the Catholic school still functions.
After breakfast we headed south to Narus, the starting place of our journey and the site of our consultation. On our return we stopped at Naliel, another former AIC mission station. Here we met with elders to talk about the former AIC work finding no body of believers or other evidence of impact from the work. We did find a few young female students that attended the former AIC school. Like other sites we visited, the elders in the area invited us to begin education, heath work, or church in the future. Our final stop before returning to Narus was at Lolim to visit a health project site of Missions Fruits, a mission organization operated by Pastor James Nyika.
After arriving back in Narus and resting for the night we began the consultation the next morning 28th, with worship and prayer. The first day of the consult involved debriefing from our survey trip, where we spent time rehashing the events and giving individual impressions of the journey. The second day was dedicated to brainstorming about how to engage the Toposa people group. Each member of our gathering was invited to share about their current ministries among the Toposa and about how each could envision their involvement in any future engagement among the people.
A summary of my impressions are included below.
This was the first such multi organizational gathering of its kind. Everyone involved expressed a desire to share openly about their current ministries and a willingness to work together to further their common purposes among the Toposa.
Presently there are several fruitful engagements underway among the Toposa. These include the IMB work under Shannon Lewis, Missions Fruits under Pastor James Nyika, and E3 work involving Pastor John Wanyonyi and Patricia Caroom. It is my impression that most of the current work is concentrated in North Kapoeta County especially from the town of Kapoeta north and northwest to Mogos (see attached map) . This leaves the majority of Toposaland without discipling and church planting. All of the above are currently engaged in using storying and T4T methodology with intensive discipleship. All of the above are willing to train and equip others in the aforementioned methods. Follow up, monitoring and evaluation however would not be done by someone else. CPM training could also be provided by City Teams potentially.
Some sources including the local government and Joshua project, consider the Toposa above 80% Christian. Certainly the government sources and possibly the Joshua project are claiming these 80% as Catholic adherents. Opposition to current church planting efforts is almost exclusively from Catholic catechist or proponents of the Catholic Church. Many at the gathering claim that Catholics are sprinkling large groups of people and distributing crucifixes and then calling large groups “catholics”, hence the 80% Christian claim. Anecdotally, those considered catholic can’t answer even the simplest questions about faith, God, Jesus, etc. There has been no formal research to determine the validity of the 80% Christian claim, but overwhelmingly those gathered at the consultation say that the percentage of Jesus following believers among the Toposa can’t be more than 1000 total or 0.2% of the total population.
There are several possibilities for mobilization. Ideally, mobilizing, training and equipping Toposa men and women for this work would be the preference, but I think at this point it would be premature to recruit Toposa trainer/disciplers from either Shannon Lewis’ work or E3’s work, but I could be wrong. The Bishop Arkanjelo of AIC South Sudan and Pastor James Nyika, Head of Missions for AIC South Sudan have offered to mobilize cross cultural workers. Recruiting from AIC Kenya or other Kenyan churches is another option. Also SIM’s East Africa sending office has offered to send two couples for the Toposa work. In all of these situations, language and culture acquisition, and funding will be needed. Barring the possibility of strong Toposa disciplers, the second best option would be a cross cultural worker from a closely related people group like the Nyangatom, Turkana, or Karamajong. The Nyangatom believers are still a strong possibility.
Launching an AIM-TIMO team is certainly an option. The key would be finding the “right” team leader(s). Because there is already successful church planting/discipling through Shannon Lewis’s team and through Patricia Caroom, John Wonyoni, and Stephen Lobolia, I hope the focus would be to expand that effort, maintaing a church planting focus instead of creating a program for missionary training. My first choice would be a team approach where there is a central church planting/discipling focus with 10-12 Toposa trainees (or related ethnolinguistic group such as the Nyangatom) being intensively discipled by a strong team leader who models and sends disciple makers. If a holistic approach is sought, there are opportunities to create a team with teachers, veterinarians, nurses or doctors as well.
The follow up from the CPM training hosted in Lotimor among the Nyangatom by Horn of Africa Evangelical Mission has been difficult to conduct from the Ethiopian side due to the lack of access to the area. So during this consultation and survey, I had an opportunity to interview Mark Keter and several participants of the training from the Hiwot Birhan Church, Alem Birhan Church, and AIC in Lotimor. According to Mark Keter, who was designated by HoAEM as the coordinator of work in Lotimor, there are currently 35 active discipling groups in and around Lotimor and approximately 12-15 active disciplers who regularly interact with these groups. There is no report of 2nd generation discipling occurring in any group yet. According to Mark, the work of following up with these disciples is more than one man can do. He is currently training Ashenafi, Nyangatom believer, to take over his role, as Mark plans to leave Lotimor soon to pursue additional education. Mark also reported that many of the disciples will not likely continue without monthly support to sustain their work. The monthly amount suggested by Mark was $50 USD. In addition to meeting with Mark, my meeting with 7 participants from the CPM training revealed the need for additional training and more intensive follow up. According to these seven, they have been involved in the planting of 6 new churches.
HoAEM was planning an additional training in January of 2015, but could not reach Lotimor for the training. Someone with Mark’s level of commitment and energy is essential to encourage the CPM trainees to continue their discipling efforts, otherwise those currently discipling will soon give up.