During the daily debriefs at the Children’s outreach in Mt. Elgon, one man stood out. He gave the reports of his class in unadulterated Swahili, much to the amazement of the group. He used some words like, ‘mshike mshike, mawaa, bugtha’ and many more that some of us had not heard in a while and only thought they belonged in inshas. But they were not just words thrown in sentences to sound good, there was flow and cadence and order in his speech that was immaculate.
It’s not like when someone brought up in some upcountry village trying to speak Swahili with the coastal accent and you just want to close your ears. No, this guy had it. Did you know that parachichi is avocado in Swahili? That’s what some of his pupils brought as a thanksgiving offering on the last day. Collectively, his class gave the most.
By the third day he figured that he needed to tell us more about his name, Saidi Salim, because people were curious. He shared his testimony briefly, how he was born in a Muslim family in Kopsiro, Mt. Elgon and then converted to Christianity in 1994 and is now a secretary of one of the churches in Kapsokwony.
But there seemed to be more to him. His energy in teaching class 3 was infectious. He was articulate and delivered the lessons with great enthusiasm. I initially thought he was a practicing teacher.
I needed to have a chat with him. I tracked him down on the fifth and final day of the VBS.
The children’s outreach in Mt. Elgon (Vacation Bible School -VBS) as it’s generally called, is a program targeted at primary school going children.
It’s an intensive five-day operation and managing over 1000 children is no small feat. This is why, over the years, the ministry has trained local workers to teach, help in classes and conduct other activities. In 2022 we had about 20 local teachers at the VBS and about 15 helpers.
One of those teachers was Saidi Salim. It was his first VBS and interestingly, he wasn’t in the training that happened a few days before the VBS. So how was he able to deliver the materially so confidently? He had acquainted himself with the VBS manual (teaching material), prepared thoroughly and sought help from veteran teachers and on the material day, he was ready.
I asked him about his background and how he converted to Christianity. The whole conversation was in Swahili but I have to translate some of his speech here.
“I was born in a Muslim family in Kopsiro, Mt. Elgon. In 1994, out of curiosity I decided to read the bible and compare it to the Quran. Niliziweka kwa mizani na uzito ukawa upande wa biblia (I put them on a scale and there was more weight on the bible).”
Nobody evangelized to Saidi Salim, he didn’t attend a crusade, neither was he converted during a door-to-door mission. No. He read the bible and it spoke to him.
He converted and joined Maranatha church in Kopsiro. His father wasn’t amused. He took a spear and chased Saidi out of his home. He came back slowly and pleaded with him, “My father I am your son, I respect you. Don’t let religion come between me and you. I have left Islam and opened the door to Christianity. I respect your faith because I grew up in it. But please allow me to join Christianity.”
He reluctantly agreed.
Apart from his sisters who married Christians and converted, he’s the only son who is a Christian.
He was baptized Samweli, he grew in faith, married, had six children as he farmed successfully in Kopsiro and also ran a shop.
Between 2004 and 2005 he had a stint in Mombasa where he worked as a turnboy for a long-distance truck. Maybe that explains his Swahili. He traveled to many towns and even neighboring countries. But the mountain was always calling him back. He went back and continued farming and running his business.
In 2007 his world was turned upside down.
The government allocated his land and that of his neighbors and a couple of villages to other people, mostly the Mosop, a Sabaot sub-group that predominantly lived in the forest like the Ogieks (they are also called Ndorobos). Some people who were also allocated land belonged to Saidi’s sub-group, the Pok/Soy. But it was chaotic. Out of the combined 10,000 people who were eligible, only 1,732 of them got land. The rest, Saidi among them, got nothing.
One of his neighbors, Matakwei, was pretty pissed at what the government had done. Phase 1 and 2 of the land had been given to mostly Mosops. The expectation was that phase 3 (where Saidi and Matakwei lived) would be given to the Pok/Soy, who were already residing in the land for years. But the list was engineered, there were many outsiders in it and corruption was rampant. Saidi wasn’t in the list, and neither was Matakwei who wasn’t going to take it lying down. He mobilized the youth, got guns from Uganda and just like a passing joke, Sabaot Land Defense Force (SLDF) was formed.
Before long, a chief and other officials who participated in the allocation of the land were killed. Every family was required to volunteer a son or two to join SLDF in the forest for training in order to ‘defend the land’. There was tax to be paid by each family and hell to pay for those who broke the code of conduct or defied the general’s rules. A parallel government system was in place. The militia was up and running.
Matakwei asked Saidi to join him in the ‘freedom fight’. Asking is a polite language, he more less volunteered him. In other words, Saidi was given no option. He had to join or else… He decided to flee with his family to Kabartonjo, Baringo county.
“I was okay with being labeled a coward than to participate in a senseless war. I had to protect my family.”
He left with nothing. His money was tied in land he had leased for the next planting season as well as stock for his business worth Kshs. 120,000.
How does a man start over? How does a pick himself up when there are no pieces left? How does he look his children in the eye and say he has nothing for them to eat?
From Kabartonjo he moved to Fluorspar and then to Iten. In 2009, he heard the news that the tensions had subsided, he went back to Mt. Elgon and settled in Kibuk near Kapsokwony, 50km away from his original home of Kopsiro. He still lives there, in a plot that belongs to his friend. From 2 acres in Kopsiro to squatting in someone’s plot.
When I asked him what he does for a living now, he said he’s a hustler.
He does casual jobs in construction, a bit of farming, anything to put food on the table. Schools will be opened next month and his children will need school fees, he will have to deal with that headache.
As time goes by, there doesn’t seem to be any resolution to the land issue. Once in a while violence flares up in parts of Mt. Elgon, a reminder that the shallow graves in which the land issues were buried can still be excavated.
When Saidi thinks about his predicament, he questions why he wasn’t among those who got the land. He told me, “Nami nilikuwa nikiomba angalau ningekuwa miongoni mwa wale walipata shamba, lakini sikufaulu!”
Election years like this bring new hope that maybe that a new government might have a fresh look at the issue. But it’s also an anxious year because this is when people organize and mobilize in anticipation of any announcement that may not go their way.
All in all, he prays for peace, and holds on to his faith that’s transcends the temporary suffering of the present age. Teaching and serving children has refreshed and re-energized him. He has learnt something new from the VBS and also from the Sunday school teachers training that happened the week after the VBS. He’s equipped to serve and the Sunday school in his church won’t be the same again.
You can be sure to catch Saidi Salim at future VBSs. We will be calling him Samweli.