Psalm 68:31 says, ‘Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hands to God’. However, ‘Ethiopia’ here is a translation of the Hebrew word ‘Cush’.
Among the several pastoral Cushite peoples in the deserts of Northern Kenya are the Rendille, with their fascinating cultural background. It is probable that the Rendille were influenced by black Ethiopian Jews called Falasha, because they have many traditions of an Old Testament type.
When Islam arrived in East Africa, many Cushites followed Allah and became known as the ‘Somali’, but some rejected Islam and were called ‘separatists’ — a word from which ‘Rendille’ is derived.
The Rendille moved westward in order to maintain their old customs and the worship of the one Creator God, Waakh. Linked linguistically to the Hebrew word Jah, Waakh is the ancient Cushite name for the one God, and is used for God in the Somali translation of the Bible.
Today there is an evangelistic outreach among the Rendille in a small region called Baalah, in the Kaisut Desert in northern Kenya. It is run by the Independent Presbyterian Mission — a theologically conservative American mission founded by Dr J. Gresham Machen in 1933.
The first indigenous Baalah Rendille convert was Peter Lkayo. In 1996 he was a young man about to leave for Canada to study journalism, but was stopped in his tracks by an accident and the witness of an old and dying Christian African elder. Six months later he yielded to the claims of Christ and has since then longed to make Christ known to his people.
In 1998 he met the present writer, Judith Collins, who had been a Bible college lecturer in Nairobi from 1970 and they have become co-workers in the gospel.
The Rendille are different from most other African peoples. They are not animists and do not venerate ancestral spirits. They worship the Creator God and still maintain customs reminiscent of the Old Testament.
For example, they offer burnt offerings to God and elect a person as a ‘scapegoat’ every generation. This person, they believe, takes the community’s sins upon him during his term of office.
Such traditions make useful starting points from which to preach Christ. There is even an ancient tradition that God would one day send his firstborn son to lead the Rendille from the wilderness!
>From the beginning Peter Lkayo taught his people that there was no reason for burnt sacrifices, because Jesus Christ’s sacrifice for sin has replaced all others. To make his point, he refused to allow sacrifices at his wedding in 2001. His friends feared he would be struck dead by God or at the very least have no children, but today he and his wife Lucy have a girl and a boy!
The mission has a primary school in Baalah with pupils from every one of the ten Rendille villages in Baalah. The school is a nursery for future church members. Many of the children impress us with their love for the Lord Jesus and their desire to be baptised.
Peter gives time and energy to helping the infant Presbyterian church at Baalah. It is hoped that one day this will be registered as the ‘Bible Presbyterian Church of the North’, open to all Cushite believers.
Peter’s ambition is to be a Bible translator. So, having completed Bible training, he is currently doing a linguistics degree, through night classes at the University of Nairobi.
He tapes sermons for Christians to use in church services at Baalah and prints simple Rendille Bible studies for adult literacy teachers in their daily classes. He has translated the Gospel of John and the Presbyterian children’s catechism into Rendille — for use in primary school, Sunday school and adult literacy classes. They are used in all ten villages of Baalah.
Peter is currently working on a translation of the Psalms. Also, having been elected as a senior elder amongst the Baalah village elders, he gives much spiritual teaching and counselling in his community.
My main responsibilities are to oversee work in the primary school and to do one-on-one outreach to village mamas (in Kenya we call the unmarried women ‘ladies’ and the married ‘mamas’ — a respectful and affectionate term. When you ask a man how his wife is, you say: ‘And how is mama?’). This work is done through a translator. The mamas show much interest in the gospel.
The way I usually introduce the gospel to a mama is first to remind her that the Rendille have worshipped Waakh for generations — at which point she will raise her hands to heaven to acknowledge him. But (I explain) in times long ago the Rendille could not read God’s book, and therefore have missed its message that Waakh has a Son, and he is Jesus Christ.
>From there, it is relatively easy with an open Bible in my hands to go on to explain the person and work of Jesus Christ. Many have embraced the gospel and are beginning to show it in their lives, although we never press them for decisions.
Fruit takes time to mature, but when we see them take a stand against such traditional customs as abortion, then we realise God’s truth is bearing fruit. Some of these mamas have already asked Peter for baptism. It is a good sign that these illiterate ones are taking the lead in this; we thank God for this token.
A hand-operated solar cassette winder with Rendille Bible messages on tape is left in every village. Baalah has over 1700 households within its ten villages.
May the Lord quicken prayer interest among those who have not realised that the descendants of ancient Cush are still alive today; and are indeed reaching out their hands to God and his Son Jesus!