"Lord," Carrie said, offering grace over lunch one afternoon, before the family set out for a manyatta, where they would deliver jerrycans of water and hold church in the open air, "we pray that the people today thirst not only for water but for your word, Lord."
It was Carrie who first came to Africa, who was shown the first signs that they were meant to be full-time missionaries. She and Rick grew up in California churches. As teenagers, they went on brief foreign missions: Carrie to Mexico, Rick to Mexico and New Guinea. After they met, dated for about three years of sexual abstinence and married, they talked sometimes about becoming missionaries when they retired - talk that was safe, Carrie recounted; the prospect was too far in the future to be real. Then, in 1996, a colleague in nursing invited her along on a three-week mission to a hospital that AIM runs just outside Nairobi. Right away, she wanted badly to go, but worried that neither her husband nor her boss would allow her. "I thought it could never happen," she said. That was when she received two early signs: Rick told her that he would take care of Meghan, and the head nurse agreed to adjust her schedule.
Carrie flew off to Kenya to help an American surgeon, a career missionary who operated on children with polio or terrible burns that had twisted their limbs or left their hands contracted and useless. She saw them after their operations with feet that were straight, with fingers that could hold her own. Returning home, she longed to be back in Kenya full time, and without telling Rick, she wrote to AIM for information. She filled out the application in secret, showing it to her husband only when he confided that he, too, had been "convicted." He recognized his desire one day at work, when he and his colleagues were chatting about what they would do if they ever won the lottery. His own answer, he said, had stunned him: he would quit his job and go as a missionary to Africa.
AIM requires its 850 long-term missionaries (about 550 of them American, 150 of them British and most of the rest from Canada, Australia and South Africa) to pass through interviews and written psychological tests, and to raise their own financing before they head off for the field. Like many American mission organizations, AIM serves as an administrative body; it supplies no financial support. This system may not give missionaries a great sense of economic security, but it promotes the feeling, as Rick put it, that "we're living on faith; we have faith that God will provide for our needs." From four California churches where they or their families were members, and from about 50 individual donors, Rick and Carrie collected the money AIM said they needed before setting out. (An AIM family in Kenya needs about $50,000 per year to cover everything from living expenses to insurance to administrative costs.) They collected it without any trouble and took this to be another sign. When they put their Danville house on the market, it sold within a day - yet another sign. "There were so many green lights," Carrie remembered.
Reaching Kenya in 1998, they intended to stay two years; they would move back home when Meghan had to start first grade. In the rain-forest town of Bonjoge, Rick started a Christian secondary school, and Carrie was the school nurse. She steered away from clinic work, partly because she was dispirited by the fatalism that seemed to pervade Kenyan health care; she focused mostly on Meghan's home-schooling. And Meghan embraced her new life so readily that it was, Rick said, "the grace of God" - another sign. So they extended their commitment to AIM for four more years and looked to move someplace even more isolated when that term was over. Now, in Kurungu, Rick talked about the clear indications that he and his family were doing God's will: "I have found satisfaction in a place that my culture" - American culture - "says should not be satisfying to me. My experience backs up my faith. Everything has gone miraculously well here. We've thrived. Meghan has thrived. All of that leads us to believe that we're on the right track."
With this certainty, soon after Carrie said her prayer about thirst, the family drove off to bring church to a manyatta. Richard Losieku Lesamaja, the mission's Samburu pastor, rode with them. Seven years ago, he was hired by the AIM missionaries, the Beverlys, who preceded the Mapleses. The son of Samburu Christians, Richard was educated through eighth grade at the Catholic mission school in South Horr. The Beverlys employed him to preach on Sundays at their shedlike church. The Mapleses still have Richard hold weekly services for the 20 or 30 Samburu, almost all of them women and young children, who gather under the corrugated roof. On the previous Sunday when I attended, they listened to Richard, who wore blue slacks and beleaguered sneakers, preach in Samburu from Paul's teaching in 2 Corinthians: "Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness?. . .Therefore come out from them and be separate."
But the congregation hadn't been growing, so Rick and Carrie began driving Richard out to preach in the manyattas. Eventually, when Rick learned the language well enough, and when he learned enough about the culture, he said he planned to do some preaching himself and, much more important, to devise Samburu-style versions of Christian stories and lessons. He had yet to define any specifics for this cultural transposition of Christianity. He was determined to go slowly, to understand the Samburu first, then to proceed. But he imagined a team of Samburu Christian leaders, armed with the teachings he would design, starting a series of worship groups throughout the area. Each group might have 12 Samburu and would spawn, in turn, three new leaders, who would create new groups of their own. "It will be a geometrical instead of a linear growth pattern," Rick, whose college minor was math, said. The expansion would be exponential. In the meantime, though, Rick and Carrie relied on Richard.
It was hard to tell how happy Richard was in his work. He told me that he wanted to study at a Bible college, probably in Nairobi, but that he didn't have the fees. "I don't like to disturb," he said, explaining why he hadn't asked the Beverlys or the Mapleses for help with tuition. "It has been seven years, and so far they are quiet."
Yet he dutifully preached where the Mapleses drove him, preached from his worn Bible with the red covers. Its text was in Masai; he translated, as he read, into Samburu. It wasn't hard for him; the languages, like the tribes, are closely related. But it was hard to attract listeners, as hard outdoors in the manyattas as it was in the mission church. And in the manyattas even fewer men gathered, often none at all. The moran were off somewhere, unseen, and the older men tended to lounge under the best acacia tree, the one whose spindles provided the best semblance of shade.
t the cluster of huts we visited after Carrie's prayer, 12 or so women sat on the dirt in front of Richard. Carrie, in a long denim skirt, joined them. From the Land Rover Rick brought out a rope swing. He knotted it to a tree a hundred yards from Richard, and he and Meghan and Stephanie played with the young children so that the mothers could focus on Richard's sermon. This was Rick and Carrie's program for conversion, for now.
Rick predicted it would be different when his plan got under way. Men, women, children all would be gradually drawn in; all would come to know the facts of humanity's fall and its division from God. All would come to know that, as Rick said, "Jesus was the perfect lamb" who "became sin for us," who relinquished his life in the ultimate "blood sacrifice" and who was the only way for humankind to connect with God again.
In the manyattas spread below the ridges of the Samburu's sacred mountain, with the miniature congregations of women gazing stone-faced as Richard preached, and with the men playing bau, a game of pebbles on a wooden board, in the spotty shade, it was easy to see Rick's prediction as far-fetched to the point of pure impossibility. But at the same time, it wasn't hard to think that his wishes would be realized. The Mapleses' patience, which could be mistaken for passivity, was strategic. It seemed to blend with the expanses of arid land and the timelessness of Samburu life; it seemed almost like a cover. And all the while the Mapleses were gaining trust and gathering knowledge so that they would prevail in an area where other missionaries had made little headway.
So much of the rest of Kenya had been Christianized - and back near the beginning of that long process came the handful of missionaries who founded AIM in 1895. Their endeavor must have seemed far more futile than Rick and Carrie's did now. A little more than a year after arriving in the British-ruled territory that is now Kenya, AIM's leader died of malaria. The rest of his small team died of disease or left soon after. Yet their vision won out. Wasn't it likely that the Samburu, isolated within a converted nation, would eventually surrender?
At a Manyatta where the Mapleses took Richard to preach each week, Meghan watched the circumcision. Most Samburu girls have the cutting done just before their weddings, which often come when they are young teenagers. Others have their clitorises excised as part of a Samburu ceremony initiating and circumcising boys and young men as moran - older sisters must be cut before their brothers can become warriors. Since moving to Kurungu, Carrie and Meghan had been invited to attend the circumcisions of three girls. Twice they stood outside the hut. But once, they were invited inside along with a short-term missionary, a female college student named Quinn, who was visiting the family from North Carolina. It was dawn at the manyatta, the sun just starting to illuminate the face of Mount Nyiru that rises above the settlement. Inside the hut, the girl was naked except for ceremonial leather sandals made by her father.
"Today," Meghan wrote in her diary, with the potted daisy on its blue cover, "I saw something I don't think I will ever forget. I saw a girl get mutilated. Her name was Santo. A 13-year-old girl having something awful done. Quinn got the 'privilege' of holding her leg. There was a lady holding her back very tightly! The circumciser had Santo adjust herself so many times in the process. I was able to see a little. I saw the circumciser literally sawing off the part with a razor blade. Santo was brave and did not really cry. She eventually was on her back almost crying. She had tears in her eyes. Later that day I saw her sitting up, smiling. This is something I don't understand. It seems so painful. There is no good thing done through the process, yet people seem to like it so much. I will just have to pray that God helps me to understand it and if he wants me to stop it I will pray for courage."
Sometimes when Rick and Carrie discussed their mission in Kurungu, it seemed they were devoted almost exclusively to conversion, that the spiritual work, the work of the word, was almost all, and that addressing earthly needs mattered, to them, very little. Good deeds, though part of the calling, were problematic. Rick and Carrie didn't want to come anywhere close to selling Christianity with trips to the clinic or jerrycans of water. They spoke about liking the Samburu's self-reliance because it relieved them of having to provide things that would taint their religious mission. But then they would talk about female circumcision. "It's a spiritual issue, it's a public-health issue, it's a human rights issue," Rick declared, emphasizing that the body is God's temple and to mar it, a sin. As the three of us sat at their dining table, he and Carrie laid out a long-term plan both to end the rite and to raise the status of Samburu women. "Once people have accepted the Lord, we'll talk about how God created sex and ordained sex, that sex is to be enjoyed," Rick said. "It is a gift to a man and a woman who are married, and to take away God's gift of pleasure is not right." During my time in Kurungu, we discussed sex much more often and openly than I'd expected. "Most people," Rick explained, "think evangelicals are anti-sex. It's a fallacy that's picked up from our stance against premarital sex. Within the context of marriage, sex is not only for procreation, it's for pleasure."
"The role of women - there are going to be some tough issues," Carrie said. She mentioned the way young Samburu girls are married off to elderly men, and the way a wife is passed to her husband's brother, or to another man in the family when the husband dies. She also recalled a wedding they attended: when Carrie asked the groom - a young man who occasionally worked for the family - what the name of his bride was, he didn't know. "The woman is not a doormat," Carrie summed up the message they would instill, and listed the biblical heroines and Gospel teachings that would inspire the Samburu to change.
There were, for the Mapleses, limits to how high women should be elevated. Both Rick and Carrie told me that it would "sit strange" for women to hold the highest positions in any church, whether Kenyan or American. Still, amid the Samburu culture, the Mapleses could seem to be not only Christian crusaders but also bold and progressive social activists, champions of female emancipation and sexual fulfillment.
But what sacrifice might their work require from the two girls closest to them? Rick and Carrie saw their mission with the Samburu taking years and years, and while Stephanie had just begun asking to be dropped off to play with the small children of one of the Mapleses' guards, Meghan wasn't sure how long she could endure her isolation in Kurungu. We talked one day in the little round outbuilding that serves as her schoolroom. Maps - of Africa, of the world - were taped to the walls. A white-painted bookcase held "The Red Badge of Courage" and "To Kill a Mockingbird." It held the same series of history books that my kids, who are close to Meghan's age, used in a secular private school in Brooklyn. And it held a science textbook called "Exploring Creation With General Science," which urged its readers to "remember to give glory to the One who authored nature." A lone table stood beneath a small window, and there, in a patch of light, Meghan sat for a few hours each morning, side by side with her mother to study most of her subjects, and with her father to learn math.
And Rick was right. She was thriving: getting a high five from her father as she fielded his geometry questions; smiling with her mother over their mutual uncertainty about obscure points of grammar; and learning, every time she bounded, in her confident way, out of her house, more about the world than my expensively schooled kids could begin to imagine.
But Rick and Carrie knew as well that she was struggling. After their last home leave, after she went to public school near Danville for half of fifth grade, when it was time to return to her African life she "cried and cried and begged not to come back," Carrie said. Rick acknowledged that he had been - and still was - concerned. "But we wanted to give God the opportunity to work with us in the rough times."
With her long blond hair and layers of beads, with her face that held Carrie's angles and Rick's frequent smile, Meghan told me, "I'm pretty much a typical kid." She talked about shopping for clothes at the mall back in California. She talked about how she thought longingly of the dances and proms and middle- and high-school graduations that she would miss over the coming years. She talked about her mixed feelings over the likelihood that another AIM family, with kids around her age, would be sent to join them, to live in Kurungu. She'd had glimpses of missionaries who lived not at all as the Mapleses did but in large, insular mission stations, where the children spent most of their time with other mission kids. She didn't want a life even slightly like that. Full of energy and interest, she wanted to be forced out into the culture, no matter how alien she felt. Yet she couldn't help wishing for the other family's arrival.
"Sometimes I have these breakdowns," she said, making an agonized sound. Quickly, she recovered: "I feel really, really blessed." Then she talked about the hall lockers her friends from fifth grade were given as they moved up to middle school without her, and about the Samburu language that, after more than a year of trying, she worried she could not learn. She'd learned Kalenjin and a fair amount of Swahili, but despaired that she might not have enough room within her brain or strength to learn one more language.
"It seems like there's not any girls my age," she went on. "Most of them are off in the bush." She'd developed a crush, though, on a young moran. "But I wonder about what would happen - I'm one to think ahead, people might laugh at that, but that's the way I am - if it was serious. If we got married, would we have a Samburu wedding? What continent would we live on? I don't know what would happen. He would want to go this way and I would want to go that way."
Thriving; cut off; confused and frightened by the prospect of spending the months and years of her growing up in a place that was not hers - "I'm praying," she said, "that something's going to happen to make me feel that I'm where I should be."
As the American missionary presence in Africa gained strength in the early 20th century, Protestant missionaries began working to end female circumcision. In Kenya, AIM was prominent within the campaign, which stirred sometimes violent resistance among Kenya's largest tribe, the Kikuyu. In 1930, an AIM missionary was murdered in her bed; by some accounts, her killers circumcised her. The Kikuyu fight to protect the ritual, which many saw as essential to their culture, helped to spur their struggle against colonial rule and led, in part, to the warfare - filled with atrocities on both sides - that eventually drove the British from Kenya.
Yet the campaign has had a legacy of some success. Unicef estimates that 32 percent of Kenyan women have been circumcised. National law now forbids the circumcision of any girl younger than 17 and allows it, after that, only by the woman's choice. Still, the law goes unenforced; among tribes like the Samburu, few families abide by it.
The Mapleses can't be sure that even Samburu women want an end to the practice. The men, who explain the cutting as a way to keep their wives faithful, certainly don't. Carrie has scarcely raised the issue with the women. She told me she had broached the subject only once, with her housekeeper, who let out a sound of horror at learning that Carrie was uncircumcised. (Though I managed to find a female translator, my own conversation on the topic with three women wasn't exactly freewheeling: they smiled and gave their repeated approval. "It is Samburu," they said. "It is tradition.") But in the attendance of women at their services, Rick and Carrie see a hint that the women feel oppressed by their traditions and that they yearn for change.
It was almost impossible, as an outsider, not to think about the state of the Samburu women the way Rick and Carrie do. It was almost impossible not to wish for transformation. Yet it was hard for me not to wonder how much change the culture could, or should, bear. For it was hard to miss what the Samburu have. All across Africa, I had heard cries of desperation, cries for Western rescue. But even in a season of drought, with the threat that livestock would start to die, I heard nothing like this from the Samburu.
The people seemed, as much as the people of any culture can, satisfied with their lives. Their satisfaction was expressed not only in the pleas they didn't make but also in the praise they gave themselves. They talked about communal land, shared among the tribe's herds, and about communal lives. "In your home," one man, who had returned to Kurungu for a break from his job as a policeman in Nairobi, explained to me, "you say, this is my bed. If a Samburu walks from here all the way through the mountains, any place he sees a hut, the mat inside will be his. To share, to sleep next to the others. There is always a place. We don't have, this is my bed."
For simple dearth, for lack of modern ease, no village in Sierra Leone or Sudan, Liberia or Congo surpasses existence in Kurungu. Yet abjection didn't suffuse the air. The cramped, dark huts; the brilliant clothes and beads; the clack of the wooden animal bells - this was life as the Samburu had long lived it.
"Yes," Rick said, when I asked if he worried that the reverberations of the spiritual and earthly changes he desired might disrupt or even destroy the entire culture. "We're trying to minimize that danger." The Samburu, he said, would see their communal values reflected in the message of the Gospels, so that Christianity would bring not only transformation but also affirmation. "But I won't argue against the fact that I'm using my truth to affect Samburu culture."
And when I asked, Rick and Carrie said that they felt "a huge concern" about race: they didn't want to be the great white missionaries bringing the great savior to the black man. (Inevitably, though, this old image hovers behind American mission work on the continent. Probably fewer than 450 of the American missionaries in Africa are African-American, according to Jim Sutherland, director of the Reconciliation Ministries Network.) Rick spoke about developing - and leaving behind when he and his family are gone from Kurungu - Samburu mission leadership, Samburu "ownership" of the Christian faith.
On my last day with the Mapleses, Rick and Meghan and I set out with Andrea and another Samburu, Lemarakwe Lepulelei, to climb one of the faces of Mount Nyiru. We started in the predawn darkness and made our way up as the light rose. Baboons chortled and barked. Lemarakwe pointed out white specks in the distance, a herd of cattle being led by moran in search of any bit of pasture they could find. He told about plumes of steam that sometimes rose from one of the peaks above us for long periods, steam that was a sign of Ngai.
We reached a high knob by late morning. Lemarakwe's home was here, a few slanting huts, the ground between them covered completely in goat dung. The wind blew fiercely, unblocked; we could see in all directions: to Lake Turkana, the biggest desert lake in the world, and to all the ridges of the sacred mountain. Rick stood gazing toward the farthest ridge, the farthest peak. He stood at a precipice, and with his brush of gray hair and narrowed blue eyes he looked almost as fierce and unstoppable as the wind. I could hear, in my mind, a question he asked as we talked a few days earlier: "Is there such a thing as truth with a capital T?" For him, the answer was plain. Now he said that every week he wanted to make long climbs like this, to learn the paths and pastures and peaks, to know the herders' routes and the cliffside dwellings, to know Nyiru itself. He didn't want his mission limited to the manyattas in the valley. He would bring the Truth up into the mountain.
Daniel Bergner, a contributing writer, is the author of "In the Land of Magic Soldiers: A Story of White and Black in West Africa." His last cover article for the magazine was about the private military in Iraq.