Tough assignment in Niger
Alf Stephenson is the Gideons Regional Field Officer for West Africa. No stranger to East Africa, he had some surprises in store when he visited the west of the continent last November — not least a serious car crash.
Having had the privilege of serving the Lord in 10 East African countries over the last four years, I imagined that I had experienced most circumstances during my past assignments. My first visit to West Africa proved that this was not the case. I found my assignment to Niger to be the most challenging yet.
In most African countries it is normal for the Regional Field Officer to hire a vehicle and driver to reach the camps that are situated at the extremities of the country. Niger proved to be no different.
At 6.00am one day I set out with the Gideons National Coordinator, who was acting as my interpreter, and our driver. We were in a hired 4-wheel-drive Toyota Land Cruiser for a five-day trip to visit the camps in Zinder and Maradi — a round trip of 1200 miles.
By 5.00pm, we were within 50 miles of Zinder, our first destination, when our driver swerved to avoid a cow that was crossing the road. He lost control of the vehicle, which left the road and turned over five times before coming to rest the right way up, but minus the front suspension and one of its wheels.
The passenger compartment remained intact and our seat belts held us within the vehicle. Our injuries were restricted to flesh wounds and, in my case, some cracked ribs and severe internal bruising. As we surveyed the total wreckage of the vehicle, we realised that it was only by God’s grace and the prayers of God’s people that we had survived such a serious accident.
Some reorganisation of our schedule had to be made but we were able, albeit in considerable discomfort, to complete our meetings in Zinder and Maradi and make the 10-hour return journey to Niamey travelling not in a modern, comfortable, air-conditioned vehicle, but in a very old and uncomfortable Volkswagen, where the air conditioning relied on lowering the window a few extra turns.
As Regional Field Officers, my colleagues and I do not travel as part of a group, but operate as single individuals who are responsible for making all our own arrangements for travel, and planning the work to be carried out while we are abroad.
We are helped and supported by a coordinator in the country to which we are travelling, but difficulties with communications to these men and their lack of planning and organisational skills can make our preparations very difficult.
It is not unusual to find that the itinerary planned in advance has to be substantially changed on arrival in the country. My Niger assignment presented new challenges.
The sheer size of the country was the first major obstacle. It is the 22nd largest country in the world, covering an area almost two and a half times that of France. The Sahara desert covers a large part of the country and makes travelling to some areas very difficult.
Over 60 per cent of the population live below the poverty line and have an income of less than 70p per day. The infant mortality rate is 115 for every 1000 live births, compared to 5 for every 1000 live births in the United Kingdom.
The country’s meagre resources are being stretched to breaking point by a population of 15.7 million, that is growing by 6 per cent, per annum, with an average of 7 children per family.
Niger is predominately Muslim, with over 95 per cent following Islam, but thankfully it does not seem to be experiencing some of the fundamentalist problems seen elsewhere. Communication is not easy because, while the official language is French, many people speak the local languages of Hausa and Djerma. The Gideon Scriptures distributed in Niger are in French.
Because of dire economic needs, the population appear to be more open than ever before to the gospel. The day-to-day challenges of working in such a country rely on regular prayer support. A large part of the population lives in the south of the country, but the towns are spread over a distance of 600 miles or so east to west.
The task of a Regional Field Officer visit is to encourage and motivate the existing members, to develop the ministry by recruiting new members, to strengthen church relations and to provide member training.
In Niger the question of motivation is a real issue. A lot of persuasion was needed to get members to attend meetings. The National Coordinator for Niger did not have a car, which meant that visiting pastors and church leaders was a time-consuming and tiring procedure in a country where the average temperature is 35°C.
Prayer, patience and grace
None of these problems was insurmountable, but they did require prayer, patience and grace. During my time in Niger I visited the four existing camps in the south of the country. However, I was unable to visit Agadez in the north, because of security concerns and the real possibility of kidnapping.
This was heightened by the events in Libya, which has a border with Niger, and the exodus of the supporters of Colonel Gaddafi into the country.
I was able to recruit 12 new members during the trip and trust that, with this encouragement and God’s help, the newly appointed camp leadership teams will achieve their goals in the year ahead.
The daily prayers of God’s people are vital, because travelling in outreach countries is at best difficult and at worst dangerous. Only eternity will tell what has been achieved during this assignment, but it does highlight the need for continual prayer for the work and those who travel abroad serving the Lord in the Gideon ministry.
We may pray generally, but God answers specifically. Your continued prayerful and practical support is vital if we are to spread the Word of God and the gospel to the countries where our Gideon brothers and sisters are willing workers but cannot provide the funds to purchase Scriptures.
This article first appeared in Gideon news, the magazine of Gideons International (www.gideons.org.uk)