The Sahara Desert Mission
The Republic of Niger extends over the central/western area of the Sahara Desert. It is the largest country in West Africa and lies north of Nigeria, and south of Algeria and Libya.
The population of 15 million is mostly clustered in the south and west of the country, and, with a diversity of ethnic groups and regions, uses French as its official language.
Niger, one of the world’s poorest countries, ranked 186th out of 187 in the United Nations Human Development Index in 2011. Since independence it has had five constitutions and three periods of military rule, but is now a democratic, multi-party state, with a secular constitution guaranteeing freedom of religion.
Niger’s principal export is uranium ore, mined in the region around Arlit, a town whose primary purpose is to serve the mining community. Unsurprisingly, Arlit attracts people seeking work from all over West Africa.
The Sahara Desert Mission (SDM) was formed specifically to take the gospel to the many tribal groups living in oases and encampments in the sparsely populated Sahara Desert.
It is a small mission with a big vision, guided by the principles of sound doctrine, of trusting the Lord for financial support, and of executive control being exercised by those on the field. This article sets out the historical background to its work and describes its current work in Niger Republic.
The SDM was founded in 1953 by Frank and Idabelle Baggott. Frank (1912-2006) was from a Christian home, living in Preston and then in Pudsey, near Leeds. His desire to take the gospel to the Tuaregs of the Sahara Desert was established early in his life and later became his lifelong work.
To further his studies for that end, he went to Algiers in 1947, where he met Idabelle, a newly arrived American pursuing a call to missionary work in North Africa. They were married in 1950 and worked together in the gospel for over 50 years.
In 1949 Frank began a pioneer work in Tamanrasset (Southern Algeria), an oasis in the centre of the Sahara. The work was arduous, without medical help or other support, and Frank and Idabelle learnt to entrust every care, large and small, to their Lord.
From time to time others joined them in the desert, including Freda Jackson who served with them for 20 years. Two children were born to the Baggotts, Stephen and Verna, whose basic education took place in the desert by correspondence.
Stephen went on to Moody Bible Institute and Penn State University as a preparation to return to the desert and gospel work. Sadly, as the newly independent Algeria developed an anti-mission policy, the family found it necessary to leave Tamanrasset in 1970.
In 1972, Frank, Idabelle and Verna (Stephen was in the USA) began a new work among Tuaregs in north Niger, having obtained permission to establish a mission work and build a house in the oasis of Iférouan.
Their hearts were burdened for the local people, who had never heard the gospel. They supported the local community — helping the sick; providing food for undernourished children; taking the seriously ill to hospital 100 miles away along tracks barely suitable for a Land Rover.
A feature of the work at this time was their care of a number of orphan children, giving them a loving home and an education. These young people (known to SDM supporters as ‘the extended family’) have gone on to marry and establish their own lives, but one or two have remained with the family into adulthood.
A second mission house was bought in the nearest town, Arlit, where the Baggotts had to travel for their supplies. Meetings were started with the few Christian believers there. In 1998, during a period of armed rebellion, the mission moved to Arlit, which is now the focus of its work.
Both Frank (2006) and Idabelle (2011) died in harness and are buried in the garden of the mission in Iférouan.
Today the church in Arlit numbers around 30-40 people and reflects the wide ethnic backgrounds of the local population. It meets in the mission house, with Stephen Baggott as senior pastor. He preaches at roughly half of the services and supervises the work.
He is ably assisted by Pastor Maman, who was converted from a Muslim background in the south of the country, completed four years at Bible school, and came north with his family to serve God in a historically hard area for Christians.
Pastor Maman, a keen evangelist, has for many years engaged in careful, sensitive, street evangelism. Recently, opportunities for a regular prison ministry have opened up, from which he has already seen gospel fruit. The church’s outreach is assisted by Pastor Abdu, a Nigerian, called by the Lord to Arlit.
As already noted, the SDM has had the Baggott family (Frank, Idabelle, Stephen, Verna) at its core, with others joining for shorter periods.
In 1997 Verna married Akhmed, the son of a village leader, who had come to Christ in 1995. They serve the Lord together in Agadez, an ancient town south of Arlit. Verna loves caring for children — taking them into their home and giving temporary care when parents are away or for some reason unable to support them.
North Niger is sparsely populated, but many still wait to hear the gospel. The work is slow and hard with few clear conversions. Anyone professing faith in the Lord Jesus Christ in these deeply traditional areas faces ostracism and sometimes threats from family and community.
Stephen is convinced that the way to reach these people with the gospel is through a long-term commitment to live in the community, share their life and give practical help.
Opportunities then arise to share the gospel and introduce the Lord Jesus in this part of Niger. Stephen longs that others will hear the same missionary call from the Lord heard by his father Frank and go to live out the gospel in these desert communities.
For more information, please contact
Mr J. Richard Hall,
82, Leconfield Road, Loughborough,