Mali — a former French colony not yet reached by the twenty-first century — is four times the size of the UK, with a population of 12 million. Two-thirds of it is Sahara desert. However, it has an intriguing and glorious past — embracing the ancient Malian and Songhay empires as well as Timbuktu and the Tuaregs.
Today, southern Mali and capital city Bamako have Christian churches of many kinds, which coexist with animism and Islam (mixed with animism).
Northern Mali had to wait more than 1,900 years for the gospel. The Christian and Missionary Alliance (CMA) started work in 1923, but found it hard-going. Their missionaries faced temperatures of 120°F, a short and uncertain rainy season, sand storms, and little response to the gospel. The saying that ‘even water is dry in the north of Mali’ originated during those difficult years.
In 1951 the CMA moved to southern Mali where the response was better, working with the Evangelical Baptist Mission (EBM).
EBM missionaries opened dental and optical clinics, played recorded evangelistic messages, and travelled from village to village in small boats on the Niger. For many years there were few converts.
Islam keeps its people gripped in ignorance, fear and fatalism — Christianity is seen as ‘the white people’s religion’. To be a faithful witness in such conditions was extremely hard.
After decades with few conversions, the situation started to change in the 1980s. Church leadership was handed over to local Christians, and the Lord slowly began adding believers to the northern church.
Currently, there are approximately 250 believers in Timbuktu, Gao, Diré, Niafunké, Gossi, Ansongo, Kidal and Menaka. At least 7 ethnic groups are represented. French is used in the churches, but in Timbuktu, for example, where the majority of believers are Tuareg, services are translated into Tamasheq. The church in Gao is an urban congregation with several ethnic groups, so everything is in French.
In Mali, a fifth of all conversations centre on religion. Even though atheism is taught in schools — officially Mali is a secular country — most people still believe in God.
Many are Moslems but have little understanding of their religion. They pray five times a day, fast during Ramadan, and recite the Koran in Arabic — learned by rote without understanding. They have no assurance of salvation and know no positive changes in their life. Islam brings them neither hope nor comfort.
Those who convert to Christianity suffer persecution. For example, one young man was converted at a gospel service. His stepfather was an imam in a mosque.
It was a matter of great shame for his stepfather, a religious leader, to have a Christian in the family. So after family consultation the young man was told to choose between returning to Islam or having his stepfather divorce his mother. The latter alternative would leave his mother, an elderly woman, with no means of support.
It was a difficult decision, but he did not deny the Lord Jesus, even though unemployed at the time. Consequently his mother was divorced. Yet the Lord helped the young man find a job teaching in a remote village. He was the only Christian there. For a year he learned about God, reading his Bible and Christian books, and listening to taped sermons.
He came for a short visit to Gao and asked to be baptised. He is now doing his first year at Bible School in Gao.
Another young man was also converted during a gospel service. He was told to leave his uncle’s house, since he would not lodge someone who did not pray as a Muslim. The boy’s mother travelled from a town 100km away to fetch her son. Much pressure was put on him to deny Jesus, but he remained firm.
Today this young man lives with a Muslim friend on a small student grant. But a big challenge awaits him. During the summer break he must visit his family in their village. His trust in the Lord has been a big encouragement to the Gao believers.
The task of reaching northern Mali with the gospel is enormous. There are many towns and villages where people have never heard the good news. People live in isolated, desert places.
There are also nomadic Tuaregs, who spend many months moving from place to place. The church must evangelise these independent, proud people, who are still in bondage to Islam.