Stephen Baggott, director of the Sahara Desert Mission, answers some FAQs about his work:
Q1. What is a typical day like?
A. We get up early to get our work done before the heat of the day. Businesses and offices here start work at 7:30. Some work right through to about 14:30; others take a break for siesta during the very hot midday hours. If we don’t sleep, at least we rest. Shops and the market are closed or the owner absent during hours for prayer. Work quite often occupies us till 21:00 or 22:00.
Services are held twice on Sunday: from 9:30 to around 11:15, and from 17:00 to 18:00. Wednesday prayer meeting is from 18:00 till 19:00.
Perhaps the best description is that there is no typical day! Interruptions and changes are frequent. Here are some typical examples: preparing a sermon is stopped when someone comes to visit; siesta sleep is interrupted by a poor person needing money to buy medicine for a sick child; the day’s plans to pay the telephone bill have to be scrapped because the ladies are not in the office — they have gone to a neighbour’s attachement (ceremony and celebration) for their son’s or daughter’s betrothal.
We have to be prepared to spend much time at offices. Here is a typical example. Going to the post office to trace a lost registered letter and finding that the fellow couldn’t find the proper form and the man who would normally know where it was kept was away. A telephone call to him was fruitless because the form was not where he said. So after almost an hour, ‘Please come back tomorrow’.
The next day, the form was still unavailable and, after a half hour, ‘We’ll have to ask for a form from the capital. We’ll call you’. A week later, a check at the post office revealed that no form had come yet. Another week went by and (surprise!) the postal agent did remember to call and say the form had arrived.
Over an hour at the post office was spent with the agent as he tried to figure out what information was required and wrote it in.
Q2. What is your ‘extended family’?
A. Beginning in 1974 in Iférouan, 11 orphans were brought up by my parents as members of the Baggott family. They have all grown up and some are married and have children.
Q3. How does one witness to Muslims?
A. Though it is important to know how to answer certain questions (for example, ‘Why do you Christians believe in three gods?’) and one should know their basic beliefs (for example, the five pillars of Islam), the best way to witness to them is by showing the love of Christ.
I have not heard of any Muslims saved by being convinced by a Christian’s arguments, but I have heard testimonies that say something like, ‘I saw that her life was different; I saw he was honest; I was amazed that they took time to help me, etc.’
Q4. What are some of the difficulties you face?
A. Physical: heat (over 40°C in the shade in summer), which often tires us out; unable to easily get certain medical help (going to the dentist means going to Niamey, the capital), some medicines have to be ordered from Niamey; difficulty in eating right (some months there are no fresh vegetables, the same with fruit).
: cannot go to the nearest ironmonger or computer store for parts; some can be ordered from Niamey the capital, others have to be ordered from Britain and take a few months by mail; frequent repairs are needed for fridges and air coolers, so necessary in the hot climate.
: the nearest missionaries are hundreds of kilometres away and rarely visited.
: we are often conscious that we live in Satan’s stronghold; temptations to be discouraged are frequent; no Bible conferences or spiritual retreats to attend, and Bible teaching over radio or TV is very limited. Pray for us and for the many individual Christians and non-Christians to whom we minister Christ’s love.
Q5. What is the desert like?
A. Only a fifth of the Sahara is sand dunes. The rest is composed of clay or gravel plains, rocky mountains or a mixture of soils. In Niger rain generally comes every summer in varying amounts, but normally between 25 and 200 mm a year.
In Tamanrasset, rain came once every two or three years. Some places have not had rain for decades. Perhaps the most striking characteristic of the desert is its silence. Far from any habitation on a windless night, the silence throbs; one can hear one’s heartbeat.
The atmosphere is clear, apart from when there are sandstorms or during the rainy season. At night, one can see the stars very clearly — no problem seeing seven Pleiades or more.
The night is so clear that one has to avoid sleeping under the full moon; the moon reflects the sun so well that one can get sunstroke (Psalm 121:6). Travelling can be dangerous; following the wrong track can result in dying of thirst.
Q6. What are the communities around you?
A. Iférouan is an oasis of about 2000-3000 people, with about 30,000 in the surrounding area, living in villages, hamlets and encampments. It is situated at the foot of the Tamgak mountains. People grow wheat and vegetables in their gardens. It has now become a sous-prefecture.
Arlit is a uranium mining town of over 80,000 people. Nobody lived there before mining began. Salty water can be found 75m down, but drinking water must be brought up from 150-300m down. It is located in a hollow, so can get very hot in summer. The soil is mostly sandstone, clay and sand.
Agadez is the seat of the governor of the Agadez region. It is an ancient oasis of about 80,000 people, including gardeners, merchants, transporters, teachers and government workers. The tourist trade has greatly suffered since the Tuareg rebellions took place. Agadez’s most striking feature is its ancient mosque, built in the thirteenth century.