An edited account of a journey undertaken by Bill Clark in French West Africa in August 1996. It depicts vividly the difficulties faced by missionaries travelling in that region. Bill went to be with the Lord in November 1998, but his work in Africa endures in the form of numerous independent Reformed churches and the literature and radio ministries described here.
My journey to Africa did not begin well. We eventually arrived in the wrong country, Togo, where the airline arranged for us to stay in a hotel in Lomé. Next morning there was no bus to take us to Cotonou. I was due to preach that afternoon in Kétou, a bush town three-hour’s drive from Cotonou.
Eventually a bus arrived. But I had missed the rendezvous with S in Cotonou. So I found a room in a hotel. It was not of European standard, but ‘reasonable’, if you do not mind the bed not being made up, or the black curly hair littering the floor from the previous occupant!
I went to look for S, taking public transport – a small motor cycle – to the airport. Eventually we met, but it was too late to go to Ketou. However, the church in Cotonou had one of their regular meetings that evening. So we went along and I was introduced as preacher.
There were about eighty people present and it was a real privilege to preach the gospel to eager listeners. They were all jammed into a room that could only comfortably seat thirty. The noise outside the meeting place was deafening, but there was nothing we could do about it. The preacher just shouted louder!
Next morning we set out for Kétou. S arrived in a bush taxi he had hired for $25 for the day. The car should have been on the scrapheap ten years ago. Maybe that’s where the driver got it!
We started the journey. The inside of the car revealed that all might not be well. The front windscreen was badly cracked and a broken back window had been repaired with tape and plastic. Some of the doors had no handles. We could only hope that the one-hundred-mile journey would be uneventful.
The road has large potholes, which the driver cannot avoid although he swings the steering wheel from side to side. Several loud bangs reveal that shock absorbers are non-existent.
About an hour out of Cotonou there was an exceptionally large bang, followed by a loud rumble. The front right tyre had burst. We pulled to the side of the road and everyone piled out to observe the damage. The driver assures us he has a spare wheel and a jack.
The jack will not wind down far enough. I volunteer to push the punctured wheel under the car, while the three strong men lifted it. ‘One, two, three, lift!’ The fender bends as they lift. But no matter; it is only changing the shape of the car!
They continue to lift and I slip in the wheel. The jack is still too high and a hole is dug for it to sit in. Meanwhile I examine the spare wheel. It is not fit to be used. It has a large swelling where its wall had previously given way. It would not hold out for long. We have no choice, and are soon on our way again.
Waiting for us
It was the rainy season and we passed through a downpour. The driver turned on the windscreen wipers by pushing a certain spot on the dashboard. It worked, and we continued, but not for long. Smoke began to billow from below the dashboard. One of the dangling wires was on fire.
The driver grabbed a duster and tried to put out the fire while wobbling all over the busy road. Finally I convinced him to stop. We could not get out, since there were no door handles, but he managed to extinguish the flames.
The loose wire comes from the windscreen wiper, which now does not work at all. However, we must continue our journey in the driving rain. The people in Kétou will be waiting for us.
This was indeed the case. When we arrived, they were patiently sitting on benches outside the church building. The service was a real blessing and the people attentive. They know and love the gospel of grace and it was a pleasure to preach to them. The pastor invited us back to his home for a meal. Then we were on the road back to Cotonou.
Just keep driving!
A few miles along the bumpy dirt road the brakes failed. I knew already that there was no handbrake, so I asked him what he intended to do. ‘Just keep driving’, he informed me. ‘But how will you stop without brakes?’ ‘I will use the engine as a brake’, he calmly replied. This was not reassuring.
I prayed silently for the Lord’s protection, and we kept going, but not for long. A sharp blast on a whistle and we were stopped by traffic policemen. We were asked to pay a $50 fine. Of course, this could be avoided if we would slip $1 into the policeman’s hand and say nothing. We did not co-operate and were eventually waved on.
We continued thankfully. Then the engine died. Everybody piled out and began to push the car amid a cacophony of horns from the traffic behind us. Finally the engine spluttered into life. A little further along the road the engine gave up the ghost again – and again. This happened every time we turned left!
We were glad to arrive, alive and able to preach. The Lord was good to us. It was such an encouragement to preach to the people in Cotonou. I have seen this church grow over the past few years. There must have been nearly 100 people present that morning in a small room that could comfortably seat 30.
I was eager to return to Togo. I invited S to go with me. He found a bush taxi to take us to Lomé. The taxi’s spare wheel was punctured. We waited while it was repaired and finally got on our way.
A few miles later we stopped; smoke was coming from one of the wheels. The brake cylinder was locked and the wheel too hot to touch. A mechanic was found, but he had no tools. An apprentice returned to the workshop for some wrenches, but they were not of the right size, so he went off again. Finally the wheel was removed.
What next? ‘We will dismantle the brake’, I am told, ‘and you can continue’. ‘Without a brake?’ I replied. ‘Why not? You still have three’. We had no choice. We resumed our journey and again I prayed! The Lord was good to us, and we arrived safely in Lomé several hours later. There we had excellent meetings.
Run in with a taxi
I had one more call to make: to meet the director of a radio station broadcasting our Radio Bible course. After that, I had to get directly to the airport to catch my plane for Abidjan, Ivory Coast.
On the way to the radio station our driver cut in front of a taxi that did not appear to have brakes. It slammed into our left side. We were shaken, but uninjured.
Two policemen appeared from nowhere. Nobody must move while they trace out the exact position of both cars on the ground with chalk.
Our driver maintained that the taxi had indicated a left turn. The shouting and arguing began. Finally the drivers decided to exchange documents. The cars were able to move, so we left for the radio station, the taxi following close behind.
During my meeting at the radio station, the taxi waited outside. The fare-paying passenger was not happy, but the taxi driver refused to listen to him. We then went to pick up my bags. He continued to follow us.
I was uneasy about the taxi following us to the airport, so I suggested that the drivers arrange a time and place to meet after I had gone. This was agreed.
This is Africa
I have now arrived in Ivory Coast where I plan to spend ten days preaching in a number of churches and at the Preachers’ Training Course conference in Gagnoa. I will be travelling to several remote villages to preach, but fortunately we have a roadworthy truck. We look to the Lord for journeying mercies and his blessing on these services.
I am glad the Lord gives me these opportunities to preach the gospel of grace, in spite of all the problems. This is Africa; I have learned to expect anything, and that is usually what I get! I do not know how long the Lord will permit me to continue in the rough and tumble of the African ministry in which I have engaged for several years. But by his grace I intend to continue until he stops me.