|Date||1 April, 2007|
As we whizzed in and out of cars that seemed to be hurtling down upon us from every imaginable angle, it quickly became clear this was every man for himself and I was astonished at how it was possible that the cars didn’t all crash into one another at every turn. And as I noticed the great number of machine guns sticking out of the sides of the cars that were passing us, combined with the soldiers in uniform walking down the street hand-in-hand, I was beginning to wonder what I had let myself in for.
I don’t think I ever got used to the strangeness of this new culture: the early morning call to prayer from the local mosque, or the women dressed from head to toe in black robes, or going to a wedding where there were no female guests, only men dancing in a huge circle leaping up and down and twirling daggers in the air; or being invited for tea to the equivalent of the Bank of England at midnight by a stranger I had got chatting to an hour earlier in the middle of the street. But by far more striking than the unfamiliarity of the culture was the hospitality and generosity of the people. I thought I would have very little contact with the locals but thanks be to God the exact opposite was the case. It was practically impossible to walk from end of the street to the other without someone coming up to greet you with a huge smile and often within minutes you’d be exchanging numbers and arranging to meet up for dinner. I have never felt so welcome or safe anywhere. People ask me if I ever felt unsafe, but in fact the only time I ever felt in danger was when trying to pay for the bill after eating out!
My fondest memories, however, were of the children, who seemed to be everywhere you went. Whether it was walking through one village and finding all the children at the local waterfall doing the washing, or walking through another village and joining in with a football game, everywhere the children were full of joy and life and just wanted to play all day, despite having practically nothing of their own, often not even any shoes. It was always a mistake to get out your camera as you would be caught for hours being forced to take photo after photo as the children lined up to have their portrait taken.
Despite the many times of joy and fun, there were also times where it felt my heart was breaking. The poverty was not as obvious as I had expected but you didn’t have to go very far from the main streets selling computers and cameras to find little shanty villages where whole families were living in tiny sheds made of corrugated iron. One in two children suffer from malnutrition, one in six women die from complications related to childbirth, and literacy is 30% among the men, 10% among the women. Drug addiction is widespread.
Even more heartbreaking though was the spiritual plight of this people I had fallen in love with. Out of the millions of people in this country there are few who have heard of who Jesus really is and barely a handful who worship him as Lord and God.
As our team was worshipping one day in a hotel where we were staying for the weekend, with the adults singing out of tune and the children playing their instruments out of time, I noticed two of the hotel workers peeking their heads around the door to see what was going on and I was struck by the grace of our God who welcomes anyone into his presence despite our failings and weaknesses because of the cleansing blood of his Son. How different to their idea of God who demands outward perfection in the ritual observances of washing and prayer and yet who seems to care so little for the inner parts. So often I was reduced to tears thinking about the millions of people in this country who have lead such hard lives and are facing an eternity of darkness without ever even having heard the gospel.
And yet God is so clearly at work in this land. I was amazed by the opportunities I was given to share my faith. In a country where nearly every conversation begins “Where are you from? Are you married? Why not? Are you a Muslim? Why not?” it was far easier to talk about Jesus than in England. And I was amazed at how open people were to taking scripture. I remember asking one guy, who became one of my best friends while I was out there, if he would like a copy of Luke’s gospel and was a bit dispirited when he declined. However, he then said that what he really wanted for many years now was a whole Bible and I was overjoyed to be able to pass one onto him. The next time I saw him he was memorising the Sermon on the Mount! Another friend, whose name literally meant ‘Servant of the King’, when presented with a gospel shouted out “I love you I love you I love you I love you” and then declared we were best friends for life. The greatest privilege, however, was being able to pass on a Bible to someone who had been born again by listening to Christian radio but knew no other Christians and had no Bible of his own.
The whole trip was an amazing experience, not only in the joy of meeting people from that country but also in getting to know the people I was on the trip with and other Christians who are working out there, all of whom immediately felt like family for me. I have thought about my trip every day since returning to England and can’t wait to return one day for longer. I saw so much of God’s heart for people while I was out there and the experience has changed my life. I just pray now that more and more people from that country will be set free by the God who came to die for them.