West African Journey

“Immunizations: Yellow Fever is mandatory.” For someone none too keen on the entire immunization industry, this notice alone in the information pack should have given me pause regarding my travel plans. Yellow fever is fairly tame when compared to the hemorrhagic fever known as Ebola, but this was long before the current outbreak. Regardless, I wouldn’t be allowed in country without the yellow fever certificate in my passport, so to the clinic I went. Had I know the troubles that Lariam[1] would give me, the yellow fever vaccine would have been the least of my worries.

I’ve flown over oceans, seen icebergs swimming in their natural environment, and gazed over the orderly squares that tamed the amber waves of grain. But nothing gives one that out-of-Kansas feeling quite like the expanse of the Saharan sands. The plane was pointed south and soon we would be in Mali. Our stop there was short and disconcerting. Once most of the passengers deplaned, the flight attendant took her post in the safety demonstration area. Only this time, there was no fake seat belt or unattached air mask. She held up two aerosol cans and shook them vigorously. With the nonchalance of experience, she cracked both foggers open and walked the length of the plane and back. It seems that the dangers posed by the mosquito far outweighed any comfort considerations for the remaining passengers. Definitely not Kansas.

Our next stop was in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso where we would meet up with the missionaries we had come to work with for the next two weeks. Our ultimate destination was the town of Wa in northwestern Ghana. But we would need our rest for that journey, a grueling 220 mile ride on the dirt highways of the interior that would take nearly eight hours. We awoke that morning refreshed and expectant, eager to commence our church planting mission in the upper west territory of Ghana. But first, our missionary guides had to renew their visas.

We stood outside the consulate taking in the sights, smells, and sounds while our hosts sorted out their visas inside. Six of us had come on this short-term mission trip: three women, two men, and one teenage boy. All of us were white except for Jackie, who was an African-American in Africa for the first time like most of us. One of our teammates was a veteran. This was her third or fourth foray into West Africa. And she was sure that French was the lingua franca necessary to successfully interact with natives in this part of the world.

She and I were involved in a heated debate over the usefulness of French over Spanish as we watched the sea of humanity ride by on a kaleidoscope of mopeds. She was right in her assumptions regarding the usefulness of French in West Africa. But I was stubborn and far from a Francophile. Spanish, I informed her, had gotten me by in most places that I had traveled. I felt no need to learn French. Just then, a moped peeled away from the flow of the avenue and steered straight for us. The gentleman dismounted, strode up to me, and asked “Se habla español?” I turned to my teammate and smiled.

We talked for nearly forty-five minutes. He was a Burkina native who had lived and studied in Mexico City for ten years. He hadn’t had any opportunities to practice his Spanish since returning home. The presence of white faces hanging out on the avenue gave him hope that perhaps today was his day. What are the odds? We talked about life in Mexico, the US, and Africa. And we talked about Jesus; how he came to save all and without whom all were doomed. We shook hands and he rode off. The mission had begun in earnest.

The following days were perhaps some of the most intense I’ve ever experienced in life or ministry. I’m not unaccustomed to culture shock, but I was unprepared for its sub-Saharan impact. I watched in amazement as women carried anything from water jugs to large bundles of branches on their heads; just one more on their long list of daily chores required for survival. A mother bathed her young boy in a wash tub outside set in the dirt lot in front of their shack. Fifty feet away, others defecated into the ditch that ran through this section of town. What litter wasn’t stuck in the mud was fair game for toilet paper. Singular encounters turned to thronging audiences without much notice. All music was beautiful and loud.

Regardless of what we told ourselves about our commitment or sacrifice to be there, the fact remained that as Westerners, we were pampered and soft. The Ghanaian workers that had come up from Accra in the south or had signed on from local congregations spent far more time evangelizing on the streets and trails than we did. While we rested in the comfort of the missionaries’ house, they rested on the cinderblock and wood plank pews set up on the dirt floor of the makeshift church. At night, under the single light of a naked bulb, the invited came to sing praises to Jesus, hear the Gospel, and receive salvation.

It was toward the end of our journey when Jackie shared her revelation with us. I remember her fiddling with her Nefertiti gold necklace as she worked to put words to her thoughts. She was old enough to remember the racial tensions of the late 1960s and early 1970s in America and black enough to have experienced any of the numerous slights suffered by her people that white folks are oblivious to. The insult of slavery still brought tears to her eyes. And yet, she confessed, if slavery is what her ancestors had to suffer for her to be born an American; she was grateful.

To deny that ethnic injustice persists in the US is to betray ignorance of the facts. To smash windows in Berkley, California because a cigar robber in Missouri got himself killed while assaulting a police officer is to abandon reason. As a society, we need to continue advancing toward the experiential reality that all men were created equal. We have made great strides in that direction. Let us pray that we may continue to do so and not slide into the darker side of West Africa’s journey.

[1] I took this trip in August of 2001. In 2003, this anti-malarial med was implicated in the psychotic episodes of some returning servicemen.

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