The medical needs in northern Benin are very compelling because the climate is hot, harsh, and dry with a very short growing season. The Dendi people survive mostly on millet and cultivate cotton as a cash crop. Donkeys and oxen are the common beasts of burden and camels are an occasional means of transportation. Although Islam is by far the major religion in the far north, traditional African beliefs are expressed in ancestor worship, attention to the "spirit world," and reliance on traditional healers (witch doctors).
Facts and figures are helpful, but a short story about a teenager named Fatima captures the essence of a people to whom God used us to minister:
She was only fifteen; her face scarred with markings unique to her village, Fatima was among the hundreds seeking medical help during our visit to a remote village near the Nigerian border. Like the other young people in her village, Fatima could not read, write, or speak French. She was a child of the sub-Saharan Africa where tribalism is more powerful than nationalism; where her tribe speaks the language that they have spoken for centuries; and where education seems irrelevant. Girls learn to do chores like planting, harvesting, and cooking so that they will become useful wives. School interferes with gardening, and education seems rather pointless in a society that lives from hand to mouth.
Fatima was certainly not the only youngster who came to the clinic. Village children are largely left to themselves—with very little supervision. Trying to keep them out of our makeshift medical/dental clinic was like trying to divert an army of African ants. They just kept regrouping and reappearing in windows, doors, and peepholes!
Although Fatima's stated age was 15, she seemed younger. Who could prove her actual age? She complained that she had not yet entered puberty. To the reader, this may not seem to be a serious medical problem, but to Fatima, it determined her status in the community. Her first husband had died, and her second husband left her because she had not borne him any children.
How do you respond to a child who is both a widow and a divorcée? Her eyes revealed no emotion and her face expressed no feeling. Her vacant stare reflected the reality that she has always been told what she must do. Islam reinforces this pacifism because Muslims respond to sorrow with a blind resignation to "the will of Allah." This sad sort of acquiescence is particularly evident among women. Once, in Cameroon, I visited a Muslim friend when her infant died. "Habiba" had already buried seven other children. When her baby died, she hardly cried. When her emotions distilled into tears, her relatives and friends remonstrated: "It is the will of Allah, don't cry."
Dear people such as these exist in Cameroon, northern Benin, and all over the globe. It is not malaria, nephrotic syndrome, sickle cell disease, osteomyelitis, cancer, or genetic disorders that make them most miserable. I witnessed all these conditions in Benin and treated the cases amenable to medical care. The harsh environment and lack of physical comforts are borne with patience. The inhabitants of sub-Saharan Africa have adjusted marvelously to deprivations. The most distressing reality is not the fact that their children are "branded" with tribal markings. They think the markings are becoming! ! Kidnapping, child slavery, and abuse are notorious along the Benin/Nigerian boarder and ought to invoke strong disapproval and warrant intervention. Yet, even these evils are not as lamentable as the spiritual condition of the people.
Lost souls are most to be pitied because they live in darkness and in the shadow of death without the light of the Savior. They know almost nothing of Calvary's love. The missionaries in Benin have learned the language, endured the climate, translated the Bible into their language, and reared their own children in difficult settings. But what can you do? If you are a medical person, consider joining one of the GDMMissions teams. Pack your stethoscope, but be prepared to touch the people with your own hands. Let them see the compassion of Christ through competent and compassionate care. Give hands to the heart of the Savior who touched the lepers and befriended sinners. Pray that the travail of His soul will be satisfied with the salvation of the Dendi people and other Arabs scattered across the African continent.
Article written by Dr. Carol Loescher (Missionary Doctor Serving with GFA in Cameroon)