Sunday, 17 November 2013


That’s the colour of parting, the pure chocolate of our Beninese experience, soon to be memory. What will linger on the palate, and how long? The books we have read on repatriation say that at first we will be full of stories, constantly associating and comparing what we re-encounter in our homeland with what we experienced while away. For some time people will listen, before too long they will have heard enough, and after a while even we ourselves will barely find occasion to reminisce. But now and then a memory will suddenly light up and the bittersweet will be there once more, diminished in intensity but palpable, only to recede under the weight of normalcy.

Bittersweet: a melange of what is basically unpleasant and of what is probably too good to be real. Sister Coosje used the word in a footnote to Marijke’s latest blog, and I thank her for it. (Hi, Co! You’re doing a bit of globetrotting yourself right now, aren’t you?) Bitter and sweet: our two years in Benin, this busy time of farewells, the period of adjustment which is fast approaching.

Today we were in Vovokame, one of the parishes in the Mono-Couffo which is dearest to our heart. Still not officially included in the communion of the ERCB, all but two of the 15 or so members as yet unbaptized, average age probably about 16. Without recourse to the ERCB’s church funds, but very serious about wanting a place of instruction and worship, they found and paid for the teak frame, one log at a time, they laboured with their own hands splitting palm branches for the walls and levelling the plot of land donated by senior member Grégoire: he of the two wives and therefore never to be office-bearer, but a beautifully devoted Christian. With a little financial help from friends in the Netherlands a roof was placed, and there the building stands! We were in Vovokame today, and comme d’habitude I was asked to preach. Philippians 4.1 was our text: Therefore, my brothers, you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, that is how you should stand firm in the Lord, dear friends! I took them back to the origins of the church at Philippi, Acts 16, the miracle of God opening both hearts and prison doors, the inevitable departure of the Philippians’ pasteur missionnaire Paul, his certainty that despite the powers of hell ranged against the fledgling church he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus (Phil. 1.6), and his insistence now that (whether he would ever see them again or not) they stand firm in the Lord. Paul did leave Philippi. We are leaving Vovokame. We will miss them, and they us. We will miss the rousing choruses there: no organ accompaniment, but the biggest and loudest drum money could buy. The drum was there today, new-bought with their own funds! A sweet first in the as yet unpublished history of the ERCB, we think: all the other churches have, until now, held out for mission funding of their instruments.
Mission funding. Money provided by well-meaning brothers and sisters overseas, and stridently demanded by increasingly dependent brothers and sisters here at the receiving end. There’s the bitter in our experience, something we were woefully inadequately prepared for before being sent to Benin. Vovokame is – as yet – an exception to the rule we’ve been struggling to deal with. We assumed that we had been sent to offer spiritual support, but an hugely inordinate amount of our energy has been spent managing material demands. Managing in the sense of trying to change expectations, but also in the sense of administering and controlling budgets. Now, as (and because) we are leaving, a financial expert has been sent to the field in order to set up a self-sustaining church administration with all the checks and balances required. He is doing a wonderful job. Hats off to those responsible for this decision. But this could and should have been done years ago. Our predecessors and ourselves would have been spared a lot of frustration and would have been able to devote ourselves properly to what we were good at; and the ERCB would have been helped to realize that they themselves are responsible - before God and men - for their own church affairs.

Yesterday we did good. We brought a maize-mill to far-off Tchangba, the most isolated and poverty-stricken village in the economic waste-land called the Mono-Couffo. Overhead are the high-tension power lines, bringing electricity from Togo – on the other side of the Mono – to the more developed parts of Benin. But on the ground below lies Tchangba, no electricity, to all intents and purposes stone-age. (Right, Hannah, family archaeologist?) From Tchangba, after the corn has been harvested, the villagers (and people from the surrounding villages) walk an hour or more – eastwards to Deve or westwards and across the Mono - to have it ground into flour for their staple pâte. At the expense of much time, energy, and an inequitable portion of the harvest. Julien of Tchangba, we discovered a few months ago, had managed to save for a mill; an achievement of months or possibly years. What was still lacking was the diesel plant to power it. And the revision of said mill so that it could actually be attached to the plant. And a small building to house the assembly. And assorted bits and pieces: total costs about 450.000 FCFA, or €675.
Thinking ahead to our departure, Marijke and I decided to offer these very poor people of Tchangba some help. Form a small co-operative, we said to Julien, and if you – together – can come up with 1/3 of the amount required (150.000), we will provide the other 2/3. No sooner said than done: a week later we received a delegation with a list of 12 cooperative members who had pledged the amount required. Obviously, we didn’t just give them our contribution: first make sure you have your part in hand, show it to me, and then we will get things underway. There was some disappointment at that, but my caution can hardly be faulted, I think. After that meeting, there was silence for about two months. Then we received another delegation: yes, said Jonas, we’re ready to get started. We were pleased, of course. Do you have the money with you? I asked. Well, not exactly, was the response. We have been able to find 40.000. But we were thinking… Three guesses. Right: Pasteur et Madame would up our contribution from 300.000 to 410.000. And Tchangba would contribute their bit. (Those of you who might wonder why we refused to go along with this proposition should read When Charity Destroys Dignity.) And then the delegation went back to Tchangba. We honestly thought that was the end of it; obviously, the 150.000 would not be found before our departure…
And then, a week and a half ago: bingo! Julien was here, with Pelagie, the treasurer. They had found the money! Yes: I checked, I counted, and there it was. To the last FCFA. So here we were: in the middle of packing our goods, and pressed for time, but with a promise that needed keeping. We made the necessary appointments, and we sent Francois (one of our watchmen, a fellow church member in Dogbo, and a good negotiator) along with Julien and Pelagie to the sellers of hardware, the technicien, the building supplies depot, the carpenter, the mechanic, the mason. Francois came back a few days later with a progress report: he had been able to undercut all the prices which Julien had originally given me by about 1/3. Well, I thought, good for me and good for Julien! The cooperative will have 50.000 which it can give back to its member-investors, and we will save about 100.000 ourselves.
But then Julien intervened: there were a few more things needed, after all, and they would amount to the amount we had thought we would be saving… This was last Friday afternoon. This time, he said, it would be better if we gave him the money directly, starting with the 25.000 extra which the technician in Djakotomey was now demanding. Francois, after all, was not available that afternoon, and there was some haste. Oh yes, and there was still 15.000 from yesterday, Pelagie accidentally took that home with her to Tchangba, and she is not here today. Could you give me that amount extra as well? By now, my olfactory organ was starting to warn me of the presence of a rodent. So I said No, let’s do that a bit differently. Here’s the money, but take our chauffeur Grégoire along with you to the technician. Then tomorrow, you will have Pelagie give me back the 15.000 she has, and after that we talk to the carpenter and the mason and the mechanic. Make sure that they’re there! It took some time for Grégoire to get back from Djakotomey. The technicien had been paid for his services, the mill and the diesel plant were in the back of the truck, everyone should have been happy: but Grégoire and Julien for some reason were no longer on speaking terms. Later we learned why. Along the way to Djakotomey, Julien had tried to talk Grégoire into holding back a large part of the money owed the technicien, then dividing the amount between them. Grégoire – yes, this is the same two-wife Grégoire from Vovokame – had refused, had appealed to Julien to remember that he was a christian, leader of the parish, and that this was no way of doing business. Grégoire had prevailed, and Julien had gone into a sulk.
On the way to Tchangba yesterday, Grégoire and we agreed on what to do: first the 15.000, then the unloading. After that, we would talk to the workmen, agree on the price, then pay them directly an advance of half the amount. No more cash money to Julien. There was obviously something complicated going on. Arriving at Tchangba: no Pelagie, no workmen. Pelagie had the 15.000 from earlier, but she was out in the fields somewhere. All right, we said, we’ll wait. Go call her. And we will leave the equipment on the truck until I have received the 15.000. Oops. Oh, yes, actually I do have it here with me after all, said Julien. Wait a moment, please… The moment ended up being a bit longer than most moments I have encountered in my 61 years on this earth. And it was filled with rather heated discussions between Julien and his wife Sulanie. This one, Sulanie, we have had to deal with before, by the way. About a year ago, she suddenly turned up in faraway Djakotomey, staying with her family and refusing to go home where she belonged. At that time there had been a thing with money too. Money she had borrowed (without her husband´s permission) spent on something other than had been agreed on, borrowed from another creditor to repay the first, and finally, with no way to repay the debt, fleeing to the bosom of the family and leaving poor Julien to deal with an angry creditor and a large brood of unwashed and hungry children.


This time she didn’t seem to be threatening to leave, but as she drew the 15.000 from her own bosom, she looked very, very angry… Money handed over, goods unloaded. Workmen still nowhere in sight. Last effort on the part of Julien: I have agreed with them on the price, if you give me the money now, I will be sure to pay them! No, they won´t be here in Tchangba today, they´re in Deve.
We had a better idea. Julien, you come with us to Deve, we´ll look them up, and we will pay them an advance ourselves. Resigned at last, but looking worried, Julien got on his moped and followed us to Deve. Great place, Deve. But no carpenter, no mason, no mechanic. Check.
But not checkmate. In Deve lives a wise man. Elder of the ERCB there. Salomon: what better name to have in this quandary? Dieu seul suffit, reads the plaque above the entrance to his tailoring establishment. 14 apprentices followed us with their eyes as we walked into the back room. 28 ears seemed to swivel in our direction as well, as we went into a huddle. We explained the predicament: we wanted to help with the project, Julien and we had already invested a fair amount, but we were kind of at a dead point… Salomon was no stranger to the project. Actually, he knew a lot about it. He had been the one guarding the money for the cooperative, and in the end, he himself had contributed more than a bit to get it off the ground. There really was a need for funds, and it wasn’t a small thing to install a mill, he said. At that point we said: Salomon, could we talk to you privately? Julien left through the side door. When he was at a safe distance, we took out the papers. Julien’s  inflated estimates. The real costs. The whole history of Julien’s attempts to get the money in his hands without the controlling presence of a witness. Including the episode between Grégoire and Julien on the way to Djakotomey on Friday afternoon. We have been deceived and disappointed, we said. Actually, we would almost want to pull out of the project, were it not that that would mean the loss of what we have already invested, and all those dear people in Tchangba who are counting on the mill. Would you take the completion in hand? Here, this is the amount that is really still required to get the mill up and running. Use half for the advance, the other half when the job is done. Salomon agreed. And then he explained what the problem probably was. Julien found the money for the cooperative’s contribution by lending much of it. And now he has to pay these creditors back. I think, said Salomon, that that is what he wanted from you. Extra money, so that the loans can be repaid…
Bittersweet. If all is well, a maize mill will be running in Tchangba by the end of the month. The villagers will save a lot of time and energy and money. They will probably start making money when surrounding villages discover that there is a mill closer to home. But in the meantime we have been left with the feeling that good deeds are not necessarily completely good. And Julien, having miscalculated our credulousness, has been left with yet another set of creditors to harry him.
Almost there, at the end of our time in Benin. One more little episode. Friday afternoon, just before our meeting with Julien. Joseph, guardien, received his pay. Plus the Christmas bonus which we give towards the end of November. Plus his severance pay for the two years which he spent with us. For him, quite a lot of money. But he deserves it. We love Joseph. His quiet wisdom. His simple humour. His conscientious and absolutely reliable work ethic. For his prayer, every time we voyage, together under the paillotte in our garden. Joseph is a great man, and a wonderful Christian. I said: Joseph, deposit this money at the bank immediately! And I know I don’t really have to tell you, but use it wisely for the support of your family as you look for a new living after so many years as guardien. Joseph thanked me. For his pay. And for the advice. And then he continued. I have worked for Pasteur Jacques, he said. And for Pasteur Gerrit, before you. They were good to me. But if I think of how you and Madame have been like a father and a mother to me in this time, I’m sad that you’re leaving, but also I don’t have the words to express my thankfulness. And as for this envelope with money, he finally said, would you please pray for it and for me? So that I will do with it what God wants, and that his blessing will follow…
Bitter and sweet. What more could I want?

Sunday, 3 November 2013

A family affair

Sunday all over. Today was pretty special! It began for me as we were reading from the Bible after breakfast. (Yes, our kids can vouch for the fact that their father doesn’t properly return to the land of the living until after breakfast…) We were reading Psalm 133: Voici, oh! qu’il est agréable, qu’il est doux pour des frères de demeurer ensemble! I started thinking about the fact that – at least for myself, but I’m fairly sure for most Reformed Christians – these words apply to the covenant community, the people of God. Right, dear reader? Let’s have a show of hands here: how many of you have that association? Aaah, well over 75%... That’s the first thing we think of: this is the brotherhood of the church. And then we read the superscription of the psalm:  a song of ascents, that is to say, a song for the yearly pilgrimage to the sanctuary, and we are confirmed in our thinking.
But what if we just let the psalm speak for itself? How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity! Where does one find brothers (and sisters, okay) living together? Right: in the family. So if we just forget about our primary association, what do we read here? What a wonderful thing it is when a family lives in unity. When it is united in common purpose, shared values, and peaceful harmony. What a wonderful thing to strive for! Living here in Benin, we’ve been reinforced in our focus on the family. There is so much rot and wild growth here when it comes to family, and the effects are so devastating: of polygamy, of children being sent off to live with assorted aunts and vaguer relatives, of absent fathers and overworked mothers. The writer of Psalm 133 knew what he was talking about. And yes, as believers were on pilgrimage to the holy place, it was good to be reminded: a healthy family is comparable to (and probably as important as) what you will be experiencing there, the priest’s anointing, the mark of his authority to bring about peace between yourself and your God! Go there and worship, but not at the neglect of the home front! It reminds me a bit of what Jesus said once (or, knowing Him, probably lots of times): "Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.” Family first. No family, no worship. I’ll leave the implications of the message of Psalm 133 to you. (And yes, of course, there is an extended application to the family of faith, but first of all…)
We’ve been missing our own family lots, being here in Benin. Alwin and Erika with Anne and Aline and Gerard and Willemijn, Alice and Allan with Jacoba and Jonah and Simon and Allie, Ian and Lydia with Rosa and Gabriel, Evelene and Arjan with Jan and Eva and Benthe, Maarten and Marchien with Jonathan and Teun, Maria and Bastiaan with Micha, Hannah and…. (Yes, things have gotten complicated for Hannah in the past year, all the more reason it’s difficult for us to be far away much of the time.) And with that in mind, we’re thankful that – at the end of this month – we’ll be going back home.

At the same time, we’ve been blessed with our brothers and sisters in the church family here. Today, for instance, when we worshipped in Agame. Agame has some very nasty associations for us: not more than a kilometre from where the church stands, stands the house where we were almost taken away from our family, where we were drugged and incapacitated prior to the robbery which we underwent in February last year. Coming Thursday the case against the man who did this to us will at last come to trial, but it’s been a long and complicated road getting there. However, that’s not what occupied us this morning at Agame. It was a final church service there with brothers and sisters in the Lord. Speaking of unity: from old to very young, man, woman and child, (almost) everyone was dressed in the same pagnes. We didn’t discover until after the service how that had come about. About half a year ago, one of the members there suffered the loss by fire of her tailoring workshop: building, sewing machine, and bolts of pagne brought by her customers. A true disaster: the pagnes needed to be repaid, but her only means of income – precarious as that is here anyway – had been destroyed. Thankfully, while in the Netherlands, Marijke and I had found a barely used Singer hand-cranker at a secondhand store in Hoogezand. After having had it professionally serviced (free of charge!) by Zijlstra Naaimachines in Groningen, we took it back to Benin with us. Our sister Juliette was dumbfounded. Not just any old machine (like the ubiquitous but rather nasty Chinese Butterfly machines which are all that most tailors here can afford), but a genuine Singer, in top condition. Spurred on by this fortuitous find, the congregation at Agame got into gear. It being close to the end of the year, when – traditionally – most people try to have a new set of clothes made for the Christmas fête, the congregation organised an action de grace, Sunday a week ago. They do this yearly in Agame, but this time there was special reason. And to honour this special service, they decided to each buy identical pagnes, and to bring them to Juliette so that she could turn the cloth into a set of clothes. I don’t know how she managed, but there it was: the whole congregation, 40 persons or more, dressed to a tee, and Juliette out of financial trouble. How good and pleasant…That’s (church) family. We were thrilled to be part of it.
Then there was this afternoon. We decided to tune in to the church service in Groningen-Zuid, where Marijke’s brother Jurrien and her mother Oma Jongman are members. What a joy! In this special baptism service two young adults were engrafted into the church family. Leonie, in a simple but moving testimony, glorified God for how He brought her from ignorance to a living faith in Jesus Christ. Beside her stood Mehrdad, an Iranian refugee without permanent status or fixed address, but thankful for the church community which had become a family to him. We were especially touched by the words spoken by his elder ‘brother’, Jurrien, who had been very instrumental in the process of Mehrdad’s arriving at this impressive moment. Yes, that’s the Jurrien you may remember from a few blogs back, Marijke’s only brother. He wasn’t announced by name, but the moment he started speaking there was no doubt: four and a half thousand kilometres away, and right here in our living room. He referred to something Mehrdad’s mother had said (she herself now also become a Christian): my son has been born all over again!
And finally, this evening. Another worship service, almost as far away, this time in Goes, where Evelene and Arjan live. Making this Sunday even more international: a minister from India, preaching in English, in a church in the Netherlands. Towards the end of the service, we heard our own grandchild Eva – 12 years old – making a presentation on behalf of the children of the church, and that in English! I don’t need to tell you how very proud we are! And I’m almost certain I heard Evelene’s voice above that of the congregation singing out: elect from every nation, yet one o’er all the earth…
Which brings us to the end of a good Sunday. Sunday all over. A family affair, in various senses of the Word. And with that in mind, back to Psalm 133: How good and pleasant…  for there the Lord bestows his blessing, even life for evermore.

Saturday, 26 October 2013


It’s been awhile. So you’ll forgive me if I’m a bit rusty. But no, you don’t need to forgive me a typo. What I meant to write was milacle, not miracle. Somehow, that´s what more than a few Beninese make of the word, even if they speak quite reasonable French. Dieu a fait ses milacles, God has wrought his miracles.
Last Saturday night, for instance. Excitement all over. There was a miracle in Dogbo last night! A burning tree in the schoolyard, which wasn´t consumed! In the telling, the miracle grew. The fire was like that of a Roman candle, but it wasn´t hot! One could put one´s hand right into the flames and not be harmed! It started spontaneously, and no-one was able to put it out! Look at this photo which I made with my portable: do you see what I see?
Well, putting aside all scepticism for a moment, and rorschaching furiously: there seems to be what could be a human figure just above and to the right of centre. And is that a crown he’s wearing? A second milacle: the figure wasn’t to be seen in the light of the burning tree, but everyone I showed the photo to sees the same figure!
No, this is not me talking; this is the witness to the miracle of Dogbo. Convinced beyond doubt, reasonable or otherwise. It’s Jesus, King of kings, come to remind Dogbo that he is really there, and that he isn’t going to take backseat to a charlatan.
And for that, we have to go back a few days. Since the Thursday before, Dogbo has been in the spell of a ressuscitée. As it happens, she has taken up residence in the house across the street from ours. We didn’t notice her arrival, since we were in Cotonou, arranging for the removal of our goods at the end of November. (Yes, it’s true: just a month from today, our time here will be up, and we’ll be returning home!) But when we got here on Friday, her vehicle was parked behind the gate, and there comings and goings, which continued all hours of the day and night. The vehicle was unusually luxurious for Benin: a gold-coloured Rav 4, with custom wheels and in mint condition. The ressuscitée herself was like her vehicle: in good shape, elegantly coiffured, robed in the best Vlisco Holland Wax, and garlanded with expensive rings and colliers and bangles. She can’t have been more than in her late twenties, but the way her entourage genuflected, you’d think she was three times that. Imperiously she received the flow of visitors at the gate, allowed someone behind her to take the offerings in hand, and led the way into the house, from which loud song and prayers then issued. Whatever it was the people came for, she apparently had the gift of making them feel they had received it; I saw no disappointment on the faces of any of the supplicants as they left.
Who is she? Said Francois, our guardian for the night: she died, and after six days came back from heaven with messages from God. And now she’s touring around West Africa organising meetings for the faithful. He was a bit ambivalent about the truth of these things, it seemed. Yes, she had really died. Everybody said so. But no, he didn’t really think she had divine messages for mankind. One thing was sure: her mission to the world was making her prosper. From Thursday to Saturday night, twice a day, she packed them in under the huge tents at the arrondissement: up to a thousand people at a time, all more than willing to offer generously when time came for the collection. No doubts about how she managed to afford the shining Rav 4, between the proceeds of the meetings and the steady flow of visitors who came to be prayed for in the house across the street.
Not everyone was as credulous. Joseph said: prayer is supposed to be free. Mariette argued with one of the pasteurs in the ressuscitée’s train: have you ever been near someone who has been dead for more than a couple of days, here in Africa’s tropical heat? If she was really dead, the smell would have driven everyone mad. And in the end, Francois dismissed the claims as well. But something had been loosed in Dogbo. For or against this charlatan: everyone was talking, everyone was alert for signs of the supernatural.
And then, Saturday night, the milacle. Like Moses and the burning bush. Fire and smoke and a tree which stood untouched. Or so the story went, for a while. In the end, the fire died down. And the tree with it. We drive by the schoolyard and there it lies on the ground. Well and truly consumed.
What was the case? This tree had been worrying the principal at the school for some time now. Hollow, it had started rotting as it stood, and branches were in danger of breaking off, to the peril of children playing in the schoolyard. Said he to the caretaker: at the close of school on Friday, set fire to the tree, so that we can get rid of it. Which the caretaker did. But this is the rainy season in Dogbo. The fire had gone out. However, by some fluke, some coals had apparently continued to smoulder in the hollow interior. And early Saturday evening some children had discovered that. They had started playing, as children will do. Poking into the coals with straws and sticks and palm fronds, blowing the embers into flame. The hollow in the tree had acted as a natural chimney, drawing the flames upwards and out through the openings at the top. A spectacular sight, of course, and the hotter the fire inside became, the harder the draft carried the sparks upwards. But on the outside, the trunk remained barely warm to the touch. And so it was: the milacle of Dogbo, fuelled by the hysteria caused by our lady across the street.
Sunday morning I preached on eternal life, based on John 3.12-21. No-one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven - the Son of man. He alone has messages from God. He alone is our Ressuscité, with words about eternity worth believing. And everyone who believes in Him may have eternal life. Call that a milacle. Beats a Rav 4 any day.

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Il est simple

This morning we went to visit Rosa. Sunday evening at 5 past 11, she was delivered of a daughter. Sounds weird, doesn’t it? Delivered of a… Pain in the butt. Toothache. Mother-in-law. Neighbour constantly whinging about your stereo. Daughter. No, there’s something wrong with English. Rosa was ecstatic. Grégoire also. A beautiful baby girl, called Jurrien. Yes, for those of you who speak Dutch: Jurrien. Boy’s name. Named after my brother in law, Jurrien Jongman, who is visiting us here in Benin for the third time in less than two years. He connected with Grégoire the first time, Grégoire being chauffeur and available all day for 15 euro. Or for friendship. Because it’s no longer about the 10.000 FCFA with Jurrien. They have gone on trips together: to Togo (twice), to Cotonou (I don’t know how many times), to Possotome, to wherever the day takes them. Right now they’re away somewhere watching a football game, and Jurrien’s evening meal has found a temporary home in a frying pan. We’ll see when he gets here. He’s happy as only Jurrien can be, communicating perfectly in his more than broken French, drinking more beer than he should, making contacts with everyone from the police commissioner to the barmaid at Oboube. He eats African, he showers and sleeps African (when he is with Grégoire), and he builds relationships African. Yes, he turned 60 several months before I did, and while I am energetic enough, he seems inexhaustible.

So this morning Marijke and I went to visit Rosa. We had no idea where Jurrien and Grégoire were, but we knew that Rosa would be at home. Delivered on Sunday evening, discharged Monday evening. She was already walking around and greeted us with a huge smile.  She said something. No idea what it was, because she doesn’t speak French. But we were obviously welcome. Inside the red-dirt house little Jurrien was sleeping. A beautiful baby girl wrapped in a swaddling cloth. We hugged, admired, mimed our felicitations, and Marijke took out the presents, a shopping bag full of second-hand baby clothes. Rosa was very pleased. So was Sabine, Jurrien’s oldest sister. And her cousin, who joined us within a few minutes. And then what I suspect was one of Rosa’s brothers. Followed by three animated teenaged neighbour girls. Before we knew it, the room was packed. A lot of thank you's went round. Everyone was grateful, for some reason. The three teenaged neighbour girls, stunners if I may say so, turned out to be sisters, and they were able to translate for us. As long as we needed translating, because the subject soon turned to Jurrien. Senior. (By the way, he just walked in, an hour and a half after we finished supper.) They love him. And I’m not surprised. Jurrien has a gift. He loves people, whatever shape, colour, sex, age, nationality. One of them said, and that is the reason for this little blog: il est simple. My French is coming along nicely, but the expression is new to me. What I made of it is this: with Jurrien, what you see is what you get. He’s not simple, that’s for sure. He can be irritating. He can be oversensitive. He can be all kinds of things that would make living with him complicated. But I am glad he is my brother-in-law. Jurrien, salut! Long may you remain simple!

(Photos by Jurrien, Gregoire, and me)

Postscript: Not so long after I wrote this blog, my dear brother-in-law, while at a local football match with Gregoire, started experiencing the symptoms of a heart attack. He called us, and we very hurriedly packed some essentials and went to pick him up at the carrefour. The nearest hospital of any size is in Lokossa, 20 minutes away. Gregoire got us there in just over 10 minutes. There was someone waiting there for us who adminstered basic emergency cardiac medication; but more than that the hospital is not equipped to provide. We had the option of asking for ambulance transport to Cotonou (slow, unreliable, and equipped with nothing but a stretcher), or of using our own vehicle. Marijke, Gregoire and Jurrien were off like a shot; I had to go back to Dogbo for Jurrien's belongings. Night travel is out of the question, here, so for me that meant sleeping at home in Dogbo. Meanwhile, the others were within reach of Cotonou, two hours away, by nightfall. The cardiac unit at the university hospital - such as it is - was waiting fot Jurrien. Gregoire was sent off to buy medication (nothing, nothing is provided by the hospital) and by the time he returned the team was ready to adminster it. This was the start of an incredible rollercoaster which lasted until this morning. At 8 o'clock a German air ambulance with Jurrien and Marijke aboard took off from Cotonou airport. Gregoire and I, quite illegally, had bluffed our way on to the tarmac in the wake of the ambulance, so we enjoyed a very close view. I think both of us deserved that reward. And by now, Jurrien is no doubt making life difficult for the staff at Martini Hospital in Groningen, and Marijke is beginning to relax with her sisters at Oma Jongman's place. All's well that ends well. Simple. Thank you, Lord...

Monday, 22 July 2013

Heart of Darkness

He is 30 years old and not yet married. His fiancée is far away, in the Central African Republic, where he spent the past four years at university, training for the ministry and now junior pastor. For the past week, he has not been able to contact her, and he is worried. Someone called him from Bangui, a week ago. A voice he did not recognize. You need to talk to her her, the man said. No, I’m not going to tell you my name. Just call her as soon as you can.  And then the line went dead. Since then he has tried to call her, time after time. Without success. What could be the matter, he wonders. There has been war in Bangui. The rebels from the north, Muslims, have overrun the city and deposed the government. The university has been closed. The students dispersed. One friend remains there, and he has spoken to this man. But he knows nothing. Yes, I went to the house, but there seems to be no one there. And I have no way of discovering where she is gone. Has her mobile phone been stolen, or is it out of order? What can I do? More than enough cause for worry, n’est-ce pas?
Before the weekend he phoned me. Not with news about his fiancée. But with other bad news. He had been informed about a conspiracy against himself. Four of the leaders of the church had been plotting, he had just heard, even since before his return from Centrafrique. There was talk of a voodoo curse, of an attempt to ensure control over the flow of money from the Netherlands, of a concerted effort to remove him from the scene since he would compete with the established leadership. There was nothing in his voice that suggested he was taking the news with even the smallest grain of salt.
It so happened that his informant was coming by to see me that evening, on an unrelated errand. So I sat this informant down and asked him what he knew and how he knew it. There was no doubt in his mind either, of the facts. One of the senior elders of the church was in conspiracy with the other pastor and with the secretary and the treasurer. This senior elder was the son of a feticheur. 12 to 15 years ago, the man who was now pastor had stolen money from the mission funds. In order to escape discovery, he had enlisted the aid of the senior elder’s father. By his dark arts, one of this man’s acquaintances, an even more powerful feticheur, had thrown a cloak of forgetfulness over the mission authorities, and the theft had gone unnoticed. And now, with the end in sight of the permanent presence of missionaries from the Netherlands, the church leadership – four man strong – was once again plotting to gain control of mission funds, and had approached the old feticheur for a second time. This time without success, however. Not satisfied with the payment received a decade and a half ago, he had sent them packing. It was his son who had told the story to a friend (a minor feticheur himself) and this friend had passed the news on to our informant. He had also heard tell that the four leaders had in the meantime sought out someone else to invoke the voodoo spirits on their behalf.
So there you are. One seriously troubled junior pastor. One informant who was doing what he could to help. And one missionary totally out of his depth in a world of dark envy, occultism, idolatry, suspicion and slander. Do I believe in the power of voodoo priests? Can I believe that four of the most senior church leaders would resort to such? Irrelevant. The point is that this fully modernized junior pastor, university trained and a devoted Christian, is not immune to the belief.
We spoke again today. What could I say to him? That an idol is nothing at all in the world and that there is no God but one? Or that a sacrifice offered to an idol is anything? He knows his bible well enough to counter: but the sacrifices of pagans are offered to demons, and demons are very real. True enough. So I took the time to listen. This is Africa, he said.  Things are not what they are in Europe. I too have received information, this time from another quarter. A nephew to the senior elder arrived at my house on Saturday night. He told me that his uncle had been seen by someone at a local sacrificial site. He also remembered once hearing his uncle talk to the senior pastor about the coming of the junior, and that he was afraid that the new arrival might provoke discord. It had been a telephone conversation, so he had not heard the senior pastor’s response, but wasn’t this alone sufficient evidence of a conspiracy? Added to what the earlier informant had contributed? And all of that information was once again recounted and amplified. Evidence unverified, second or third hand at best, cobbled together in a context of fear and mistrust, to our Western ears unlikely, but within this world carrying a strange and undeniable logic. Marijke was there as well, this morning, and I asked a question she had thought of. Tell us, is it one of your concerns that perhaps your inability to contact your fiancée is the work of a feticheur? His eyes opened wide with surprise at her understanding: yes, indeed, he said. Of course there’s no way of telling for sure, but you do remember that this senior elder spoke out against my plan to bring her here so that we could be married. You know, people here are capable of anything, once they have turned against you. They might even kill her, should she finally arrive.
Tangled in a web of suspicion and loneliness, our friend stumbled on. I’m not afraid, he said. I’m determined to do my work for God. But with these forces united against me… What could we say? What could we do? Not much more than to open the Bible and to apply it to this situation.
First of all, let’s look at what your hearing all these things has accomplished, I said. You don’t trust the people you work with any more, do you? If we imagine this situation as a tree, what are its fruits? Mistrust. Hostility. Fear. Division. And what will be the end result for the church? The answer was clear: a house divided against itself will fall. Okay, and now let’s look at the roots of that tree. Where are the sources of your information to be found? Exactly, in the circle of feticheurs and hangers-on who claim to know bad things about this senior elder. Can we prove that they are lying? Of course not. But in whose service are these people? Do they acknowledge  any master but Legba, or Satan? And what does the Bible call their master: the father of truth, or the father of lies? What then seems more likely: will they be speaking truth, or will they be speaking lies? Who is likely to benefit if this tree, with its roots in the world of idolatry, comes to full fruition?
And then secondly, let’s consider the wisdom of God. He speaks to this very issue of words spoken against an elder. ‘Do not entertain an accusation against an elder unless it is brought by two or three witnesses.’ A little further on in the same chapter, the point is made that the truth is sometimes impossible for us to ascertain. “The sins of some men are obvious, reaching the place of judgment ahead of them; the sins of others trail behind them.” (1 Timothy 5:24) God knows what exactly someone may or may not have done, but only if there is incontrovertible evidence are we to allow the accusation to dictate our agenda. You do what you have been called to do, and do not entertain accusations such as these. If they turn out to be true, God will deal with them. And if they turn out to be no more than the schemes of the Evil One, you will rightly have refused to let them distract you.
There was some relief on his face after we had shared these gospel truths. But it was clear that he was still struggling. And we went home reminded of the complexity of the life of a Christian in this heart of darkness. This isn’t the first time we have been struck by the prevalent sense of insecurity, by the full conviction that as often as not misfortune is the result of evil people plotting evil against you, by the paralysing fear that powers from below may have been called into play to thwart your efforts. No-one seems to trust anyone any further than strictly necessary, survival depends on a suspicious attitude and a readiness to strike first, and there is an insatiable need to exchange information, verifiable or not, so that you may be able to counter conceivable threats against you. There is nothing noble or innocent about this primitive society.

Sunday, 21 July 2013

This little piggy

If you look hard, you can just make her out: a pink plastic piggy, cheerfully centred on a crocheted doily in the middle of the table which serves as pulpit and liturgical centre. She stood there waiting as the worshippers arrived for the inaugural service this morning at the chapel of Vovokame, waving a silent but cheerful welcome with her pink plastic piggy ears. Someone, probably Fidèle, the fourteen year-old worship leader standing to the left of the table, had placed her there. I imagine this pink plastic piggy proudly displayed on a shelf in the bedroom Fidèle shares with her brothers and sisters, a prized possession in a life devoid of toys or ornaments or any other luxury. And then early this morning, as Fidèle left home to sweep the chapel’s newly laid concrete floor, being taken along as a special gift for this special occasion; wrapped in the doily which can only have arrived a consignment of the discarded European clothing which is sold for a poor man’s price on the market at nearby Dogbo. This little piggy didn’t stay home, this little piggy went to church. Glory to God!
Glory to God for the opening of the new chapel. Total cost of construction €277.40, far beyond the means of the small group of young Christians who have been meeting each Sunday morning since the end of last year for worship, and each Sunday afternoon for Bible study and instruction in the Reformed faith. Grégoire, who is originally from this village, a few kilometres outside of Dogbo, donated the plot of land on which it was built. (Back in November, the 25th to be exact,  I told you something about his love for the Lord and for the young people of his home village, see my blog entitled Miracle.) Things had gotten complicated since then. Some of the original participants had proved to be less than genuine. But a core group of about 6 teenagers, one adult male, and several women had continued to meet together in the shelter of a palm frond hut. Then Jurrien got involved, Jurrien is Marijke’s brother, and with two visits to Benin under his belt, by now a very good friend of Grégoire’s. Within his church at Groningen-Zuid and among his acquaintances it had been embarrassingly easy to find the money required. Gifts, large and small, poured in. For the purchase of corrugated roofing, nails, cement and the wages of a carpenter.
The members of the congregation contributed their man- and woman power. Levelling the terrain, harvesting and stripping the teak poles, making split-palm panels for the walls, cooking meals and bringing water for the labourers. Two weeks ago, the construction was completed; with Jurrien’s third visit imminent, the inauguration was held off until today.

We drove into the turn-off to Vovokame. There stood the sign which had been made by another friend of Jurrien’s in Groningen. The churches of Vovokame welcome you. And, with reference to the artesian well which marks the centre of the village, “Jesus said…"If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink.” (John 7:37) We went past the ever-streaming water in front of the Pentecostal church where Rigobert is elder and on to the small courtyard where we usually park our vehicle. We saw the fetish poles and the horned legba which continue to mark the pagan presence in Vovokame. We heard the sound of drumming from the chapel around the corner. And then there it was, at the foot of a tall palm tree, the Salle de l’Enseignement Reformée, not yet a church (because a church is more than just a gathering of disciples or a building in which they come together), but definitely a place of worship. There were flags, there were streamers of linked paper rings, there were balloons, and there was this little piggy.
African time is relative, as by now all of you are probably aware. We spent the first half hour of it greeting and being greeted, admiring the labour of love which had gone into the construction and the decoration, discussing with the young dirigeant Charles who would be doing what and when during the service, and waiting for the arrival of others who had been invited.
When we finally began it was Charles who took the lead and Romain who translated into Adja. Our help is in the name of the Lord who created heaven and earth, Charles began. And the people said Amen. The order of things was what we had come to expect. All the elements of a Reformed worship service were there. And Charles (barely eighteen, if that) never opened his liturgy booklet once. He spoke, he improvised, he recited, fully by heart. And by heart means, in this case, from the heart as well as from memory. That was obvious: as he spoke the covenant law of ten commandments, for instance, he never faltered. Now and then he didn’t used the exact words of the book, but his substitutes were equivalent in meaning. He knew what he was saying, it was not by rote. Fidèle led the singing, with a voice strong and pure. Rigobert, present with several elders from the other church, prayed for God’s blessing on the preaching of the Word. Romain preached and Bertin, elder from the ERCB in Dogbo, translated. It was from Romans 12.1,2. “Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.”
Someone, a village elder had I think he must have been, spoke words of appreciation. He started graciously, thanking the leaders of this little group for their kind welcome, but then his tone turned serious. A sign has been erected at the junction, he said. And I thought, judging by his tone, that he might have some problem with that. When we heard about it, that caused us some preoccupations. We thought that it would show the name of the Reformed church, a newcomer to our village. But when we saw it, there no church was named at all. Just this: the churches of Vovokame welcome you. And then we understood. The whites have come, not in competition with the church which is already here, but simply to help bring people to Jesus. Thank you for the sign, the first which marks the direction to our village. And thank you for being here! Bertin spoke. He couldn’t resist promoting his CD. He also testified to the power of Jesus in his own life. Of course I took my turn as well. The whites came, I heard my brother say, I began. And yes, here we are. We are white. And you are black. There is no denying it. But think of it: that is God’s wisdom. Without the whites, the blacks are nothing…  I paused. Marijke looked shocked. And without the blacks the whites are nothing. Everybody started breathing again at once, it seemed. Look at this page in the Bible. What colours do you see? Julien, front row, was quick to respond: white and black! There was agreement all around. What if the page was completely black, would it transmit God’s Word to us? I asked. The smiles started coming as everybody shook their heads. And if the page was completely white, what would it say? There was no doubt in anybody’s mind. Black and white, both are indispensable in God’s plan. And here I have, in black and white, the story of your salvation. Twelve texts, printed as large as would fit on one page at a time, laminated in clear plastic to preserve them for as long as possible. Starting with In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth, and ending with and surely I am with you, to the very end of the age.
One by one I gave a short explanation and someone hung them up along the walls of the chapel, the Old testament story to the left, New Testament to the right. Then, finally, Solomon’s prayer in I Kings 8.29: may your eyes be open towards this house night and day, to be hung over the entrance.

There was more, much more. By the time the service was over, we were three hours on. And it seemed that half the village had crowded into the chapel or stood just outside the doors.
Jurrien later said that he stopped counting at 50. And it was a loud Amen which sounded in response to the blessing: “Que la grâce du Seigneur Jésus-Christ, l’amour de Dieu, et la communion du Saint-Esprit, soient avec vous tous !” And all the while, Fidèle’s pink plastic piggy had pride of place.

(Photos by Jurrien Jongman)

Sunday, 7 July 2013

Les souffrances de l'Afrique

Poverty! Mahouna is the first to answer when I ask about what Africa suffers from. We’re at Noumonvihoue ( ) for worship. Mahouna is about 18 years old, one of the leaders of this small church group. Emile, elder on loan from Dogbo, to my left, nods in agreement as Mahouna continues: but, before we came to know Christ, our greatest suffering was not being pardoned. For Mahouna this ‘before’ is no theory. He grew up animist, pagan, as was his whole family until a few years ago. Fetishes dominate the  villagescape at Noumonvihoue: guardian poles marking the maize fields surrounding the village, bones and feathers bundled together and fixed above doorposts, blood, cornflour and palmoil sacrifices covering the horned legbas. Leah is quick to point out that Africa suffers from high infant mortality. There is AIDS, I suggest, and Mahouna’s mother gathers up into her arms a sickly three- or four year old sitting beside her to whom all eyes have darted. His distended belly is covered with a pattern of numerous incised scars, remnants of a healing ceremony intended to drive out his particular demon. The list of Africa’s woes goes on. Malaria. There was slavery, centuries of it, before and after the coming of the white man. There is corruption. There is hunger.
I had introduced the scripture reading by noting that we were but few. But that in God’s plan that didn’t matter. My task this morning is to preach, I said. And your task is to multiply this preaching, by sharing the message with your neighbours. And God will do what He has always done. I continued: perhaps some will say, as many do, this Christianity is the white man’s religion. But that isn’t true at all. Do you know who first brought the gospel to Africa?
And then we listened to the history of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch. The latter on his way back to Africa from Jerusalem with a copy of the prophecies of Isaiah. Reading, without full comprehension, about the suffering Servant: like a lamb… Asking for help and receiving it from Philip, who began at that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus. Baptized along the roadside – just as Mahouna had been baptized a few months ago – and then going on his way rejoicing. Back to Africa, with good news to share for the whole continent. That’s the good news you will be hearing this morning, to share with everyone who will listen, I said. The good news that “the Lamb of God took up the infirmities of Africa and carried its sorrows.” As the Ethiopian could henceforth explain the words of Isaiah 53: ce sont nos souffrances qu’il a portées, c’est de nos douleurs qu’il s’est chargéSufferings of such proportions that we know of no continent in greater need than Africa.
I didn’t preach for long. The words of Scripture were there and were sufficient without the need of more than a few amplifications. The – for now – nameless One spoken of by Isaiah: growing up before the LORD as a tender shoot, like a root out of dry ground. I pointed to the straggly maize plants just outside the unwalled chapel. Nothing of beauty or of majesty to attract us… Despised and rejected, man of sorrows, familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces… Not far from here there is a leper colony, as the inhabitants of Noumonvihoue know. Scarred, missing toes and fingers, nose and ears, and eventually more than just these extremities. Unfortunate, impossible to look upon without the gorge rising, cursed to a long wait for death. The images of Isaiah are never far away in Africa. And we esteemed him not.
He suffered. All the sufferings of Africa. And why? A logical conclusion might indeed be: we considered him stricken by God, smitten by Him and afflicted. But no, the words of Scripture went on: he was pierced for our transgressions, pierced for our iniquities… Not he, the lamb of God, but we all, like sheep, had gone astray. Behind me, one of the many small village moutons raises a plaintive cry. Strangely like an abandoned child calling out for comfort. And the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. Oppressed and afflicted, like a lamb to the slaughter…
I will never again read this passage without being transported back to Noumonvihoue.
It was the LORD’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer, and though the LORD makes his life a guilt offering, he will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the LORD will prosper in his hand. Yes, I know who that offspring is, nodded the teenage girl sitting right in front of me. That’s us. And so it is. These young African believers: God’s children through the amazing sacrifice of the Lamb of God. Suffering followed by redemption, seeing the light of life and being satisfied, justifying many by his knowledge and bearing their iniquities.
And the best is yet to come. A truth rarely fully sensed by a westerner who isn’t truly and probably never will be familiar with suffering. He bore the sin of many and made intercession for the transgressors. That’s the Lamb of God. Intercessor. He is the joy of the Ethiopian. The Sudanese. The Ugandan. The Nigerian. The Beninese. When God’s word says that he took up our sorrows and carried our infirmities, it wasn’t theory. He’s standing there before the throne of his Eternal Father right now, I explained to them. With the sufferings of Africa on his shoulders. Father, don’t you see how your African children are suffering? Of course you do. Here they are, all of their sorrows, all of their infirmities. I died for them. Redeem them, deliver them just as soon as your time can come!
God’s time will come. You can be sure of that, the gospel reassured the people of Noumonvihoue this morning. You may have to wait a while. But God’s time will surely come. As surely as the Lamb of God is praying for you. There will be more for you than just forgiveness now, great as that is. There will be an end to all the sufferings of Africa.
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