There’s a game happening. All eyes are on the ball, somewhere out there near the edge of the dusty square. The goat is headed the other way; for her it’s a welcome relief to have the children of the quartier tormenting that other black and white leather object for a while. All but this one boy, flashing a smile with teeth as white as the stripes on his bright red t-shirt, who has eyes only for me. This afternoon I heard and saw the youngsters worrying a straw-filled sock back and forth between improvised goals. There isn’t much joy to that when you’re trying to pretend you’re a star in the Africa Cup. I suddenly remembered that I still had a real soccer ball hiding somewhere under the bed in our guest room. With Francois, our day guardian this week, I walked over bearing my offering. Made in Pakistan, I read. And in prominent letters around the valve opening: NO CHILD LABOUR USED ON THIS BALL. A responsible gift, in other words. Though none of these children would give that a thought. I’m fairly sure the concept of child labour doesn’t cross their minds for a moment as they are harvesting the corn in the family plot, walking five kilometres or more to the market with the basin on their head, and spending the rest of the afternoon arguing prices and hoping for a sale. Or as they are pounding metal in the forge instead of going to school. Or lugging 50 kg bags of Portland cement on a construction site. Or sweating behind a pousse-pousse (a two-wheeled cart) heavily loaded with teak on its way to the sawmill. They’ve never heard of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, and wouldn’t realize it applies to them if they had. But right now they have joyfully taken possession of the ball, formed three teams under the supervision of our guardien, and are in the middle of the first game. All except my smiling friend, on his haunches in the dust with his left leg splayed at an impossible angle. This is my reward, and I love it.
As I leave the field, a young man comes from behind one of the houses. Attendez, attendez, he calls. It turns out he is one of the quartier’s organizers. Thank you, he says, for your gift to our children! And then he invites me to an event which is to be held August 1st. A soccer match between the men of the quartier: married against the singles. I promise to be there, but I’m already thinking about an appropriate excuse so that I myself won’t have to play: soccer has never been one of my strong points, after all. But the fact that I am being welcomed into the community in this way feels very, very good. Another reward, and I love it.
Francois, the guardian, smells an opportunity for gospel proclamation. He had already written ERCB Dogbo on the ball with indelible ink, and we have just heard that the soccer match is to be held in the field next to the church. Perhaps it would be possible to combine the soccer with some kind of evangelistic activity, he proposes. The young man listens, nods his head, and says he would be happy to come and discuss the options with us sometime soon. As we walk home, Francois is full of enthusiasm: first we can attract the children, he says, then we will attract the parents, and then the whole quartier! Indeed, think big. The reward for the gift of an inexpensive soccer ball might well surprise us all.
It has been a weekend of rewards, in fact. Saturday in Bohicon: graduation ceremony for the students at I3B. Four of our dirigeants have completed three years of theological training there. They have worked hard, leaving their families and employment behind for a full week each month. Jonas from Tchangba, who struggles to understand even the most basic French, wears his toga and mortarboard with unstudied dignity, his wife Melanie at his side. They have done as well as could be expected, and we trust that the church at Tchangba will be blessed with the results.
Church service on Sunday in Noumonvihoue: what an impressive experience! As is our habit, earlier in the week we spent a morning at the village: which we had planned to visit the Sunday after. Our guide, Samuel, had made a few phone calls, and virtually the entire congregation was there to meet us that Tuesday. Probably about 35 people. Average age no more than about 14. One adult woman (48 years old), then about 20 teenagers, and the rest children, as young as 4 or 5. Three years ago, a few from this pagan village, at school at nearby Djakotomey, had connected with young church members there. A small team of evangelists, including Jonas from Tchangba, had come to present the gospel. And around a core of three or four teenagers a congregation had developed. Each Sunday, two young men, barely out of boyhood, lead a service. As well as they can, they follow the liturgy, teach the songs, explain a portion of the Bible, and lead the congregation in prayer. We had asked, last Tuesday: what do you need, here, most of all? They were quick and clear in their response: 1. We need a dirigeant of our own, who can lead us, teach us, and help us to live as Christians. 2. We need proper catechesis, so that we can be baptized as soon as possible. 3. We need help with evangelisation, so that not only our village, but also the totally pagan villages around us will hear the gospel too! It was so good to return to Noumonvihoue on Sunday, to worship with them, to share the gospel, and to be encouraged ourselves by this evidence of the Spirit’s power.
And then Sunday evening. With Gregoire, our taxi-driver friend, we went to bring Rosa home. Finally, three months after her breakdown, she seemed well enough to rejoin her family. I don’t need to explain how joyful everyone was to be reunited, so I won’t. But as we were leaving, Gregoire said: Pasteur, I would like to thank you for everything you have done for us, together with Marijke. And then he surprised us. Of course he was referring to our visits and our prayers, which to him were indubitably the key to Rosa’s recovery, fragile as it is. But what he meant especially was a piece of advice we had given him some time ago. I think it was Marijke who had broached the subject: how important it is that husband and wife pray together. This is something (with all the great things which we have seen in the life of Christians here) which Africans do not seem to know much about, and as far as we know do not practice. Family prayer, or more intimately, prayer between partners. Gregoire took my hands in his. Like this, he said, just as you showed me. Every day, before it is time to go to bed, we fold our hands together, and I pray for Rosa. Thank you so much!
This is the kind of thing that encourages us at moments when we wonder what we’re doing here. Unexpected rewards, shining bright like the smile on the face of a small boy crouching in the dust.