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.
( )

Wednesday, 3 July 2013


Liver. The heavy sweetness of raw liver permeates the air. Marijke says: no, what you smell is Vitamin B injections. But to me it’s the smell of liver, thick and cloying, in the oppressive warmth of the hospital corridor. At the other end, where we started our by now two-hour wait, there was more of chloroxylenol, better known to most as the disinfectant Dettol. But where we are sitting there is nothing antiseptic in the atmosphere. Three or four doors down, a woman is calling out in pain at increasingly short intervals. I can only guess at what sort of butchery is happening there. No one else pays any notice. Not the little girl sleeping, upright, on the bench beside us. Not the family huddled together a little further along. Not the mother at the end of the hall breastfeeding her little boy.
We’re in Lokossa, waiting for our medical file, dated 1 – 3 february 2012. Together with Grégoire - brother, friend and guide - we arrived here this morning at about eleven. We had been with the commissaire in Dogbo, expecting to accompany him to the procureur in order to deliver the dossier on the case against Calixte, the man who drugged and robbed us now a year and five months ago. But commissaire David’s office had been full of agitated women. One after the other had been acknowledging or denying involvement with the man huddled on the chair before the police chief. This is quite normal here, in Benin: to arrive for an appointment and to discover the person with whom we have made it quite occupied with other things. No rules concerning privacy, either:  we were waved to a chair beside the commissaire and allowed to share in the joys of police investigation. After about 20 minutes of this, we suggested to the police chief that perhaps it would we better if we returned later, since there was the matter of our medical file to take care of as well. Permission granted, we left for Lokossa. Gregoire had called ahead. Gregoire knows an incredible variety of people, in this case the chief receiver at the hospital, who had promised to introduce us to the majeur in charge of emergency admissions.

But perhaps I should take a step back and tell you what has been going on. Last Friday, Grégoire had arrived with news: KPOGLOZOUN Calixte had once again been arrested, and was in the prison civile at Lokossa. Calixte is the man we had known as Ben Ali. After the incident last year he fled. Several months later, however, he had been implicated in another crime, the theft of a laptop, and had been condemned to a year in the prison at Ouidah. There we were taken to identify him, as the evidence against him was being compiled. Going back in October, however, to complete the dossier, commissaire David and we were shocked to discover his early release from the prison. A presidential pardon for petty criminals throughout Benin had by mistake been applied also to Calixte. Since that unfortunate error, the manhunt was on, but we had long given up hope of its successfully being concluded.
Until last Friday: Grégoire, with several acquaintances and police informants, had continued to search out Calixte’s whereabouts and had worked to achieve his capture. A breakthrough came when a one-time friend - it’s probably best to keep him nameless - had also become victim of Calixte’s. In search of vengeance, this man had agreed to become part of the effort. And last Thursday, Calixte had been taken.
Yesterday, we went to the prison for the second confrontation. That took some doing, as we by now have come to expect. First of all, just as before, we were expected to provide transportation for the police chief and those who would accompany us. But not before an interminable wait in his office, while he dealt with assorted other matters. We loaded the HiLux with ourselves (front seats) and the police chief, his second-in-command, a constable, and Grégoire. Four big men on the back seat was a tight squeeze. But halfway to Lokossa we stopped to pick up yet another passenger: the one-time friend who was coming along as well. This man was even bigger than the commissaire. No problem, said the commissaire, he would sit in front with Marijke on his lap. I think not, said Marijke. Grégoire’s lap, maybe… In the end, Marijke and I shared the passenger seat and Grégoire took the wheel. He is chauffeur, after all. And I ‘d rather be uncomfortable with Marijke than subject her to any of the alternatives.
Arriving at Lokossa, we didn’t go the prison directly. Instead, we drove through any number of back streets in search of a barber. Commissaire David had decided he needed a shave. Half an hour later we finally drove up to prison gates. Gathered under the trees were thirty or so visitors, each with a number indicating the order in which they could visit with their particular son or husband or father. Plan was for the one-time friend to join them, wait for his turn, go in to visit Calixte in order to ‘make up’, and then for the commissaire to coincidentally interrupt the conversation. The point was to have the friend identify Calixte as the person the police had been looking for without giving his own collaboration away. (No, don’t ask me about the exact relevance or logic of this identification.) Only: even in African time, it seemed problematic to have to await his turn with thirty or so ahead of us. So the commissaire decided to call the chief of the prison. Indeed, it might have been handy to have done so ahead of time, but time management is not one of the subjects taught at the police academy, it seems.
The prison chief was helpful. He said: why don’t you try this: take your informant in as your prisoner, and pretend you are compelling him to respond. Surprise all round. What a good idea! said the commissioner. So we drove out of the parking lot to allow the chief to get things set up. Hold it, said the commissaire, for this to work, we need to cuff our friend. And we don’t have handcuffs with us. We parked the HiLux along the road leading to the prison and waited for a constable from Lokossa station to arrive with cuffs.
Twenty minutes later, there we were again. Suitably cowed, the one-time friend turned actor allowed himself to be pushed into the prison chief’s office by the burly constable, with the rest of us in their wake. And there sat Calixte, eyes wide with surprise. Do you know this man? the interrogation began. Y-y-yes, came the answer. What is his name? Silence. The constable faked a cuff to our friend’s head. Calixte! His name is KPOGLOZOUN Calixte! And so it went. Things Calixte had told him. Also about what had happened that fateful day in February. Calixte listened. His initial confidence faded – for he had bugn by denying everything. He had never seen us before in his life. He had no idea who we were. No, he did not recognize the house on the photo. Yes, this other man was his friend, but no, there had never been a problem between them. But as the interrogation progressed, he shrank and shrank. There was no admission of his crime against us, but in the end there was no denying that yes, this was his house, and yes, he was the Calixte at Agame who had been identified by the chef du quartier, etc. etc.
What did we feel, as we saw this steady deconstruction of a hardened criminal? No fear. No discomfort. Not like the first time. He avoided looking at us. There was nothing left of bravado, of defiance, of cunning. What we saw was the pitiful remnant of a man we had once known. What a waste of a life. And what a shame that his children had this for a father. We left the prison not feeling very much of anything at all. Not even satisfaction that justice would be having its way.

We went to a buvette with the commissaire and his men to have lunch. By now it was around one-thirty. We paid for the rice, goat, sauce, and beer. No questions now, said the commissaire. Not until after we have eaten. Sharing a meal in Africa is not a companiable thing. It’s only about eating. And after lunch we went back to Dogbo. No one had much energy for talking.
Back in Dogbo we discussed what would be happening next. Bring me all your medical receipts, said the commissaire. Of course we had none. But I told you last year that you should keep them all. Not that we can remember, Marijke and I both agree. Whatever. Everyone, including the commissaire himself, was there in the hospital while we were in coma. No doubt about the condition we were in, is there? But there was no relenting. You’ll need to go to the hospital in Lokossa and obtain your medical file. Proof of the seriousness of the state you were in. And after that the files from the Mahouna Clinic in Cotonou.
So that’s what we were doing this morning and afternoon at the hospital. Through the chief receiver, acquaintance of Grégoire, to the majeur. From the majeur to the central registry. From the central registry to a doctor. From the doctor… That’s the short version. Hours of waiting. Hours of the smell of liver and chloroxylenol. Hours of reflecting: this was where we had been. Unconscious from our admission in the early evening of February 1st until our discharge on the afternoon of the 3rd, when Richard overruled the doctors and had us transferred to Cotonou.
Marijke has absolutely no memories of our stay in Lokossa. I remember three things, vaguely. The rude shock of a urinary catheter being pulled out and the tiny flow of clotted blood which followed. Getting pushed back down on my bed by I think it was Mariette when I wanted to get up to go to Marijke in her bed on the other side of the room. And a night excursion which I made through the courtyard. I remember that, but in a strange dreamlike way. You know the kind of dream where you are half aware of being in strange surroundings, with no sense of where you were coming from or where you are going, why you are there, how this event connects to the rest of your life or who the people are whom you might be there with. I stood there this afternoon as we were waiting for the doctor and I remembered walking past the arched veranda around the courtyard in the middle of the night. All was dark, all was silent. I don’t remember getting back to our room, although I obviously did. Mariette, who had been spending the night with us on the ward, had been sleeping and woke up with me gone. She had called the nurse, and they were about to organise a search party when I showed up, blissfully unaware of their fear. Being there in the hospital today and allowing the memory to wash over me, I realized: it really happened to us. We were here. We could have been dead, but thanks to God and thanks to some awesome people, here we are today.
Later this afternoon, Marijke and I both had another moment like that. We were back with the commissaire for the fourth time in two days. He had discovered that the dossier did contain a statement by me, but not by Marijke. So now it was her turn. That went well, actually, with no discomfort for either of us. Except that I did realize for the first time that Marijke’s memory of the incident ends so much earlier than mine.  
But after that, the commissaire decided to read my statement, from last February, back to us. Hearing someone else read what I had recounted then was unexpectedly confronting. All the events unfolding, one after the other. My meeting Calixte for the first time. The way in which he gained our confidence by showing interest in the Bible. The invitation to his little boy’s birthday on the afternoon of February 1st. Him giving us degue to drink, the yoghurt-like drink which had been laced with whatever it was that almost killed us. Marijke losing consciousness and me thinking only that that was curious. Me driving back to Dogbo and arriving there in one piece despite my own increasing intoxication. Our carrying Marijke into the house together, and then the falling curtain of darkness for myself. For a moment this afternoon I thought, and I said that to Marijke: he wasn’t a very clever thief, was he? Doing this to us in his own house, which we would be sure to be able to identify.
Until suddenly I realized: but it wasn’t his intention that we should ever get back home to Dogbo. It was only because I wasn’t as affected as Marijke and insisted on driving home, that that is where we ended up. And that we were found by Joseph. And taken to the hospital. And that we woke up when we did. Sitting there this afternoon, and now again, as I write these words, I realize how real it was what happened to us then. And that we’re not finished working through these things yet. We’re past the fear, really and truly. But the impact is still there. And it has affected us and it will continue to affect the things we say and do and feel for probably as long as we are here in Benin. We’re committed to being here and we’re convinced of what we’re doing, for the benefit of God’s people in the ERCB. But when the time comes to leave for good at the end of November, that will God’s time for us as well as for the churches here, and God’s time will be the right time.
And as for Calixte? His time in prison will be long, everyone expects. We sincerely hope that God will give him enough time to come to a change of heart, to learn to live for Christ and to look forward to a better life. We know you are praying for us. Could you spare a prayer for him as well?