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.