Walking with the Fulbe

(This is an article I wrote that was published in the “MissionFest Manitoba” magazine in 2010, after we came back from our first time in Nigeria. Thought it was worth a reprint.)

1982, a young Christian is confronted by the shameful statistics regarding resources among Christians around the world. 1998, convicted by the Spirit to somehow be a statistic on the right side of the ledger, the now wanna-be pastor asks for time off from the church he is candidating at, even before he lands the job. After seven years of ministry there, he tells them, he would like to take a sabbatical year off to take his family “somewhere in Africa.” Amazingly, they agree.

It took a little longer than seven years, but in 2008 the Kilmartins were finally on their way. By this time we had settled on a specific context for our sabbatical mission. The Mambilla Plateau, in Taraba State, Nigeria, was to be the setting for whatever God had in store for us in the coming year.

Nigeria is a tough place to get a Visa for from Canada, but we managed to receive ours in plenty of time. Then, like the proverbial soldier who has hurried up, we ‘patiently’ waited for the situation “on the ground” to settle down. Local Nigerian church politics delayed us for a month or so, but the departure date of August 18, 2008 finally saw us embark on the experience of a lifetime.

Nigeria has over 140 million people, and I am pretty sure we saw most of them on the road out of the capital city, Abuja, after we deplaned. Crowds of people washing over the paved road was to be a common sight in the Nigerian cities we saw, while on the highway there was never more than a one minute stretch where we did not see one or more souls hiking along. Our destination was Gembu, the de facto capital of the Mambilla Plateau; a town of about 20,000, equally divided between Christian and Muslim.

I was coming in as the Acting Field Director for the Mambilla Baptist Mission (an arm of the North American Baptist Conference). I had a minimal job description which included teaching at the Seminary, working with the local Baptist Convention’s evangelism department, and liaising with the Home Office. Within those broad parameters I could pretty well write my own ticket, which I proceeded to do.

My goal for our time there was quite simple: to establish relationships that could continue to be built upon in the coming years by both myself and our church. Our small church, and my own finances, could not afford this simply to be a one-time junket for my own curiosity and amusement. We wanted to build a foundation for future mission operations. Going into Nigeria we had no idea what that might look like, but that was what we were searching for.

Our four children were past their prime for this kind of trip. Robert was 17 when we set out; John was 15; Cari 12; and Daniel 11. I had been warned that this would be very tough on the family, especially if the teenagers were not cooperative. In fact, it was tough at times, and the kids did struggle. Mostly they suffered from friend-loneliness. Leaving your BFF for a whole year can seem like an eternity when you are 12, and email access alone really doesn’t cut it.

Part of the problem was there was not always lots for them to do. All of them taught at the local grade school (in subjects like English, math, French, phys ed., and fine arts), volunteered at the local HIV/AIDS clinic, made new friends, played sports, and so on – but they still had too much time on their hands. Even though we home-schooled the two younger ones and the two older ones took distance education, it still felt like “The Endless Summer” to them – only not in the great way we’d like to think.

To my kids’ great credit, however, they all managed not just to survive, but to thrive while we were there. This mission did not have the same kind of glamour and intensity that a short-term trip might have, but it enabled them to enter more fully into the lives and situations of the people among whom we were ministering. I saw my kids grow and mature in their characters more clearly in that year that I would have ever thought possible. Today, back home, they are different kids than when they left, and all for the better.

My wife, Sonya, swimmer that she is, dove headfirst into the culture there. She started a women’s Bible study for the ladies in our neighbourhood, joined the local school board, taught on a host of issues in multiple settings. The level of freedom she enjoyed in this very traditional town was a little surprising, but pleasantly so. Shopping in the market was a challenge to be relished, and she enjoyed being able to get around on a motorcycle again. Sonya could be easily found most Sunday mornings as the only white face in the English-singing black choir at First Baptist, Gembu.

As for me, the acting FD, I did not get to First Baptist very much at all. In keeping with my goal, I sought to see as much of the country and its people as possible, and this meant traveling most weekends to villages both on and off the Plateau. (Our family bought two motorcycles to facilitate our travel. Going by “machine,” as the Nigerians call them, is the cheapest and easiest way to get around, and they were nice gifts to give away when we left.)

About eight months into our stay I had an “Aha” moment. I had been getting to know a small group of Fulbe believers in the village of Maisamari – living in their compounds, traveling with the leaders, getting to know and love them – and one day I realized, “This is it; this is who we have been searching for.” Our church had been praying us through all of this, of course. Talking with them via email and with the Fulbe, seeing and hearing the mutual excitement they shared, confirmed for me that this was definitely a “God thing.”

Our time there took on a different colour after that. We were once again planning for the future, but now it was not just about one family going on a sabbatical mission, it was about bringing two communities of Christ-followers together. What would Elim and Maisamari be doing in this partnership? How would we communicate together? What were the high priority needs? How could both communities really benefit from our working together? What would all this look like!!? We simply didn’t know.

It was great to get back home in mid-July of 2009. Preaching has been easy – the first three months I spent bringing the church up to speed on our time in Nigeria, talking about the Fulbe and developing our relationship with them. We have hammered out some answers to our questions: we have a good communications system; we know what the priority needs are, and how best to help. For the rest, we are enjoying the adventure of being explorers. The exciting thing is we accomplished our modest goal: in Christ, we are now “Walking with the Fulbe.”

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