At about the age of three, my little friend Ummayyatu already has a story to tell. As with any three year old, however, the story begins with her parents.
I met Iliyasu and Asma’u on my very first trip out to their village. I had not been in the country very long (maybe two weeks or so), and I had been invited to come preach there by the Wakili and Pastor Aminu, who I had met earlier that week. It was a Wednesday – I remember because Wednesdays are when they have their longer worship service, since Sunday is a market day for them.
I preached a very poor sermon on Jesus being the good shepherd (because my friends back in Gembu had said that the Fulbe were herders and this would be a good passage to preach on), and then asked my friend Aminu if any sick people in the village would like to anointed with oil and prayed over (I had brought a little vial of cooking oil with me). He said that would be a good idea, and so we began.
One couple we prayed for was Iliyasu and Asma’u. They had been married for about ten years at that point, but had no children – and for them, as Christians in that culture, this was a terrible thing – akin to having the curse of God upon you (or, at least, that is what others might think of them). I anointed them both with oil, prayed in the name of the triune God, then continued on.
About a year later, on my last trip to the village, they had still not conceived. As I was readying to leave, Asma’u caught me and, in very halting English, pled with me not to forget to pray for her in her plight. I promised her I would not, and when I got back to Canada I enlisted the ladies from our home church, Elim Baptist in Manitoba, to remember her in prayer, while Sonya and I continued to pray for her as well.
About a year later we heard the good news that Asma’u had become pregnant, and we were filled with joy and anticipation. That feeling turned to dust in our mouths, however, as the little boy was stillborn. I was heartbroken over that, and could not imagine how Asma’u and her husband Iliyasu felt. Nor could I find out for another year, when I finally went back to visit.
On that visit, in 2012, I was told by Pastor Aminu that the death of the baby was most likely preventable, but that the young couple had been let down by the medical staff there. When I finally met them in their compound they were stoic (as Fulbe traditionally are, in fact), and Iliyasu explained to me that, after all, “this was the will of God and we must accept it.”
I was horrified by that thought. As people coming out of Islam, all Christian Fulbe will be subject to the danger of a fatalist theology – the idea that everything that happens, good or bad, does so because God had ordained it. So over a lunch of jallof rice and tea I began to share with them a more Christian understanding of the ways of God.
I reminded them of the OT prophets, who they were familiar with; men who spoke for God to proclaim that the way things were was not what God had willed. All over the place, people were doing things that we all knew was not according to the will of God. Furthermore, I told them, God was not in the business of taking babies. He receives them to himself, yes, but he does not take them.
All during my talk their eyes steadily widened, and at the end they looked at each other with palpable relief and gladness. They had accepted their “fate,” but with sad and burdened hearts. Now that they had heard the truth they were freed from the lie of Islam and fatalism, and knew their grief had not been brought to them by God’s hand. (I decided I ought to preach that message to the larger body of Fulbe believers, and was met with the same reaction wherever I spoke on it.)
The next year or so we heard the news that Asma’u had conceived once again. Our happiness was tinged with great concern this time, but in the end our joy was crowned with the birth of a little baby girl.
When it came time for the naming ceremony, about a month or so after the birth, I suppose the name just came naturally to her parents. They named her Ummayyatu – “Mother of a Tribe.” They explained to me that they named her that because so many people came to the naming ceremony of this little miracle, including relatives they had not seen in many years, that it was as though she had given birth to a whole tribe.
It was a long while before I was able to visit the little miracle girl. My friend Jim Black was there before me, and he says she would not stop screaming when she saw him – he reminded her of the white doctor who had given her shots at the hospital (Dr. Jim Smith in Banyo, Cameroon – really, a wonderful man). So when I knew I would be able to get back to the village I told Iliyasu he needed to show her pictures of me, and tell her, “So baajo am, Jeff” – “This is our friend, Jeff.”
It worked. Like most Fulbe children, Ummayyatu was shy, but not afraid, when she met me, and I am glad to say we got along pretty well.
Thanks so much for your prayers for this precious little miracle girl. She and her little sister(!), Hawwa’u, had been suffering from malaria, but now they are well again. Praise God.