48 hours ago, I hopped into my favorite minibus with six teens and followed Ken, who was in another vehicle full of teens, into a village called Kwara Tegui.
There is a group living out in Kwara Tegui called La Roche – in English “The Rock.” They spend their time living among the villagers and teaching the children. School is not compulsory in Niger – and many kids in this village don’t go. But the classes taught by La Roche are not part of the public school system – kids can come and learn English, French, sports, or math, and there is always a spiritual component.
In a culture of lack, the most fundamental need is love. You might say it is food and clean water. I would argue that food and clean water come when people love each other enough to do for their neighbor what they want done for themselves. And, wells get built where there is trust between neighbors who can trust that each will bear part of the expense. When Christ said the two greatest commandments were to love God and to love each other – it was to teach us that we would not lack if love exists. As I tell you what I saw this weekend, I can attest that where there is love, life flourishes. I do not suggest any prosperity theology – only that love changes everything.
Driving on the “roads” of Kwara Tegui is like driving on a sand dune minefield. There is a track to follow, but the track has crater-like pot holes and the path out of the pot hole is soft and sandy. Think “I better punch it right before I hit that pot hole or I am not making it up onto a ‘flat’ stretch of road again.” The “mines” are just large piles of trash. Also, because it is way too hot (and life threatening) to cook inside a thatched hut, building a fire in the road seems the better option. Driving in the dark, I quickly learned to look for smoldering flames illuminated in my headlights. Women watched me as I dodged campfires and piles of trash, went flying up out of pot holes and shared the one lane with oncoming traffic. At one point, there was a pot hole that I knew there was just not enough traction to get out of, so I drove to the side of it. It was clear that others who had gone before me had the same idea. But, the side of the new path had given way to a corner of the pot hole – and apparently one of the girls in the van was watching the road and was certain we were “gonna roll!” She expressed her alarm, and I laughed. A minute before I had almost rolled over a burning fire. That pot hole seemed pretty tame.
Arriving at our temporary home, I backed into a parking space and April G. closed the gate behind me. Fourteen of us ate dinner together and made plans for the next day. A few hours later, Ken and the guys in our group left to sleep at another house. The girls and I settled into April and Justin’s house for the night.
The next morning, after time spent in prayer and preparation, we got ready for Kid’s Camp. The kids are expecting this because La Roche does it every Saturday. We arrived at The Center at 9 am, though the camp doesn’t start until 11 am. There is a crowd of kids at the gate as we drive in. The gate closes behind us and I hear young voices chanting, “Samira! Samira! Samira!” Justin laughs. This is April’s name in Zarma.
We go inside and start setting up. We’re in a small village on the outskirts of Niamey. About 150 – 200 kids will be showing up. As we prep, the sounds of shouting and laughing outside the gate really increase. I’m up on the second floor, and I peek out. Some of the kids see me and start shouting and pointing. They are yelling to me in Zarma. It’s clear they want to get things started. I now have a Zarma vocabulary of 20 phrases. I can tell you my name, ask yours, ask how you’re doing, greet and say goodbye, I can say I am going home and that I will see you tomorrow. I understand past, present and future tense. But, I’m so limited.
All of the staff form a line of greeting from the gate to the second floor balcony. We open the gate and kids come pouring in. We each greet “Fofo!” “Mate gaham?” “Banni Sammay” “Mate ni go?” Repeat “Banni Sammay!” By the time we close the gate and follow the last of the kids upstairs, everyone is wiggling and getting settled into their spots on the mats that line the floor. The teens plop down in the sea of kids. And the kids nearest each teen climb into their laps or sit close.
The music starts, and almost everyone is clapping. But one boy motions to me with a look of concern, and I peer over his shoulder to see a younger boy clinging to him and crying. It’s clear this little guy is sick. I walk over and sit down and glance up at him. I must look intimidating because he clings to the older boy even more and looks away from me. I get up and leave, going into the back room. My bag always has some small piece of food or candy. I come back with two lifesaver mints. I pop one into my mouth just to show it is safe, and I offer him the other. He solemnly puts it in his mouth and stares at me. I hold out my hand and he takes it. The music is still jamming in the background, but it’s not front and center for us like for the rest of the room. I sit down and he snuggles into my lap. Three children hold out their hands, having seen him put his candy in his mouth. No one knows French, but I say, “C’est tout,” and hold out my empty hands. They get the message.
My little guy is coughing and pretty snotty. I realize I’m not the only one getting sinus headaches from the sandy haze that has settled over Niamey, now that the rains are gone. I look around and hear other kids coughing and sneezing. I am taking Benadryl and ibuprofen regularly; nobody here has that option. I woke up thinking about me and how much my head hurt. Then, I took some pills and moved on with my day. This little guy is miserable and sick until he is better.
After the music, there is a story in Zarma. After the story, one of the Sahel students gets to teach a game. He has chosen “Duck, duck, goose.” It’s a pretty easy game to teach. We have 6 good translators, so no problem there. But, having 144 kids watch 6 kids play a game is painful. The anticipation and disappointment on their faces as kids get chosen to play and they must sit back patiently and watch is very anticlimactic. They just want to play! Finally, I go to one of the leaders and say we need to get five rounds going at a time. She kindly agrees, though she thinks it will be a madhouse. But, it works! Four teams of two adults snag six kids each and now there is duck, duck, goosing like crazy all over the balcony. A local man is watching my group. One of my kids tries to take a short cut and he rebukes him in Zarma. I thank him in French. Who knew this 60+ year old man would learn and enforce the rules of “duck, duck goose” for this crazy American woman?! He never looked at me, but nodded his “you’re welcome” and stared at the kids. Communication really can happen in the most unexpected ways. I am getting used to men not looking at me when they speak to me – and, I hope they aren’t too offended that I forget to not look at them when I speak to them.
The kids are having a great time. We are laughing and playing. But, as we end our time together, I am unsettled. We have hugged these kids, listened to them answer questions and consider the story they heard, played and sang together. But, we also want another time this weekend with a smaller group. We are inviting 20 kids back later in the day. It is really hard to build relationship within a large group. But, if there are 20 kids meeting with us later – the ratio becomes 16:20. We can have good conversation and relationship building. Kids get invited back by receiving a special ticket. Receiving a small piece of paper that invites you back at 4:00 pm is A BIG DEAL. The kids have learned from past experience to hide their ticket and show up later to be admitted to a special time. But, you can imagine the feelings of not getting a ticket and just really wanting one. It’s like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory Meets Niger!
Each of the teens is allowed to hand out two tickets to the two kids of their choice. I get the remaining four tickets. I choose two boys and two girls. As soon as I hand my tickets to the two boys, discreetly I thought, four other boys are clamoring at me. I speak in French, as if that does any good, and point to the girls. They object – those are just girls! They point to themselves and hold out their hands firmly. I shake my head no. I go to the two girls. They are older than most of the kids there. They look about 11 and both wear head coverings. They are thrilled with their tickets, but each of them grabs two little girls and looks at me pleadingly. Can’t their friends come along with them? No, I shake my head. They frown, considering. I know they are wondering if they should give up their tickets. One of the boys makes a grab for one of the girls’ tickets. They both look at me, and I give “the MOM look” to the boy. He let’s go and looks down. The girls decide to keep their tickets.
We walk the kids downstairs and back outside the gate. After lunch, we set up for the afternoon. The teens set up stations that they have designed for the kids. There will be one craft station, one art station, and one game station. At the end, we will have a story and a discussion time. The teens have come up with these super ideas and the kids have an amazing time. But, it’s when we get to discussion time after the story that I “SEE” these kids.
The story of Jesus and the sinner, Zacchaeus, was told. Zacchaeus was a cheat, and he overcharged people and everyone knew it. When Jesus met Zacchaeus, He invited Himself over for dinner – knowing that everyone in town would see He was spending His time with this big sinner that everyone knew was a cheat. He did this so that people would see that Jesus loves the unlovable. He loves us, even when we don’t deserve it. After the story, our interpreter asks the kids questions to see what they have understood.
These kids, who aren’t required to go to school, and can’t read or write are EAGER LEARNERS. They crave attention, are jumping up and wordlessly snapping their fingers, just dying to be chosen to answer. I wish you could have sat with me and watched their expressions, their intensity, their earnest desire to be heard, to be seen, to receive affirmation.
All morning and afternoon, I watched kids soaking up love. I didn’t have a moment when I was with children when someone wasn’t reaching for my hand to just sit and hold hands together. As I listened to adults say, “Yesu ga ba ni,” and sing with kids about Jesus loving us from our heads to our toes, I became convinced that these kids would remember these things – not just the hardships of life here, but the love freely offered.
Living in Niger gives me a clearer view of the difference between loving children like Christ and not. Even if people in the States don’t know where the value to love others as they want to be loved came from, they still practice it because it has been passed down through the generations since the first Great Awakenings. Here in Niger, that is not so. They simply don’t have Christ, His message, or His love. They, like Zacchaeus, truly lack in just one thing – love. May La Roche and the rest of us love well.