“Maca! Maca!” The three-year-old boy clapped his hands excitedly. Zacharie and his one-year-old brother were sitting with their mother in their home, feeling excited and optimistic. I was feeling the enormity of their situation, and I was surprised that the mom could still smile.
Earlier today, my friend, Zainebo, came to me at Sahel and asked if we could talk. She had noticed a husband and wife at her church with a very ill child. Upon further inquiry, she decided to visit their home. This is very normal in Niger, where people stop by to see what is going on if they have any concern for you. Yesterday she saw their home, and she was appalled.
That speaks volumes to me. She told me that a jail cell would be better than what she saw. We talked a bit about the situation. When there is extreme poverty and a child becomes ill, the situation turns grave very quickly. I agreed to go with her that afternoon. And then, we prayed.
I have been in enough situations when I enter someone’s home in Niger that I know not to have any expectations. It could be a thatched hut; there could be western furniture and a working air conditioner; someone might offer me food or water that could make me very ill; the possibilities are endless and usually surprising. I am not sure when I will become used to living here.
After work, we stopped at the open air market and bought some supplies. I have learned something about myself and that is I am unable to face extreme poverty without some relief in sight. So we bought some basics – macaroni noodles, bouillon cubes, tomato paste, and powdered milk. We also bought a mattress and a sheet. While it is normal to some that two women would walk through an open air market with a man behind them balancing a double mattress on his head, I still feel like quite the oddity.
As we drove along the goudronne, we prayed together for this family. The husband has a job which pays their rent and has an additional salary of $40 per month. He goes out each day looking for odd jobs or any extra work to augment his salary. He has not yet been able to find a second job and is thankful to have one job.
We leave the paved road, and I see a lot of sand in front of me. I don’t have the “quatre, quatre” which is the four wheel drive vehicle. I keep my foot steady on the pedal, and we make it through the sand to firmer ground. We come upon a large building and I recognize it as a church! That is a surprise.
But, this is one of the churches that was burned in 2015 after the Charlie Hebdo incident in Europe. Part of the building has been rebuilt and the church has been meeting there again. However, the main sanctuary is a burned gutted out mess. At the back of this charred sanctuary is what looks like a storage room that is about eight feet by eight feet.
We drive up to the building and park beside it. A young woman is sitting outside with two small children and two other women. We greet them, and Zainebo introduces me. The young woman, Jolie, is sitting with her baby on her lap. Her three-year-old is sitting close beside her looking up at all of us.
We talk for a moment, and Jolie invites us into her home. We follow her to a door that opens into the small storage room. The room has cement blocks lining one wall, two blocks deep from floor to ceiling. It’s a high ceiling, probably 16-20 feet. There is a large square “window” between the room and the sanctuary with no barrier; it’s just a square charred hole that is wide open. There are two smaller windows up high on the opposite exterior wall and there is a door on a third wall, through which we have just entered. There is no running water, no electricity, no bathroom, and no privacy.
Once we are in the room, I look around. There is a sack of rice that the church has provided. The furniture consists of a metal folding chair that is being used as a table for a few pots and cooking pans. And, there is a clothesline strung across one corner of the room, with one change of clothing for each person hanging up. There is a thin mat on the cement floor that is serving as a bed for this family of four. I am wondering how I would feel if I lived daily in these conditions.
Seeing the two little shirts and shorts hanging on the clothesline, I look more closely at the two children. They are in clothes that are a bit tight on them and in tatters. Why did I not see this when I first saw the kids? When Zainebo sees me looking at the kids, she asks Jolie how the one year old is doing. In answer, Jolie shakes her head and pulls down his shorts. I am reminded immediately of the little baby that died last year at the baby home. This little guy, while I can’t see exposed bone, has skin pulled so tightly over his hip that I see the outline of the bone clearly. There is something else going on aside from the malnutrition as he has bloody spots all down the side of his leg. Zainebo asks me if I have seen anything like this before. I haven’t. I have seen the extreme malnourishment, but the spots are a mystery.
Mom and I exchange glances as she pulls up the shorts. She is worried. I am worried. All I can think of is that the baby that I held all last fall died soon after reaching this condition. This one year old is still nursing; if he wasn’t, there would be precious little for him to eat. Jolie is nursing him, and her diet is rice and water. Usually, a family living here would have extended family to help them survive. However, there is not family support in this situation because Jolie and her husband are the only Christians in their family.
The situation is dire. Their church has provided them with this shelter, as well as the nighttime guard job that gives them some income. Otherwise, they would be destitute and homeless. They also have a half full sack of rice in the corner. However, they got paid at the beginning of the month, and there are four days left in the month. If sickness had not come, it wouldn’t seem quite so desperate.
Zainebo tells Jolie that we’ve brought a few things. She reminded Jolie that they had prayed together the previous week. This had led to her praying, and then deciding to ask for help from another Christian. That led them to me. The mattress gets carried inside. They put it down on the mat, covering it with the sheet. Zacharie, the three-year-old, smiles and jumps on the bed laying himself out on it flat. Jolie smiles and sits down on the edge of it. She tries to lay the baby down on the bed, but he begins to cry and grabs for her arms. She wearily holds him and sits down on the mattress.
Zainebo asks how she is feeling. Jolie has had vertigo the last two months. As the family struggled to feed themselves and their two little ones, the lack of employment continued to weaken them and their ability to survive.
I am sitting on the cooler that the family uses to get water. It is not pure water, but her husband did not leave for the day in search of a job without making sure there was water for them. Zainebo grabs the bags of food and puts them in front of Jolie. As she unpacks them, Zacharie exclaims over each item.
“Maca!” he yells when he sees the macaroni. “Maggi!” he yells when he sees the chicken bouillon. Zacharie brings some relief with his joy. He makes everyone laugh at his happiness and excitement at the spaghetti noodles.
I am watching Jolie. She is really thankful, yet I am wondering what she is thinking. Did she ever imagine life would get this desperate?
I call a friend who is a doctor and ask to send mom and baby to her on Monday. It’s Friday night, and I pray that if they have made it this long that they will hold on for a few more days. Maybe they could go on this way indefinitely, but it just doesn’t seem possible. I can’t go on Monday, but one of the women is offering to take them to the clinic and get the consult for Jolie and her baby.
The doctor says we will work it out. I do love this doctor.
We talk a bit longer about how God brought us all together. We are a strange ensemble of people. Yet, we are all mommas, and compassion and love bind us together.
After we leave, I am distracted by what I have seen. I start out slowly in the dark, and you can guess what happens – I get stuck in the desert sand on the way out. A young man motions to me to get out of the van and he will drive it for me. I don’t think so. I decline politely. So, he gets a friend and they push us out of the sand. I paid them forty cents for their help. I didn’t know who was happier, them for their gain of forty cents or me for not having to call Ken to come and rescue me.
Later that evening, I pondered what is to be done for Jolie. What good is it if I wish them well, to stay warm and well fed, and do not provide for their physical needs? James 2 is ringing in my ears.
Chickens are my answer. I want to give them two laying hens. That is my short term fix. Longer term, I know we need to identify their gifts. What are they good at? How can they use their gifts to provide for their family? We are each uniquely gifted – a conversation I would have the very next day with another struggling family.
I am praying for wisdom. Creating dependency is something I am told repeatedly to guard against. But, immediate helps like a few egg-laying chickens and being present in times of struggle – these I can offer.
I look at Zainebo, laughing and chatting with this young mother. Behind her laughter there is some pain – and some relief as well. You wouldn’t think it, but there is a cost emotionally to going and visiting people who are living deprivation. I am reminded of how many times Christ saw people hurting and had compassion on them. I do not compare Zainebo to Christ, but I can say for sure that seeing people hurting or hungry or sick or homeless without any relief in sight creates a lot of tension. God designed us for this – we are here to love one another, to alleviate suffering, to show compassion. Here, living among people who do not believe the tenets of Christ, we see a lot of suffering. I see clearly that love is our only hope. With Zainebo around, there is a feeling of hope and courage.
Thank you for your love and support of our family. We will do our best to represent Christ well here. May God bless your Thanksgiving!
Update on Jolie – she and the baby both had malaria. We dropped off the treatment a few days later. She has another doctor appointment for other more serious issues.
2nd update – it’s been a month since I met Jolie. She and the baby have both recovered. Zainebo’s church is stepping in and helping them identify ways they can help themselves. Jolie is hopeful and her health has improved. I am thankful this didn’t end in infant mortality – people can make a difference one family at a time. You have given us that gift.