I think that most people would agree with the saying that ‘life is precious’. Indeed it is. It is a gift from God and any gift from Him is precious. But there is another saying that is often heard, particularly to those of us living in developing nations. ‘Death is a part of life’. This perhaps rings truer in Niger than in many places. In my nearly 13 years living in Niger I have seen more than my share of death. Much more. First it was going to a village to visit a church member that had lost someone. I learned a lot of cultural things those days. Then there was the time our guard woke us up by
knocking pounding on our window at 3am. He announced the Pastor Issaka and his wife were here, and that Barnabas had died. WHAT?! Couldn’t be. We had just been to the hospital that evening and were told the 10 month old was doing better (Malaria). Having lived in Niger less than 3 months, we didn’t even know what the right protocol was. What were we expected to do? What were we not supposed to do? Neal went outside where they were waiting, I stayed inside contemplating my next move. After some time had passed – and I have no idea how much – I finally decided that I too, should go outside. So out I went. From a distance, I saw Mai Haske, the Mom. Barnabas was tied to her back and except for the hour, nothing seemed out of place. I walked up and Mai Haske says, “Ina Kwana” (Good morning). Seriously? She’s carrying her newly dead baby on her back and she greets me like it were just any old day. We didn’t know what to do, so we invited them in the house and Neal offered them a coke. At 3am. With a dead baby. They accepted it. I could write an entire post about this experience but it’s not my point today.
Then there was the Dad that showed up at our door (our house was near the national hosptial) carrying his dead 4 year old daughter at around 9pm on a Friday night. By now, we knew that what we needed to do was to take them back to their village right away. There is no such thing as autopsies or embalming. The body is put in the ground as soon as possible after death. Neal left to pick someone up to travel with him leaving Dad and daughter with me. We laid her on the couch and I asked if he needed anything. He asked me for something to rub on her because she was getting stiff. I didn’t have the heart to say that there was nothing that could be done about that. I brought him a spray bottle of water and he proceeded to spray his precious daughter and rub the water into her skin.
Both of these children we knew. I knew Barnabas because Mai Haske was pregnant with him when we visited Niger on our scouting trip the year before. We have a picture together. When we moved to Niger, he of course had been born. The little girl’s mom was a student in our discipleship school and her daughter was in the pre-school we operated for the student’s children.
Over the years, there has been a host of similar situations. One thing we learned is that we needed to start teaching the people that life truly is precious because it’s a gift from God. What we discovered was that people just expected their children to die. It’s just the way it was. And well, they were right. I started inquiring and was hard-pressed to find a woman that hadn’t had at least 1 child die. But again, I digress….
The thing is, as sad as it is, most of the people that we know that die are believers. In other words, they’re enjoying heaven. So though it’s sad, there is comfort.
Here in Niamey the hospital morgue is on a road that I drive by daily – even multiple times. Almost not a day goes by that a funeral procession is leaving from there – being taken to the Muslim cemetery near our house. The body that has been wrapped in a mat can be seen in the back of a pickup truck with people sitting all around the edges of the truck. The number of cars and motorcycles that follow are determined, I suppose, by how ‘important’ the person was. But at this point, does it really matter? Anyway, every time I see one of these processions I always think how tragic it is – knowing that in all likelihood, that person did not inherit eternal life. ‘How sad’, I think. And then I go on my way because, well, I have no relationship with that person.
Most everyone that has visited us in Niger will remember our baggage man at the airport. He’s known as ‘the airport guy’, ‘Number 11’, or ‘Abarshi’, his given name. He’s our friend. He’s been helping us (and all the Vie Abondante missionaries) and all our visitors with our bags for years. I really don’t remember anyone else being our airport guy. Abarshi has always been there. He always got us a badge to go past security, and if he didn’t, he found us a way to get back there anyway. He was a small man with big influence. I don’t think we’ve ever had anyone arrive that we haven’t been able to greet them at immigration. If you’ve been here, you know that’s a big deal. He and Tobi were buds. No matter how tight security was, Abarshi always whisked Tobi to the back. And it was ok to let him. Even when Tobi was 3. He always called us to let us know if a flight was going to be late so we wouldn’t have to hang out at the airport too long. He would call and let us know if our visitors successfully boarded the plane for departure. I remember one time during Ramadan when they weren’t even allowing cars into the normal parking lot. I was by myself and had to park almost on the road. Abarshi sat back there with me the entire time I was waiting for an unexpected flight delay and we chatted. He told me stories of what life was like before the Kennedy bridge was built and when it cost about 2 cents to buy a chicken. The good ole’ days. We could always count on him. He was a good man, and he was our friend.
Last Sunday morning a medical team arrived. As usual Abarshi was there and escorted both Neal and I through security, even though we’d already been told only one of us would be able to go. Baggage and immigration went smoothly and we were on our way. Friday night the same team was departing and when we arrived at the airport, Abarshi wasn’t there. Of course Neal asked about him and was told that he had been there but wasn’t feeling well so went home. But they told Neal that he was ‘da sauki’, meaning he’s doing better. The team managed to get on the plane even without his help.
Saturday afternoon Neal received a phone call from an unknown number. The man on the phone said he was calling to tell Neal that Abarshi had died just a few hours before. Neal was driving and Tobi says ‘Dad just stopped the car and said “WHAT?” He was to be buried the next morning. Neal went to visit the family, whom we had never met. Apparently Abarshi went home Friday night not feeling well. He went to the hospital and they gave him ‘drip’. (IV fluid). The next morning he said he wanted some more so he walked a couple of kilometers to a pharmacy. He was told there that he’d have to go to the hospital for that. He walked back home and died. Just like that.
Talk about a heavy weight. As far as we knew, Abarshi was a Muslim, like 95+% of his countrymen.
But as far as I could think, over all these years, I had never shared the Gospel with him. Ever. I can’t even say why. I don’t know what I was thinking. Isn’t that what I’m doing in Niger? How did I mess this up?? We are here to preach the Gospel. We do preach the Gospel – regularly. How did we miss this? While contemplating this oversight out loud Tobi said, “I never told him about Jesus either. He was like my friend.” As we began discussing this tragedy, we realized that we had all failed. Failed big time. None of us had shared the hope of eternal life – Jesus – with him. Neal started saying how easy it would have been to make a point to visit him in his home and present the Gospel. It would have been nothing. Why didn’t we do it? I realize the Bible says that all men are without excuse, but we could have – no, should have – told him of the eternal life that was available to him. We have no excuse. None. The thing is, he knew that we were Christians and as far as that goes we didn’t spoil our testimony — we always tipped him well, we were kind to him, etc. But at this point all that means nothing. What kind of testimony is it that we didn’t show him the Way, the Truth and the Life? Oh sure, he may not have accepted it. But that’s not our responsibility. Choosing is his job. But presenting is ours.
It has certainly been a wake-up call. It doesn’t matter where we live or what we do. As Christians our most important job is to present the Gospel wherever we go. We don’t know – it could be that person’s last (or only) time to hear it.
The bottom line is – we messed up.