During the month of August, a team of six people from our staff and DTS, including a family with two young boys, travelled from Hong Kong to Senegal, West Africa to participate in the Planting Together campaign. This is the third year we, Gateway, are involved and we are overwhelmingly amazed by all the things the Lord did during this outreach… there are so many stories to tell and to be thankful to the Lord for!
This is a report by Curtis Clewett, from Spain, who is leading the Planting Together initiative.
"What divine favor looks like"
After nine months of careful communication and planning, we arrived at the Great Green Wall government offices in Dakar to hear the new Director General say, “This is the first I have heard about you guys!” I was about to respond when the chastening continued: “Don’t you know we need advance notice? Our budget is spent, there are already people in the planting zone, there’s no place for you.”
I stared at the two army colonels and three staffers and contemplated our reply. We had plenty of email records and even a personal meeting with one of them back in November, but this was not the time for logic. We were battling more than just missed communication.
“I’m disappointed by the path this conversation is taking,” I found myself saying. “We have five years of history together and 80 people from around the world arriving in two days to serve your nation at their own expense. If there is a problem, we need to fix it.”
Our volunteers began to arrive the next day: 43 Africans from Togo, Mali, Burkina Faso, Guinea Bissau, S. Africa, Benin, Central African Republic and Senegal with almost as many non-Africans from Spain, France, Switzerland, Germany, Wales, England, Scotland, Brazil, Hong Kong, China, Holland, Panama, Puerto Rico, Argentina, Ecuador, Venezuela and the US.
We converged by taxis and busses in Thiès, about two hours from Dakar for a five day preparation camp. It’s difficult to adequately describe the significance of people aged 7-61 from 25 nations coming together as one big family. Multi-language worship, key teachings and strange African rhythms gradually erased ethnic and cultural barriers. Dancing? In Africa, it’s never a question of yes or no, only how long.
We had an Africa day, when our friends changed into their native costumes and led us through different cultural experiences, tastes and smells. Their even wilder dances and chalked skin markings reminded us that, despite the evident sense of belonging and sharing together, we were still in Africa!
Planting Week in Mbar Toubab
Finally, on August 15, with our hearts clean, we were on our way to the wilderness of northern Senegal to get our hands dirty. After a five-hour trip by bus, army truck and 4x4, we arrived in Mbar Toubab to discover that there were about 40 other Senegalese young adults already there in some kind of summer environmental camp. This meant that the 80 of us, including local doctors joining our medical team, would be stuffed into two buildings and a couple of army tents. They set up another tent on a flat slab of concrete for our dining hall and meeting area. Mosquito nets were hung, housing assigned and dinner served as night fell.
A little rain had fallen, so we started with breakfast at 7:30am and headed out for first day of planting, clambering onto the old “cattle truck” that would be our transport back and forth to the fields over the next few days. Spirits were high as we donned work gloves, armed ourselves with utility knives and the “toubabs” (white people) among us slathered ourselves with suncream. We managed to poke almost 2000 seedlings into the ground in a shortened day before returning to a delicious African-style meal and a well-deserved siesta.
The following day, our mobile medical clinic was opened, but only after 4 hours of intensive cleaning. The government has built medical stations in many of the villages, but they are rarely used.
A guy with less training than a nurse comes around maybe four times per year to distribute pills but the nearest hospital is at least two hours away. If people get really sick, they’re rarely diagnosed in time to get the care they need.
Two patients in particular reminded us of the importance of bringing the medical team along with us. The second day, a woman came in with a problem pregnancy, with vitals dangerously distant from normal. She was admitted to our mobile clinic and occupied the one bed available. At 4 am the baby was coming but in breech position! In a normal hospital, no problem. Quick C-section and you’re done. Out here, we were fortunate to have Dr. Noel, an accomplished obstetrician, who performed six complex maneuvers to get the baby in the right position. Perhaps two lives were saved that night.
The baby was named “Itzel Ava” after our two attending nurses from Panama and Spain. They may never speak the Fulani tongue of the mother, but the language of love and service has no boundaries!
Another patient had a life-threatening condition but refused to go to the hospital, She insisted on getting her bag of pills (the highly prized result of a visit to a “real” doctor), and going home. The whole team prayed for her, we hired a 4x4 taxi and she finally went. Another life probably saved that day. Our team ended up attending just short of 1000 people in four days. A new record!
Watering and cleaning
Meanwhile, only enough rain fell for one more day of planting. In between, we loaded up the trucks with 2,000 liters of water and began a bucket brigade to water the freshly planted trees, clinging to life under the punishing African sun. There is no other source of irrigation out there. If the rains don’t fall, no trees can be planted. More trees mean more transpiration (the cycle of rain falling, being absorbed by plant root systems and exhaled back into the atmosphere to form clouds and start the cycle again), which literally can change the climate when done massively. That’s part of the reason for planting trees.
With not much more to do, a bunch of highly motivated people and a couple days to spare, we decided to pick up the trash around our site. We were quite a spectacle to the 40 other Senegalese campers. Trash is a major issue in this nation. It is a constant blight on the landscape near any city or village. People say, “it’s not my street or my beach. Why should I worry?” So we were doing another cultural “no-no”.
Some of the Senegalese had begun to come to our nightly celebrations with worship and testimonies and they were extremely curious about this group sharing their campsite. It was impossible to identify us as a North American, protestant, white or black, young people or old people. That’s really the cool thing about going together all generations from many nations. It speaks of a God who transcends nationalities, religion and prejudice.
Our jaws dropped when early the next morning these Senegalese young people were spread out around the site, bending over and...yes!... picking up trash! Unbelievable! May not sound like much to Western readers, but for this part of Africa it is a small step of transforming mindsets.
Sharing the gospel
One of the last evenings, the village leaders gave us the opportunity to share about our faith in Jesus with the whole village! They were so impacted by the fact that all of us payed lots of money to travel to Senegal, just to be there and serve them. They asked us, "What is your motor?", Why do you make all these sacrifices?
We showed some films and shared the gospel openly. We spread out the tarps on the dry-sticker-infested terrain and included many of the campers and staff as we explained through two translators, how we had come to sacrifice following the example of One who sacrificed everything for us.
The “witch doctor”
The next day, our sojourn became even more interesting when a nicely dressed young man pulled up in his shiny 4x4 to inquire about us. This guy turned out to be a Marabout (pronounced, “marabu”), kind of a Muslim witch doctor who gets paid to cure people and practice secret rites in West Africa where animism and Islam freely intermingle.
When told who this guy was, Ariel, one of our Spanish team members blurted out, “Well, I’m also a Marabout!” Speaking only Spanish, Ariel went to fetch a translator. Speaking only Wolof (the major tribal language of Senegal), the Marabout insisted on continuing the conversation and sent someone to awaken the chief (that would be me) to find Ariel, thus began one of the more amazing episodes of this year’s campaign.
I found an English to French translator who found a French to Wolof translator. We commenced a four-part translation ring that would have been comical if the young man was not so earnest. “So how do you heal people?” he asked in Wolof, translated to French, translated to English, translated to Spanish. “It’s easy, we just pray and God acts,” Ariel replied in Spanish, translated to English, translated to French, translated to Wolof. Back and forth it went, “Can you give an example?” the Marabout asked. “Sure, my wife had a debilitating back condition and had to wear a shoe implant. We prayed and she was healed,” Ariel offered. “Oh, I can do that! What about couples who can’t have babies?” we deciphered from the Marabout’s Wolof. Ariel told another testimony to which the young man replied, “That’s pretty good. I have special holy water for that.” On and on they went, basically sharing trade secrets of the craft of healing!
Finally, we invited him for lunch, and asked Yohann, our French speaker to continue, reducing the translation circle to Wolof-French. For nearly three hours, we shared openly. When Yohann tried to be careful about mentioning Jesus to this student of the Quran, he insisted, “Please, tell me everything, don’t hold anything back!”
One illustration that seemed to strike home was when we talked about Mackie, the current president of Senegal, and asked if we could merely walk into his office. We then asked if it was impossible to do this with the president of the nation, what about with the Creator of the Universe? Then came the answer that separates Jesus-followers from all others: “Religions try to do just that - find a way to be worthy to enter into a divine presence or state of being. But here is the thing: the God we believe in, instead of us trying to somehow ascend in our goodness into his presence has decided to descend to where we are. Instead of us trying to know Him, He has decided to know us!” Our new friend was silent for a moment and then said, “I believe that God has ordained this meeting between us today.” He took the words right out of our mouths! Incredible!
He then signalled to his two brothers, also Marabouts, to join us and later another regional Marabout pulled up in another shiny 4x4 and told us, “The next time you guys come, talk to us, we know everybody and can make you famous!” We were in shock. Our African teammates told us later that this never happens, but it did in a little place called Mbar Toubab while picking up trash.
Then there was the school... Our good friend Sergeant Hadji Goudjaby, field manager in Mbar Toubab, sat down with us one afternoon, a serious look on his face. He flatly told us, “You guys have changed how we live here.”
What did he mean? “You can ask any villager,” he continued, “and we are different because of your presence with us these last few years.” He informed us that with trees planted and fenced off, the village children didn’t have to walk for hours foraging for grass and wood products. Now that the kids were able to stay at home, they needed to be educated, so the parents decided to build a school.
Really? We asked if we could see it, or better yet, do a children’s program for them. “Well, school is not in session and we don’t have any bathrooms yet (?), but let me see what I can do!” was his reply.
Two days later, 80 kids came by donkey carts and on foot, some from as far as 20 kilometres (12 miles) away. Our Togo team put on what we call, “Quartier Libre”, a kind of sidewalk Sunday school for inner city kids, except we were far from the city and certainly no sidewalks within a day’s journey. Sgt Goudjaby was adamant that it wasn’t just the Great Green Wall program, but our example that is driving them on to provide an education and a better way for their children. Beyond our expectations!
God’s favour with the local leaders
Then there was the incident in town of Keur Moma Sarr. On our way back from the planting site we waited six hours for a bus because, well for no good reason. With time to spend our kids got out the trash bags, and removed the junk in the sand parking lot while the others put on an impromptu “Quartier Libre”.
Some of the local kids gave our team a bad time. And then a man motioned two of our older female leaders to come with him. Here, it gets kind of strange. He ushered them into a mosque next to the parking lot where 30 Muslim men were praying. Introducing himself as vice-mayor of the town he asked the two women to sit down in the mosque in the midst of the men.
He then said, “On behalf of all of us I want to apologize for the poor treatment you received from these youth. They do not represent the attitude of our town. We know who you are and what you have done in Mbar Toubab (some 40 kilometres away by dirt track). Please accept our sincere apology.”
For those who know a bit about Muslim culture, this makes no sense whatsoever - Inviting foreigners, especially women, to sit in the mosque among the men? And apologizing? This is what God’s favour looks like.
There’s actually so much more (fortuitous meeting with the cabinet level Minister of Environment, trees from former years growing, team members’ lives changed forever...). But time and the reader’s patience will certainly fail before all the amazing stories can be told.
Personally, I had communicated to many of our leaders that this might be my last year to go down to plant and that we might even close down the project altogether. I don’t think we can do that now. It seems we have stumbled onto something God wants to do, and that He is willing to use people like us to communicate without words His love in some of the more inhospitable places in the world.
That’s what God’s favour looks like!
Anyone ready for Planting Together 2017? With Thanks to all the Team leaders, staff and participants past present and future...