Voice of truth to Sahel nomads
By SIM Australia | North Africa
Stock Photo by Sergey Pesterev, via Unsplash.
As a young couple, Phil and Carol heard about a nomadic and semi-nomadic people group spread out over the Sahel that had been forgotten by Christian mission.
Frequently on the move and highly protective of their culture and the welfare of their herds, the people of this group live in remote areas that are particularly challenging to reach. Weekly markets in the bigger towns would attract thousands of these nomads, but there was no Christian witness to tell them about God’s salvation plan.
Since responding in obedience 49 years ago, Phil and Carol have been working and living among these people to make Christ known.
“Believing that God had called us, we arrived in the country with a vision to bring them the gospel. We felt so inadequate and ill-prepared,” they said.
Phil and Carol first needed to learn the language and culture. While some advised them to learn the trade language, they had a conviction that they should learn the mother tongue. There was no language school, so they benefitted from language helpers and living closely to the people.
“At first, the people were suspicious of us,” they explained. “So, we would go to the local markets to meet them and get to know them, and to socialise around wells where they must go every day to water their herds and collect water for their domestic use.”
“This helped to foster trust and then we were invited to their encampments. They are a very hospitable people and particularly mindful of strangers. Acquaintances soon became friends.”
Phil and Carol had a base in a prominent market town and built cornstalk guest shelters to welcome those who came to the market. They adopted the local dress and were sensitive to the group’s cultural practices.
“From the outset, we shared with them that we are followers of Jesus and had come to share with them God’s plan of forgiveness, how He had kept His promise to Abraham, that through his seed all nations of the earth would be blessed, and that included them.”
Trained as a nurse, Carol used her medical knowledge to care for people in remote communities. Phil and Carol saw God’s faithfulness at work and witnessed how He used drought, famine and loss of herds to prepare one clan in the 1980s to embrace the Good News. Two herders initially believed and, a few weeks later, they had gathered 70 heads of families to hear the gospel. Many believed as the message spread among that clan and today there are thousands of believers in the region.
With local ministry partners, Phil and Carol also saw how God led them in the development of a Bible training centre to teach and disciple lay people in their mother tongue. More than 150 students have undergone training, and some are now working as evangelists among their own people and even crossing into other people groups.
In 2015, a security threat meant that Phil and Carol had to relocate their main base. On settling into their new location, God opened the way for them to assist pastoralist communities to dig concrete-reinforced wells. The traditionally built wells were collapsing, and at times burying alive the young men cleaning or deepening them.
The couple shared: “This has led to many opportunities to show the love of Jesus and to make known the Gospel among completely unreached peoples. Showing how much we care for them opens the door to relationships and to sharing the message, from kings and chiefs to the common people, herders, men, women and children – to the whole of the community.”
“In March, we were invited by a king to attend a Festival for Herders in a location predominately populated by four pastoralist people groups. We felt overwhelmed by the friendliness of so many people we met. They were surprised that we spoke their language and dressed like them. People we’d never met before in this remote region said, ‘you must come and visit us in our camps’.”
“The other people groups were open and friendly too, wanting us to visit with them and chat in their tent homes which they had erected for the occasion to display something of their culture and customs.
Three of these people groups have no-one working among them there. Imagine what could happen if someone responds to God’s call to make disciples among them too.
Three years ago, Phil and Carol visited a community where many devout followers of the majority religion live together. As they shared the gospel, some people accepted solar-powered audio Bibles, called MegaVoices, that were offered to them.
Recently, Phil sensed that he should to return to the community that day. On his arrival, he learned that Haruni, who had shown the most interest in the gospel when they first visited, had died that day. A crowd of men had gathered to express their grief and to pray for their dead relative. They welcomed Phil and invited him to sit on the mats with them in the shade of a large tree. They said that they were sorry his friend had died. The conversations were frequently interrupted by the arrival of more men and repetitive prayers for the deceased.
Phil said, “When there was a lull, I asked if they would allow me to tell them of a time when Jesus visited a grieving family, when he raised Lazarus from the dead. They listened intently, and later I heard them recounting the story to newcomers. After about three hours, when I stood up to leave, they thanked me for coming and urged me to return for another visit. I was further surprised when they asked if I had any more MegaVoices for them. I was greatly encouraged to learn that Haruni had listened to his MegaVoice until the day he died.”
The next day, Haruni’s younger brother, Abu, a believer, arrived to bring his condolences. Phil took him to see his family and was deeply moved to see how they welcomed him as when he first believed, many years previously, he suffered severe persecution. As Phil and Abu were sitting with the men, one of the young men asked, “Are you going to tell us more about Jesus?” Phil said he would be happy to if given the opportunity. About an hour or so later, one of the older men asked them to share the message.
“Again, I was struck that the whole group of about forty men listened so intently to what we shared. Just like on the previous day, as I left, some in the group asked for MegaVoices. Some also wanted printed copies of Matthew’s Gospel. Abu stayed on for several days and was amazed at the openness of his people to the Good News.”
“I ask myself, why are we surprised to see evidence of God working in this way? He is the God of mission who hears and answers our prayers.”
Phil and Carol give thanks for the contribution of SIM colleagues who have also worked among this people group, for the opportunities they have of partnering with local leaders, and for all who are prayerfully and financial part of this work. They praise God for each believer and pray that Jesus will protect them in His powerful Name. They are encouraged by the growing number of disciples across this region.
•Give thanks for all that God has done and is doing through Phil and Carol's work.
•Ask that people would respond to God's call to make disciples among groups where nobody is yet working.
•Thank God for technology that allows remote communities to hear the Bible in their own language. Pray that more people might receive and listen to God's powerful word.
* Names changed for privacy.