Africa's Children: Transforming Lives, One Child at a Time
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Hassana has a book. It is small — no bigger than the palm of Papa’s hand, which she knows because his hand has left marks on her often enough. Its crumbling cover used to be the green of well-watered manioc leaves; but like the manioc leaves, the book has been stained by sub-Saharan dust. Its pages are as thin as dragonfly wings.
During the day, she tucks the book into her clothing. At night, Hassana wraps it in a scrap of fabric and hides it in a hole in the ground under her sleeping mat. She knows this is an unholy treatment of a holy book. She knows that keeping it in the ground may anger the God to whom it belongs, but she fears her Papa almost as much as she fears the spirits he conjures with his fetishes.
She can’t read it. Not yet. But she wants to.
A Christian pastor she encountered in the market one day gave her this book. He told her of a loving God in whom there is no fear; a loving God with power over all the other spirits. He had offered her this book — and she had accepted it — too ashamed to admit that at 11 years old, she could not read. Though school is compulsory through grade eight, it is her brothers who are freed from household tasks long enough to attend. Hassana and her sister are needed at home and in the fields.
It is dawn, and Hassana is at the well with her older sister when they first hear the buzz, although they don’t discuss it. Hassana and her sister consider themselves blessed that their well is within view of the mud-brick village so they don’t have to carry the heavy buckets of water very far. Still, it takes multiple trips each day to supply the needs of their household. They start early before the shimmering heat becomes unbearable.
The buzzing sound grows, and the girls raise their hands to shield their eyes. “That’s odd,” they say to one another, looking puzzled. The sound isn’t coming from the road, snaking off to the east. Government soldiers had come from that direction a few weeks ago, a rumbling parade of vehicles hunting terrorists. This is a lighter sound coming from across the fields.
Hassana freezes, the tiny hairs on the back of her neck prickling. It is the sound of motorbikes. Motorbikes are forbidden in the region to restrict the movements of terrorist groups. The sound can only mean one thing.
Hassana and her sister drop their buckets, letting the precious water spill to the ground. The staccato sound of bullets punctures the morning air.
Saratou looks at the girl before her. Her name is Hassana, although Saratou only knows this because it is written on the intake form. Hassana’s headscarf frames her expressionless face, and she sits quietly on the bench, hardly moving. Her wrists and ankles are painfully thin, and when she does move, there is sluggishness, like a fish swimming in oil.
The girl’s story is like thousands of others in the community where Saratou and her husband pastor an Assemblies of God church. Families are coming in daily, fleeing ruthless attacks on villages across the entire sub-Sahara region.
They come, having walked for days in the tormenting heat. They have left possessions and homes behind in search of safety. They have lost parents or children to the brutality, or they themselves are survivors of personal violence. They are Christians, Muslims, or practitioners of animistic religions. They come from different places and speak different languages. But all of them carry scars — some seen, some unseen.
Saratou’s congregation numbers a few hundred. The church building is modest, with a corrugated tin roof that clatters when it rains, and cement brick walls with cutouts that let half circles of dusty sunlight fall across the floor. They have little.
Yet a few years ago, this congregation asked the Lord how they should respond to the influx of people in their community. The level of collective trauma was overwhelming, and the needs so complex that nobody could possibly meet all of them. The congregation felt the Lord nudge them to do something with the resources available to them — to give their five loaves and two fish to Jesus. They obeyed.
Church leadership decided that education for displaced children was one way they could respond. The incoming children in their community needed a place to go to school. But traumatized children cannot concentrate on education when their hearts are so wounded.
The children also needed a safe place to heal. So, the church took special offerings and purchased cement, one and two bags at a time. A carpenter from the congregation built desks and benches. Other church members provided chalkboard slates.
Soon, word of their undertaking spread and churches in neighboring communities contributed money for teacher salaries. Assemblies of God missionaries in the region contributed money for supplies. Africa’s Children donated money for building materials. The church built a row of cement-block classrooms and started a school.
Now, Saratou holds the intake form for a new student — Hassana. Though they have just met, she knows this girl is a beloved child of Jesus. She sees some of her own story in the girl’s broken heart.
Saratou was born into Islam. Her parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, neighbors, and friends were all Muslim. Her childhood had been saturated in the rituals of her family’s faith: daily prayers, Friday visits to the mosque for the Jummah prayer, the annual cycle of Ramadan — the month of fasting commemorating the revelation of the Qu ‘ran — and Eid Al-Adha, honoring Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Ishmael.
Islam had not just been her religion; it had been her identity. But something was always missing. Saratou couldn’t even identify what it was until much later. What had been missing was love.
Saratou was the youngest of five children — three older brothers and one older sister. Her father was a local businessman, importing textiles from China and distributing them for resale in the local markets. He had been a dutiful father who had believed in the value of education, even for girls, but there were no Koranic schools available at the time. The local government-run schools provided only a rudimentary education. So Saratou’s father had chosen to send her and her siblings to a private Christian school.
The national Assemblies of God ran the school. Donations from the United States through the ministry of Africa’s Children had paid for the building. The school unashamedly taught the Bible alongside math and literacy.
Saratou’s father had to sign a document acknowledging that he knew the school was Christian, giving his permission for his children to attend. While he would never allow his children to dishonor the family by setting foot inside a church building, the school was in a separate building from the church. A Christian school was an acceptable concession to make in order for his children to receive a quality education.
Teachers, who were dedicated both to educating children and making disciples, first introduced Saratou to Jesus. They modeled for her and her classmates what the love of God looked like. They asked questions about her life and let her speak. They missed her when she was absent due to illness. They listened. They cared.
Later, Saratou would recount the sense of wonder that came over her the first time a teacher prayed for her. Far from a memorized prayer in a language she did not understand, the teacher had spoken to God as if He were a person in the room. She had invited God to become intimately involved in Saratou’s life, and Saratou’s heart had quickened at the sheer awe of being seen and known by the creator God.
Jesus came to her next in the form of Bible stories and songs of worship integrated into the daily activities in the school. Despite her father’s repeated warnings to not listen to the religious teachings at school, Saratou was drawn bit by bit to this anointed one of God who loved her so much that He was willing to die in her place.
One night, when Saratou was 14 years old, Jesus appeared to her in a dream. He was dressed in robes of white and surrounded by light. Even more astonishing, He called her by name. He told her He would give her a new family and a new identity. She would be His. From that day on, enveloped in the love of God, Saratou put her faith and trust completely in His chosen one, Jesus.
Saratou’s family, however, was not willing to let the shame brought on them by her conversion go unanswered.
One day, while she was returning home after school, strong arms grabbed her off the path and pulled her into the bushes. The first blow of a club broke two of her ribs before she even realized what was happening. She gasped, both from the shock and the realization that her attackers were her own father and brothers. They continued to beat her. As she shielded her head and face from the blows, she called out, “Jesus!”
At that moment, a stranger walking along the path stepped into the bushes. He said nothing, but his physical presence was imposing. He inserted himself between Saratou and the blows, and raising an arm, wrenched one of the clubs from her oldest brother’s hands. Her father and brothers stopped. No words were exchanged, but, breathing heavily, they stared at the stranger for a long time. At last, her father threw down the stone in his hands and walked away. “You are no longer my daughter,” he said. One of her brothers spat on her before they, too, walked away.
Saratou watched them go, her heart still racing. Wiping the blood from her nose and mouth with the back of her hand, she turned to thank her rescuer, but he was gone. She looked up and down the path, back through the bush, and across the field. Her angel — the teachers to whom she ran had told her it must have been an angel — had vanished.
Today, Saratou’s school is one of the top schools in the nation. While the government-run schools are underfunded, understaffed, and leave elementary school children without even basic literacy or math skills, nearly all the students at Saratou’s school pass their final exams.
The school’s enrollment is 50 percent female, which is significant in a culture where girls are denied basic education at a rate far exceeding boys. But most important, the school integrates the love of Jesus and a message of hope to students from Christian, Muslim, and animistic homes, and offers a place of safety and healing.
This is why Hassana sits in the school office today.
“I have nightmares,” is all Hassana says.
The pastor’s wife is gentle. She has asked questions because Hassana has been brought into her office. Saratou does not insist on an answer, nor raise her voice or move too quickly. Though she appreciates the gentleness, Hassana does not have the energy to answer the questions — where she has come from, or how much school she has already had, or what happened to her mother right before her eyes, or where her sister has gone. Hassana doesn’t even know if she wants to go to the school, or if her father, having lost everything, can even pay for it.
So instead, Hassana talks about her nightmares.
“The spirits come with big teeth to eat me,” she says flatly. “I say Papa’s secret word, but it doesn’t make me invisible.”
“I am not allowed to tell anyone. It is old magic.”
The pastor’s wife shakes her head knowingly.
“Papa said we did not need to be afraid of the terrorists. Just say the secret word and we would become invisible. He mixed plants and put them into a hole in the ground,” she explains.
The story spills out now, faster and faster, as if she has at last found a safe place.
“We all ate them from the hole because the medicine would protect us. It would give us the power to be invisible with just one magic word. When the terrorists came, we ran to Papa. We all said the word, but we were not invisible.” She pauses, her eyes dropping to the cement floor beneath her feet. “In the nightmare, I am not invisible either.”
The pastor’s wife speaks quietly. “Hassana,” she says, “you are safe here. We are more than a school. We can be your family when your family is gone. We can be your community. Your people. I know because the church was my community. When my earthly father rejected me, my heavenly Father adopted me. And the people in this church became my brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles. I have a new family and a new identity. People took me into their homes. They made sure I had enough to eat and that I finished my education. I met my husband, and we became pastors.”
The pastor’s wife has kind eyes, and Hassana desperately wants to believe her. But the fear is a pain in her belly that will not go away.
“You are safe here,” the pastor’s wife reassures Hasanna.
“Safe?” Hassana asks, testing the word as if it comes from an unknown language. What does it mean to be safe? Even before her village was attacked, before her mother was brutalized and her sister kidnapped, before her father snatched her and ran out of the village, she had not been safe. A spirit or two had always been waiting to devour her.
But still . . . she thinks of the little green book. Of the pastor who told her of a loving God who has power over the spirits. Of a loving God in whom there is no fear.
“We can’t pay for tuition,” she says.
“We know.” The pastor’s wife rises and moves around the desk to sit in the chair beside Hassana. “We have spoken to your father. We will give you a scholarship. We will help you.”
After another long silence, Hassana surrenders to the woman’s touch. She buries herself in the woman’s embrace and weeps. Saratou says nothing but begins to sing softly. It is song of hope in someone named Jesus. Hassana doesn’t know the song, but her heart has been waiting to hear it.
When the tears are poured out and the moment has passed, Hassana rights herself. The pastor’s wife wipes Hassana’s face with her thumb, exactly the way her own mother used to. Hassana reaches into her dress and withdraws the little green book. “Can you teach me to read this?” She can hear the tremor in her own voice, full of uncertainty, a seed of hope.
Saratou smiles. “That is a Bible,” she says. “We will teach you to read it, and we will read it together.”
This article originally appeared in Worldview magazine, volume 9, issue 4. Used with permission.