This month marks the 10-year anniversary of us living in a neighborhood called Ourbona on the outskirts of Natitingou. The scenery is beautiful. We are surrounded by fields and hills. Our neighborhood is quite rural, more like a village than part of a town. The people here are mostly uneducated farmers. Houses are made of mud bricks with rusty tin roofing and no electricity. People fetch their water from the community well. Most of the families are related to each other, and they all lived here long before people like us came to buy land and build houses. Their ancestors were the first settlers in the area.
The meeting point of Ourbona is La Boutique, a little store that sells basic food items, batteries, soap and notebooks. But its biggest business is alcohol. Bottled alcohol, alcohol sealed in little plastic bags, alcohol poured out of jerry cans into cups for customers to drink on the spot. All day long people hang out at La Boutique. Ladies sell prepared food, and their customers sit or stand around while eating. A stream of children comes by after school to buy cookies and candies. Young men play cards until late at night. La Boutique is where news is exchanged.
Besides La Boutique, the quarter has a few roadside stalls, a carpentry business, several seamstresses and a hairdresser. There is one bar and seven private homes that sell liquor. Right next to La Boutique is the home of the chief fetisher. His family lives in a tin-roofed house, but he sleeps right next to his fetish on the second floor of a little hut. Every morning before going to his fields, he consults the spirits for his customers at a price of 35 cents per consultation. Just down the road from his house is a little church. There is a worship service every Sunday morning and Tuesday and Thursday evening. It has many customers in common with the chief fetisher, but its services are free.
When we moved to Ourbona it was our prayer that we somehow could be a blessing to the community. We wanted to connect with the people, serve them, meet their needs and tell them about our hope in Jesus. Over the years we fed and clothed children, treated the sick, paid hospital bills and shared our crops with widows and old people. We mourned with the people, worked with them and celebrated with them. We sent children to school, employed their parents and built a playground and a classroom with electric lights so the students would have a place where they could study after dark. We provided schoolbooks and games and a safe place for children and young people to play and learn. Of course we also shared our faith. We held a health program, an evangelistic series, several VBSs, and a Friday-night Bible story time. We had a small Bible Study group, a weekly prayer meeting and special prayer sessions before exams. We invited people to church with us, but the distance makes it difficult for people without motorbikes to go there.
What are the results after 10 years? I would love to tell you that we are about to create a Sabbath School annex and that several people are preparing for baptism, but that’s not the truth. The truth is that seemingly nothing has changed. In fact, things are getting worse. Our small group Bible study died out, and so did our prayer meeting. Bible story time on Friday nights used to draw more than 20 people but is now attended by maybe five. Of course, people still come to us when someone gets sick or needs help, but there is little interest in spiritual matters.
As I write this, funeral ceremonies are under way for an elderly man who was a heavy drinker. His wife, also a heavy drinker, died two years ago. Just after she died, another local man died of liver cirrhosis from alcohol and drug abuse, leaving behind two wives and 11 children. His younger brother, who had been warned several times by the doctors that he needed to stop drinking, died this spring. The funeral ceremonies usually last several days and consist of loud music, eating and drinking liquor.
We interact a lot with children and teenagers. They trust us and like spending time at our house. They usually accept our advice to work hard in school and stay away from bad company and alcohol. But they choose their own road once they hit a certain age, and they usually make bad decisions. Several young men we know quit school to make quick money through very physically demanding jobs. To cope with the physical strain, they drug themselves with freely available stimulants and alcohol. Others remain in school but don’t make studying a priority.
What makes it even harder to get through to the people spiritually is the fact that most of them consider themselves Christians. The little nearby church is full every Sunday, but somehow the people haven’t met Jesus yet. Some of the older children refuse to go to church with their parents because they see that their parents’ lives don’t reflect Christ. If Christianity is just about going to church on Sunday morning, then why bother?
We dearly love these people. Their children are our children. But we feel like we are back to square one, and we wonder how else we can reach out to them. We try not to get discouraged, and we continue to serve and pray, hoping that one day the Holy Spirit will break through to them and transform their lives. Would you please pray with us for our neighborhood?