NIAMEY, Niger (BP) -- Timbuktu. The name inspires images of far-away lands, mythical realms and immense wealth. Many people are unaware the city actually exists.
Timbuktu was among a myriad of splendid cities within the Songhai Empire, which ruled most of central West Africa for more than two centuries, supported by a flourishing trade in gold and salt.
"They were a rare combination of military and mystic might," says John Smythe*, an IMB missionary who's been working among the Songhai of Niger since 2006. They had great warriors along with sorcerers and magicians who claimed to control the spirits, including those of the Niger River, Smythe recounts.
Ruled by a dynasty of Muslim kings, the empire expanded through a combination of pragmatic politics and holy war. The meteoric rise of the empire was matched by its sudden invasion and downfall in 1591.
Today's Songhai are mainly subsistence farmers, coaxing millet and rice out of the clay of the river valley. It's a land of flat-topped hills and wide washed-out valleys, with deep rain-cut channels between. Pale red clay and dark brown stone contrast oddly, like a bizarre sand painting.
"Community is life"
Songhai villages consist of mud-brick houses; walls surround spacious, if bare, yards. Trash litters the streets -- there is no other place for it. Animals wander wherever acacia fences do not keep them out. Village life is highlighted by scent. The heat bakes out the odor of moist sand and green growth. The smell of sweat and wood smoke is prevalent.
"Community is life" to the Songhai, Smythe says. "They understand that tomorrow 'I might not have enough rice to feed my family, so I'd better rely on the community.'"
While officially Muslim, the Songhai generally practice animism -- alongside daily prayers and reciting the Quran. "There's still spirit-possession ceremonies. ... They are involved in all sorts of witchcraft," Smythe says. Less than 1 percent of the Songhai are Christian.
Out of the ruins of vanished empires and ancient superstitions, however, a new kingdom is being built among the Songhai, Smythe adds. "A kingdom not built with human hands, a kingdom that's being built by God made out of living stones."
This kingdom has not been built without struggle. Songhai conversion is "a traumatic experience," Smythe notes. Those who step outside accepted practices are ostracized, even exiled, by their communities. Many villagers refuse to buy or sell with a convert, and family members often shun believers. Pressure to return to the old ways comes from all directions.
One new believer must now eat outside every time he visits his in-laws, as they regard non-Muslims as unclean. Another told his family of his conversion and returned home that night to find all his possessions in a bag outside. Believers are often told, "Only white people can be Christians."
The harshest confrontation came after Smythe and his family moved away from the small town where they had ministered for three years, when a believer's wife died suddenly. Ibrahim had been a dedicated Muslim who prayed five times daily, gave charity and donated animals for religious festivals. "I thought in my heart if I , I was receiving forgiveness," he says. "I could never know that in my heart ... if I was being forgiven or not."
After repeatedly dreaming of a light "that was Jesus Christ" coming between him and enveloping darkness, Ibrahim became a determined Christian despite rejection by his neighbors and refusal of business. His dedication and encouragement soon led his wife to Christ as well.
A turning point
When his wife died, the village leaders, noting neither Ibrahim nor his wife were Muslim, refused to have her buried, claiming she would be treated like an animal and left to rot. Only if Ibrahim confessed Islam would his wife be buried and prayed for as culturally required. He refused and set out to bury his wife alone, but the other believers rallied around him and came to his aid.
This unity in the face of cruel rejection was a turning point for the local church, showing that it could endure, even without the Smythes' presence. "It was testimony that, 'We are not going to go back to our old faith, that we're here to stay,'" says Smythe, who now lives two hours away in Niamey, Niger's capital city.
In the face of opposition, the Smythes and their team "literally got to watch history change," as this small group of believers grew into the first church ever seen in the region. That church "has continued to grow and understand what it means to be the church," Smythe says. "They are a true community that gives as anyone has need and shares as anyone has need."
The transformation of believers is apparent to their village. Boubacar, once the "number-one bandit" in town and leader of the local fadah, or gang, was so altered that his friends asked him what medication he was on. "My medicine," he said, "is Jesus Christ."
Boubacar stopped smoking, drinking and fighting, and even broke off an engagement. Three days after Boubacar's conversion, Smythe discovered he intended to take a second wife, a practice common and perfectly acceptable to the Songhai. Smythe, with some unease, shared God's plan for marriage as found in Genesis. "His eyes just got huge," Smythe recounts, "and I thought, 'Oh man, he's gonna hit me!' And he looked at me and he said, 'I had no idea God's Word said that.'" Boubacar went that very day to break off the engagement, despite already having paid the bride price. When asked about his decision, he asserted, "Everything Jesus says, that's what I want to do."
Boubacar was one of the believers who came alongside Ibrahim to bury his wife. His example has led a number of his former gang members to become believers.
Ibrahim and Boubacar are now leaders in the village church. Men meet in Ibrahim's compound to sing worship songs, pray together and listen to the Proclaimer, an audio Bible in the Songhai language. Female believers meet separately or listen to the Proclaimer with their husbands at home.
"You can't see a building," Smythe says about the blossoming Songhai movement. "Instead it's a group of men, it's a group of ladies huddled under a tree praying together, it's a group studying God's Word … and it's a new kingdom being ushered in. … It's that kingdom that's going to endure."
*Name changed. See added information about Ibrahim and Boubacar below. Jacqueline Gordon served for five months as a writer with IMB's global communication team. Southern Baptists' gifts to the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for International Missions and through the Cooperative Program help Southern Baptist missionaries around the world share the Gospel. Gifts for the offering are received at Southern Baptist churches across the country or can be made online at www.imb.org/offering where there are resources for church leaders to promote the offering. Download related videos at www.imb.org/lmcovideo.
When Ibrahim's wife died (see story above), his Songhai community refused to bury her because she was a Christian. She, like Ibrahim and other believers, faced daily persecution from their Muslim neighbors. Most Songhai believers do.
"We'll treat your wife like we would a dog or a donkey -- she's just an animal that should rot," Ibrahim says, recounting the village's oppressive attitude.
The Songhai people are primarily Muslim with many beliefs rooted in animism. IMB missionary John Smythe* and his wife spent three years sharing the Gospel and discipling Songhai believers in Ibrahim's village. One of Smythe's greatest fears in leaving the village was that the Songhai church might crumble.
Soon after they left, Ibrahim faced the huge challenge of defending his faith while grieving for his wife. Determined to bury his wife, Ibrahim began digging her grave as Muslim villagers yelled insults at him. When his Christian brothers heard what he was doing, they came to help. That day was a turning point for the Songhai believers as they united to be His heart, His hands and His voice.
One of Ibrahim's close friends, Boubacar, commented that he greatly admired Ibrahim's loyalty to Christ that day. The believers showed the inspiring power of a true family of Christ.
Boubacar is a follower of Christ who experienced a radical transformation. Once a gang leader who had demonstrated hostility toward missionaries in his village, he felt an internal struggle to accept or deny God's truth one night. He decided to become a Christian, and his past life quickly became history.
After hearing God's Word concerning marriage, he broke off an engagement to a woman who would have become his second wife. He stopped smoking and drinking and started witnessing to other villagers in action and word. He realized that "anytime you go out, people will be watching you. ... Do your best to do good, because sometimes you will even hear the Muslims saying Christians are righteous, that they are faithful."
The Songhai church is small but full of dedicated believers like Ibrahim and Boubacar who cling to the Gospel. Thanks to the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering, the Smythes helped lay a solid foundation for the church to grow in their village before moving on. They also left audio Bible recordings the church depends on to hear the Word of God as they meet to study and discuss the Gospel.
"The church has continued to grow and understand what it means to be the church: loving one another, sharing what they have with one another," says Smythe. "They have their challenges just as every church has its challenges, but they're facing those with prayer and through God's Word. ... Their greatest desire is that all their village will know the name of Christ."
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