The noise, shouts and angry voices alerted me to the fact that I was walking into a volatile situation, but I was totally unprepared for the raw emotions that played out in front of me. To this day, I do not know what was the cause, but ’Esther’ and ‘Valerie’ were going at each other in what seemed like a fight to the death. Their faces and eyes betrayed the white hot anger and deep unending pain they were feeling. The ‘Chéf de Quartier’ walked in to adjudicate as hair was pulled till all the strings came out in one woman’s hand, a chunk was bitten out of an arm, and a two-by-four was being picked up to attack her neighbour. The next day Valerie told me how scared she was of her own anger, recognising that she was angry enough to kill, given the chance. I wish that I could say that Valerie has found peace to overcome her anger, but that isn’t so. There was one moment of rare honesty when, with tears in her eyes, she wept over her lifestyle, saying she was tired of it. The next moment the mask was back in place, and the hardness closed in over the soft tender heart seeking to protect it from more harm.
Where did that anger and pain come from? I have not yet learned Valerie’s full story, but I have heard many stories — or really just one or two stories repeated over and over, with different characters and different details. Each story is filled with varying degrees of betrayal, verbal and emotional abuse, physical violence, rape, abortion, spiritual abuse, sorcery and unimaginable evil. At times it is difficult to follow the stories because trauma leads to patterns of self-preservation, dissociation and confusion, but there is no doubt that these women have been so deeply wounded that they deserve and need our compassion.
Walking with the women of ACACIA from the streets of N’Djamena has been a journey of a lifetime. Not only has it been incredibly challenging, with many moments of feeling totally out of my depth, inadequate to the task, beyond my capacity in almost every way, but it has been a journey of growing in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. “My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9b, NLT) — or, as a dear friend puts it, our Father promises “grace enough for each day.”
In October 1988 we set foot in Chad for the first time. For thirty years God has been at work in my heart and life — thirty years of grace enough for one day at a time. Like putting the pieces of a puzzle in place, filling in the gaps, God has led us into different areas of ministry. In each one there was a lesson to learn about myself, about Him, a new tool, a new experience, learning to trust in His goodness one day at a time. There have been life lessons through struggling with language and culture, a difficult birth and caesarean section, sick children, home-school, constant moves, and letting go of children to boarding school where others left their fingerprints on their lives — most good, some hard. Misunderstandings with other missionaries led to a sense of betrayal and broken friendships. An empty nest (earlier than most) and a wondering about what to do next eventually opened a door into an HIV/AIDS education ministry among the local churches. Coup d’états and attempted ones, insecurity, injustices and poverty have all played a role in shaping and colouring the picture puzzle of my life. All these puzzle pieces needed to be in place before it would be possible to walk with vulnerable women.
In His kindness, our Heavenly Father takes us one step at a time with ‘grace enough’ for each day. Each step has taught me a little more of Who my Heavenly Father is, what He is like, His goodness, faithfulness, truthfulness, patience, power, kindness, compassion, mercy — His LOVE for me as His child. It’s been like building the puzzle of my understanding and knowledge of God. These have all been lessons that I needed to know before I could convey them to women who have suffered so much more than I have — women who at one point or another felt that God had abandoned them.
‘Sandra’ is one of these women.
Born into a family living in a town on the western border of Chad, Sandra’s mother died when she was a baby and so her aunt took care of her. Many marveled that she survived her first year as she was so tiny and under-nourished. Sandra led a relatively normal childhood, going to school until she reached the age of 13. She would often go to church with a neighbour even though her family didn’t believe in God. Sandra loved to hear about Jesus — but she didn’t like His commandments much.
In a culture where young girls can be kidnapped and forced into marriage, Sandra’s aunt felt pressured into agreeing to an arranged marriage for Sandra when she was just 13 years old. She told Sandra that she would be going to live with another man for a while. “If you don’t like him, and don’t want to marry him, just stay for the holidays and then come home.” Meanwhile Sandra had overheard a discussion between her aunt and this man and realised that the dowry had already been paid. She had been betrayed! She had no choice! She had been sold as a child bride, and was taken to a place far away with no way of knowing how to return home.
Pregnancy soon followed. At 14 her body was simply too small to cope with a baby, and she recounted that she couldn’t even stand up straight. Doubled over with abdominal pain at five months’ gestation, she lost the baby (and almost lost her life), experiencing more pain than she’d ever known. Sandra gave birth to a son a year later. Twelve months after that her daughter was born. Trouble began when her daughter was about a year old. Sandra was one of several wives. Quarreling and fighting was the norm. Though her husband didn’t approve, Sandra would try to go to church.
One day her husband beat Sandra, intending to kill her. Somehow she got away, though broken-hearted at having to flee without her children (in Chadian culture, the children belong to their fathers — mothers have no rights). Sandra eventually found her way back to her family’s village.
Rejected once again by her family, Sandra moved to N’Djamena, the capital city. At this point Sandra rejected God completely. Young, wounded, alone, and having only a limited education, Sandra turned to a life of prostitution — a devastating life! All she wanted was to find a man who would show her kindness, provide a roof over her head, with clothing and food. There were many empty promises. Several times she became pregnant, but with no husband to provide for her, she chose to have home-induced abortions. One time she bled so much she thought she was going to die.
The red light district is a dangerous neighborhood after dark. Not only is there the risk of hooking up with an abusive man at the bar, but gang rape and murder are real dangers. One day a friend came to visit Sandra but she didn’t want to stay the night, so around midnight Sandra walked with her to the main road to catch the bus home. After ‘putting her friend on the road’ as they say here, Sandra was walking back to her room when a group of men in a Toyota pick-up blocked her way. Forcing her into their vehicle they drove her out of town to have their way with her. In panic, all Sandra could do was cry out to God, “Lord save me! Save me! Save me!” Arriving at their destination the men began to fight between themselves, then inexplicably the police arrived and the would-be rapists scattered, abandoning her by the side of the road. Another man happened by at 4 am, saw her, had compassion on her, picked her up and drove her back to her door.
Through all this time, Sandra’s sense of self-esteem descended to an all-time low. “God doesn’t love me! God has abandoned me!” she would say to herself. Thoughts of suicide crossed her mind. And yet, years later, Sandra would look back at these times and see how God had indeed been there, miraculously preserving her life in spite of her foolish decisions or the evil intent of others. It was recognition of God’s hand preserving her life that gradually reopened Sandra’s heart to the Saviour.
During her days in prostitution Sandra met a man who seemed to answer the desires of her heart. He provided a ‘home’ for her. They had a daughter together and were unofficially ‘married’ in the local sense of the word. Although Sandra was not his first ‘wife’ and he had children by other women, life seemed somewhat good and occasionally Sandra would attend a local church — in fact, it was her ‘husband’ who introduced her to church again.
Eventually her husband landed a lucrative job. Now that he had money to spare, his eyes once again began to wander, and he took other women as his concubines. Broken-hearted, Sandra began attending church more regularly, trying to find answers from the church leaders for her marital problems. It was during this time that I met Sandra through Naomi, a missionary co-worker from Ireland. We met regularly with Sandra, sharing Bible stories from Creation to Christ and praying together about her situation. Sandra’s family advised her to go to the witch doctor so he could put a spell on her husband that would compel him to be faithful to her. Another spell promised that she would become pregnant again. Little by little, God’s Word was beginning to impact and change Sandra’s heart. Thankfully Sandra was growing in her knowledge of God and knew that the witchdoctor would not solve her problems.
In July of 2015, the doors of the ACACIA center were finally opened. Sandra and four other women were invited to participate in the program which was designed to bring hope, healing and a future to these women by identifying the lies they believe and replacing them with the liberating Truth of God’s Word. Using a holistic approach, the women also learn new income generating skills like making soap, greeting cards and sewing tote bags.
In telling her story, Sandra recounted how after seeing the Jesus film she was filled with unspeakable happiness as she finally grasped how much she is loved and has been forgiven. Describing it later as feeling like a small child who has wandered around lost and afraid, then finally finding her mother and clinging to her with sheer joy! As she continued the program, Sandra shared how she felt like a tree that was being pruned, bit by bit, until she finally found her true form, the woman that God created her to be.
Today Sandra is blessing those around her. While her circumstances have not really changed, Sandra has begun to thrive. Ten years after the birth of her youngest daughter, God gave Sandra a son. She named him Samuel — her miracle child. Younger women in the program come to her for encouragement and advice. Others in the community have welcomed children into their lives as she counselled them from her own life experience concerning the traumas of abortion. Like the Acacia tree that thrives in the desert with its tap root reaching down deeply for life-giving water, Sandra is depending on ‘grace enough for today’ to help her thrive in the harsh world she lives in. Her life picture puzzle is gradually taking shape and colour as her Heavenly Father puts the pieces in place, one at a time.
by Anne Hoyt