We were told there would be guards standing ready with guns at the airport. By the time the plane landed my heart was already hammering in my chest. I felt dizzy. I managed to find all of my documents despite my shaking hands – ticket, passport and the little card they requested us to fill out requiring the address of where we’d be staying. That was a good question – we would have to make something up.
“Just put the name of this hotel there,” said a man with an Irish accent, handing us a small piece of paper scribbled with a hotel name and address. Apparently he had been listening in on our conversation and felt it his duty as a seasoned traveler to rescue us from our dilemma.
“I use this address whenever I come here. Nobody will check it. They just need it for their records,” he said.
I guessed it would have to do.
As my husband, Will, and I shuffled through the aisle and out the door of the airplane, down the stairs and onto the tarmac, the sweltering heat of Africa hit us like a freight train. Hot, sticky and humid, we were drenched with sweat before we arrived to the check-in point inside the airport in Lagos, Nigeria. I was still dizzy, my heart still pounding. I thought I might pass out. It all seemed so surreal. Being a pessimist, I knew something was going to go wrong. Perhaps they would know that we weren’t actually staying at the address we had written down and it would peg us as liars. That would surely cause suspicion and then they would be forced to rummage through all of our baggage, interrogate us and throw us into prison.
My mind was getting the best of me.
The line seemed to move too slow, but too fast at the same time. Finally, it was our turn at the counter, but Will had to go ahead of me. My fears took control. I can’t do this. I can’t be left alone. What if they take me away and not Will? Or what if they take him and not me? What if they take my passport and don’t give it back? My heart was pounding . . . pounding . . . pounding!
It was my turn. I stepped up to the counter.
“Your papers, please,” said the serious dark-skinned customs official behind the glass.
I reluctantly but obediently handed over my identity. After what seemed like an eternity, but was more likely two minutes, he stamped my passport and asked for the next person in line to step forward. Confused that he didn’t want to question me, I walked over to where Will was waiting.
“Follow me, please,” said another dark skinned man.
This was it, the moment I had feared. Time to take us into the interrogation room, strip us of all our clothing, and burn us with cigarettes.
“Your party is waiting for you over there,” he said.
“Uh, thank you,” we replied, nervously surprised that we were being released so soon.
We made our way through the crowd of Nigerians and travelers, having been directed to a man and a woman standing by the doors in the front of the building. They were holding up a sign that read: “Willy Staford.”
As we approached the two we heard the man exclaim, “Brotha Willy and sista Catty! Welcome! You are welcome!”
Paul and Deborah Soloman, the two people we would be spending the next month with, had traveled by bus for eighteen hours to meet us at the airport. Paul was a happy man and his bright smile could light up a room. He had an incredible amount of love bubbling out of his short frame. His hair was gray, but he confessed to using some sort of shoe polish to make it look black, all except for the temples. He wanted those to remain gray so people would honor him as an elder. Paul was dressed all in black, too, other than the white collar around his neck which gave him the appearance of a priest. He told us later that he dressed that way when he traveled so the highway police wouldn’t harass him.
Deborah was slightly overweight, but she carried herself well, like a queen. Her skin was the color of dark chocolate mocha. She was covered from head to toe in a beautiful bright blue and yellow cotton African dress consisting of a wrap around skirt, matching puffy-sleeved shirt, and head-wrap. She had an air of quiet wisdom, giving off a smile, but not so much as to seem immature or overly excited. She took my hand and led me to the taxi that was waiting at the curb outside.
From the moment we stepped onto Nigerian soil our lives were no longer our own. We were at the mercy of people, culture and weather. There would be no couch to lounge on, no television, no shower, no phone and no air-conditioning; not even a fan.
“So you traveled on Lufthansa Airlines, Brotha Willy? This is a good airline!” exclaimed Paul.
“All except for the landing!” I said, in my usual sarcastic tone.
“Yeah, when the plane hit the ground it bounced back in the air and then down again. It was pretty intense,” Will explained.
This brought on a hint of laughter from our hosts.
“The airport experience sure was different than we expected,” Will said. “We were told there’d be guards with guns and we were honestly expecting some hassle. We didn’t see anything like that. In fact, we heard some Christian music playing over the speakers.”
“We have a Christian president now, brotha Willy,” Paul said, bubbling over in all the excitement of being with his missionaries from America. “It’s O-kay!”
Paul proceeded to fill us in on the first order of business.
“We arrived here yesterday and have a long drive ahead of us back to our village,” Paul said, “but tonight we will stay in a hotel to rest.”
The hotel was approximately six stories high and looked nice enough from the exterior, especially in the dark. But inside it was obvious we weren’t in North America anymore. It was considered a nice hotel by Nigerian standards, and the suite we were staying in came equipped with all the amenities one would hope for in a decent hotel, such as a full-sized refrigerator, an air conditioner, a large bathroom, two queen-sized beds, a couch and an eating table. Unfortunately, air conditioning tends to work only when the electricity is running, and in Lagos the power supply is hit or miss. That night it was a miss. Apparently the refrigerator was just there to brag on past days of glory when the hotel was new because it didn’t work at all, not even when the electricity came on in the morning. The toilet had no seat, and although there was a bathtub, there was no shower. I had to ask Will what he thought we were expected to do with the bucket and cup that were sitting in the bathtub.
“I’m pretty sure that’s the shower facilities, hon,” he said, slightly annoyed that he had to explain these types of things to me.
In the two days prior to our arrival in Lagos we had traveled from snow-covered Idaho to rainy San Francisco to snow-covered Germany before finally landing in hot, humid Nigeria. It had been an exhausting 37-hour journey, but that night’s sleep was far from restful. My fear of giant cockroaches and the excessive humidity kept my eyelids from closing for most of the night.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
It was November of 1998 and I was discussing mission trips with a friend of mine who had recently returned from India.
“The one place I would NEVER want to go to is Africa,” I said.
“I’m not sure I’d like to go there, either,” she replied, “although India is probably just as bad.”
“The heat and the bugs would be too much for me!” I said. “And besides that, I never ever want to go on an airplane. I did that once and I swear I don’t think I exhaled for the entire four hour flight,” I exaggerated.
Two weeks later, while eating pizza at Little Caesar’s after church, the pastor looked up from across the table and nonchalantly asked, “Hey, would you guys consider going to Africa? My wife and I can’t go this time but we’d like someone to go in our place.”
Even though we didn’t have an extra dime to our name, right there, on the spot, we both said, “Yes!”
The five months following consisted of monetary miracles and a barrage of instructions from the pastor on what to expect on our trip to Nigeria.
“When you get to the airport there will be very intimidating guards in uniforms with rifles. They don’t like Christians, so you have to play it cool. When you fill out your visa, for goodness sake, don’t write down that you’re a missionary. Cathy, you’re a teacher. Will, you’re a builder. Cathy, you can’t wear pants or they’ll think you’re a prostitute, and you have to keep your head covered in church. Will, you have to wear some nicer pants than those, uhm . . . well . . . you can’t wear jeans with holes in ‘em.”
To ensure Will wouldn’t wear jeans with holes in them, the pastor and his wife purchased two pairs of chino pants for Will to wear on the trip.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
I met Will in the East wing of the Coeur d’ Alene Convalescent Center on February 4, 1991. Recently separated and going through a divorce, I had just landed a job as a nurse’s aide working the graveyard shift. I had no experience as a nurse’s aide, but I needed to pay my own way now. Up to that point I’d been mostly a stay-at-home mom, raising four kids while my husband worked sixty hours a week at a local building supply company. I had been married since I was eighteen, but somehow, at the age of twenty-six, my insecurities took control and I started doing things that had, in my earlier years of marriage, been against my moral convictions. The wild oats I never had a chance to sew as a young adult caught up to me with a vengeance. That’s what led to the divorce.
Will had only just turned twenty when we met, but he had something that I needed. He had Jesus. The first time I met him I saw something in him that was different. He was happy all the time, and he treated the residents in the convalescent center with respect and genuine love. He was an optimist to the extreme! Having come from a family of pessimists, I admired his outlook. He was tall and blond, with beautiful blue eyes, and looked exceptionally good in the tight white jeans that made up the bottom half of his work uniform. He was also from New Jersey. For some reason Jersey boys were a fascination to me, a girl who’d grown up in Idaho and never had a chance to travel past the Midwest. But Will wasn’t just any Jersey boy. He had grown up in places called Palisades Park and Brooklyn. I had never met anyone who had even been to those places, let alone lived in them. Although he was born twenty years too late to be a true hippie, he acted like one. On his days off he wore flannel shirts and jeans with holes in the knees that were so exaggerated I wondered why he bothered wearing pants at all. He also played guitar and wrote songs about Jesus and listened to records from the Jesus Movement of the ’70’s he had found in thrift stores. I told him I thought he would be famous one day. Although I loved him and couldn’t live without him, the first time he asked me to marry him I refused. I didn’t want to give up my selfish ways to serve God, and he didn’t want to give up God to serve my selfish ways. But by August, having come to the end of, well, me, I found myself sitting in a church pew telling God I was ready to give my whole life to Him. All of it! I married Will in September. My ex-husband moved on with his life, marrying another woman eight months later.
Although we had joint custody of the four children, my ex-husband was the custodial parent, meaning the kids lived with him. I have never been able to understand why, but he and his new wife felt it their duty as good, upstanding citizens to protect the four children from their wretched mother and new step-father. Although I knew I had been forgiven of my sins, my ex-husband could never get past the hurt I caused him during our marriage, so he proceeded to pour his bitterness out onto our children. By the time 1999 rolled around, we had already been divorced for eight years, but the battle had never ended. He still hated me. His wife hated me. And now my own children, who were approaching their teens, were beginning to hate me, too. Will and I didn’t have the kind of money it would take to spend months, or years, in court, so in August of 1998 I made the most painful decision of my life – I let my children go.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
The morning after our arrival in Nigeria, Paul secured a car from one of his acquaintances in Lagos. After several hours of getting it ready for driving purposes, we were on our way to *Gboko; a twelve hour road trip that I would never forget. Driving through the immense city of Lagos during the day, I saw a place that was so foreign, so fascinating. There were people everywhere. People walking and sitting. People selling fruit, bread, fish, clothes and appliances. That particular day was a Sunday, and I was astonished to see the beautiful clothes the women wore for church. They walked in their high heels on dirt roads and over sewer ditches, through garbage and refuse in 90 degree weather that made you sweat just by sitting still. There were others carrying large baskets on their heads, or firewood, or buckets full of water.
As we drove on past the city and into the interior of Nigeria, Deborah began to speak. “We must tell you why we are so grateful that you have come.”
Her deep, soft tone demanded quiet attention.
“We had to flee our village of Takum where we lived and built our church for the past twenty years. We fled for our lives with only the clothes on our backs. There was a civil war one-and-a-half years ago amongst the two tribes. People were bringing reports of young boys carrying heads of other people, and then they would eat the bodies. They destroyed the homes and businesses of whoever was not a part of their tribe. When we got news they were going to kill us, I took the three children and some others and we ran away. Paul did not have time to escape so he hid in our house and thank God, they did not see him. Paul caught up to us in the next village two days later and we made our way across the mountains into Cameroon. In the mountains, my nephew developed appendicitis and we had to give him the snake fat. This healed him and we moved forward. We were without a home for seven months total. We came back into Nigeria, to the town of Gboko, where we were able to start a church. We thank God that He has sent you to help us. We will arrive in Gboko early in the morning to rest, but then we must go on to Takum for a few days. The people there are waiting for encouragement.”
Jet lag had stifled our bodies and minds, but Deborah’s story was intriguing enough to keep us alert. We had been invited to Africa to encourage these people who had lost everything, yet there was a strength and joy in Paul and Deborah that I had never witnessed in any living soul. My own personal battles back home seemed so trivial now compared to what these people had been through.
There would be little sleep on the journey to Gboko. Aside from Deborah’s story, Paul’s high speed driving was enough to keep our adrenaline rushing. I personally had to stay awake just in case we died so I would be the first to know about it. Apparently, 80 mph was a good, decent speed in Nigeria, except when driving through a village. Then, the common courtesy would be to slow down to 60 or 70 mph, honk the horn so the pedestrians wouldn’t make a sudden wrong move, and continue through town. Since we had left Lagos sometime in the afternoon, we were forced to drive in the dark for the last stretch of the long road trip. Suddenly, something in the road caught our eyes.
“What was that?” someone said.
“Oh God,” said another.
We all noticed it. It passed so quickly, yet burned a forever memory in our minds. It was flattened and bloody, intertwined with different colored material. We could barely make out that it was a human body, but it was, and we all knew it. The poor soul must not have seen the car coming. Like a deer running out into the road, the person, male or female, didn’t stand a chance of outrunning the speeding vehicle. Whoever hit the individual probably didn’t even realize they had struck a human, otherwise they would have surely stopped to help.
I wondered why we didn’t stop. But what could we have done? It was finished.
We sped on in shock, unable to speak.
Keeping up to form, Paul zigzagged his way around potholes and over bumps in the road that seemed to appear out of nowhere. At one point we hit a bump that caused the car to take flight, causing our bodies to float upward, suspending us in midair. It seemed as if it was all in slow motion. The thoughts of dying came sudden, but there was no time to scream or cry or pray. We landed back on our seats with a small bounce, still alive, still going 80 mph. Paul hadn’t even flinched at the wheel. Will and I looked at each other, as if we knew each other’s thoughts, remembering the turbulent landing back at the Lagos airport.
“Lufthansa!” We both said simultaneously, causing a roar of laughter to break through the tense silence.
We sped on.
We arrived in Gboko at 3:00 in the morning, met by an eight-year-old girl who was there to open the gate of the compound. Others were there, too, but it was too dark and we were too tired to exchange formal greetings. The girl led us to a small room where a full-sized mattress had been placed on the linoleum floor. Apparently, our room was the master suite because it contained a small closet with a few hangers dangling from a rod, and the only mattress in the entire compound. That room would later become our main sleeping quarters for the next month, but for now it was only a stopping place to spend the night. The next morning we would be traveling further north to Takum.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
I had always been one to get car sick, especially sitting in the back seat on bumpy, windy roads with the sun beating down on my head through the back window. But for some reason, perhaps because of the adrenaline rush I was experiencing visiting a foreign country for the first time, I never encountered any signs of queasiness. I felt more relaxed on the drive to Takum than I had the previous day, and I allowed my mind to wander off into thoughts of my world back in the States, a world that was now so distant it seemed like another life altogether. I thought of the people who once loved me but now despised me – bitterness, arrogance, pride, court battles – my ex-husband had won in the end. I finally had to move on, surrendering my will to God in hopes He would allow my four children to come back to me when they reached the age of maturity. I thought of the irony of coming to Nigeria to bring encouragement to people whose lives had been ripped apart by civil war, while my own flesh and blood back home wanted nothing to do with me. My own personal civil war, I suppose.
We sped on, but we were not to reach Takum that day. The car Paul had borrowed looked deceptively drivable from the outside, but there were internal problems and we would find the need to stop several times during the drive to Takum. The car would get fixed and then it would break down again. This went on and on, but what could we do? We had given Paul all the money we brought and we had to rely on him to do the right thing regarding our transportation. Besides, seeing the condition of the Nigerian public bus system left us desperate to find a mechanic to fix the transportation we already had. We had passed by dozens of buses overloaded with people hanging from windows and sitting on roofs. I honestly couldn’t picture myself in that situation. No, the car simply had to run. Besides, Paul and Deborah were most gracious to our American sensibilities and they would have begged or borrowed before they would have allowed their missionaries to succumb to the torture of a bus ride in Nigeria. The trip might have taken longer than expected, but it would prove to be worth the fight.
As daylight approached, the village of Takum came with it. It was a sunny day, but there was a sense of darkness overhead. Knowing what had taken place just 18 months before, I wondered if the people were still restless? Would there be some kind of trouble for us or our hosts? Would there be any kind of joy there? Any laughter?
We were driven to a house on a red dirt road just a few miles from Takum. The house had no electricity or water, and the bathroom was outside in a doorless hut facing the road. I thought I had already been through the worst of my culture shock, but having to squat down over a fly infested hole in broad daylight for all passers-by to see was the moment I knew I had been stripped of all dignity.
We were shown to our room, a dark, empty space where a mattress waited for us on a concrete floor. Some women had placed wraps, which they had previously been wearing around their waists, onto the mattress so we could have a sheet and blanket. We found out later that this was the only mattress to be found in the entire village and people had taken great lengths to get it to us by the time of our arrival. We were told to rest before nightfall because that’s when the villagers would come to hear my husband, the evangelist, preach. We awoke later to the sound of a voice singing into a megaphone.
“Sorry, sorry, for those who don’t know God! Capital sorry for those who don’t know Jesus!” He then began to shout the announcement that there was an evangelist from America, come to preach hope to the people, and that they should prepare to come to the church later in the evening.
When evening approached, the village grew black. The only light came from candles and perhaps a flashlight or two. People trickled in to the small concrete church building with the wooden benches. When the building got too full, the people gathered around the barred open windows to peak inside. There was no way of telling just how many people had gathered outside the building, but the inside was crammed packed, and extremely hot. These people were quiet and reserved, seemingly tired and without joy. Paul opened the meeting with singing, and the people sang, but it was not exciting or exhilarating. I felt nervous, thinking they didn’t care about us being there. But as Will and Paul began to preach, simultaneously in English and the language of Takum, something began to stir. Afterwards, the singing started again, only this time it was alive! People were dancing and shouting and smiling! They had regained their faith and hope, ready to go on with life and with God. No more were they willing to allow fear to grip them. They had made the decision to forgive, to allow love to rule their hearts once again. Their spirits had been lifted to a higher place!
Two days later we were to return to Gboko, but before leaving there would be one more stop to make. We would visit the neighborhood where Paul and Deborah had once lived. We drove slowly up the quiet, shaded, dusty street until we came to what was once a beautiful home. We stepped out of the car and looked around at the pile of concrete rubble. This was the first time Paul and Deborah had been back since they were forced to flee. The roof was gone and there were five-foot tall trees already growing where a kitchen and living room had once been. Colorful tile covering half of the bathroom wall and the remains of a burnt chair were the only reminders of a once thriving home. Paul pointed out the little corner where he had hidden from the murderers.
Deborah took hold of my hand as if to protect me from the horrible sight, but I felt it was I who needed to comfort her. After all, this had been her beloved home, a home to be proud of in a country full of poverty. I expected her to break down crying, and I wouldn’t have blamed her. I would have cried along with her. I would have listened to her scream and curse and I would have screamed and cursed with her. But there were no tears. There were no curses. As I struggled to find something to say that might encourage this precious woman, it was she who spoke in that deep, soft tone.
“It is well,” she said. “It is well.”
Her faith in God was more inspiring to me than any encouragement I could possibly have brought to the people of Takum. Although I had been through my battles, I hadn’t gone without kicking and screaming. I didn’t have a strong enough faith to keep from cursing my ex-husband and his wife for ripping my children from me, or worrying about crash landings or guards carrying guns in airports.
As we stood among the shell of a home, my mind, once again, wandered back to the things I had recently lost. I knew, then, standing in the midst of that rubble, that it would be well, just like Deborah said. Whatever roadblocks lie ahead, whether in Africa or America or anywhere else I might find myself, I would be able to face them with a greater strength.
Drifting away in my thoughts, I hadn’t noticed the two men watching us from the other side of the street, one of them holding a gun. He could have killed us, but he didn’t. And what if he did? We had already won the victory, already lost so much, yet had gained so much more. No, we would not die, not yet. We would continue marching through life facing each trial, pain and fear. For today, that battle would simply consist of getting into a car on an African road with Paul Solomon behind the wheel.
*Gboko – pronounced bo-ko
Note: Some of the names in this story have been changed.