Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Adventures of a Snake Phobe in the African Jungle: Part 2

Fear Factor: Church Edition 

The worship started up at this tiny village church in Doussala. I had come with Karen, one of the experienced missionaries who supported the church in this village. It had been an early morning- it takes about 2 hours to get to this pivotal village near the Congo border.
The church was small, meeting in a pavilion waiting for funds to be raised for their new church building. I was enjoying worshiping our God with the believers in this small church.

We moved to the time of teaching. Karen was giving the message and I marveled at her composure in the midst of the distractions surrounding us, the kids were restless, it was hot, the bugs were big and one little girl waltzed right over to Karen and looked up her skirt. Karen never missed a beat and kept sharing the Word. 
I was sitting next to a visiting Doc to Bongolo and next to one of my students Gautier who is known to be an expert hunter.
All of a sudden the kids start yelling and pointing, 
Startled, my gaze followed to where the kids were pointing. 
There, weaseling it's way up the papaya tree, was a Green Mamba.

The snake was climbing this papaya tree.
My heart stopped.
My eyes were fixated on at that Green Disgusting Mamba, so were the kids' too.
It was the most important part of Karen's message, and all eyes were on this legless, lethal killer.
I tried to focus but it was no use.
I was sitting in the very front row of the church, the closest bench directly in front of the papaya tree.
My gaze never left the snake.
I watched as it wormed it's way between each of the papaya's, slowly climbing the tree up towards the roof.
My heart started racing. 
I was trying not to hyperventilate.
Sweat was pouring from every pore in my body.
Then it reached the top of the tree and started reaching to climb inside the roof. 
Inside the church it came, inching it's way along.

The new doc leaned over to me and whispers, "at least it's not a dangerous one, right?"
"Oh yea, no problem," I replied, "it'll knock out your respiratory drive in 15 mins flat- and we're two hours away from the hospital- but you know, no big deal." 
I stared as that green snake moved it's way along the inside of the rafter, right in front of me and directly moving to where I was sitting.
He and I made eye contact -- and then began the stare down.
He started doing his head bobbing, push-up motion, his eyes continually fixed on mine.
I'm sitting there and everything in me tells me to get up out of dodge but I couldn't be that missionary who disrupted the whole service.
Stay calm.
Stay calm.
I start humming in my head, "my God is so big, so strong and so mighty...." and I'm thinking, "here I am face to face in a stare down with my worst fear."
It's like Fear Factor Church Edition, here we go.
I kept wiping my sweaty palms off on my skirt.

I was concentrating on controlling my breathing, sitting there like a woman in labor and thinking, "why isn't anyone killing this thing???? It's been wiggling it's way into the church for like the past 15 mins!"
I'm thinking about my student sitting on the bench with us and say to myself, "Gautier, you're a champion hunter, why aren't you getting up to get rid of this thing?!?!"

The snake started moving again now closer to me.
It was at this moment of desperation that Gautier suddenly stands up with great charisma.
It was like a scene out of an action movie, explosions could have been going off in the back ground as he turns to me and gives me this humbly, cool, assured look of, "Madame I got this."
His gaze turns to the snake.
He grabs a fallen branch.
And with one capable swipe, knocks that Green Mamba DEAD to the Ground!

Gautier getting up to save the day

By this time any hope of non-disruption was lost and I took my awaited opportunity to bolt to the back of the building as Gautier proceeded to bash that snake a few more times to make sure he was good and gone.

The service continued, but the pivotal point in Karen's message had all but been lost for each person in the distraction of it all.
We found out afterwards, that while snakes are surprisingly unsocial creatures, that same snake had come and disrupted the service each Sunday at the same critical point in the sharing of God's Word for the past 3 weeks in a row- and no one had killed him.

After the service this sweet, little old lady walked over to the bushes where the snake had fallen and aggressively began hitting it with a log.
"Mama, Mama"
Gautier came and touched her shoulder and said gently,
"it's alright Mama, - he's dead- he's gone."

I chuckled to myself, "ditto, grandma."

Spiritual battles take many shapes and forms.
That day, my personal spiritual battle overlapped with a Spiritual battle for Doussala.
God is waiting to burst the flood gates open in this village, but the Spiritual oppression is great.
This attempt to quench the effectiveness of the preaching of God's Word was a tangible manifestation of that.

God pricked my heart that day for the village of Doussala.
Karen was soon to leave the field, and the ministry she had had there, but I was thankful for this opportunity, one of many, to learn from her wisdom and humble heart of service for her King. 

Karen and I after the service

"For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places."
~Ephesians 6:12

Several months later, I wondered how God would use this burden He had given me for Doussala.
I did not have a car, and with it being a 2 hour drive out, it seemed pretty unlikely I would see this burden come to fruition during this term.
Then one night God reminded me of the burden on His heart for the people of Doussala.
The next morning I happened to run into one of the Pastor's wives who had ministered there with Karen. She echoed the same desires I had heard from the Lord the night before.
She said, "well we will just have to pray God will provide a car for you."
At that instant it was as if God said, "the green hospital vehicle is just sitting there on Sunday's you know."
Of course! Why had I not though of this before?
I talked with the hospital administration and sought the council of the Superintendent of the Gabonese C&MA church in our area.
Green Light and Green Light.
God had provided an open door.
We were going back to Doussala!


9 Months later, this December on Christmas Sunday, God provided that I might return to the believers in Doussala.
After providing through the use of a hospital vehicle, together with a couple of my students and some of the ladies from the Ndende church, we are now able to head back to this small village each Sunday- where we are acutely aware of the Spiritual battle taking place for the people of this village, and that God's presence is at work. 

Sharing the message on Christmas Sunday.
We talked about God sending His Son who saves, Emmanuel- God with us- and what that means for those who do not yet know Him and what Emmanuel means for us as believers.
We spoke of throwing off fetishes and other things in which we put our trust, either over or instead of Christ.
We talked of God's presence with us and how He protects and provides for us, He is the One who has the victory over any evil spirit.
Who is this God who is Emmanuel, what does this mean for us?
 - He is our Wonderful Counselor, 
Mighty God,  
Everlasting Father, 
Prince of Peace.

"And his name shall be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
    Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace." 
~Isaiah 9:6

Mama Adele, the pastor's wife from Ndende holding the little boy as his mom cuts off her fetishes

This mom brought her 1 month old little boy forward, asking us to pray over him. He did not yet have a name,  and He had cords on his arms and legs, a fetish the mom had tied on him to protect him.
As we talked with the mom about the presence and protection of Christ in her life, she cut the cords off of her not-yet-named little one. 
Pray for this mom and her husband and children.
While it is a victory that this mom took this step of faith, the roots of her belief in the power of these fetishes are deep seeded. Pray that God would break these deep strong holds. 
And pray for this name-less little one, whom God already knows by name, that God would bring him up to be a strong man of faith.

Breaking Free

These women came across the border from the Congo (about 1 km away) to join us for church. One of them came forward after the service and asked for prayer for freedom from oppression.
"Each night" the woman shared, her head held low, "in my dreams a spirit comes to visit me. He attacks me sexually and when I wake up, I have physical signs of being sexually assaulted." 
This woman had been suffering in this way each night for 4 months straight.
This woman cried out to God in prayer and we joined her, praying freedom and protection over her and her home in Jesus name.
She left with her head held high once again. 
She was ready that day to claim the power of Emmanuel-God with her. 
She discovered anew Christ as her Counselor, 
as a Father who tenderly loves her and works Mightily on her behalf 
and One who brings Peace. 

 A new set of wheels!

This elderly gentleman spent many months with us at Bongolo after having been caught in a fire on his plantation, severely burning his legs. He received many skin grafts to cover the open wounds and then was ready to return home- yet still fairly immobile. The church at Ndende provided this wheelchair that we were able to deliver to him in time for Christmas!
His response upon sitting in his new chair for the first time: "Now I can get out and serve others in sharing the Gospel and go to church again."
 The students were happy to see him again, after spending so much time daily changing his dressings at the hospital. One of the students who comes with me, Christian, is standing beside him. 

Opening the gate for us on the bridge to the Congo border
This is my student Rickyxe, another student who is coming with me on Sunday's to Doussala. 
I have been touched by the response of my students to the work God is doing in Doussala. It is exciting to see their eyes being opened to the need, the spiritual battle and the opportunities that are there. God is working in the lives of Christian and Rickyxe through our ministry in Doussala. After church we often come back to my home to share a meal and talk about our experience that day. I am impressed by their enthusiasm and desire to jump full on in service of our God. 
One Sunday after we were all back at the station I thanked them for coming with me on Sundays.
"Thank you Madame." They said smiling, "we're your little missionaries in training."

My heart smiled.

These dear ladies served us a delicious meal before the 2 hour drive home to Bongolo

Ways to Pray

Pray for completion of the new church building in Doussala.
Pray for the prayer walk we will have throughout the village on January 5th. 
Pray that God would break down strongholds and grant us insight in how to move forward in reaching the people of Doussala.

The new church building in progress

Pray for safety on the roads as we travel each week. 
It is a 4 hour drive round-trip on mostly dirt roads and I'm the one who can drive in the group. 
 We make a good time of it. Somewhere between driving through flooded roads, wildlife scurrying across the road and passing fresh signs of elephant (piles of dung on the road, paths of trampled trees etc) it hits you- WE ARE IN AFRICA!

Headed home- turned the land cruiser into a boat-it was deep enough you could feel the water slosh underneath your feet.

 I learned the word for "flat tire" in French this week... 

Christian used to change tires for the logging trucks- he jumped right in and a couple guys from Bongolo stopped to help us out. 

We were thankful we were just a couple km from Bongolo

Making Sense of it All 

So what do I take away from all this?
This is my "struggle not against flesh and blood."
There's pretty much an understanding around here that if there's a snake- Amanda will find it.

I think I may have had the most snake encounters in the shortest amount of time on our team. 
My team sometimes joke, "you could post a picture of a different snake every week." 

When I was in the States this past August, I was struggling a bit about coming back to the field and leaving family and friends and Christopher again and going back to the whole jungle life again, but I knew that Gabon is where God has lead me and I left encouraged by that knowledge. 
I arrived back to Bongolo and was greeted by my roommate Rachael. 
We were talking in the kitchen, when all of sudden I see a Green Mamba in the back sitting room of our house.
 I had not even been home 30 minutes. 
Rachael said there had not been one snake the whole month I was gone.
It fueled my desire to be here and to stay. 
Satan's threat was empty. 
This fear no longer had power over me. 
I refused to be discouraged in being back at Bongolo. 
I refused to turn around and leave. 
I was here to stay. 

This past week, ironically as I was posting Part 1 of this blog post, I found this unexpected addition in my pantry: 

It's a struggle for me to post this picture as I write. 
But I am no longer a Snake Phobe. 
Perhaps these tales would be better entitled, "Adventures of a Recovering Snake Phobe..."
for I have victory in the One who is Emmanuel- God with me. 

I have known him as my Counselor. 
I have seen His mighty hand protect and provide for me amidst these lethal creatures. 
I have experienced His tender and steadfast patience and love as my Father. 
And in tremendously overwhelming circumstances- He has been my Peace. 

This Christmas and New Year, these truths ring fresh, anew and alive- a reality in my very being. 

 It is my prayer this season, that you may also experience the reality of His Counsel and His Peace He has brought to us through Christ- Emmanuel.

"And he shall stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord,
    in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. And they shall dwell secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth.
And he shall be their peace.

~Micah 5:4-5

the Recovering Snake 
Phobe in the Jungle, 

*This post is dedicated to Karen Fitch and the loving example she has been to me as I've begun  service overseas in Gabon.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Adventures of a Snake Phobe in the African Jungle: A Collection of Short Stories- Part 1


Long have I known I would one day live in Africa, and long have I known that the dreaded snake species would be my biggest difficulty in living there. I avoided South America like the plague, knowing that the tropical climate of the continent would surely be a hot bed for the legless creatures. “Africa,” I thought to myself, “surely Africa with it's deserts and plains would be the safer bet of the two.” Little did I know God would send me to Gabon, Bongolo Hospital to be exact- 9 hour drive from the capital and smack down in the middle of the tropical jungle on the equator, home to 3 of the world's deadliest snake species in addition to boa constrictors and pythons that freely roam.
Yea. Home Sweet Home.
Oh the thought of re-nigging on this whole Africa thing has crossed my mind once or twice. I mean when I say phobia- I mean PHOBIA. We're talking I'm reading and turn the page to a nice portrait of a snake posing for a snapshot and that book is involuntarily hitting the wall. We're talking seeing some flash of a snake on the TV and Amanda's is in the fetal position uncontrollably weeping for the next 5 minutes. We're talking my own 2 little brothers- who love to pick on me no end- left the snake thing alone. As much as they lovingly tormented me in other things, they respected the snake boundary line. And any risque of a chance meeting with a nice slithery snake in a glass box in a zoo-- not happening! Petrifying, paralyzing, uncontrollable, debilitating fear.

So ya, about Africa....
I didn't have to pray or think about it very long before realizing that a fear of snakes would be a pretty lame reason to not obey my Lord and follow my God. We know how appealing the road to Calvary looked to our Savior.

Raiders of the Lost Ark

So in the year or so leading up to my departure overseas, I gradually started a process of de-conditioning and asking God to help me, counsel me through it. I didn't want to, but the last thing I wanted to lug to Africa was debilitating fear.

It started with someone trusted holding a picture of a snake across the room, and them letting me take my sweet time moving closer and closer to it until it came into focus. I'd last as long as I could looking at it and then I'd say “enough” and leave it for another day. Gradually things started to get better. I was able to see a photo without overreacting. Even the odd commercial became a little more doable (although I was squealing the whole time I watched it) at least my eyes were open and I was not assuming the fetal position. Next came time for the real guys-a big step. A real snake in the room in a nice glass box. I was firmly on the other side and could leave when I wanted. Then one day there was a dead baby garter snake in the flower bed at my parents' house. Donning the thickest pair of work gloves we could find, my Dad and brothers coached me as I held that snake in my hands for the first time and stared in it's dead disgusting eyes. We prayed a prayer of praise right then and there in the yard- thanking God for helping me to get to this point. I still feared snakes, but I was no longer governed by it. By the time I left for Africa, I had successfully put myself through the torture of watching 'Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark'- and managed to laugh on the other side.

Safe From Afar

I arrived in Gabon feeling that, now by God's grace, I had wrapped my mind around living among a thriving snake populous. What I needed Him to help me grasp now- was that they were deadly. Now I wasn't fearful simply because they had no legs- I was fearful because they quite realistically were able to take my life- some in less than 15 minutes flat.
Talk about deepening your prayer life! I remember praying, asking God to be my Counselor, asking him to continue to counsel me on this issue and to help me work through and trust him even though the threat was very real. I wasn't sure what to expect (as far as how often I would run into a snake here) but it seemed as though God was exposing me little by little- as if his Mighty hand were holding off a threat like in the book of Job- only giving me as much as I could handle.

My first encounter I was walking down the hill to the hospital to teach. It was a pleasantly warm afternoon and the sun cast a golden glow on everything it touched. Perspiration trickled down my brow despite the slight breeze, and as I carefully tread (constantly looking for no-legged creatures as I did then) I saw this large, black scaley tube just off the road in the grass. I was almost passed it when I saw it, and it wasn't moving. It appeared to be dead. Reluctantly I paused to get a closer look and saw that it had been well run-over by a passing taxi, mercifully leaving it lifeless. I saw it and thought to myself, “huh, that wasn't so bad, I'm alive and he's not terribly big.” I had images of these larger than life reptiles eating my leg off – you get the picture.

The next couple encounters were in the safety of a vehicle. We were driving back from church in a village about an hour out when the car came to a sudden halt. There was a large, fat Gabonese viper taking his good old time crossing the road. He moved slowly across the road, the rhino-like horn protruding from his head. I was thankful to be inside the car and not with the Gabonese guys who jumped out the back with machetes to procure their viper-dinner. I was surprised at how beautiful it was - it was black with a beautiful diamond pattern of vibrant yellows and whites down it's back. I never ever thought I'd hear myself say a snake was beautiful- but it was – from the land cruiser at least.

Cameras and Snakes Don't Mix

The next encounters started to get a little closer to home. Our gardener was out trimming the trees (so snakes won't climb up them and get into our attic) when suddenly I hear him yell,
I ran out the front door and find him searching through the bushes at arm's length with his shovel, looking for the Green Mamba that was finding shelter in the bushes just outside our door.

I went and got him the machete, then I ran back into the house for my camera. I told him I wanted to take a picture once he killed it. "Ok Mama" he said. (Note "mama" and "papa" are just polite cultural addresses)
Bad idea.
The green mamba finally emerges from the bushes onto the stone path up to our front door and starts heading towards me.
I start yelling, "Tues -le! Tues-le!" ("Kill it! Kill it!")
He's looking at me confused and starts yelling "Take the picture! Take the picture! Look I have it for you! Take the picture!"
"Tues-le! Tues-le!"
"Take the picture!"
"Kill it! What are you waiting for? Just kill it!"
It's at these moments where your language skills are put to the test.
Being able to be funny and to express yourself when you're angry or under pressure are 2 of the last things that come linguistically.
That day my french tongue was put to the test.
I kept stuttering and barely got the words out I so desperately wanted to communicate.
I can't decide if it was more of a scene from comedy flick or horror film- but there it was.
He finally killed the thing and I got a picture of the Green Mamba- dead.

Later that night I felt anything other than "at peace" about the whole thing. What if there were more? Are they coming in the attic right now? I kept thinking of that Green Mamba heading straight for me and for our front door. I was sitting on my couch in the stillness of the late night, unable to calm down completely and go to bed. I started praying that God would protect us and some how keep us from harm, surround this house with protection while we sleep.
All of sudden I hear this heavy breathing at the window.
I listen intently. My heart stops. There it is again- I'm not just hearing things, something is definitely outside the front window.
I tip toe to the window, trying to avoid being seen from outside. I get to the window and peek over the glass slats to see what could be lurking outside.
There, laying right in front of our house to sleep for the night, was Harley. The big dog of my Gabonese Mama and Papa. They never let him out at night. But there he was, laying in front of our house, right where the Green Mamba had tried to come up to the house earlier that day.
I never felt so relieved or so taken care of- God had already answered my prayers.
As I whispered a word of thanks to my God, it was as if he replied, "I am always here protecting you, but just to give you a tangible reminder, here's Harley to guard you while you sleep."
I slept in Peace that night.

Hide & Seek with Life & Death

The wailing could be heard floating up from the hospital- the hard to hear and hard to miss sign that someone had died. This time was more difficult than usual. A high school aged boy, 15 or 16 years old had been bitten by a Black Mamba and had not survived. It took him too long to get to us, the anti-venom was rendered ineffective. A thick cloud of grief suspended itself around the hospital for days. It hadn't been a good week for snakes.
Come to think of it, it hadn't been a good month. 
We had had several cases of snake bites recently.
One poor elderly woman had to have her leg sliced open on both sides because of the swelling from the venom. It was a blessing she was alive.
A five year old came in, after having been mauled by the teeth of a python.
I didn't even know they had teeth!
Apparently they do- molar like chompers and if they decide not to hug you to death, they like to use you as a chew toy.
Mercifully the little boy survived.
And amidst all the casualties and death, every few days there seemed to be a little gift left just outside our door--yet another lost snake in the bushes.
The hunt would start, sometimes taking several guys to find it.
They aren't something you just say "oh well" to losing- even for the Gabonese.
So every couple days I had to face the fact that a deadly snake was just outside my home- and then go take care of patients that had nearly died because of these suckers.

In an afternoon that followed, I arrived back to the hospital after a village vaccination clinic. I ran into one of our Docs, Renee who asked for help with a patient-
yup you guessed it- another snake bite.
The patient was a large, well built young man who had been trimming grass when he was attacked.
These snakes aren't very large, but there this big guy was flat on his back fighting for his life because of this black skinny snake. He had received the first vial of anti-venom but was still unresponsive. 
We kept watching him intently, monitoring his vital signs and praying that he would live.
He was such a big guy, we gave him another vial of antivenom.
Still nothing.
It was not looking good.
A crowd of friends and family had gathered outside the ER, some were already starting to wail in hopelessness.
He started foaming at the mouth.
We kept clearing his airways, waiting and praying the anti-venom would work and that God would heal him.
Finally, after a total of 3 vials of anti-venom, the young man woke up.
The crowd's wailing turned to songs of praise and rejoicing.
God had spared him- the young man was going to live!

I returned home just afterwards to find a black snake, just like the one that had nearly killed that young man outside my door.
My roommate and I got out our weapons- you know the usual- shovel, pitch fork, hockey stick (good for pinning) and of course a trusted machete. We even poured boiling water to the bushes to chase him out but to no avail.
The young guys next door weren't home. We called some of the other missionaries and within minutes we heard the rumble of the diesel land cruisers booking it up the hill to our house.
Three of them jumped out of the vehicles and choice weapons in hand.
The cavalry had arrived!
I cannot describe the feeling of seeing them come up over that ridge. It was like Gandalf showing up at the battle for helm's deep-----ok maybe not quite that dramatic-but you get the gist. 

The Princess and the Snake

"Goodnight, sleep well! Thanks for talking!"
"Ya you too"
It was getting late and we had talked for several hours. I really enjoy getting to know and invest in the short term visitors that come for several months, and Laura, a med student visiting from Ohio became a welcome friend during her stay here at Bongolo. We had been up chatting at my house, enjoying a cup of tea and the cool repreive that late evening brings and it was time to wrap things up. We said goodnight after chatting by the front door for a few minutes and off she headed home.
As I was shutting the door I glanced down and saw a gecko lying on the floor, not unusual in this menagerie of a house I live in with lizards, spiders, rats and cockroaches- but this guy looked hurt- his back leg was useless. I shooed him out the front door (geckos don't exactly smell like roses when they die hidden in your house) and started locking up.
Something stopped me.
It was as if something said to me, "check outside one more time before you lock up."
OKaaay-- Check outside? Sure. Not like I care that much about this little gecko, but sure, I'll check on him one more time.
I opened the door and glanced down and saw him right by my foot. He was still on the threshold between the screen and door so I bent down real close to get a good look at him to see if I could see better what was wrong and,  "OH MY GOODNESS HE DOES NOT HAVE LEGS!"
That was the exact thought process that went through my head.
It wasn't that gecko- it was a BLACK SNAKE!
And I had practically bent down and kissed the thing!
I shouted for my room mate and tortuously kept my eye on that no- legged creature.
Once you find a snake, you can't ever let it out of your sight, even to grab a machete because you could lose it in the house and have no idea where it went. And yes, I always seem to be the one that finds them and stands there staring at the thing. Yeehaw.
He slithered up the door jam in between the door and the screen, trying to camouflage himself in the shadows of the night.
Yea, tough luck buddy.
Out came Rachael like a pro with her machete, stumbling around, blinded by the light of the lamps after being sound asleep and me shouting and pointing at the snake like a freaked out kid.
We managed to chase him out onto the porch where Rachael, still blinded, started desperately hacking away at the concrete where the snake was efficiently avoiding each blow.
At last the snake met his maker at the edge of that machete blade.
There was much jigging and rejoicing and thanksgiving in our house before bed.
I stood in awe of how God had protected us - all by whispering in my ear to check on that silly gecko
There are still hack marks on our concrete porch.

To Be Continued...