BAMAKO, Mali (BP)–Hawa’s gait is awkward. Her hips and thighs are fused together, so she walks using movement from her knees down. Her right foot remains in a permanent arch, as if she is wearing an invisible 4-inch heel. Her left foot lies flat.
Hawa, 18, suffers from osteomyelitis, a bone disease typically caused by bacteria entering the bloodstream. Untreated, it can be fatal.
But death is common in the bush of Mali in western Africa. People die of common colds, diarrhea and infected cuts because they don’t have simple things such as bandages, ointments and aspirin. The probability that Hawa would survive this bone disease was unlikely.
Shannon Lewter, however, wouldn’t accept an early death sentence as Hawa’s fate. Lewter, a member of Beulah Baptist Church in Hopkins, S.C., met Hawa on her first trip to Mali three years ago.
In 2007 the church adopted Hawa’s people group, the Bambara, aiding Southern Baptist missionary Steve Roach in reaching them with the Gospel. Since forming its partnership with the International Mission Board, the church has made more than 20 trips to Mali, sending teams every couple of months.
And “not one dime [for the trips] has come out of our church budget,” senior pastor Brad Bessent says.
The congregation, with an average attendance of 250 mostly middle-class people, raises its own support for the trips. Some members send out letters requesting support; others receive unsolicited donations. The church occasionally holds fundraisers and takes up special offerings. Lewter, a mission trip veteran, paints pictures and puts her earnings into a West Africa fund.
Travel costs can add up to $4,000 per trip, but “I haven’t had anybody yet that God didn’t provide it for,” Bessent says.
When Lewter met Hawa, the then-15-year-old rolled up the sleeve of her oversized T-shirt and asked her new friend to pray for her arm.
It “was in very bad shape,” Lewter recalls. “The bone stuck out an inch and a half. She had open sores …”
Despite feeling squeamish, Lewter put on gloves, cleaned Hawa’s open wounds and bandaged her arm. Lewter credits the Lord for the strength — and the stomach — to handle her first of many efforts at amateur medical assistance.
“Hawa never complained or winced once,” Lewter says softly. Despite living in a culture where crying is considered going against God’s will, Lewter and many village women cried that day as they prayed for Hawa’s deteriorating health.
Hawa needed professional medical care immediately, so Lewter and a translator took her to the local clinic. The doctor there informed them there was nothing he could do — he suggested taking Hawa to a witch doctor.
That, of course, was out of the question.
A SUCCESS STORY
Instead, arrangements were made for Hawa to visit a hospital in Mali’s capital, Bamako. Before she left her village, Bessent preached about suffering and how there will be no pain in heaven. Hawa had been listening intently to the messages each time Beulah teams visited and was close to accepting Christ, Lewter remembers. That day as the pastor preached, Hawa reached over and squeezed Lewter’s hand. She said she wanted to become a Christian and be baptized before going to Bamako.
Since that first meeting, Hawa has been baptized, had multiple surgeries on her arm and spent nearly a year recuperating in Bamako away from her family. She is doing better now and is living back home with her family. Beulah raised money to help pay for her surgeries.
A small jar with a picture of a smiling Hawa taped to it sits at Perkin Beans, a café Lewter helps operate in Hopkins. Attached above the photo is a note that reads, “Meet [Hawa] — She lives in the ‘F’ village of Mali, western Africa. She has a bone disease that requires extensive surgery and medical care. Will you help [Hawa] live to enjoy her newfound faith?”
Hawa knows if God had not sent Beulah to her village, she may not be alive today.
“Now she smiles all the time,” Lewter says. “It’s amazing to look at her now.”
“I know about the power of Jesus because of what He has done in Hawa’s life,” Hawa’s mother, Fanta, told Lewter. Her Muslim upbringing kept her from fully committing to Christ for a long time, but in June she and her husband were baptized.
The stronghold that Islam had in Fanta’s life is not uncommon among the Bambara, most of whom claim to be Muslim.
The Bambara are the largest ethnic group in Mali, at least 4 million strong. Approximately 75 percent claim to be Muslim, but many still embrace their ancestors’ animistic practices of spirit worship.
Beulah members, during their trips to Mali, visit with villagers to build relationships. They invite them to nightly worship services where they sing, share Bibles stories, then divide into groups for more intensive studying.
“The sad thing is, when I go to the villages … where the Gospel has never been, there are [a few] things that I discover. … No. 1 is Coca-Cola. These guys all know about Coke,” Bessent says. “We go into a village where … there is no electricity and no running water. They’re still cooking on an open fire, and yet half of the people in this village will have cell phones.
“My question is, if the Gospel really is such Good News … how come Coca-Cola, [cell phones] and Islam can get there and we won’t?” the pastor asks. “The Great Commission was, ‘Go into all the world …’ So unless God changed His mind, which obviously we know He hasn’t, it’s what we’re here for.”
Bessent says Beulah Baptist’s goal is to disciple new believers to share with other villages and then teach them how to share.
“If we went to different villages every time we [came here], we would never reach all 4 million Bambara,” Bessent says. That is why the “goal is to teach them to tell other Bambara. They are the ones to carry [the Good News].
“I’m convinced that right now, in every single Bambara village, there is a group of people ready to respond,” Bessent says. “It’s just a matter of somebody getting there to tell them.”
Emilee Brandon is a former writer for the IMB. To hear about the impact Beulah Baptist Church is making among the Bambara people, visit www.imb.org/video/beulah. To hear testimonies from Hawa and her mother, visit www.imb.org/video/hawa. Want to know how you can help reach people groups such as the Bambara? Go to www.gowestafrica.org/peoplegroups/bambara.