NIGER, West Africa (BP)–The wail of the Muslim call to prayer breaks the silence of the dawn. As roosters begin to crow, Hands On missionaries Kelsi Kelso and Brittany Breedlove greet another day in West Africa.
Moving around on their hut’s sand floor, they make breakfast from scratch on their gas burner. A single bulb is their only source of light.
Living conditions are rough for these two Texans, but they knew that when they signed up for the Hands On program in West Africa. And that’s why they came -– to speak the name of Jesus in hard places.
Kelso and Breedlove served with an International Mission Board program that places 18- to 29-year-old college and seminary students in different ministries around West Africa for a semester, or four to five months, as part of an effort to raise up a younger generation of career missionaries.
There are currently two Hands On programs –- one in West Africa and another in Central, Eastern and Southern Africa -– but the program will go worldwide in 2009.
“Living out here without running water and just one light and cooking from scratch and living in sand isn’t the ideal life for me because I’m American,” says Kelso, who recovered from a bout with malaria before completing her Hands On assignment. “But this is life for them [the Zerma people], and for me to understand who they are, I have to become like them.”
The Hands On program challenges short-term missionaries to take up the Great Commission, leaving behind their American lifestyles.
“I think one thing about this region that is distinctive is that people really want to have a spiritual conversation about God,” says Greg Sharpe who serves with his wife Laura as Hands On coordinators in West Africa.
Most West Africans practice a mix of Islamic and animistic beliefs, but they love to discuss spirituality. Hands On volunteers live directly among the people and are able to share Christ as they experience life in Africa.
“You get to put your whole mind, body, soul and spirit into what that feels like,” Sharpe says.
Students on their first trip to West Africa may experience culture shock since African villages haven’t progressed much since Jesus’ day. Kelso, for example, found herself witnessing to a woman who was drawing water from the well near her house.
“It’s like being in a time warp,” Sharpe says.
Kelso and Breedlove studied the African language of Zerma for three weeks before beginning their ministry.
Kelso, 23, got to know women her age in the neighborhood. Most of them already have a baby or two. “At first I thought it would be hard to relate to them, but it’s not,” she says. “Right now we’re just trying to get to know what they like to do.”
They worked to immerse themselves in the villagers’ day-to-day activities. When one of their host’s goats ran away to give birth, Breedlove spent the next two hours helping with the search. A man later found and returned the goat and newborn kid.
“The people here aren’t so different from you and me,” Breedlove says. “I feel like I’m a part of their family. I have friends here like I have in America that I can talk with and joke with just like I would in America.”
The two Texans also have been able to minister using basic first aid. A little boy cut his toe one night outside their house. Kelso and Breedlove cleaned his cut, bandaged it and sent him home. More people with injuries showed up the next day, asking for help.
“We had a little clinic under the tunda [porch roof] outside our house,” Kelso recounts. “We were fixing people and teaching them how to wash their sores and giving them Band-Aids.”
Elizabeth White* of Borger, Texas, missionary supervisor for Kelso and Breedlove, said the young women have far surpassed her expectations. “I’m really amazed at what they can do after being here only for such a short time. And it really gives me a desire to mentor more people all the time,” White says.
“I have been stretched more beyond measure on this trip than I have ever been in my life,” Kelso reflects. “Nothing else matters than serving the Lord. No matter what you do. Whether you’re sitting back at a desk back in the States or being a real missionary in Niger. You need to be a missionary wherever [you are].”
Jeslyn Lemke is a writer with the International Mission Board’s Hands On media team. To find out more about Hands On, visit www.hands-on-africa.com or www.thetask.org/handson.