NIGER, West Africa (BP)–In Niger’s desert sands, the Tuareg people still live in the nomadic lifestyle of their ancestors, still survive where water and food are increasingly scarce, and still practice the Islamic faith passed down to them. But, with their way of life progressively threatened each day, the Tuareg now search for hope.
The Tuareg have long lived off the land they don’t own, possessing it only as long as they live on it. Years of drought have killed their animals and left them wondering how much longer they can survive without seeking jobs in the city.
“The way of life that is historically [Tuareg] doesn’t look like it will exist another decade,” says Warren Hessling, who along with his wife Sharon serve as strategy coordinators for the Tuareg people.
Sharon recalls how a woman in a Tuareg village said she feared her family would “die out here like camels” if they didn’t get more food. Many Tuareg already have journeyed to cities to find work, but their shepherding trade doesn’t translate into city life. Their city jobs usually are guardians for other people’s homes.
Warren estimates roughly 10 percent of city Tuareg are actually employed, adding to their burden of taking care of the extended family. Even in the city, Tuareg remain nomadic -– moving about every two years, but never owning the land. They remain largely poor.
“They live in empty areas of the city, so as soon as a building moves into that area, they have to move out, because they don’t own any property,” Hessling says.
The Tuareg’s pride in heritage is not lost among those moving into the city, especially among older ones who hang tightly to the one thing they believe can last: their Islamic faith. However, younger city-dwelling Tuareg don’t share the heritage of their ancestors, allowing an open door for the Gospel.
“The family themselves persecute that person,” Hessling says of young Tuareg interested in other faiths. “They drive them off. They beat them. They won’t give them food.”
Tuareg rely heavily on their family to support them through tough times, especially in the city where loss of a job could mean loss of life without family support. Hessling notes one 50-year-old man in the city who consequently demands great respect.
“I’ve had a couple of young men who are interested [in the Gospel],” Hessling says, “but they call him ‘uncle’ or ‘great uncle’ and cannot come here to study the Bible with me because they fear him.”
Sharon notes that while some Tuareg men show interest in studying the Bible, women have less interest.
“Women are fairly resistant. Also, they always have young children and they’re cooking or taking care of the children,” she says. “There are constant interruptions as far as getting into deep one-on-one discussions.”
Sharon adds, “A lot of the groundwork has to be laid. An average Muslim believer takes five to eight years to become a Christian from when they first come in contact with a Christian, because it is so completely foreign to them.”
The Hesslings hope a strategy called “Sahel Hope” will help the Tuareg hear the true message of Jesus Christ. The plan pairs volunteer missionary skills with job training needs for the Tuareg. A consistent barrier to Tuareg coming to Christ has been fear of being separated from their families and consequently from financial support.
“We can’t plant self-sustaining churches if 80 percent of the people in the church are going to be unemployed,” Sharon says.
The Hesslings have requested 12 student volunteers to spend three months in Niamey, Niger, tutoring children. But volunteers from America are not the only ones the Hesslings are calling on to help take God’s Word to the Tuareg. Hessling says he will soon make a trip to a neighboring country to speak to believers there about making a trip to Niger to share their faith.
Ultimately, however, the Hesslings dream of a time when no outside help will be needed to take the Gospel message to all Tuareg.
Perhaps that dream is not so far off. In one village, a new believer is known by the name “Paul” for the boldness with which he shares his faith.
“His testimony is a tough one but he is trusting in God,” Hessling says. “He says ‘just patience, patience will win out.’”