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Determined duo charts territory for mission work in Nigeria

EDITORS’ NOTE: This year’s international missions emphasis in Southern Baptist churches focuses on missionaries who serve in West Africa as well as churches partnering with them, exemplifying the global outreach supported by Southern Baptists’ gifts to the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering.

NIGERIA, West Africa (BP)–Abruptly, the white Toyota truck turns off Bauchi Highway. For a moment, it stops. With a hand-held Garmin GPS system, Harriet Bowman picks up latitude-longitude readings from five satellites.

“Left the highway,” she prints in her black notebook.

With frequent GPS readings, Harriet and her husband Clint later will plot newly discovered villages on a handmade map at home.

Working beside Nigerian Baptists who know various dialects and these uncharted regions, the Bowmans are part of a nine-member engagement team for the International Mission Board in West Africa. Their job is to research and locate all the unreached or unengaged people in Nigeria and then initiate strategies for starting work among the nearly 200 groups.

Off-roading missions the way the Bowmans do it constitutes an extreme adventure in faith. They may meet with local resistance from Muslim leaders or the practitioners of African traditional religion called dodo who wear fearsome masks and threaten with canes.

“Some of our Nigerian pastors could get hurt helping us,” Clint said. Often the team includes their 12-year-old son, James.

Rivers flood and mud flies as their truck crawls over trails that have dissolved into a slippery, thick morass during the rainy season. Mud holes can be the worst. Regularly the truck gets stuck.

“I’ve seen Clint’s truck buried so deep in the mud that the front wheels were bowing in,” Larry Taylor, an occasional rescuer and business facilitator for the IMB in Nigeria, said.

Nearly impassable mud hardens during the dry season into deep and unyielding ruts. Braking and maneuvering through the bush, Clint and Harriet work hard to control the 4-wheel drive.

“Sometimes I just close my eyes and keep going,” Harriet said with a laugh.

She drives with a frozen shoulder. At best, it is a bone-jarring, rock-and-roll ride. When branches slap the windshield and poke into the open window on the driver’s side, steering requires quick, sure reflexes. It also requires staying alert to what lies ahead. Shaky wooden bridges can straddle steep ravines. And in the dry season, villagers may partly or totally dismantle their bridges for firewood.

The attributes that serve the Bowmans as drivers serve them in the assignment as well. With clear focus they pursue the long-range strategies and remain alert to providential twists and turns ahead. As they pray, they have a strong sense God is about to do something big in Africa. One-fourth of all Africans are Nigerians.

“Things could start here and spread,” Harriet said.

With that idea, they keep pressing ahead.

“Clint is a global thinker,” Taylor said. “He can see need and break it down into chewable chunks. They just make their plans and start to chew away.”

Overall, their plan is to find unreached people and encourage others to plant churches as needed. If the team discovers a village has a Christian church, they note it in their black book and move on.

“I believe if people don’t have a church, they need one,” Clint said.

Only with approval from parents, they will witness to teenagers and children. When the team starts a church, they encourage it to reach out to the next village. “We want church planting in its DNA,” he said.

The Bowmans traverse at least three worlds. They are westerners in Nigeria. When they leave the highway, they embark on bumpy, one-lane roads that turn into dirt bike paths. Once out of the truck, they follow even narrower footpaths winding through tall grasses or through 12-foot-high walls of corn. When they arrive at their destination, they are like science fiction travelers stepping back 2,000 or 3,000 years in time.

In this beautiful, agrarian world, men farm with simple hand tools. Over pungent, open fires, women prepare meals. As in the days of the Old Testament’s Moses, clay bricks are handmade from mud mixed with straw. Water is drawn from wells.

Right now, the team’s efforts are divided about evenly between Islamic and followers of traditional African religions.

Blonde, bristling Clint has earned a reputation for his bravado in the bush and also the nickname Zaki, which means lion. Nigerians admire his fearlessness as he prowls around. Although others run away when the masquerading dodo shakes a big stick, Clint does not, Nigerian pastor Musa Madaki Tasumane said. “He just stands there and watches.”

The team has faced spiritual opposition, especially in their work among the Afizere. Traditionally, the Afizere are practitioners of African traditional religion who worship various objects such as trees and stones they consider deities. Last year the team began three Bible storying groups among the Afizere, and soon strong churches will follow.

The Bowmans constitute a strong team in themselves. Tusamane calls Harriet “The Wife of Zaki.” Wearing a boldly patterned head wrap and a smile, this Georgia-born woman confidently negotiates her way through some rough off-roading, as well as roadblocks at various police checkpoints on Nigerian highways.

Typically a guard with a machine gun slung over his shoulder leans into the driver’s window and asks Harriet a quick question. In Hausa, she replies and exchanges pleasantries. Sometimes she offers their “seeker” cassette. Inevitably the guard will smile, pop the side of the vehicle and motion for her to pass.

But on at least one occasion, the wife of Zaki was scared. Clint and a Nigerian student had left to set up the “Jesus” film for the Jahr people, and she was working alone at their campsite. Suddenly, into the clearing stepped a hard-eyed man in uniform. In a demanding tone, he began to question her. When he discovered she was a Christian, he shouted, “I am a soldier of Islam!”

“I thought this man might chop off my head and send me straight into paradise,” Harriet said. “In spite of myself, I managed to ask, ‘What do you do with that?’”

He told her he checked on people in the hospital — Muslim and Christian alike.

“At that moment, I stopped being afraid,” Harriet said. “It was my reminder that ‘He who is within you is greater than he who is in the world.’”

As westerners drive along the back roads of northern Nigera, typically the children wave and shout “White people! White people!” in their language. But when the Bowmans’ truck passes by, more often the children respond with a wave and shout “White people with black people!” It’s been that way since the Bowmans first arrived in Nigeria.

“Clint would rather be with Nigerians than a bunch of missionaries,” Mike Stonecypher, an IMB liaison with the Nigerian Baptist Convention, said.

The Nigerians respond to that love almost the moment they meet, said Stonecypher, who has accompanied Clint on a number of bush adventures.

“When Clint leaves a village, he is shouting at the people and they are shouting back at him,” he said. “He’s fun. And he’s driven.”

Their missionary friends are rife with examples. Taylor recalled how one day Clint’s truck tire slid through a bridge when the lumber shifted. God provided three linebacker-sized Nigerians from a nearby village to help Bowman out.

“Clint only goes forward,” Taylor said.

That drive is evident in all the dots for villages and the tiny red crosses that sprinkle the large, hand-drawn map posted in the Bowmans’ home. When a Muslim leader forbade them from starting a church in one village, Clint just started new work in the villages surrounding it.

“I’ve thought of having a road-scraper attached to the front of our truck. We’d be so popular if we could make these roads smoother,” Harriet said. Essentially that describes what they do best.

“More and more Southern Baptists are becoming servants as we look for ways to strengthen Nigerian Baptists,” Stonecypher said. “But there is a second role, and that is to take the lead — going to the tough places where the Gospel has been resisted or has not been heard. Here the Bowmans are showing the way.”

    About the Author

  • Celeste Pennington