SOKODE, Togo (BP)–Muslims in West Africa say they can’t be sure if they’re good enough to get to heaven until they actually get there. But that issue is settled forever for Toubaye Essognina.
Essognina grew up in a strict Muslim family. Later he fell into drugs and crime, and then discovered life behind bars was no better. But after his release from prison, Essognina met Southern Baptist International Mission Board missionaries Ray and Patsy Eitelman.
Nowhere else in Togo is the influence of Islam so pervasive as in Sokode, where the Eitelmans work. During Adossa — a festival observing animistic and Islamic beliefs — the faithful chant: “What is death? What is death? Death is nothing!”
The festival is celebrated with great fervor in Sokode. Those eager to dance with the sword assert their power over evil spirits. Still, the show of external strength does little for the inner man. The people in Sokode remain powerless to truly change their eternal destinies, or even themselves.
It was that way with Essognina. But he found a glimmer of hope in prison, where he met a Christian worker and later a Catholic priest who offered to baptize him, but only with his father’s blessings. His father refused, but a seed was planted.
“When I was set free and was at home, I didn’t go to a church because I didn’t know any churches and I have never been to one,” Essognina recalls. “So I was just at home singing some Christian songs I learned in prison when a lady in the neighborhood asked me, ‘What church do you go to? Are you a Christian?’
“Then I told her my story and that I have never been to a church, but I was looking for God and that I wanted to know God, and she said, ‘Well, there are some Baptist missionaries who live up on the hill. You can go and talk to them and they can help.'”
Sensing God already was at work in Essognina’s life, Ray Eitelman explained the plan of salvation and helped him know Jesus. Under the Eitelmans’ care, Essognina grew as a Christian. But he also took on an important role in the Eitelmans’ ministry to Sokode.
Formerly known in the city for his violent reputation, Essognina now is recognized by his voice — broadcast twice a week for 15 minutes on a radio program.
Sokode residents tune in to the only radio station in town to listen to his familiar voice — and, more importantly, to the stories of the Bible. Since 95 percent of the people in Sokode cannot read, radio ministry is key in the region.
People who know of Essognina consider him a modern-day example of the stories he tells: a criminal who brought shame upon his family until he tapped into a wonder-working power that changed him forever.