NIAMEY, Niger (BP)–Walking through the market place, the young woman peers into stall after stall. She weaves in and out of the overcrowded area. She crinkles her nose up at the wide variety of smells coming from the stalls and the piles of trash.
Finally, she sees what she is looking for — a deaf girl conversing, her hands rapidly forming symbols of communication. The young woman walks over and silently introduces herself to the girl, who is surprised that the stranger can speak her language — sign language.
The two talk for a while, and the girl promises to introduce Johnston to more of her friends.
Jessica Johnston, an International Mission Board worker in Niamey, Niger, spends her days exploring the streets of the city in search of deaf people. The journeyman came to this West African country almost a year ago, with hopes of planting the seeds of the gospel among the deaf.
More than 1.22 million culturally deaf people live in West Africa, almost 4,000 of those live in Niger. Located north of Nigeria, 98 percent of the country’s 10.4 million people identify themselves as Muslim.
In most communities, the deaf are considered “incomplete” people.
“Here, the word for deaf person literally means ‘that person does not understand,'” Johnston said. “A lot of people think it is really silly for someone to be here working with the deaf. But, the deaf community has welcomed me with open arms. The families are excited to have someone talk with their children.”
Johnston, who is serving in Niger through the IMB’s Journeyman Program, quickly learned that her friends actually speak two different kinds of sign language. The educated speak a form brought in from outside of the country that is similar to American Sign Language. Since the culture is mostly oral and not literate, signs and stories are symbolic for everything, including names.
The second language, which is the heart language of almost all deaf in Niger, is Village Sign, which originated in Niger. It has been passed down from generation to generation.
Every day the Oklahoma native hops in a taxi and journeys across town — just to hang out with one of her friends and learn the different sign languages.
On one of these daily trips, “hanging out” is a little different from the other places she frequents. Here, Johnston stories the Bible chronologically. Eventually, she hopes to share the Bible with her other friends, too.
Johnston spends hours preparing the lessons for the one-on-one Bible study. Since she is not deaf, she tries to imagine herself as her friend and the best way to communicate the story.
“Deaf people tell their stories a certain way,” Johnston said. “They tell stories by first identifying where something happened, then when and what’s going on, then give a description of who the story is about and then finally they get into the actual story.
“The Bible really isn’t written in that exact layout,” the journeyman said. “So, I do a lot of Bible study to put everything in the right order for explaining to visual learners.”
Since most of the people she works with are visual learners, Johnston also makes a “story board” for her notes. That way all of her work is reproducible by the local community and can be passed on from person to person.
Right now, there are no known Christians following Jesus among the deaf community in Niamey. At one time, one man — since deceased — made a decision to follow Christ. Word quickly spread throughout the deaf community about this one man falling away from Islam.
“The legend of this guy lives in my heart,” she said. “Everyone in the deaf community talks about this guy. When they talk of him, they always say, ‘this is the one who followed Jesus.’ They know he made a choice and what it was all about.”
Johnston shares God’s passion for the thousands of deaf in Niger who have never heard the good news of a loving God.
“In this deaf world, which hardly anyone knows about and functions on its own — separate from tribal disputes — are people waiting to hear the gospel,” she said.
“The time for the deaf of West Africa is now.”
Johnston is from Weatherford, Okla. (BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: GETTING READY, BEARING WITNESS, BREAK TIME, STORYTELLER, ISLAM, and MAKING FRIENDS.
Pray with Jessica Johnston that:
— the very first deaf church in Niger will begin soon,
— Deaf volunteer teams will feel led to work in West Africa and see their place on the mission field,
— God will raise up another journeyman to work with the deaf in Niger.
— To find out how you can join God on mission, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call toll-free 888-422-6461, TDD 804-219-1402.
— Channels of missions service: http://going.imb.org
— The International Mission Board (http://www.imb.org) is a Southern Baptist Convention entity supported by the Cooperative Program (http://www.cpmissions.net) and the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering (http://www.imb.org/ime/LMCO).