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When the chief speaks, people listen to the gospel

OUAGADOUGOU, Burkina Faso (BP) — The old chief’s thick glasses do more to magnify the filmy cataracts covering his eyes than aid his vision. But the joy and welcome in his smile shine unobscured.

“Lynn is like my daughter,” he declares, tightly clasping missionary Lynn Kennedy’s hand between his. “Pray God will keep her here a long time — and me, too!”

Ever since Kennedy met Some (so-MAY) Emmanuel, a chief of great importance among Burkina Faso’s Dagaari (Dah-GAH-rah) people, she’s been accepted as a member of his family. He even gave her the keys to the family’s post office box. She was introduced to the chief through his niece and carefully
cultivated the friendship. When she requested his permission to share truth about God with the Dagaari, he agreed.

Emmanuel is the “chef de terre” — regional chief — of the Bapla region, which means he’s responsible for offering all sacrifices to gain the approval and attention of the Dagaari gods overseeing planting, cultivating, rainfall and other weather changes. He influences at least 20 villages with anywhere from 20 to 200 people each.

The chief hasn’t made a personal, public commitment to Christ — yet. But he gathers his people in different villages and tells them they must listen to this white woman who “speaks the truth.” Then he sits back and lets her speak.

“I know Emmanuel will be the open door to the other big chefs de terre after we reach all the villages in his region,” says Kennedy, the International Mission Board’s strategy coordinator for evangelizing the Dagaari. “He really wants his people to hear the truth.”

Fewer than 10 percent of the 245,600 Dagaari living in Burkina Faso have heard about Jesus. Yet each of the villages Kennedy has visited since her work began in February 1999 has a success story.

In one village, proof of God using Emmanuel to unlock doors came when a sub-chief told Kennedy: “Three different groups have come to speak about change, but nobody has come through the chef de terre. Others come, make noise and go, but they accept you.”

Gaining acceptance among the Dagaari, a superstitious and private people, is tough for a stranger. They refer to themselves as “vitalistes,” claiming transcendental synthesis between experience, intuition, mystical conscience and the occult. They divide themselves into five categories:

— “Fire people” are believed to possess the power to mediate between the village and ancestors. — “Water people” are peacekeepers.

— “Earth people” empower and nurture others.

— “Mineral people” possess heightened memories, enabling them to be the guardians of Dagaari myths, genealogies and creation stories.

— “Nature people” are the “witches,” believed to possess the power to unlock a person’s consciousness.

But because Kennedy went through the right channel, people listen to what she says. With Emmanuel’s niece acting as translator, she regularly visits four mission points and contacts at least 20 villages.

During the very first evangelistic meeting last year, 25 people came to know Christ, Kennedy says. That was in the fetish capital of Burkina Faso. At Movievoh, one of the mission points, about 150 came to Christ in one day.

At another spot, the village chief stands and testifies: “Since the last time you came and we asked for prayer about the sudden death of children, there have been no more deaths. I know you are bringing the truth to us. Please come back.” Kennedy’s eyes fill with tears.

He then asks a prayer for rain; the crops are dry and people are hungry. Three hours later the sky opens, and rain pours onto the dusty land all night. A visit to the same village the next day brings cheers from the people.

“We know you have brought us the truth now. You have to come back and tell us more about this God,” an elderly man tells Kennedy as he sips dolo, the local beer.

Kennedy often hears such pleas.

“I’m really finding in these villages there is a hunger,” she says. “A brand-new convert says, ‘You cannot leave us as infants; you must come back and teach us.’ Now who gives that kind of wisdom outside the Holy Spirit?”

But one villager offers a caution:

“Thank you for dragging us out of the darkness. You must be patient … we are hardhearted in our traditions.”

So Kennedy is patient and prays for the Spirit to pour down on dry souls — and clear their vision like he has cleared her friend Emmanuel’s.

    About the Author

  • Heidi Soderstrom