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Village Christian often walks a lonely trail


Byema Traoré, one of the believers in the village of Samogohiri, Burkina Faso, in the church building.

July 1, 2003
by Charles T. Jones

Samogohiri, Burkina Faso— Byema Traoré, surrounded by noisy supporters, looks gloomy as he walks up the path from a neighboring village. He'd been robbed of a cache of roofing grass, and his quest for its return was just spurned by a village chief. All the good grass is gone now, so he'll have to wait a year to gather more.

Byema, resigned to this most recent slight, begins the 3-kilometer walk back through the dust to Samogohiri, home to about 4,000 people in rural Burkina Faso, where most everything is made of mud and grass.

There are a few Christians in this mostly Muslim village, and Byema is one of them. He pines for the return of the two French Mennonite linguists to help him bolster his faith. He also misses Ali and Fabe, two young villagers who grew up Muslim, but became Christians as they worked to translate the Bible from French to Samogho. They have moved away to the city, but plan to return. Byema remains with his wife and two small children, near his tiny tailor shop, which mostly is empty and dark, except on Sunday afternoons, when he entertains non-Christian friends there after church. The toll his faith has taken on him socially shows in his weary face.

He wears a faded gray sweatshirt with the logo of Les Miserables, an Andrew Lloyd Webber theatrical extravaganza he could little imagine or understand. The woebegone face of the waif on his shirtfront mirrors the sadness in his own countenance as he sits in his tiny rammed-earth courtyard, receives the evening meal and reflects on the setback in the neighboring village.

"At the beginning it was extremely difficult to learn what it meant to follow Jesus," he said. "In a village setting, if you try to step out of the daily practices, it's like you're trying to go upstream in a very fast river. It's not easy."

Byema and his brother, a Muslim, tilled and planted a small field together to winnow enough grain and grow yams enough to feed their families. But Byema's Christian conversion so incensed his brother that, as they worked in the field together one day in May 2001, the brother tried to kill Byema with a sharp, short-handled hoe. The stroke was aimed at Byema's neck, but Byema dove to the dirt, sustained a glancing blow, and then fended off a follow-up machete attack.

In his defense, Byema's brother said that Byema's conversion had displeased the spirit world, that their crops were suffering as a result, and that Byema routinely cursed the food they ate. Byema said he was merely saying grace.

Villagers were scandalized by the incident - a younger brother trying to kill his family's heir. The elders of Samogohiri told Byema to turn his brother over to the state police and have him thrown in prison, but Byema looked to Jesus, forgave his brother, and ceded him the fields they'd shared. That meant that, for Byema and his family, all of the money for food for the rest of the year was gone.

A Muslim holy man brought Islam to Burkina Faso about 40 years ago and won converts with the promise that the power of God would protect the Burkinabe from the perils of the spirit world. What he and other Muslim missionaries promised came true for many Burkinabe. Still, most villagers practice the traditional ways of blood sacrifice and sorcery to help them in their lives.

Byema and the other few Christians in the area have watched the quiet dignity and steadfast faith of Mennonite mission workers Loren and Donna Entz and their children, who lived in a neighboring village and plan to return there this summer. The Entzes serve with Africa Inter-Mennonite Mission with support from Mennonite Mission Network and Mennonite Church Canada Witness.

For Byema, it was chiefly the example of French Mennonite linguist Paul Solomiac who cemented his Christian faith. Solomiac and his wife, Martine, lived in Samogohiri. With the Entzes and others, they have developed a growing library of audiocassettes that tell villagers the stories of the Bible in their own language. The tapes are growing in popularity in a society where storytelling takes up the best part of a typical evening.

"I saw in the teachings and practice of Paul Solomiac that being Christian was very much worthwhile, and I don't have any regrets with the choice I made in my life," Byema said. "There have always been difficulties, even what you saw today, with the stealing of the straw. Every day is a challenge and it continues, but I have kept my faith."

Byema is blessed with good health, a pretty wife and an inner peace that remains beyond the understanding of many of his neighbors.

The villagers watch Byema and the other Christians to see how they behave. They are impressed with the peace they witness, but still they wait.

"They say Christians have too many laws; that there are too many things that Christians have to do - when they go to the market, they have to speak nicely to people, and respect them. There are just too many laws to follow. You can't do whatever you want to - that's their idea," Byema said. Local men also like the option of having more than one wife. And turning away from sorcery in a society so wedded to the spirit world would seem downright irresponsible, he said.

The trails down which Byema walks would, to many Westerners, seem like dusty meanderings through the furthest reaches of the world, in a place that, by world economic standards, is one of the poorest places on earth.

Those faraway paths intersect the very center of Byema's world and that of the 4,000 people who live together in Samogohiri. Here, people build their homes from the earth and scrape from it enough, but no more, to eat. For Byema, it is exactly where he's supposed to be.

"I know that I'm on the right path," he said.

In Burkina Faso, MC Canada Witness directly supports the work of Anne Garber Kamporé (Listowel Mennonite Church, Ontario), Lillian Haas (Bluesky Mennonite Church, Alberta), and Donna and Loren Entz (Zion Mennonite Church, Elbing, Kansas). Mennonite Church Canada Witness has ministries in 40 countries, and supports ministries in 13 countries in Africa. AIMM administers ministries and workers in Burkina Faso and 5 other countries on behalf of the Witness.