Pushing Back the Desert: Niger's Christians Get Creative for Daily Bread
On the edge of the Sahara Desert, church growth and discipleship strategies come down to one simple command: Stay alive.
The sub-Saharan African country of Niger is one of the poorest in the world. And with Christians making up less than 1 percent of the population, the survival of each congregation is a constant concern. Unpredictable rain patterns threaten what meager crops are grown. For Nigerien church leaders, "Give us this day our daily bread" is not just a metaphor.
"You find, even within church leadership, the statement, 'Yes, God has called us. We are ministering for God. But how do we survive?'?" said Gaston Slanwa, a Cameroonian who trains church leaders in Niger. "That is the question that comes up most often."
"We have a proverb in our language: 'If somebody promises to give you a shirt, look what he is wearing,'?" said Nouhou Abdou Magawata, a local Christian who works with a Summer Institute of Linguistics program in Niamey, Niger's capital. "If what he is wearing is good, then you think of him as being able to give you a shirt. If he is in rags, you won't believe him. That is the situation we face. If you are preaching a God of love, but your God does not love you enough to give you enough to eat, what do you tell people?"
How can Christians preach a God of love in a country in which one of every five children dies before his first birthday and citizens routinely face deadly food shortages? Niger's Christian leaders invest much hope and effort into what they call a "two-handed" approach, fulfilling material needs with one hand and sharing the gospel with the other.
"We don't want to just throw food out at people," said Donnie Hebert, a Youth With a Mission (YWAM) leader who works with nomadic herders in the desert terrain of northern Niger. "We can't just tell people about Jesus and not fulfill their immediate needs, and I don't feel you can fulfill their immediate needs without telling them about Jesus."
Even from a distance, this dual approach to Christian outreach in Niger makes sense to economics professor Brian Fikkert, co-author of When Helping Hurts and founder of the Chalmers Center for Economic Development at Convenant College. During an interview about Christian methods for long-term development, Fikkert told Christianity Today, “I don’t believe it’s possible to do true development work without the clear verbal articulation of the gospel of Jesus Christ. At the end of the day, that means that at some point we are saying to people who are not Christians that in fact we have knowledge that they don’t have that they need desperately to come to grips with.
"I don’t conceive of poverty as being fundamentally material in nature alone. There are material elements, but I think of poverty differently. Human beings were created for relationship. Poverty is fundamentally rooted in the broken relationships that we have with God, self, others and the rest of creation. Poverty alleviation, then, is really about trying to restore or reconcile those relationships."
Hardship and Fatalism
Niger, a nation of 15.8 million, has the highest birth rate and third highest infant death rate in the world. The country is one of the lowest ranked on the 2010 United Nations Human Development Index, which measures standard of living.
Just north of Nigeria, Niger butts up into the world's largest desert. As a result, 80 percent of the land is unsuitable for farming. Dry season temperatures can spike at over 104°F. Throughout the scorched land, nomadic groups herd skeleton-thin cows and goats from watering hole to watering hole, traveling hundreds of miles in one season to survive.