Amid Central African chaos, ministry goes on

News reports from the Central African Republic indicate the country has descended into chaos after last spring’s coup. In Gamboula, three miles from the Cameroon border, a cautious calm holds for now.

“We don’t want to scare people or make them think we are stupid to remain back,” says Dr. Tim Wester, a ReachGlobal physician and surgeon at the hospital and nursing school in Gamboula. If things do become too dangerous, evacuation to Cameroon is always an option. For now, though, “It continues to remain peaceful in our area.”

“Peaceful” is a relative term, of course, in this unstable country the size of Texas. With the constitution suspended, social order and the rule of law have evaporated in some areas. Disease and malnutrition have added to the misery.

At the hospital in Gamboula

At the hospital in Gamboula

Gamboula’s far-west location in CAR helps; most of the reported violence has occurred in northern and eastern areas inhabited by the former president’s tribe.

“Thus far, our people haven’t been targeted,” says ReachGlobal missionary Kim Cone. “No elements in the country would have any desire to kill us. If we were targeted, it would just be to loot us as earlier rebels did in 2003. Also, customs fees at the border supply troops with more than they need, taking away some of the incentive to loot.”

The hospital and nursing school are part of a compound that also includes a Bible school, an agricultural project and an outreach ministry to the nomadic Fulani people. Missionaries from ReachGlobal, Covenant World Mission, Presbyterian Evangelical Fellowship and the Swedish agency Interact work with local leaders to manage it all.

Certainly all are concerned about the country’s stability; they were evacuated to Cameroon in late March as the rogue Miskine rebels came to Gamboula in the coup’s wake. Order was restored a day later when the “real” rebels, members of the Seleka force that overthrew President Francois Bozize, showed up.

Cone was one of the first to return after the coup. He says this year’s adversity created an even stronger bond between the African nationals and the missionaries.

“Our first re-entry after our evacuation was a tremendously moving experience for all:  the hugs, head bumping [an intimate greeting] and tears,” Cone says. “Our presence gave them hope and their presence reminded us of why the risk was worth it.”

Wester and his wife, Ann, received a similar reception when they returned in mid-August.

“We couldn’t help but notice that nearly everyone who came to greet us expressed thankfulness to God for His watch care and provision,” Ann says. “For some, there has been an increased faith in God.”

Even the circumstances that forced the missionaries to evacuate now seem God-ordained, Cone says.

“We probably would have been badly looted by fleeing government troops,” he says. But, the Miskine group entered Gamboula first, bent on vengeance against government troops that had attacked them earlier. The Miskines’ presence made the government troops choose a different route as they fled to Cameroon.

The Seleka colonel sent to oversee Gamboula was interested in establishing and keeping peace, and quickly won the community’s respect as an honest and just man, Ann Wester says. He has since been reassigned and a new colonel has replaced him.

So far, so good. Things in Gamboula feel safer than reports about the entire country have indicated.

“The United Nations has said Central African Republic is on the brink of collapse,” Reuters reported in August. “Aid organizations say there is a complete absence of state authority outside Bangui (the capital), with roaming armed groups looting and killing at will.”

In the northwestern village of Ouhman-Bac, dozens of people were massacred in late July and their bodies thrown in a river. Seleka rebels were blamed, but they have denied involvement, saying other armed groups are responsible. The village is more than a day’s drive from Gamboula.

France, which controlled CAR until 1960, has called upon the U.N. to help stabilize the situation with money and logistical support. The African Union has deployed 3,500 peacekeeping forces to parts of the country, Reuters reported.

Africans pay attention to radio and online news reports, but that’s only a first puzzle piece in finding out what’s really going on. Cell phones have changed everything, as people call relatives around the country and piece information together.

“I believe the stories in the news are basically true; it’s just that around here, the situation has been different,” Ann Wester says. “People here are worried, there’s no question about that.  Many people have family and friends in areas that are much less safe, and they are concerned when they can’t get phone calls to go through.”

Of highest concern to the missionaries is the health of the African people in and around Gamboula. The Westers returned to CAR in August. As Tim did rounds on 50 to 70 hospital patients, he immediately noticed how thin they were.

“Our pediatric nutrition ward is full with many malnourished children,” he says. “It cost about $400 per month to be able to purchase extra high-protein food to feed the children as they improve their health. So far about $4,700 has come in for the CAR Crisis Fund but we could use another $5,000 or more to help in areas like malnutrition, helping to purchase AIDS and tuberculosis drugs, and other essential medicines which the government often doesn’t have stocked at this time.”

Why they stay

Why remain in such a dangerous country that the world believes is crumbling? The missionaries quickly give several reasons – not the least of which is, Gamboula is their home.

“We are convinced that this is where God wants us at this time and we have peace and confidence we are in his will,” Tim Wester says. “We feel safe, but just hassles of trying to keep updated on security can get tiring. At the same time, we believe that under stress and during difficult days throughout the history of the church, God has been able to work and make great strides. It’s during times of difficulty people are more open to the gospel and faith.”

Tim is the only doctor for the 180-bed hospital. Staff also is pushed to its limits in treating patients. The nursing school is training 20 students whom he hopes will “help make a dent in health care in this country.” Those students come from all over CAR, and many have not heard from their families in months.

Also, he adds, there is no church-planting movement among CAR’s Fulani people, so the hospital’s presence in Gamboula also gives Jesus a presence there.

“Evangelism takes some hard work and sweat and endurance and courage,” Wester says. “Nationals can continue to carry on much of the work, but with our missionary gifts we are able to complement their gifts and have a better running hospital.”

“We still have opportunities to minister here,” Ann Wester says. “For instance, Kim and others have had several conversations with the previous and the present colonel, and Tim has cared for several Seleka soldiers in the hospital.  We pray that our presence here will be a help and a blessing.

“For now, we don’t feel in imminent danger, although we know from experience that things can change quickly.”

Leave a Reply