Mariama’s Story

Weeping with Mariama

On Sunday morning the ceremonial drum from Mariama’s village was taken out and set up on its poles next to the mosque. On it, a rhythmic message was beat out, making an announcement and calling people to come. Having already heard what had happened, we were prepared to go. As we walked along, we passed Mariama’s hut on the outskirts of the village. Just a few weeks before, there had been dancing and rejoicing here as Mariama returned home from the Mercy ship in Monrovia healed of a twenty year old plague, a grapefruit sized tumor in her mouth, that had made her a social outcast. As we continued on down the road, just a few paces from her gate, we met Mariama who was already coming back from the village. She was weeping, deeply. The tears flooded out of her eyes profusely and streamed down her face, wetting the dry ground under our feet. Mariama’s tender heart was breaking.

After spending some time trying to comfort Mariama, we continued on our way, past the drum, to where the elders were sitting under a shade tree. We greeted, sat with them for a bit in silence, and then went with a friend down a small winding path into the woods near the base of three huge trees. Here there was another rhythmic sound, making the same painful announcement. The sound of a pick axe, the sound of a shovel, and the sound of several axes, all joining together in a mournful tune, beat after beat, stroke after stroke, announcing that our friend and closest neighbor, Cherno Ibrima was dead. I tied up my robe, asked for the shovel, and joined in the rhythmic beat of this mournful song. Together we dug his grave.

In a way, ironically, Mariama’s grieving and weeping for the death of a friend was also a celebration of healing. Triumph and tragedy were wrapped together in her tears. She was now free to attend the funeral and weep along with the other women. The grief was so much greater when she was forced to grieve alone. Similarly, my participation at the burial site was also a celebration of Mariama’s healing, a testimony of the resulting trust that we have established in her community. It was a great honor for an “outsider” to be allowed to even enter this most sacred ground of their ancestors. Again, I met triumph and tragedy in the same act, the rhythm of the shovel in my hand loudly speaking of both victory and defeat.

We had said goodbye to our friend Cherno Ibrima two weeks earlier, all of us knowing that this may be the last time we would see each other. This farewell took place between our two houses, on the road, as a taxi came to pick him up to bring him to a city two hours away down a deeply rutted dirt road. He had been sick for years, suffering from liver damage brought on by a bout with hepatitis. Things had suddenly taken a turn for the worse these last few weeks, and he was headed to the hospital to seek a way to relieve his pain and discomfort. He had already given up hope of being healed. He had been told for years that this day would come, that there was nothing that could be done. Mariama, was an age mate from his own village. He grew up with her. When she returned home healed, he had dared to hope that perhaps the local doctors were wrong. We visited him with the ship’s representatives at his request to discuss the situation shortly after Mariama returned from Liberia. They contacted the ship to ask for advice from the doctors there, but as we suspected, there was nothing medically that could be done for him. We prayed for him, and wept together. Over the course of the next few weeks, I had a number of chances to visit with Ibrima, sharing more and more of the gospel with him each time. However, we have no indication that he ever accepted the precious gift of eternal healing and salvation that was being offered. He died in the taxi on his way home, Sunday morning. He never made it and neither of us would get another chance. The shovel in my hand made that painfully clear.

As I write this from my home, the wailing and mourning continues to rise up from next door. Friends and relatives coming from far and wide, hundreds, hundreds of people from all around.

They weep as a people who have no hope, for that is what they are.

Please weep and pray with us for Mariama and for the Fulbe people that they may know the Hope who is also the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

Mariama’s Menace Returns

By now some of you may feel as if you know Mariama, our friend who used to have the huge tumor protruding out of her mouth. In January, the doctors took out her grapefruit sized tumor and she returned home full of joy and hope for a better future.

Finally freed from this twenty year old curse, she was no longer a social outcast in her community. In April we wrote and announced that Mariama was soon to be married. Her former husband, from whom she was separated for most of those twenty years, wanted to take her back as his wife. Just when we thought that she was officially married again, her brother from Conakry, who also had tried earlier to stop Mariama from getting her tumor removed, wrote a letter to her elders and somehow blocked the marriage. This was a huge disappointment for Mariama and for us as well, but we still continued to hope that maybe the elders would allow her to be married anyway, or that maybe God would change the brother’s heart so that he would give his permission for this marriage. Neither of these things have happened and as we write this, her failed attempts at being reunited with her husband seem trivial compared to what she faces now.

Early this summer, we noticed two lumpy masses on the side of Mariama’s face where the tumor used to be. We were afraid that they were perhaps new tumors, but hoped that instead they were some sort of infection. We prayed for her and treated her with strong antibiotics, and the lumps turned into what looked like two huge boils on her face. We thought that this was a good sign and that it was indeed an infection, and so we continued to treat the sores topically and with antibiotics. She seemed to be getting somewhat better for a while, but now things have taken a turn for the worse. The sores have turned into huge ugly abscesses, hard lumps have formed again beneath the sores and her whole face is swelling up. The pain is growing so intense in her head that she can’t sleep at night. The sores continually ooze and bleed and ….smell like death. Her curse has returned, this time with an unrelenting and stubborn vengeance.

Following the advice of the doctors, we have talked to her elders about arranging for her to go to Conakry (the capital city here in Guinea) to have a biopsy taken of the sores. The local health worker however wants to give her injections of antibiotics for the next twelve days to see if that will help, and if not, then pursue a trip to Conakry. But Mariama’s condition seems to grow worse and worse each day, and we fear for her life.

Last week we went out as a team to pray with her again at her house and also to clearly and simply explain the Good News of Jesus. We have talked about this Good News, and of God’s Grace and Love many times in the past months. Again, she listened and understood what we said, but like so many others here, she did not really hear, nor comprehend, nor accept the life changing, eternity changing truth that we shared with her.

Please pray. Pray as the Spirit leads you to pray. Pray for her body and her soul. Pray that the chains that seem to bind every area of her life will be loosed and that she will be truly set free. Pray for us too as we don’t know how to fight this battle any more. We will not give up the fight, but we can taste the bitterness of her defeat, and we suffer with her.

Mariama and the Blood

Hear my cry, Oh Lord
Attend unto my prayer!
From the ends of the earth
Do I cry out to You
And when my heart is overwhelmed,
Take me to the Rock that is higher than I…
That is higher than I.

“Yesterday, my face was bleeding again,” Mariama announced as she stumbled out of the low doorway of her tiny, 9 foot diameter, grass-roofed hut. Finding her place outside on a small wooden stool, she sat in the morning sunlight and went on to explain to us that this time, the blood had come from the large, ever-growing “wound” towards the front of her face; an ulcer that, over the last few weeks, has eaten away most of her right cheek, and now threatens to swallow up her swollen lips. With her disfigured, bandaged up face, Mariama looked up at J**** and added in a slurred but confident voice, “but I prayed to Jesus, and the bleeding stopped!”

A week and a half earlier, things hadn’t gone so well for Mariama. J**** had already cleaned her up that morning, put new bandages on, prayed for her, gave her food to eat, and returned home. On that day, as Mariama lay outside her hut warming herself in the afternoon sun, she started to bleed profusely from the smaller “wound” on her neck. “I called and called for help,” she explained, “I wanted someone to go and get you because I thought I was going to die. I couldn’t get the bleeding to stop.” Mariama said she laid there for hours, not far from the main road, crying out for help, but no one ever came… not one person responded to her call for help. As the darkness approached this remote village in West Africa on that Saturday evening, Mariama’s bleeding slowly subsided and she was able to literally drag herself into her hut where she collapsed for the night. The next morning, J**** found her lying there, hardly able to move.

J**** fed her, prayed for her, gave her some clean water to drink, cleaned her up and, while our son B**** hauled up buckets and buckets of water from the neighbor’s well, she washed Mariama’s clothes and blankets that were soaked in blood. As she worked, J**** talked about the blood of Jesus, and how his blood had been poured out for her. She talked about how Jesus was the Way, the Truth and the Life. She told Mariama that Jesus loved her, and would never forsake her.

Over the course of the next few days, we watched and prayed and worked as Mariama’s physical and spiritual health balanced on the edge of eternity. On Monday, Mariama was regaining some of her strength and as our colleagues B**** and A**** tried to share some Scripture with her, she rudely turned her back on them. So on Tuesday, J**** talked with her about her strange behavior. Mariama apologetically explained to J**** that whenever someone would read to her from “that book”, she has excruciating pain and is then tormented at night by terrible dreams. J**** explained to Mariama that this pain was not from God, it was from Satan. She told Mariama that if she didn’t want Satan to torment her, she needed to turn her back on him and turn towards Jesus – not the other way around! J**** told her that Jesus was standing at the door of her heart, knocking. She needed to open the door and let Him in. Jesus is the only one who has the power to fight the evil that was afflicting her.

On Wednesday, after J**** had re-bandaged her wounds, Mariama laid her throbbing, oozing head on J****’s lap. While just sitting there, quietly singing and praying and stroking Mariama’s head, J**** noticed that Mariama’s moans were turning into a mumble. She was trying to say something. J**** listened. Could it be? Mariama was calling out to Jesus! As Mariama’s prayer went on, it gained strength. “Jesus, God’s Messiah, please, please take the pain away just a little bit. Just make it a little easier to bear. Oh Jesus, please come and help me. Please hear me Jesus!” Minutes of silence passed as J**** and Mariama wept together. And then Mariama slowly picked up her head. “The pain… It’s going away!” She said. “Oh, thanks be to God! The pain is going away!” She slept well that night; a sweet, dreamless, restful sleep.

Finally on Thursday, J****, B****, and I had the privilege of witnessing Mariama take a huge step of faith. After an intense battle of the will, she said that she wanted to follow Jesus, the one who had shed His blood for her. B**** had come again with Scripture and she bravely asked him to take out the newly completed Pular New Testament. She crawled over to where he sat and plunked herself down directly in front of him. She put her hand on his arm and with fierce determination in her voice she said: “Read!” The pain was intense but she was determined not to give in. “Keep reading!” she said. “Keep reading!” Every time B**** stopped, she would say, “Read some more. Don’t stop.” Her pain was going away. After listening to the whole story of Lazarus’s resurrection and a passage in Revelation about Jesus standing at the door and knocking, Mariama beat her chest lightly and said, “Jesus is knocking at MY heart, I want to follow him.” Then she got up slowly and made her way into her hut, exhausted but victorious.

Since then, J**** has been reading Scripture to her every day. It has become an important part of their daily routine. Her reaction to God’s word now is the opposite of what it once was. When her head starts to hurt, reading Scripture brings peace, and comfort, and takes away the pain. Praise be to God. He has become for Mariama: Jehovah Raffa, her healer, Jehovah Jirah her provider, her Comforter, her Savior, her Friend.

Glory to God! The blood of Jesus, which was spilled out so long ago for you and me, continues to flow out to the ends of the earth, all the way to a lonely and rejected, curse-ridden woman in a remote village of West Africa. Thanks for being a part of bringing His grace and peace to Mariama. Please continue to pray with us for her physical healing, and rejoice with us at the spiritual healing she has already experienced.

“Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly [Mariama is] wasting away, yet inwardly [she is]being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal”
2 Corinthians 4: 16-18

Mariama and the Meaning of Christmas

Many of you have written us back, in response to our email entitled “Mariama and the Blood”. We wanted to thank you for your many words of encouragement, and for your ongoing prayers for Mariama and for us. One of our friends who has been receiving these updates about Mariama wrote us this past week and asked why it is that the people here show her so little compassion. Why do they seem to be “heartless and cruel, Why do they not want to help this poor woman. Is this normal for that culture or is this due to the Muslim teachings?” Others of you may have been wondering the same thing, so I thought I’d send you some journal-type entries from last week that may shed at least some light on that particular subject.

At first, I debated whether or not I should send these thoughts out to you at this time of year. They just don’t seem very “Christmassy”. On further reflection though, I decided that this is actually what Christmas is all about. The world that Jesus entered some 2000 years ago was, just like today, a world wrought with sin, and therefore also full of “rot”. After all, that’s why he came. So as you celebrate this Holiday season, we pray that this story and these reflections will help you appreciate even more fully what Christmas really means: why Jesus came and the extent of what he came to do. He came for Mariama and for a whole host of other sin-filled folks, like …. you, … and me.

Mariama and the Imam

Today I joined my wife again on her daily trek to Mariama’s, planning on helping her bear her heavy load. She had quite a bit to carry this morning, four bags worth, which is a bit tough with just two hands. She brought a gallon of clean water, some for washing out the cloth bandages that cover up the wounds on Mariama’s face and neck, and the rest for Mariama to drink. She also had a bag full of medical supplies: soap, gloves, antibiotics, extra-bandages, disinfectant, etc. Then there was her bag of spiritual supplies: a Pular new Testament, some “Way of Righteousness” cassette tapes in Pular, and a solar powered tape player. Finally she handed me a bag of food: some milk powder and protein drink for Mariama’s breakfast, and for lunch, two medium size dishes with “Toori and Nama”, a local dish that is a favorite of Mariama’s, and which we not so lovingly refer to as “green slime and snot.”

As we headed out in the late morning sun, a familiar voice greeted us from behind. It was the Imam (the Muslim religious leader) from Mariama’s village coming from town on his bicycle. “Where are you going?’ he asked, knowing exactly where we were headed. “To your village” I replied, knowing that he already knew that we were on our way to Mariama’s. “Well then, let me carry some of your load!” he graciously insisted. He came along side us with his bicycle, referred to by some rural Fulbe as their “donkeys”, and loaded it up with the water and the food, the heaviest things we were carrying. After tying them down with a strip of scrap black rubber that was conveniently wrapped around the “baggage rack” on the back, he began pushing his bicycle down the dusty dirt road, and we headed off together.

As we walked, I introduced J**** to him, since they had never “officially” met. They exchanged greetings and blessings while we walked down the newly grated road towards the river. Dozens of women and children were gathered at the bottom of the slope, washing their laundry in a large, shallow pool of fairly clean water. Suddenly there was a surge of noise from those gathered at the river. The commotion seemed to be centered around a young man who was either mentally ill or demonically possessed. He whacked at one of the women, tried to grab something, and then ran off down the road and into the woods. The Imam stopped and watched, from a distance.

After the ripples of commotion had died away, we crossed the river, stepping on some large stones on our way to the low, washed out concrete bridge that now functions more as a laundromat than a means of travel. Once on the other side, we waited for the Imam to maneuver his bike around the obstacles of stone and mud and catch up. J**** greeted the women who were busy washing their laundry. “Greet Mariama for us …. Ask her if she’s doing better,” they called out as we continued on our way. “We’ll pass your greetings along!” we called back. Rounding the corner, we began going slightly back uphill and passed by the junior high and high schools. Surprisingly, most of the teenagers were actually inside today, rather than hanging out along the road as we typically find. There were just a couple of school girls, dressed in their khaki colored uniforms, sitting on a log by the side of the road. As usual, they eyed us suspiciously while we passed.

Nearing Mariama’s place, on the outskirts of her village, we offered to take the bags, and allow our Imam friend to continue on his way. To our surprise, he offered to accompany us to Mariama’s fence. “We can unload the bags at the gate,” he suggested. As we approached Mariama’s gate we thanked and blessed him, and he thanked us for taking the time to care for someone from his village and then blessed us back. “May God bless you! May He pay you back for your many good works!” We tried to explain, as we have so many times before, that we weren’t caring for Mariama in order to get blessings. God had already given us in Jesus more blessing than we could ever try to earn. He rattled off a nervous, “Praise God”, obviously not knowing what else to say.

Grace… the kind of holy, unmerited, illogical grace of which we were speaking, is about as foreign to him and most of the rest of the Fulbe as Toori and Nama is to us. They really have a hard time grasping what we are even talking about and can’t seem to wrap their minds around our relentless care for someone who is, in their minds, a cursed, slave – class woman who has nothing to offer anyone. It just doesn’t make sense. Why do we do it if there is nothing in it for us?

After an awkward pause, we climbed over the low V shaped cut in the fence that serves as a gateway to Mariama’s yard and the Imam handed our bags over to us. We thanked him again and said goodbye. Mariama saw us coming and got up, greeting us and calling out to Cherno Billo, the Imam. “Cherno Billo. Cherno Billo!” she called repeatedly, increasing her volume each time. Cherno Billo quickly greeted her back and continued on his way down the small dirt path that runs along the side of Mariama’s stick fence towards the nearby elementary school. As he left, Mariama hollered after him “So, you’re throwing me out, are you? I’m trash am I? You’re not even going to come in to greet me, are you? Just going to walk off and leave me here?! Throwing me out, huh?” Hurrying away now with his bicycle liberated but his head hung low, I heard him mutter something, half to himself and half to Mariama “Throw you out, ….blahhblaahh blah..” I couldn’t make out the rest, but I could tell he was upset. I came up as quickly as I could to where Mariama was standing and asked her to please not insult Cherno Billo like that; she would only succeed in pushing him away farther. Mariama quickly agreed and turned away, remembering that over the last week she’d been trying to be more gracious to people who came by. “He carried most of your load today.” I explained. “And brought it all the way up to your gate.” Silently I thought, “That is more than most people would dare to do at this point. Very few come that close anymore, …. and fewer still enter.”

Why? Why did the Imam stop at the fence? Why do most people avoid Mariama like the plague? A combination of things probably contribute to Mariama’s severe estrangement. First of all, Mariama’s disease is attributed to a curse, a curse which in most people’s minds has not only taken its wrath out on Mariama, but also on some of those who have tried to help her. For example, on the day that Mariama’s tumor was removed, the son of one of her village leaders died unexpectedly. That night, the other leader, the man who helped finance Mariama’s trip to the Mercy Ship got very ill and was evacuated to the capital city. He never returned. So, visiting Mariama and being a part of caring for her is just not worth the risk. Besides, its useless. Many people say that the curse against her was one that can’t be overcome; that if someone tried to remove her tumors, they would only come back somewhere else. Many believe that even if the curse doesn’t rub off on them, maybe the disease itself would, if they got too close, and that’s enough to keep just about everyone away. Mariama’s condition is truly horrific. If someone were to get past the fear of the curse and the disease, they’d then have to get past how she looks … and smells. The gaping hole, the oozing wounds, the rotting flesh, the flies… it’s no picnic. Although the Imam seems happy and thankful that Jamie goes to help Mariama every day, he’d rather not get too close himself.

As if that weren’t enough, Mariama’s twenty years as a social outcast and a beggar has definitely left its mark. Mariama has a bitter edge to her, as seen in her reaction to Cherno Billo this morning. She is also very demanding and just plain rude to those around her. If someone does come within earshot, it its unlikely that they will get away from her without an insult, a guilt trip of some kind, or at minimum, a request for them to bring her something. (i.e. This morning she reminded me again that I still haven’t brought her a padlock for her hut. She’s worried about people coming to steal her things, which is about the craziest thing I’ve ever heard of. Mariama really doesn’t have anything, certainly not anything worth stealing, and besides that, no one even dares get near her hut. Even so, if anyone did want to get in, they could just crawl in through the holes in her grass roof.) Although Mariama’s demeanor has noticeably changed in the weeks since she decided to follow Jesus, she’s still not a very nice person to be around… in any way. So, most folks don’t bother coming by. Would you?

Quite honestly, I’d rather not. It’s a lot easier to just walk the other way and stay “clean” and “free”. And then, I remember grace. Yes, I remember His Grace.

On Sunday afternoon, as we gathered for worship, we sang the song, “Blessed be the Name” which includes the phrase “His blood can make the foulest clean”. Right away I thought of Mariama. Then it occurred to me that Mariama’s physical condition, Mariama’s face, is really just a mirror, a mirror that helps us look at ourselves and our own filthy, rotting, selfish hearts. The hole in Mariama’s face serves as a porthole into the depths of my own heart. Being around Mariama brings it all out to the surface where it can be clearly seen. Deep down, I, like many others, wouldn’t really mind if Mariama wasn’t there, or at least wasn’t “in my face”. I’d prefer that.that she would just, just …. get better ….or ….if not …. (selfish me)….just, go away. So as I type, and think, I have to ask myself “Mirror Mirror on the screen, whose the foulest in this horrid scene?” From where I’m sitting, it looks like me. Without Jesus, it is me! It is only…only by his grace, that I can even look at Mariama, let alone touch her. It’s only, only by His Grace that the Father looks at me, and sees ….. Jesus. Please pray that the blood of Jesus, and His Grace, would continue to wash us all clean as we learn about His Love by loving the unlovable around us.

Mariama and the Funeral

Mariama was feeling well enough to attend a funeral this week. On the way back she wanted J**** to talk to the local religious teacher about Jesus, because “he teaches children and needs to know about Jesus.” He was very interested and said he could read, but how would he understand unless someone came to teach him. That is right up B****’s alley! “And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will be qualified to teach others”(2 Tim. 2:2). As well as wanting to tell others about Jesus, she even seems to be treating people better. When people come by to greet, she thanks them instead of shaming them for not coming sooner. One day an older man stopped by while J**** was reading the New Testament. He said how good that was and asked how he could get a copy. The elder’s show of respect for God’s word really encouraged her. Her neighbors admitted to eavesdropping, also, and now there is a little group listening to the scriptures. Pray that this small group of ladies would make a decision to follow the Lord. Pray for the older man and the religious teacher to learn about the Savior and lead others to do the same.

Mariama’s Last Days

There’s a new road that goes right by our house. It also goes by Mariama’s hut. When Mariama heard the machines as they were putting in the road, she wanted to see what was going on. She painstakingly climbed over the stick fence in her weakened condition, saw that the machines were widening and smoothing the road, then climbed back over the fence, now with a contentment even in the midst of the exhaustion it had caused. Her body had literally been eaten alive by a very aggressive cancer. Each day she got weaker and the hole in her face got bigger. By Sat., Jan 6th, she could barely speak. J**** bandaged her again, read the Scriptures, which had become one of her only sources of comfort since she had accepted Christ a few weeks before. A Fula believer from another town had come for a visit. Others were here to lend aid. It was a good day. That night, the neighbor ladies noticed that Mariama’s door was still open. They went to check on her. The call to the elders of the village rang out. Mariama was gone! Twenty years of being the social outcast is over. She has been welcomed with open arms by the One who has made the way straight. Praise Him who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life!!! Please pray for others to learn about the new “Road” that has just come to their village.

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