Author’s Note: please refer to Part 1 of the “11 Hour Church” series for more background on the events that led to hearing this personal story of victory and faith in action.
It was about the start of the second hour of what would end up being a three plus hour drive from Bongolo to M’bigou to attend church and review the Sunday School program, and I started getting antsy. I don’t know how well you travel – maybe you’re perfectly content sitting still and looking out the window at the beauty of God’s creation, hoping to see something interesting, like maybe a water buffalo or an elephant. But I have a pretty short attention span in general, which just seems to be magnified in the car. Unless I’m distracted, that is.
So, I took a deep – this would be my first interview through a translator and I was nervous - and asked Dr. Renee Valach, typically Bongolo’s Medical Director, but today our jungle driver for the day (I was riding shot gun), if she would mind asking Christine some questions. Christine, my friend from last year’s trip, was wedged in the middle seat of our Toyota Land Cruiser between my newest friends, Emmanuel and Alice. Few things bind people together like road trips! My goal was to get to know all three, so I had decided to start with talkative Christine in hopes the others would get into the spirit of sharing. Married with three children, she is nearing retirement after working at the hospital for over twenty years. She is the Gabonese accountant for the hospital, and has a place on the Committee de Gestion, which makes decisions related to operations. In a larger system, she would be the Controller. Christine works for Eric Hofman, the CFO, and fills an indispensable role; in fact, there is concern about how to replace her when she retires.
Christine and I already knew and liked each other, and I figured she would quickly warm to the conversation. While on our way to picking up the three of them, Renee and I had discussed Renee helping with translation, but the driving conditions were a lot harder than I had expected. So, I didn’t want to assume to intrude on Renee’s concentration as she continually downshifted to bump and slide our way along the narrow, pot-holed, muddy dirt roads. I asked, and “Sure!” was Renee’s immediate reply. Maybe she needed a distraction, as well I supposed. And we were off and running.
For the next two hours, Christine regaled us with stories of growing up in and around Bongolo. Renee did her best to keep up, but it was like stopping a running river. The third of twelve children, Christine very early on had more responsibilities than many children. While six brothers and five sisters is amazing enough, it pales next to the fact that her mother was married to her dad at just eight years of age! He father, a young man at that point, had been working with Pastor Donald Fairly, Bongolo’s originating missionary starting in the 1930’s. He was under pressure to marry, and he told Pastor Fairly that he was promised to someone from his home village to the north. True to his word, he went off to bring her back to Bongolo. Little did anybody know it would be a third grader! This was scandalous even for Gabon, but fortunately, he was an honorable man and he raised his betrothed as if she were his own child. When she was fifteen, still young but not uncommon there, they had their first child.
Christine’s father started off as an Nzebi teacher (the local tribal language), even though he was Massangou. After trying several careers, he eventually became the local printer for the Alliance’s Bible study and Christian educations materials, which he did for the rest of his working life. By this time, they had moved away from Bongolo. Christine’s mother had had two sets of twins, and this caused problems with the people of their village. In traditional Gabonese ancestor worship, it is still believed that twins are bad luck and, commonly, one twin is put to death in order to ward off evil spirits from causing bad things to happen to the rest of the family or other villagers. Her parents refused to go along with this, which caused many problems for years.
I was really taken aback. This was the first time I had heard an ancestor worship story from someone I know. For the last year, I had anecdotally been exposed to this satanic practice, but it wasn’t personal. I had heard and read tales of demonic initiation rites, drinking poisonous concoctions and sick people going to witch doctors instead of to the hospital. It is one thing to hear of something so alien; it’s quite another to be face-to-face with the reality.
Christine struggled early in school because her parents didn’t know much French (only Nzebi) to be able to help her. But, she became a good student in spite of this. Part of her education was Bible knowledge. As Christine put it, she grew up with lots of Christian head knowledge, but very little heart faith. Like many of us, she did not yet understand the power of combined head and heart as it relates to a relationship with Jesus. This changed forever, when, in her late 20’s, Dr. David Thompson, the founder of the hospital at Bongolo, invited Christine to join more formal Bible school classes that he taught. Under his tutelage, she became a Christian at age 30. She told us, “It all made sense” at that point.
Christine was living then about twenty miles south of Bongolo the large town of Ndende, working at a pharmacy and attending a Pentecostal church. She had left the Alliance church there after being falsely accused of having an affair with an older man who was a teacher in the church. This was a heartbreaking experience as no one would believe her and for some reason the man did not come to her defense. In spite of being part of a Christian community, she eventually moved back to Bongolo because she had felt safe there when she was growing up, with no fear of witch doctors and spirit worship.
Christine has lived and worked at Bongolo ever since. She has since become an influential leader at the hospital, as well as in the Alliance district of churches. While not certain what will happen after she retires, she is confident that God knows. And, that is good enough for today.
(In the photo, Christine is on the left )