Just how many people can you cram into a Mitzubushi Pajero ?
On the average trip to the Bobelé Pygmy encampment in Central African Republic the answer may take on an entirely different dimension. For a start you have to pack the vehicle full with as many bananas, yams, and other cut price delicacies from the generous forest.
Yours truly , as the honoured guest, is then ensconced in glory in the front seat with pastor Anatole Banga’s two children, Ariel and Caleb. The next row is filled with Anatole himself, his wife Odile, Benjamin Lessy who is the pioneer African messenger to these Pygmies, and a very pregnant African lady called Opportune. Already a full van, but just when we were all already holding our breath for lack of air and pressure, five Pygmies are squeezed in for good measure ! Of course, you also need to include the driver in the grand total of thirteen.
As we bounced along the forest tracks, a mobile fount of plenty, I couldn’t help but doubt the beautiful image of solitude generated by the pictures of Mary and Joseph as they travel along to Bethlehem on a slightly less than loaded donkey !
The wheels dipped violently into the thousandth pot-hole in the track as a muffled cry emerged from the heavily pregnant lady next to Anatole. Through gritted teeth the cries grew louder as the labour pains came in unstoppable waves. It’s one thing to pray, like the Jewish patriarch Abraham, to be the “father” of many nations but we were on the verge of experiencing the only too real consequences of new birth.
The Pygmies stared, pastor Anatole grew paler by the minute, the lady groaned, bananas flew in all directions as the driver headed full speed for the capital city of Bangui. We arrived at a small set of buildings which served as a maternity ward in the aptly named area called “Bimbo.” We carried the lady out of the car and gratefully handed her over to what the French call “sage femmes”, wise women, or midwives for the English.
Two minutes later a shrill cry broke the hot, humid African air as the miracle of new life was welcomed into the world. A cloud obscuring the evening sun permitted sun beams to stream out of heaven as God seemed to be giving his own particular welcome to this precious African child. My own eyes filled with tears at the majesty of the moment.
Two thousand years ago another cry broke the middle eastern skies above Bethlehem, a cry no less human, yet divinely redemptive as God became a man to live, suffer and die amongst us. A cry that brought life and forgiveness to untold millions around the world, drew the rich and the poor together in worship and caused God to fling a new star into space.
I was so encouraged to see how the work in Bobelé has grown with whole areas now cultivated and earning a living for the folks on the ground. The indigenous Pygmy congregation is growing, and, at the end of a Sunday service a young Pygmy mother presented me with her new baby girl for me to name. I named her “Sylviane”, after my wife, which means “daughter of the forest”. A dispensary is saving lives and an educational programme bringing dignity and progress. A holistic gospel. God’s Shalom !
In spite of the opposition it seems indeed that God does indeed have a wonderful destiny for this nation and also for all the tribes of this beautiful African continent.
God came to man, born amongst muck and beasts in a violent poverty-stricken world. His Shalom became flesh.
In front of “Bimbo’s” maternity shacks a small new-born baby girl was carried out for me to bless. Fragile, stained with blood, yet covered in the white sheen of the newborn, she seemed to symbolize all that Central Africa could be in the future. I remembered Saul’s blessing of David and prayed :
“May you be blessed, my daughter ; you will do great things and surely triumph.”
They also named her a daughter of the forest.
May you too know this blessing, and the “triumph” of love and forgiveness in all you do this Christmas.