Wednesday, January 6, 2016

What I Learned Traveling The Roads In Africa

There's an opening. Do you see it?

Inside our little red four-door Toyota, it felt like either an unwanted trip to the sauna or what life is like for the Thanksgiving turkey inside the oven. I couldn't be sure which was the more precise analogy. Either way, I was getting baked to a crisp. Relief was not in sight.

I was with another missionary and a lovely Nigerian educator who was supposed to be taking us to a boarding school for children of Christian pastors and missionaries, many of whom have been left orphaned by Boko Haram terrorists. We were in Jos, Nigeria, a hot, smoky, dusty city teeming with an amazing collection of people, all manner of motorized vehicles, soldiers armed with AK-47s and a wide variety of animals both alive and slaughtered. It was mid-afternoon and we were ensnared in your run of the mill Jos traffic jam. Think NASCAR meets a demolition derby meets Los Angeles freeway parking lot at rush hour and that's about what it's like. 

I was riding in the back seat, trying to remember how much life insurance I had and whether I would perish first of dehydration or in a car wreck. It seemed either scenario was inevitable. My traveling partner was a savvy American missionary who had spent 15 years living among Muslim Bedouins in Niger and was well-acquainted with the inherent dangers of African dangers. I had the distinct impression he was enjoying this because he kept looking back and smiling at me and making small talk about survival tactics on African roads.

We survived that trip to the boarding school and when we arrived I may or may not have kissed the ground upon exiting the car. But that trip and others I took on my journeys across the highways and byways of Nigeria taught me a few important things

1) Focus on the things in front of you. My missionary friend shared this with me after asking if I knew the one thing that mattered when driving in Africa. You see, there is chaos all around you on the roads in Africa and it's easy to get distracted by all the crazy things. There's cars, trucks, buses, three-wheeled taxis, motorbikes -- all with horns blaring and all crammed full of humans and cargo -- and people, animals and obstacles like vehicle-swallowing potholes or assault rifle-toting soldiers at checkpoints.

It would be easy to get lost in the mayhem. It can be overwhelming and fearful thinking of everything that could go wrong on the road. But your main concern is always moving forward -- sometimes inch by inch, sometimes at great speed --  eyes with a laser focus on what's in front of you. Distractions can be costly. Same for indecision. Decisiveness and aggressiveness are rewarded. So is fearlessness, for that matter.

So what is the Lord calling you to do that's in front of you? What leap of faith? The world needs followers of Jesus whose desire is to fulfill the Great Commission. That plays out in our families by modeling a faith to our kids that's centered around a love of Jesus, with hearts of grace, mercy and compassion and a firm commitment to please God with our lives. It plays out in hearts to reach the lost, comfort the afflicted and share our faith. "Most assuredly, I say to you, he who believes in Me, the works that I do he will do also; and greater works than these he will do, because I go to My Father." (John 14:12 NKJV)

2) It's a race for the space. The faint of heart are left behind, literally, on the roads in Africa. There's no room for the tentative and hesitant. As you're focused on what's right in front of you, you will see periodically among the jam of traffic a glimmer of light. It's an opening. The first to that tiny crack in the circus of vehicles wins. It's that simple.

Every day there's a race for the space in our hearts. The world or Jesus? I contend that this race starts first thing in the morning when we make the choice to either get in the Word or find another way to spend our time. Commitment to Jesus starts early in the day continues all day. Our focus should be continually on Him. It's the life Jesus modeled: "Now in the morning, having risen a long while before daylight, He went out and departed to a solitary place; and there He prayed." (Mark 1:35 NKJV)

3) Know you're going to have to improvise and adapt on the fly. On one trip across hundreds of miles of Africa we had to plan our trip to avoid Muslims leaving Friday afternoon prayers because there's a heightened danger of being an American traveling through certain areas. Even then, however, you never know what could go wrong or what you might face. The occasional goat streaking across the "highway" or maybe a herd of oncoming bulls. Seriously. 

As near as I can tell, there are no rules, or guidelines or even suggestions about driving protocol in Africa, other than generally keep to the right. Speed, lane usage, when to pass, the use of turn signals, driving a car in general operable condition that's safe for the roads, the number of suitable passengers -- human and animal -- cargo limits and other vehicular type rules are all highly subjective. Since that's the case, just know that something will go wrong on your trip and then deal with it.

On one trip I was with some men who actually made a repair on the fly with a shoelace and wire until we could get the vehicle to a suitable "garage." When we got stuck behind dozens of parading Muslim horsemen in the town of Bauchi that created a horrific traffic jam it meant our tight traveling schedule got thrown out the window and we would soon be driving the last leg of our journey at night. Let me just say that you don't want to drive at night in Nigeria. It is tempting misfortune at the highest level. We made the best of it however, and overcame potential disaster. And lived to write about it.

There are plenty of things that are going to "go wrong" in our lives. There are things that are going to require improvisation and adaptation. But here's the deal. Either we believe God is in control and there's a purpose in the things he's taking us through or we don't. It's that simple. "Have I not commanded you? Be strong and of good courage; do not be afraid, nor be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go." (Joshua 1:9 NKJV)

One other thing. It's a funny thing, too, as I think back about careening around Nigeria and the adventures and travails I experienced on the roads. It's like nothing else I've experienced. I miss it.

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