03237_000_012How a Nigerian sister taught me about service.
I would like to introduce you to a friend of mine named Ekaette, my neighbor for two and a half years. She lives in a tropical rain forest in Nigeria, the most densely populated country in Africa. During the rainy season, Ekaette’s home is surrounded by lush green undergrowth. Palm trees decorate the horizons, and the sun shining through the clouds creates gorgeous sunsets. During the hot, dry season, winds from the Sahara desert bring a haze of fine dust that filters the harsh rays of the sun.
Ekaette is two years older than I. She was a young schoolgirl when her marriage to Akpan, ten years her senior, was arranged. Their first child was born when Ekaette was only fourteen or fifteen years old. Ekaette has had eight children. Five have survived. Her family joined the Church a few years ago.
Akpan is unemployed, but he works at odd jobs and repairs things for other people. He is a proud and industrious man, a good husband and father.
Ekaette has a nice home made of reddish clay packed between bamboo poles. A thatch roof protects her family from the heavy tropical storms. Inside, the home has a hard-packed earth floor and is divided into four rooms. A covered cooking area is separate from the house.
There is no electricity in Ekaette’s area of the country. Everything must be done manually. Ekaette cooks over a fire, washes clothes in the stream, and irons with an iron filled with hot coals.
Ekaette’s day begins early. She and her children must carry all the water they will need for the day from a stream not far from their home. Several times a week they must go into the bush to cut firewood. They carry it home in bundles on their heads.
Most of the food for Ekaette’s family comes from several small, uneven farm plots outside their village. Ekaette grows cassava, yams, bananas, plantain, pineapple, hot red peppers, and several kinds of greens used in different soups.
Ekaette and her family are happy. They have a good life.
I met Ekaette while I was directing a village health program for the Thrasher Research Fund, which sponsors research projects on child health in third-world countries. My team and I organized health classes and trained volunteer teachers in dozens of villages to teach basic health principles like nutrition, sanitation, personal hygiene, and home health care. The teachers then taught similar classes in their own vernacular in homes, schools, churches, and village council halls.
Though I was not there as a missionary or Church representative, the gospel was very much on my mind. I remember one hot, sultry evening sitting under a generator-operated ceiling fan looking through some of the latest editions of the Church News, which I had just received. I paused at a page filled with suggestions of practical things to do in our homes to save money. Ideas included turning off lights and water when they are not being used, buying food in bulk and then freezing it in smaller containers, using cloth diapers instead of disposable ones, sending letters to cut down on long-distance telephone bills, and not shopping when you are hungry. These suggestions are certainly practical, but they belonged in a world other than the one I was living in at the time. Lights? Bush lanterns and candles provided the only light in Ekaette’s darkness. Water? It ran only if the children did while they carried it.
How relative the word practical can be! But in spite of the differences between my world and Ekaette’s, there was something that united us: the gospel of Jesus Christ—Christianity.
Christianity is not a relative term. It is absolute. It should not be affected by our environment or circumstances, even though they determine how we practice our beliefs. Christianity should not be affected by skin color or race, by how we earn a living, or by what we buy at the market. It should not be determined by climate or geographical location.
I returned from Africa with a simpler definition of Christianity than I once had. To me, Christianity is charity—the highest, noblest, strongest kind of love—the pure love of Christ. It may prompt alms or benevolent deeds, but it is not the same thing as charitable works.
In other words, Christianity is not so much what I do, but how I love; it’s the process of learning to love as Christ loves. Churches are institutions where we can learn about Christ and practice being Christians. But attending church will not make me a Christian any more than sitting in a library will make me a scholar. It simply gives me the means and opportunity of learning to become a Christian. Christianity teaches me about my relationship to God and to those around me. Understanding that relationship helps my heart change, increasing my capacity to love.
Principles such as love, sacrifice, faith, repentance, self-reliance, and consecration are universal. Working in Africa taught me how much more important principles like these are than programs. The Western world brings many programs to third-world countries. Schools are built, clinics are established, medicine is dispensed, tractors are imported, and food is distributed. The programs help meet immediate needs, but often, the principles behind the practices are overlooked. I don’t think I could do much good for Ekaette if I concentrated on programs like food storage or family history, worthy though they are. But Ekaette and I share a broad basis of belief in such eternal principles as faith, love, and self-reliance. In practicing these principles, we edified each other.
I realized the importance of teaching principles after I attended a Relief Society lesson at the local branch. The lesson, taken from the manual, was on keeping our homes neat and clean. An illustration in the lesson manual showed an American home that was tidily arranged and obviously well kept. Comfort, our teacher, was so unfamiliar with Western-style homes that she held the picture upside down when she showed it to the class.
Later that week, I went to Ekaette’s house and found her covered from head to toe with mud. She was beaming. Inspired by the lesson, Ekaette was cleaning her home. She had taken every single item out of the house (there wasn’t much), and she was smearing new clay mud on the walls and floor. She excitedly showed me how she had decorated the front of the house by using a darker mud along the bottom for a nice trim. It looked beautiful. Ekaette had learned the principle, then implemented it in a way that was practical for her.
Her example prompted me to think about my own efforts to apply the principles of Christianity. It occurred to me that perhaps the first and most important principle to practice is self-examination. Many times I feel, “Can’t do because don’t have.” Money and material things become issues that prevent Christian service. But what things does it take to be a Christian—a rug to kneel on, or a warm loaf of bread to share with a neighbor? Must I be financially established before I can share my means? Must I go to Africa to help children who are starving? I believe the Lord is pleased when we serve with whatever resources are available to us.
A second principle I learned is that it is important that I serve wherever I am. My experience in Africa was choice, but I do not feel that it is better to love someone far away than those near at hand. The Savior showed by example whom I should love. He didn’t leave his own country and travel far away to another place and people. He went among his own, and among his own he was not selective. He associated with a variety of people—the wealthy and the poor; the sick, the lame, and the blind; the hungry, the tired, and the lonely; and even those considered unworthy.
When I was in Africa, it was clear to me that Africa was the best place for me to practice being a Christian. Now that I am home, the most practical place for me to be a Christian is here, among my own. This is challenging for me. It often seems easier to send some money to a “save-the-world” organization than make room in my busy schedule to take time with a brother, sister, neighbor, or friend.
A third lesson I have learned is that I should prepare myself to serve in a wide variety of settings. I had many experiences that helped me understand Ekaette and her family better. But because I could not understand all she had experienced, it was hard for me to know how to help in the best and most practical ways. I don’t know how it feels to have three of my own children die in my arms because no medical help is available. I don’t know how it feels to wonder where my next meal is coming from. I don’t know how it feels to mold the walls of my home into shape with my own hands. I don’t know what has brought Ekaette her greatest joys. As hard as I try, I am not able to relate to many of her problems and challenges.
And yet, I’ve learned that the more variety I can experience, the more people I will understand. Choosing to associate only with a select group of individuals who think and act the same way I do will seriously limit my options for Christian service. I can choose to increase the variety of my experiences and my capacity to love. The more people I understand, the more like Christ I can become.
As I have tried to practice being a Christian, I’ve discovered that many of my motives are often reflected in the actions of the people around me. As my team members and I associated with hundreds of people from dozens of villages, we observed many reasons for their participation in our program. Some came because they believed that white health workers would provide free services, medicine, or employment. Others were curious about the novelty of white faces in their midst. Some came because they were concerned with their family’s health; they were frightened of illness and feared that a child might die. Others wanted to learn more about health for their families’ sake. Some came because their neighbors came. Still others came because there was love in their hearts and a desire to know how to improve their lives and the lives of those around them.
It was fascinating to see the different responses to our project. The people who came for handouts dropped out very quickly. The curious got used to our white faces and also left. Those who needed to solve family health problems usually did well; they not only received some answers to meet their current needs, but they also stored up information against future needs. Those who were motivated by love not only stayed, but went a step further in offering what they had learned to those around them.
Ekaette was one of these people. She told me once, “If you had given me money—whether it had been a hundred naira or a thousand naira—it would all be gone now. But you have given me knowledge, and no one can ever take it away from me!” In the last year or so, Ekaette, on her own with only minimal help from us, trained teachers to instruct several groups of women in different villages.
In Ekaette’s life, I have seen Christianity—or love—at work. Guided by gospel principles, she has found practical solutions to her daily challenges. And so can we.
I have spent nearly half of the last decade living overseas. During this time, I have seen and experienced much contrast, and I have looked into the eyes of many who have great challenges in their lives. I believe what President Kimball said to be true—that in the gospel of love taught and exemplified by the Savior, we can find the answers to all our problems. With that kind of love in my heart, I can be a practical Christian, whether here or in Ekaette’s world.