Deep in the interiors of northern Nigeria, the heart-rending cry of the bereaved young mother kept most of the Gbagyi village awake. Another baby was dead. Many in this community were quick to attribute the high rate of infant mortality to demons. But Victoria Hassan and her team of missionaries had a different view.
Back in the early 1980s, apart from being unevangelised, most of the 1 million people that make up the Gbagyi ethnic group lived in the interior rural areas of Nigeria and were cut off from basic health services. Victoria was a registered nurse and a midwife before she felt God’s call to preach the Gospel to the Gbagyis. She was now convinced of the need for a tangible demonstration of Christ’s love by dealing with these huge community needs. And the three areas that she and her team focused on were:- child health care, agriculture, and education.
They set up clinics and dispensaries. To ensure that health care went everywhere that the Gospel went, every Gbagyi evangelist that she sent out to Gbagyi communities was also trained as a health worker. There were two particular aspects of her initiatives that helped to dramatically reduce the problem of infant mortality. These were the weekly post-natal clinics and the push for immunization. Every week in the various communities these health workers would assemble all the new mothers to make sure babies’ immunizations were up-to-date and to weigh each baby. This simple practice was an effective means of monitoring the health of each newborn baby. A simple graph of their weight was plotted weekly against a graph of the expected weight gain of a normal healthy child. A lack of steady weight gain signaled an unhealthy infant. This made it easy to attend to babies before any real danger occurred. And indeed this singular health initiative transformed the situation of the Gbagyis as many babies were saved from early death.
This act of love by Victoria and her team went a long way in opening up many more hearts to the Gospel. By the time my wife and I took over the leadership of the work among the Gbagyis in the late 1990s many Churches had been planted among the Gbagyis as a result of this preaching of the Gospel with good works.
Now a lot of the health problems among the Gbagyis were also because they were not eating right. And the root of the problem was their agricultural practices. They were a subsistence farming community. But many of them focused on growing mainly starchy grain crops like maize (because of its quick source of energy) and cultivated very little protein crops. And even when they cultivated things like beans, they sold it off for cash and ate mainly starch. Victoria and her team set out to change this mentality and their ways of farming. Through years of teaching and showing them how to do it, the Gbagyis gradually changed their practices. They began to farm and eat better. This further resulted in improved health. They were further encouraged to plant cash crops like pepper that improved the income of many households.
Of all the initiatives that Victoria and her CAPRO team introduced no other was a harder sell than the school they started. As I said earlier, the Gbagyis live deep in the interior of northern Nigeria and in most cases there are no schools available to them. This meant that almost all of them had remained illiterate before Victoria came. Hence she set out to change this. But the Gbagyis were not enthusiastic about the idea of sending their children to school. These people depended on every available hand of every child in the compound to farm enough to feed everyone till the next farming season. So it was difficult for them to see the gain of releasing their able-bodied children to school for so many years. It took several years for the idea to catch up but by the time the Gbagyis saw how education was changing their children and their community, their enthusiasm knew no bounds.
The impact of these good works helped to open many tough doors for the Gospel. For example, some Muslim radicals once tried to bar our team from residing and evangelising in a Muslim town by dragging us before their normally unsympathetic Muslim traditional leader. But when the leader discovered that this was the team involved in bringing education to his people, he dismissed the case.
Today “the Gospel is bearing fruit and growing throughout the Gbagyi nation not just because they heard it but because they truly understood God’s grace as it was demonstrated through good works.” (My paraphrase of Colossians 1:6)