True Global Health

A Letter from Michael and Rachel Ludwig, serving in Niger

Winter 2021

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We’re going back to Niger! We’re so excited to get an exception to the PC(USA) travel ban so we can return to living in close proximity with our partners in the Evangelical Church in the Republic of Niger (abbreviated EERN). But our children were not excited about one thing. We had to face a lot of needles to update our travel vaccinations!

Among the other vaccinations, renewing our typhoid shot was a sobering reminder to me of how many friends I’ve seen with this very preventable sickness. It’s relatively simple to guard against if you can be sure your water comes right from the tap and your dishes are well cleaned and dried. But even in the city there’s still so much reliance on carrying buckets for water, raising animals at home, and the presence of flies and other germ carriers. I’m amazed again at how much we do to prevent things that our neighbors just endure as normal facts of life.

That’s not surprising in this time in particular as most people in the U.S. are so focused on health concerns. But as we are tempted to get fixated on these very real threats, we also take so much for granted, which other people don’t have the luxury of worrying about.

Michael stands with a pastor and his wife outside their house at the edge of the village. (Photo: Ronald Nuckols).

Last year I had a conversation with a Nigerien church worker about how most people in their country live under the threat of disease every day, but it hasn’t become a focus for them. His example was how many people die every year in Niger of malaria – and yet preventing it is not something that the majority of people take too seriously, nor does the government take extreme measures to combat it. Still 50% of child deaths in Niger are caused by malaria. Estimates of 20-40,000 total malaria deaths per year there (probably under-reported) make the 153 COVID-19 deaths in the last year (also probably under-reported) look not as dangerous. But, because I know I have the resources to prevent the hassle and danger of malaria for my family, we’ll get hundreds of dollars’ worth of daily malaria prophylaxis pills before we go back.

Sobering realities like that are why we are continually excited to work with Community Health Evangelism (CHE) in Niger. CHE integrates action-oriented teaching about physical health and spiritual health in a way that tries to help people find with local solutions to their most important problems. One of the first health lessons for pastors to use in their villages is on “healthy homes.” They present this view of holistic health and participants apply it to what characteristics they think we should see in local homes that are truly healthy. I’m constantly surprised by what health characteristics we hear are most important to people in these groups.

There are some other characteristics that would make my list now that I’ve lived in Niger, but to my surprise they’re rarely mentioned in these groups, who obviously have other concerns. Things like using a latrine, mosquito nets, and limiting flies. These just make sense to me because I come from a place where we can almost completely control or limit these things. But I think most Nigeriens feel like they don’t have control of any of those characteristics because of construction materials, traditions, or resources available to them.

A view of the outside yard of a typical pastor’s house. A mud-brick house with a porch in the background used to store animal feed, grass fencing, and an outdoor cooking area. (photo: Ronald Nuckols).

The things that are often first on Nigeriens’ minds, however, are some big characteristics of a healthy home which we can take for granted or push to the back of our minds: Being able to get your children enough medicine. Being able to provide enough food for your family. Visiting your neighbors frequently and being good at receiving visits from neighbors. Doing things with joy. Praying together as a family. Doing regular devotions. Children obeying their parents. Being able to send your kids to school. Having the sand or bricks in your yard swept clean. Being able to cloth your children well.

That’s another sobering list to look at. It highlights the importance of increasing education about health practices and the real dangers of not making them a priority. But in a place where people are more on the edge of survival and death is more in your face, Nigerien Christians can also remind us of important priorities to keep at the top of our concerns. Prayer! Families doing activities together. Bible study! Connection to neighbors. Cultivating joy! And of course, thankfulness for our many resources and blessings.

As a national church, we in the PC(USA) have committed to striving for the values in Matthew chapter 25, as they boldly illuminate the issues before us of eradicating systemic poverty, dismantling structural racism, and building congregational vitality. May we not be the foolish bridesmaids spoken of in this chapter, who don’t have enough of the right kind of oil for the task that our steadfast and long-suffering Bridegroom gives us! While we take seriously the health concerns of this time, may we not fill our lamps with the oil that burns on fear, pride, or appearances. But let us be careful to fill our lives with the things that kindle faithfulness in our connection with God and our now careful connections with our neighbors.

Our family is personally very thankful for the blessings that you have been to us through your support and prayers during all our months of health concerns and waiting. Thank you for sharing your financial resources as well, which enable us to continue accompany the church in Niger. Please pray for us amid many transitions and decisions for how to adapt to the new situation that we will be serving in as we go back to Niger this year.

Michael and Rachel Ludwig

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