A letter from Josh Heikkila serving as Regional Liaison for West Africa, based in Ghana
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When those of us from the United States speak of the year, it seems we frequently mention the seasons. It feels natural to say things like spring cleaning, summer vacation, or school reopens in fall. Groups planning mission trips to West Africa often talk of coming next spring or summer. Seasons are very important for our sense of time and place.
Last year I had a chance to spend fall in Minnesota, and the incredible beauty of the maple trees as they turned from green to yellow and red brought a renewed sense of awe to my life. Before I returned to Ghana there was even the first winter snowfall, with the peace and hush that always comes with it.
For the most part our terms for the seasons—spring, summer, fall, and winter—are unfamiliar to friends in West Africa. If, for example, you refer to something happening in the fall, people will ask you to explain what this means. If people mention the seasons at all, they will talk about what they know firsthand—the rainy season, the dry season, or perhaps the harmattan, a unique time of year at the end of December and into January. Where I live, in Accra, Ghana, it’s extremely humid throughout the year. But then there is the harmattan. As winter in Europe sets in, winds flow south over the Sahara Desert, bringing a dry, dusty, and hazy weather to West Africa. Your lips and hands begin to chap, and even if you dust your house every day, a very fine layer of sand covers everything. While it’s a pain to keep things clean, these few weeks bring a welcome respite from the normally stifling humidity.Although the seasons are not spoken of so frequently here, they hold great importance because a majority of West Africans are still involved in agriculture. Agricultural production is especially pronounced as you move out from the few big cities into towns and villages. Rural life can be difficult, because there’s not always good access to water, electricity, health services, or education. People survive by eating the crops they grow themselves, and the little extra that is sold in the market brings in money for clothing and household goods, and for school fees and medical bills.
Along the coastal areas of West Africa the rainy and dry seasons each last about half the year. The rains start falling in mid-May and continue through November. But by the end of that month there is an abrupt change, and dry weather sets in. For the next six months there may be only two or three minor rainfalls, so the dry season is long and hot. As you move inland to places like Niger the rainy season is a couple months shorter and the dry season even more intense.
If the rains have been good, the October harvest is usually a time of abundance. But that abundance has to be enough to last through the dry season, and even until next year’s harvest. One of the most difficult times of year is when the rains return and the planting season begins. Last year’s harvest is beginning to run out, but this year’s has not yet come. People struggle through it.
It brings to mind scripture like Psalm 126, which says, “Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like the watercourses in the Negev. May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy. Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves.”
Throughout this time of struggle, however, these farmers hold fast to their faith and as they prepare the soil and plant the seeds, they pray—prayers for the rains to return on time, prayers for the current food supply to last until the harvest, prayers for the quick arrival of new crops to ease hunger, prayers for the bounty of the upcoming harvest, prayers for the current struggles to be replaced with joy and singing. And when the harvest does come, they express their gratitude to God for these gifts through song, prayer and bringing offerings to church. In farming communities, where people often live outside the cash economy, it’s customary for them to bring yams or plantains—any agricultural produce, in fact—as an offering. One Sunday morning in Togo I witnessed a church member bring with him 10 live chickens tied to a pole. After the benediction an elder auctioned off each of the 10 chickens, and the proceeds were added to the offering plate.
In early November this year while visiting Niger I saw another rural church where bundles of millet had been brought by each member as part of the annual harvest offering. These bundles were to be sold in the market to support the annual expense of operating the congregation.
As we enter again the season of Advent and Christmas, I want to thank you for all you do to make mission in West Africa possible. Together we are supporting the work of our partners to bring clean water, improve agriculture, and expand access to health and education. The church is having a positive impact! In this season of hope and anticipation, please continue to pray for our church partners in West Africa, that they may truly know a life filled with abundance, joy, and singing.
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