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Texan missionaries in West Africa

By Jesslyn Lemke

The wail of the Muslim call to prayer breaks the silence of the dawn. As roosters begin to crow, Hands On missionaries Kelsi Kelso and Brittany Breedlove greet another day in West Africa.

Padding around on their hut’s sand floor, they make breakfast from scratch on their gas burner. A single bulb is their only source of light.

Living conditions are rough for these two Texans, but they knew that when they signed up for the Hands On West Africa program. And that’s why they came – to speak the name of Jesus in hard places.

Kelso and Breedlove served with an International Mission Board program that places 18- to 29-year-old college and seminary students in different ministries around West Africa for a semester or a total of four to five months. The two young women have since completed their Hands On assignment.

There are currently two Hands On programs – one in West Africa and another in Central, Eastern and Southern Africa – but the program will go worldwide in 2009.

“Living out here without running water and just one light and cooking from scratch and living in sand isn’t the ideal life for me because I’m American,” says Kelso, who recently recovered from malaria. “But this is life for them (the Zerma people), and for me to understand who they are, I have to become like them.”

The Hands On program challenges short-term missionaries to take up the Great Commission, leaving behind their American lifestyles. Hands On is part of an IMB effort to raise up a younger generation of career missionaries.

“I think one thing about this region that is distinctive is that people really want to have a spiritual conversation about God,” says Greg Sharpe. He and his wife, Laura, are coordinators for the Hands On West Africa program.

Most West Africans practice a mix of Islamic and animistic beliefs but love to discuss spirituality. Hands On volunteers live directly among the people and are able to share Christ as they experience life in Africa.

“You get to put your whole mind, body, soul and spirit into what that feels like,” Sharpe says.

Volunteers on their first trip to West Africa may experience culture shock since African villages haven’t progressed much since Jesus’ day. Kelso recently found herself witnessing to a woman who was drawing water from the well near her house.

“It’s like being in a time warp,” Sharpe says.

Kelso and Breedlove studied the African language of Zerma for three weeks before beginning their ministry. Their hard work has paid off.

Kelso, 23, got to know women her age in the neighborhood. Most of them already have a baby or two.

“At first I thought it would be hard to relate to them, but it’s not,” Kelso says. “Right now we’re just trying to get to know what they like to do.”

The two Texans have tried to immerse themselves in the villagers’ day-to-day activities. When one of their host’s goats ran away to give birth, Breedlove spent the next two hours helping with the search. A man later found and returned the goat and newborn kid.

“The people here aren’t so different from you and me. I feel like I’m a part of their family. I have friends here like I have in America that I can talk with and joke with just like I would in America,” Breedlove says.

The young women also have been able to minister using basic first aid. A little boy cut his toe one night outside their house. The two volunteers cleaned his cut, bandaged it and sent him home. More people with injuries showed up the next day, asking for help.

“We had a little clinic under the tunda (porch roof) outside our house. We were fixing people and teaching them how to wash their sores and giving them Band-Aids,” Kelso says.

Elizabeth White of Borger, Texas, missionary supervisor for Kelso and Breedlove, said the young women have far surpassed her expectations. “I’m really amazed at what they can do after being here only for such a short time. And it really gives me a desire to mentor more people all the time,” White says.

“I have been stretched more beyond measure on this trip than I have ever been in my life. Nothing else matters than serving the Lord. No matter what you do,” Kelso says. “Whether you’re sitting back at a desk back in the States or being a real missionary in Niger. You need to be a missionary wherever [you are].”

By: Jesslyn Lemke