In a village on the outskirts of the Sahara Desert, a group of men drill through the ground in a search for clean water that could change the entire village's future. TEAM missionary Scott Downing has been drilling wells in southeastern Chad for three years. Working with local Muslim men in the heat of day to find a safe source of drinking water provides opportunities not only to improve the villagers’ health, but also to demonstrate the love of Jesus and to share scripture.
“Sleeping out there with them and sweating with them, and getting a migraine headache with them, dehydrated — all those things are speaking a lot to the people,” Downing says.
Downing, along with his wife, Susan, and their five children, is part of a broader group of TEAM workers in the early stages of various community development initiatives in Chad, an extremely poor nation where life expectancy is 49 years, among the lowest in the world. The projects aim to meet physical and spiritual needs in rural villages through water development, sanitation and hygiene education — known in the development world as WASH — as well as lay the groundwork for longer-term community health education.
Over 54 percent of Chadian people live in poverty, according to the World Bank, and a lack of education and poor hygiene practices exacerbate Chad’s medical problems. Downing says that Chadians regularly face epidemics of malaria, measles, meningitis and other infectious diseases. And immunization programs are not always successful.
“They’re very hesitant to accept or trust anything from the outside,” Downing says. “So when you get vaccination programs coming from the government or from the UN or World Health Organization, many of the people in our region refuse free vaccinations for infants just because they think that’s something from the outside being imposed on them — maybe that’s Christianity, maybe it’s just Western culture. But most of them refuse that kind of free care mainly because they’re not educated about the importance of vaccinations.”
Medical clinics are not easily accessible in rural Chad. Villagers typically must travel long distances to reach a clinic — which takes them away from necessary daily tasks — and they often cannot afford transportation. Many villagers put off treatment until medical problems become severe, and by then it’s too late. Chad is ranked second in the world for maternal mortality rate, sixth in infant mortality, and fourth in overall death rate.
“There are a vast number of diseases here, which we wouldn’t even think twice about in the States and that would not impact quality of life and would not impact number of years of life,” says Dr. Eric Kroner, who works with TEAM in Chad with his wife, Mollie, and their three sons. But “here, it is very likely that they’re not going to overcome that illness or that disability.”
For Downing, Chad’s problem is not a lack of resources. In fact, he looks around and sees abundant natural resources that, because of man’s sinful choices, are being inefficiently distributed.
“If you look at Chad as a whole, God has blessed our region a lot with water, with a good rainy season, with rivers that flood and silt up the field, so that they can plant each year and have a good harvest,” Downing says. “In general, everything that you need physically can be found in our region. But with people’s desires to think about only themselves and not about other people, oftentimes people aren’t getting what they need physically.”
There are several ways TEAM missionaries in Chad are helping alleviate physical suffering. Well-drilling is an important part of their ministry and provides a way to initiate meaningful contact in a village and build trust.
“God provided the machine — a small trailer-mounted machine — through some generous people who wanted to help folks in Chad and also reach them with the gospel,” explains Downing, who worked in commercial construction for several years before joining TEAM. “I joined forces with a couple of Chadian guys who have the practical side of well-drilling, and I had the theoretical side.”
Chadians are well aware of their need for an accessible water source and readily turn to Downing’s team for help. To show they are serious about building and maintaining a well, the team requires villages to meet several requirements: pay $300 in cash; appoint a committee to manage the well; provide materials to make a basin for the well; and haul 15 barrels of water to use when drilling.
“The big challenge in doing projects like that is getting people to own it,” Downing says. “Chad has been ruined by well-intentioned people coming here — mostly with NGOs, and with big budgets and a timeline — dumping a whole bunch of stuff on people and leaving. And it’s not owned by anybody, so when it breaks, it’s broken for good. Our challenge and our desire is that the pump might not look pretty, but that it work for 20 years and provide clean water.”
By God’s grace, the drilling team has a near 100 percent success rate in finding water. After developing a well, Downing trains the committee that will be maintaining the well for the community. He also returns to the village for three or four days to teach about hygiene and the importance of hand washing. He says that villages that receive a well usually see a dramatic drop in gastrointestinal illness. Women, who previously spent hours each day walking to a distant and usually dirty water source, now have more time for tasks at home and even happily report that their clothes are cleaner after washing.
The well becomes a first step in the development of a healthy village and in creating relationships with a community. In one village, an elder sat in the shade and watched Downing’s team drilling for a well. “When you go out and do your work, it’s true that you’re telling people God’s word,” the man said. “You’re teaching people God’s word and that’s OK, because we know that you love them.”
Kroner’s hope is that he can follow-up Downing’s well drilling with basic medical care and health education. People are naturally more open to receiving further help because of Downing’s service to the village. “They develop a level of trust,” Kroner says. “Also, the testimony from those villages to other villages — they say, ‘Oh yeah, these are people we can trust. These are good people. They are people of the Book and you can trust them.’ So, it’s kind of a stepping stone into deeper and deeper levels of community health education.”
In drilling wells and teaching hygiene, TEAM missionaries in Chad are doing work that they hope will eventually become part of a community health evangelism (CHE) program. CHE is a holistic approach to ministry that addresses both the spiritual and physical needs of a community.
“A lot of development in Chad — the vast majority — is meeting strictly physical needs,” Downing says. “The police commissioner in our town, a Muslim guy from the north, reminded us that we need to make sure with all that we’re doing — whether it’s education, healthcare, or water — that we’re teaching people God’s word so that they fear God. He said we could throw all the money in the world at this region and have paved roads, have skyscrapers, and if people don’t fear God, nothing’s going to change.”
When his team drills a new well, Downing always takes the opportunity to share about God, his character, and his creation. With the first well he drilled, Downing’s Muslim colleagues demanded they sacrifice an animal to ensure the success of their work. Downing refused.
“I said, ‘We don’t sacrifice anymore. In Old Testament days they did, but Jesus was the perfect sacrifice. And so we’ll pray in Jesus’ name and ask God to bless our work, but we won’t sacrifice,’” he explains. “That spoke a lot to them because they live in fear that if you don’t please God through a blood sacrifice, he’s not going to give you water. And that day, God gave us an abundance of water. It was their first time ever to see that happen, praise God.”
Over half of Chadians are Muslim. In the region where this team works, nearly all the people are Muslim, practicing a type of folk Islam that is heavily mixed with animism.
“From a spiritual standpoint, they’re the most needy,” Downing says. “They live in fear, with very little hope. ... The majority of the people wear amulets to protect them[selves] from different evil attacks or from knife wounds or from different things.”
Because Chadians talk about God so often — for example, in their greetings — the team is finding it easy to incorporate spiritual conversations into their daily lives. Kroner also is finding that Chadians understand all health and healing comes from God, so they accept medical teachings if given in the context of God giving us knowledge.
Community development is “really just a tool for us to be with people. We don’t want it to be all-consuming and the equipment be so cumbersome that it drives our ministry,” Downing says. “I tell people we’re trying to be the most inefficient well drillers in Chad because it’s not about the well or the water. It’s about being able to share the gospel with them and share the truth from his word.”
THE NEXT LEVEL
Though the team could start CHE programs in all of the 35 villages that have received a well, Downing hopes to start in just two or three villages. One village, in particular, has become an ideal place to expand their work. Dubbed “K-Town” by the team, the village is unusual in its openness to and acceptance of the TEAM missionaries’ ministry efforts.
“K-Town would be a perfect start. They’re a natural. Things that they learn, they realize are a gift from God. Water they have now from the well, they realize is a gift from God and is not to be hoarded, but to be shared,” Downing says. “They say if they hold it to themselves, God will judge them on that.”
One reason for K-Town’s openness is the fact that the village has had a Christian presence for a number of years. Andre Yengderé, a Christian pastor and rice farmer from the south of Chad, along with his wife Monique, initially helped develop agricultural co-ops in the area. Yengderé also teaches rice farming to villagers and was instrumental in bringing a well to K-Town.
“People in that village trust him,” Downing says. “They know that he has wisdom that comes from above. He solved a lot of family disputes in that village that the local Marabout [Muslim religious leader] couldn’t solve and the village chief couldn’t solve. He’s invested his life and his family’s life in that village.”
The villagers trust and respect the Yengderés so much, in fact, that they even helped the couple build a house in the village. The chief and his brothers laid the bricks, the women hauled water for mixing mud, and the entire community was involved.
For Arabs to befriend Christians like the Yengderés is a small miracle, Susan Downing says. “And then, to accept them and build a house there. So, in many ways they’ve opened the doors out there for us to come in.”
The village chief is another reason why K-Town is open to the missionaries’ work. Though he appears large and intimidating, the chief is a gentle, peaceful man. He knows what the team is doing, and he continues to invite them into his village. In addition, he travels with Downing and Yengderé to other needy villages to advocate for building wells.
“It is something similar to the call from God to Abraham to say, ‘I’m going to bless you, and then you’re going to pass that blessing on to other people,’” Kroner says. “And we see that in him.”
“He knows that we love them,” Mollie Kroner says. “It’s so easy to talk and to share. I’m really excited to see how he’s going to open the doors. Because the chief there, and his wife, and his oldest daughter, and their children, they are people of peace.”
The chief’s and the villagers’ desire to share does not apply only to physical needs. One year, Yengderé invited the men of K-Town to watch the Jesus film with his church. The men watched the movie and stayed up late into the night discussing it. Then they insisted that their wives and children also be allowed the see it, so the missionaries took the film to the village. However, when they arrived they noticed an unusual number of people. The villagers had invited three nearby villages to come watch the movie with them.
Today, K-Town has many of the building blocks necessary to create a healthy, thriving village: clean water, sanitation and hygiene. They are beginning to learn about sustainable food sources and how to store and preserve crops in case the next harvest fails. They are, as Kroner explains, moving up the ladder of health and hygiene.
“When you improve these things, then you can begin to kind of move up a rung,” he says. “What I envision for the future is really just an extension of what the team here is already doing.”
Kroner emphasizes: “I really like to view the possibilities for future ministry from the perspective of ‘what is God already doing?’ And it’s clear from things that we’ve seen ... that God is doing work in K-Town.”
As the team moves forward, the Kroners and the Downings are hoping to find other people willing to join them in this work. Despite the difficulties of living and raising families in Chad, the TEAM missionaries say they are privileged to be a part of God’s work and find joy even when hauling buckets of water home on a hot day or when interrupting a math lesson to serve tea to visitors.
“You know, the first year [on the field] they say is supposed to be the hardest,” Mollie Kroner says. “Eric and I looked at each other one day, and we were like, ‘Um, should we be this happy?’ We were really joyful.”
Though the Kroners and the Downings realize their goals may be a long way from realization, the team looks forward to the day when Chadians in their region are healthy in both body and spirit.
“Our goal is to plant a Christ-centered indigenous reproducible church for the glory of God,” Downing says. “It’s not happened yet, but the results and the timing of when and how that happens aren’t up to us. But I’m excited about one day seeing groups of believers.”
The missionaries are praying for whole families or villages to come to know Christ because individuals who change their religion are shunned and isolated. In the past, men caught studying the Bible have had their wives and children forcibly taken away by their in-laws and religious leaders. Right now, Downing says they are in the “honeymoon phase,” when the villagers enjoy what they do and accept them teaching God’s word because there is no emerging church. But once a church forms, it is difficult to know how other Chadians will react. He says those who accept Christ must be firmly rooted, so they will be able to stand in spite of opposition.
Knowing the difficulties Chadian people face, in physical needs or spiritual needs, TEAM’s missionaries desire to give them hope above all.
“In my mind, I still feel like it’s going to be a long journey for them,” Kroner says. “That’s why I think the gospel is so important because the gospel is clear and Jesus is clear that the substance and the abundance of our life does not consist of the things in our life, but our relationship to him. And so that gives me hope: knowing that quality medical services is a long time down the road for these people, but the hope of the gospel could bring them abundance now.”
-Written by Megan Darreth
-Photographed by Robert Johnson