In a Kwong village in southern Chad,
a child’s life begins with dirty water. By tradition, a mother will squeeze out all the colostrum from her breasts, withholding the nutrient-rich food from her child. The village women have been taught that, because it’s colored, the colostrum is not milk and should not be given to babies. As a result, babies are almost always given non-treated, non-boiled, contaminated water as their only nourishment during the first few days of life.
Scenes like this prompted TEAM missionaries Mark and Diane Vanderkooi, who primarily work in Bible translation among the Kwong people, to realize that there are great needs among the tribe, especially when it comes to the health and welfare of the children. If there were to be future generations of Kwong Christians, then Kwong children would need special attention.
“They don’t have anyone else that they look up to for guidance.”
The Vanderkoois observed, for example, that the first 15 months of a baby’s life are spent strapped to someone’s back. Once the child can walk, it is effectively turned loose. Little boys walk the dusty village streets in packs, often playing with fire and knives and slingshots. Little girls roam with their infant siblings strapped to their backs while their mothers gather firewood in the bush. The Vanderkoois figure that, from the age of about three, the biggest influence in a Kwong child’s life is his or her peers. “And that continues throughout their life,” Diane says. “They don’t have anyone else that they look up to for guidance.”
This is the stark reality of life in Chageen, where the Vanderkoois have served in Chad since 1991. However, after working with adults for years, they began feeling like there was a black hole in the middle of their ministry. “It was going to suck everything else that we were doing right into it, and the black hole was that the gospel wasn’t being transmitted to the next generation,” Mark says. “To this day, there is little or no intentionality on the part of the national church to teach their children, to raise them up in the fear of the Lord, and to transmit the gospel to the next generation to carry it on.”
The Vanderkooi’s goal has always been to give the young Kwong church the spiritual depth, godly traditions and numerical weight to enable it to endure for generations to come. But in order to do that, the couple realized that children needed to be an integral part of their work. As they soon found out, this would entail more than just teaching Sunday school. It would mean addressing the very foundations of Kwong culture.
“We don’t have children of our own, so in some respects these kids are becoming our children, our heritage.”
Although the Vanderkoois were already stretched for time working in other ministries, when they saw a need to reach out to the children, they started a weekly club for girls. “I would take time to sit down with the girls, do fun things with them and teach them,” Diane says. “Then, the boys got jealous, and Mark began leading a boy’s club too.” Both clubs were effective and well-attended — but also overwhelming for two people who admit lacking a natural affinity for children’s ministry.
“We began to recognize our own limitations,” Diane says. With other ministries demanding time and energy, the kids clubs began to fall to the wayside. But groups of children have continued making their way to the Vanderkooi’s home almost every day. Otherwise overlooked or ignored, the boys and girls gather at the one place they know they will receive attention. “They come in our front gate and just sit down on a log and wait for us to come along," Mark says. “It isn’t uncommon to have 50 kids in front of our home, playing games and reading books.”
The couple dreams of bringing other missionaries into the village to work with the children. “We would love to see a couple come who will learn the language and work with the little, itty, bitty ones, starting from three-years-old and then keep working with them until they are 18 — straight through with the same group,” Mark says. In the meantime, they reach out to the children through unscheduled daily interactions and Sunday school with a village chief named Jonas.
Jonas, who also serves as an elder in the local church, is an engaging storyteller. In 2006, Mark began recording stories from the Old Testament in the Kwong language for Jonas to share with the children. “Most of the adults in the Kwong church, including Jonas, do not know these stories of Israel. So I prepare a story, and make a recording of it since reading is difficult for him. Jonas comes over to our house on Saturday afternoon and we listen to the recording several times and talk about it,” he says. Then, on Sunday morning, children gather together to hear Jonas share. “By this time, Jonas has internalized the story quite well and the kids are spellbound by his rendering of the Bible story. Once Jonas is finished, I ask the kids questions about what they heard, and sometimes one or more of them will retell a huge section of the story in every detail.”
The Vanderkoois delight in seeing the children learn Christian doctrine through Bible stories. “The kids are seeing Christian faith as being rooted in real history of real people who lived very much like you and me,” Diane says. And while working with kids doesn’t come naturally for the couple, they are allowing God to stretch them.
“We don’t have children of our own, so in some respects these kids are becoming our children, our heritage,” Mark says. “We hope that these kids, having grown up being discipled and paid attention to, will take what they’ve learned and follow the same model when they grow up.”