The Angel—a Fulani Herdsman.
We’d had a rough second week—Steve tangled with malaria, all four of us had dysentery from eating one-week-old, unrefrigerated meat, and the nights were growing colder, making our outdoor bucket baths almost unbearable. Still, Mesa and I decided to make the trek to Sa’h, an African village some seven or eight miles on the other side of the mountain top knoll.
The year was 2002, and every missionary unit preparing for Bible translation work spent their last three weeks of African Orientation in separate villages. African orientation was a three-month introduction camp created to expose missionaries to all things Africa. We were in our last month and staying in Bi’h, a village of less than 500 people nestled in the northwest hills of N’du, an Anglophone area of Cameroon.
My husband Steve recovered from malaria in the dirt-floor, metal roof lean-to our Cameroonian hosts had graciously provided for the three-week stay. Our bed, an oversized, hay-stuffed plastic bag was not providing Steve comfort per se, but with malaria, bedding is not of primary concern. A body horizontal is.
Our eleven-year-old son, Sam, was out on another bird hunt with village boys. Sam seemed to meld into the culture wherever we journeyed. In Cameroon, he’d stripped half-naked and took up bird catching with organic glues pasted to tree branches—a village boy living the exotic life off the land.
Looking back at the walk to Sa’h, between my husband and daughter’s bouts with deadly malaria, I realize we’d let Sam become quite independent. His steadfast joy and rock-solid faith got us through the twists and turns of primitive missionary life for the year and half we lived in two African countries. I don’t think Sam knows that today, I still think back on the miracles, and marvel that God had a plan and I, honored as a mother, got to watch the Lord’s designs unfold.
So on this day of which I write, Sam had ventured out into the great unknown of the northwest African hillsides, and though I don’t understand how I’d come to let it happen, I indeed let him romp through these wild adventures at the tender age of eleven.
We’d received bad news from several fronts. The medical arm of Wycliffe in Dallas had sent word through the SIL arm in Yaoundé that our meningitis vaccines—taken while in Dallas—were discovered to be ineffective. A New Testament launch celebration had been planned in a village about two hours’ taxi drive away, and there’d been a meningitis outbreak in the area. We wouldn’t be able to go and dance or sing with the locals who, at last, received the life-saving words of the Gospel in a language they could understand. But considering Steve’s recovering condition, he wouldn’t have likely made the trip anyway.
That morning, as is the way in West Africa, we’d received news from the face-to-face telecommunication system of villagers passing along information that the woman of the missionary family at the next village closest to us, had fallen ill with malaria.
My nine-year-old daughter Mesa and I packed food and medicines. Then I sent Sam out with the village boys for that bird hunt. We checked in on Steve, who was well enough to tell us to be home before dark, and we walked out of our village to a winding mountain path, headed for Sa’h those seven to eight long miles away.
We didn’t know our trek would be a path of life lessons. Big ones.
The Road to Sa’h
In the remote hills of Anglophone Cameroon hiking was not necessarily safe. There were the beginnings of what is now a civil war in Cameroon. Occasionally, clashes between the French-speaking government and the English-speaking secessionists broke out, even back then. As well, we had limited communication opportunities (no cell, no internet), and no vehicles anywhere except for one cab per day that showed up to shuttle five or six people down the mountains to the N’Kambe, a town with at least one hotel and two restaurants. And, among the traditional religious people based mostly on animism, there were sprinklings of Christianity but also Islam, practiced in this area by the Fulani people group.
In the area we lived for three weeks, Fulani herded cattle.
After about an hour on the road to Sa’h, I had moved downhill into the tall grass on the other side of a tree to … uh … use the … uh … outdoor potty when a group of Fulani women passed on the road several yards above me.
They stopped to gape at the two white missionary females squatting in the grass.
After I finished my business, we stood, hearts in our throats, and returned their stares.
Even eighteen years ago, tensions between Muslims and Christians were evident.
The Fulani women pointed. Whispered.
My circulatory system froze over. I grabbed Mesa’s hand and tried to swallow my heart back down where it belonged.
And like butterflies flitting among the flowers, the women, robes trailing in the wind, glided down the hill to get a closer look at the wide-eyed strangers in their grasslands.
The tall and lightly-colored Fulani gals stopped about ten feet short of a real face-to-face encounter. Giggles followed by more pointing, and one of the group surprisingly ran back uphill and rushed up the road.
I hoped she wasn’t going for re-enforcements.
As Fulani are neither Anglophone nor Francophone, but speak Fula, the hand gestures started. Somehow, with a few recognizable local words, Mesa and I communicated we were staying in Bi’h and heading over to Sa’h for a friendly visit with friends. They indicated they lived nearby.
But when the one who had rushed away returned, she carried an opened tin can in her long slender hands.
Now with the important can in possession, the Fulani women moved in closer.
One nodded and offered the tin to me.
“What’s in it?” Mesa asked.
The can, warm in my hands, held … milk. Fresh, Fulani cow milk.
We’d all already suffered from dysentery and thoughts of pathogenic micro-organisms swimming around in the unpasteurized milk did cross my mind. But. But. When Africans offer you the fruit of their hands, which, in this case, was milk, you don’t politely decline as this would be an insult. You accept and partake.
Our drinking their offering of friendship brought wide smiles and, evidently, the invitation to touch. As happened many times when in public, the women surrounded Mesa and began to touch her locks, mesmerized by the blond color and lack of tight curl.
After more hand gestures and giggles, and sighs of an all-round satisfactory experience, we all moved back to the road. Mesa and I headed southeast to Sa’h. The Fulani went north.
I figured we were running about 45 minutes behind, but I wasn’t completely sure. In Africa, you don’t use a watch. Well, many Americans in Africa wear watches but most Africans will look at your time piece and consider it your master and you … the watch’s slave.
It’s also a sure sign that you’re a tourist.
I had put my watch away months before.
The rest of the trip to Sa’h was pleasant. In the early afternoon, semi-arid mountain air, I pondered the unreal situation—I had just spent forty or so minutes with a group of women whose religion historically opposed mine and now, my daughter and I walked a along a path in the west African rolling hills alone. Unbelievable.
Once we reached the village of Sa’h, which was larger than Bi’h, we asked around and were quickly directed to the home that hosted our missionary comrades. Mesa relieved the malaria-sick mom by entertaining the toddler and the rest of the afternoon was spent lunching with her host family, listening to my friend’s African village challenges, and sharing my own. We shared our chloroquine and I, observing the low tilt of the sun, realized we were further behind in our schedule than I wanted us to be. Steve had warned us to be home before dark for a reason. Wandering around in the countryside at night would be dangerous.
Back to Bi’h
We hustled along on the trip back to Bi’h, never stopping to admire the view or marvel at how we, two ordinary American gals were walking a trail in Africa.
With an estimated forty minutes left in our trek, we were tired, culturally spent, and with the light fading, hit a snag.
Or better said, we hit a herd.
At this point of the jaunt, the mountain side on our right sloped upwards, too great a degree to climb. To our left, the cow population stretched downhill creating too wide of an arc for us to traverse in the growing shadows.
A word on African cows: These are not your long-lashed Blue Bell dairy cow varieties. The African Zebu are colored muddy grey or red and both male and female host wicked-looking, curved-up horns. These cows are muscular, mean, and were not happy to see us approach.
The Zebu–all of them–shifted to face us. Unblinking, they stared. A couple shook their horns in warning.
It was a face-off with African Zebu and the cows were set to win.
Meanwhile, the sun dropped a couple of feet in the sky.
The minutes ticked off, the cows growing confident. A couple of the giants stepped toward us.
Mesa and I stepped backwards.
More seconds passed.
Then she said it. My nine-year old daughter spoke the magical words. “Pray, Mom.”
Oh. Right. Pray. “Lord, we’re late, we’re scared, and we don’t know what to do. You are the great shepherd, please move those cows.”
We both opened our eyes and took deep, courage-seeking breaths.
I looked behind, thinking again, we should run back to Sa’h hoping Steve would figure we’d stayed the night for a good reason.
The cows didn’t move.
But then, as if they’d seen a ghost, the cows—all of them—flinched. Weirdly, the horned beasts bucked against each other.
Then? They ran.
The Zebu ran!
That’s right. Downhill they went. The massive cows scattered the hillside as the sun made its final descent.
Both our jaws dropped while we watched their hind ends disappear into the dusk.
Then I heard the whistle.
I whirled around to see a man, maybe six or seven feet behind us, staff in hand, and whistling a signal to the cows. He hadn’t been on the road when I had looked just seconds before.
And here’s the wild deal—the herdsman stopped his whistle but didn’t follow his cows downhill. He stepped around us, not saying a word, and continued on ahead. Quickly he rounded a corner of rock jutting into the road. Considering that our family had been the marvel of the village and not once had we encountered an African who didn’t either gape or attempt buoyant interaction, this man’s behavior seemed odd.
Mesa and I looked at each and then hurried to catch up, hoping that now it was dark, we could walk close to the man for added protection.
When we rounded the boulder corner, the road before us sat empty.
“Man, that guy is fast,” I stated, urging Mesa along. The sky morphed from murky grey to deep blue, stars sparkling.
We continued alone, eyes wide but with praises on our lips.
But where was our herdsman?
Another ten minutes and we saw a figure on the path a head, a flashlight in hand. As the outline of a man materialized, I realized someone walked toward us.
Had the herdsman come back to go and round up his cows?
Out of His Bed and on the Road
Closer … and … Steve came into view. Steve! He’d gotten out of bed when the sun began to set and he’d come to look for his wife and daughter.
We ran to him.
And I asked, “Did you pass a man on the road? He scattered some mean, awful cows for us.”
“Just about ten minutes ago. Maybe you missed him?”
“No one has been on this road for thirty minutes.”
“Angel,” Mesa whispered. “He was an angel, Mom. An answer to your prayer.”
And so it was. A herdsman angel had appeared, keen to get us inexperienced first-world women off a dangerous road and into the arms of my husband.
We marveled. Pondered the miracle.
And just days later, Mesa fell incredibly ill with malaria, and we, though we almost lost her, received a second angel visit in the hospital where the meningitis outbreak had taken a toll. But that is another story for another time.
What I must never forget is that the Lord gives us just what we need just when we need it.
“If you then, who are wicked, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the Father in heaven give the holy Spirit to those who ask him?” – Luke 11:13
Got nasty cows in your path? Pray for a herdsman. Your God will deliver.
If I perish, I perish,