Her gray hair elicits responsiveness in West Africa

EDITORS’ NOTE: This year’s Week of Prayer for International Missions, Dec. 3-10, focuses on missionaries who serve in West Africa as well as a church partnering with them, exemplifying the global outreach supported by Southern Baptists’ gifts to the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering. Several of the missionaries are featured today in Baptist Press; other stories will follow during the rest of this week.

NIGER, West Africa (BP)--Ava Swiger tilts her head instinctively to the right as stalks of millet beat against the driver-side window of her 1998 Toyota Hilux.

After two and a half years of driving through the Niger bush country to work in medical clinics among the Songhai people, Swiger still has to turn around from time to time to make sure she’s headed in the right direction.

“There’s no road,” Swiger says. “These paths, they all look the same.”

After working as a nurse in the United States for 46 years, Swiger began her retirement by serving in the IMB’s “Masters” program, which allows Southern Baptists age 50 and older to serve a two- or three-year term in overseas missions.

Almost four years before she began her Masters term in Niger, Swiger began praying for the Songhai team from her home in Arcadia, Fla. Although she received prayer updates and newsletters regularly, it wasn’t until she received a prayer letter asking for nurses to come to Niger that Swiger realized she would join the Songhai team for a three-year term.

“God said, just as plain as if He spoke out loud, ‘Ava, I want you to work with the Songhai people.’”

Rather than being overwhelmed at the thought of going overseas at age 65, Swiger prepared to go.

“You know, when God calls you, you either say ‘yes’ or you say ‘no,’” Swiger says. “There’s no in between.”

When Swiger answered God’s call, Songhai team strategy coordinators Brad and Sally Womble had a different idea of whom God would send.

“When we started the team, we had a vision of five to 10 church-planting couples coming fresh from seminary to take the Good News of Christ to the Songhai,” Brad Womble says. “What God had in mind was different. He sent three from the Masters program, as well as many volunteers, and people from Brazil, Niger and Nigeria.”

Although Swiger differed from their ideal missionary, the Wombles say they are glad she answered God’s call.

“We would have never thought about asking for an ‘Ava,’” Womble says, “a nurse from the States with 46 years experience who had just retired. God saw in her a willing heart, ready to serve and be a blessing.”

When Swiger arrived in Niamey, Niger, three years ago, she had hoped to make a difference in the way medical care was given in West Africa. But looking back, she says she believes God brought her to pave the way for others to bring the Gospel.

“Because I am a nurse and because I am older, they accept me,” Swiger says, “and so where I go, where I have been, it also lets other people come in, where they might have a harder time.”

Swiger had worked as a nurse in the United States since 1957. Now she says she sees how God has been preparing her for work in Africa all her life.

“I worked in surgery for four or five years,” she says. “We made our own normal saline.... We did our own needles and syringes. We even had to sharpen the needles so they could be reused. And so I think in that way God has prepared me.”

Though her experiences with primitive medicine have been helpful, Swiger says her age has been the key, proving to be more of an asset than a hindrance in Niger.

“By me being a nurse, going in and working in these clinics and working with people, it gives other people a way to come in and start Bible studies,” she says. “So the fact I’m a nurse is not what’s been important. But the fact I’m a nurse and my gray hair has gotten people in.”

Womble explains, “Great reverence is given to age in Niger, where the average life expectancy is around 47. For Ava, her white hair and 68 years command a great deal of respect. All [the Songhai people] marvel that she’s able to continue with work and with her courage and strength.”

Because of the great respect African people have for the elderly, Swiger says she believes senior adults who participate in the Masters program may be surprised how God will use them.

“If some of the Masters people -– 50 years and older -– would come, they could win people to the Lord,” Swiger says. “I really believe that.”

When Swiger completes her Masters term, she says she intends to challenge retired Southern Baptists to get involved in overseas missions.

“It’s not easy over here, especially with the heat,” Swiger says. “But I think [older people] need to come. Even people my age could come over in the Masters program, or if they came over as volunteers for a short period of time, there are a lot of things they could do. They could come and help and do Bible study, or do classes on how to accept Christ, or how to go and teach others how to accept Christ. There’s so much they can do....

“I just want the older people to be awakened to the fact that they are still useful,” Swiger says. “God can still use them.”


EDITORS’ NOTE: Ava Swiger completed her two-year Masters Program assignment in March 2006. To learn more about the Masters Program, go online to going.imb.org.

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