Piercing the hopelessness of West Africa’s Songhai people

NIGER, West Africa (BP)--Pregnant Songhai women approach the cinderblock tin-roofed clinic of Kanazi for routine checkups. They come one by one. When Sally Womble reminds them to return next month for another exam, she often hears the response, “Inshallah” (“if God wills”).

After 12 years in Niamey, Niger, Songhai team strategy coordinators Brad and Sally Womble have grown accustomed to the phrase.

“It’s their excuse,” Sally says. “It removes their sense of responsibility. So because of that, there’s no tomorrow for them. Their tomorrows only come if God wills.”

While this commonly held view of God releases the Songhai from any earthly responsibility, Brad Womble suggests this mentality also keeps the Songhai in bondage. In the past decade, Womble says he’s never heard a young person mention any long-term goals.

“These people want to eat lunch today, and that’s it,” Womble says. “That’s as far as they see. Their belief in God is a god who is so far removed, and so judgmental, and so distant that he really doesn’t care, and the only interaction they’ll ever have with him is in judgment.”

But there’s a larger problem than just the lack of long-range goals. There’s spiritual darkness.

“The Songhai aren’t only in a false religion,” Womble says. “They are active participants in the demonic spirit world. So they’re even deeper than hopeless.”

Ali*, a church planter from Niger on the Songhai team, attributes some of the Songhai’s hopelessness to their Islamic beliefs.

“If you pass 40 years of age without making your peace with God through the Muslim faith,” Ali says, “you cannot after that.”

Because 99.8 percent of the Songhai people are both Muslim and animistic, demonic worship and possession are common to their culture.

“You can go into villages where they’re walking bodies, but there is no person left in that [village],” Womble says. “There’s just blankness. All the life is gone from their eyes.”

In addition to spiritual darkness, social pressures also inhibit some Songhai people from believing the Gospel. Because their society revolves around the family unit, the Songhai rarely make decisions on an individual basis.

“For a Songhai to accept Christ, they are rejecting their culture, their family, everything they’ve ever been taught,” Sally says.

The Songhai team understands the obstacles preventing Songhai from coming to faith in Christ and has developed a master plan to target major market towns.

On market day, villagers throughout the area come to the major market town to buy or sell goods. Because these towns are bigger and more progressive than smaller villages, they are considered the lead towns in the area.

“We cannot get to every small, little village,” Womble says. “However, if we can plant churches in those big towns, and teach those churches it is their God-given responsibility to reach their neighbors, their families and the next village for Christ, then it will be taken care of.”

Despite spiritual darkness and social pressures surrounding the people, the Wombles say they have seen God at work among the Songhai.

When Brad led a volunteer team to prayerwalk in the heart of the Songhai kingdom in Gao, Mali, he says volunteers encountered spiritual warfare firsthand.

After praying through the village where Womble says people had been visibly possessed by demonic forces, the group made their way to the boat on which they had come. While walking back to the boat, Womble says a young boy tugged on his sleeve.

“I finally got all the volunteers in the boat and I was the only one left out there,” Womble recalls. “I got down on my knees because he was so little and said, ‘What?’”

The boy replied, “I know you have been praying to the real God for us. Please don’t stop because we need it.”

The Wombles also have seen God moving through the work of their team members.

Brad first introduced Ali to Christ in 1994. As a Niger native familiar with the Songhai language and culture, Ali has extended the Gospel as a church planter in the village of Gotheye. Through this church plant, Ali says he sees an advantage to sharing the Gospel in his own country.

“When the black man sees the white man,” Ali says, “the first thing he might [think] in his head is to have money. But when the black man sees the black man come to see him, the first time, he’s going to think, ‘These people are like me. I know he doesn’t have money like me, and so I want to hear what he wants to tell me.’”

Though Sally says she will never be accepted as a native Songhai woman, villagers in the Kanazi area claim her as one of their own.

Last September, the Wombles were walking along a red clay path toward a Songhai village when Mamadou*, a Zarma man living in another village, began calling “Sally Biyo!”

The “yo” on the end gives it possession. He was saying “she’s ours” with that ending.

As he ran to catch her, Mamadou told Sally he had received audiocassettes from the Songhai ministry and had prayed to receive Christ as his personal Savior.

“When the sun came up and my heart awoke,” Mamadou says, “I was praying again that Jesus would forgive me of my sins and take me on the correct road, and that ‘Sally Biyo’ would come today to answer more of my questions.”

Standing along a tributary of the Niger River, Brad and Sally Womble bowed to pray with Mamadou, who, knowing the persecution he would face, nevertheless decided to be baptized.

*Names changed for security reasons.

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