'Twins' work to reach Ivorian women
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ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast (BP) -- Heather McAfee and Viviane Kassou don't look anything like each other, but friends call them "the twins."
Outwardly the women have little in common other than the colorful ankle-length African dresses they both wear as they walk, arm in arm, through Abobo, a working-class suburb in northern Abidjan.
Viviane is a French speaker from Ivory Coast, while Heather's English has a Tennessee twang. Viviane lives with her family in a simple concrete-walled home in Abobo. Heather and her family live across the city in a comfortable house with a neatly maintained lawn, a swing set and two family dogs.
They come from different worlds, have very different backgrounds and don't look anything alike. They are linked, however, by deep friendship and a shared burden for the women in this neighborhood.
"One of my favorite things to do with [Viviane] is evangelism," Heather, an International Mission Board missionary, said. "And if we're doing [evangelism] and I take the lead, when I get tired or I get stuck, she jumps in. She's always got something wise to say."
Walking the roads
Before Heather and Viviane set off to visit women this afternoon, they spend a few minutes together in Viviane's home. In the small dark living room, Viviane's husband George, pastor of Belleville Baptist Church in Abobo, prays for the task ahead: sharing stories about Jesus Christ with women in the neighborhood, including Muslims.
Abobo is part of Ivory Coast's largest city, but the area feels rural. Dirt roads and paths weave through blocks of one-story houses with tin rooftops. Chickens peck in the dust around doorways, while a skinny goat nibbles at tree bark and piglets wag their little tails as they nose through garbage along the path. Cassava and yams grow in spots where residents have taken advantage of available patches of soil. Women sell simple street foods at makeshift food stalls under tattered sun umbrellas.
Most of the traffic through the neighborhood is on foot. In fact, Heather's parked four-wheel-drive truck outside the Kassous' home is the only vehicle in sight today. It often takes four-wheel drive to get through the ruts and standing water in the rugged roadways Heather powered through to get here. But now she's on foot with women of the neighborhood, many balancing large burdens on their heads or carrying infants swaddled against the smalls of their backs.
At the first home, Heather and Viviane step through a narrow gate leading to an open-air foyer. Doors on either side of the foyer lead to individual family homes. Six to eight families share this public patio area; in housing such as this, residents often also share a common bathroom and water supply. This is truly communal living as clothes are washed in the foyer in plastic tubs and the wet garments are strung on lines here to dry. Stacked cans of oil and cooking pots lean against doorsills. Sometimes the foyer serves as the kitchen as well, with wives or daughters cooking over coal fires.
At one doorway, a patterned cloth hangs to keep out flies but allow breezes to pass through. Heather and Viviane step out of their shoes and over a high threshold into the front room. A woman named Aya, her face creased with years, greets her visitors. She has knotted a scarf around her head, and she wears a white knit blouse and green and blue wrap skirt. The visitors sit on Aya's cracked vinyl sofa in a room that seems dark after the bright outdoor light.
Heather and Viviane spend time with Aya each week, telling her stories from the Bible. They also pray with her. On this day, the first thing she tells them when they arrive is that she has stopped having her bad dreams. In the past, Aya shared that she was fearful of her dreams and asked Heather and Viviane to pray them away.
Dreams are important in African culture and considered full of meaning. Aya had told the women she had dreamed that she was lost in a forest. She was carrying a heavy load of bananas on her head, but she could not find the road. Another time, she had dreamed that someone was trying to make her eat meat, which Heather said is symbolically connected to sorcery here.
Viviane, because she's Ivorian, has helped Heather understand that dreams can be the source of very real fear for Ivorians. Tribal religions are still alive, even in the city. Aya was worried that some of her dreams meant someone had put an evil curse on her.
"They believe that sorcerers call your soul away from your body [in your sleep], and that's some of how they do their work," Heather later explained. "Being lost is like your spirit being called from your body."
The first time she and Viviane met Aya was when she called to them to pray for her. Today, after they share a Bible story with her, she asks for prayer for her grown daughters. One lives nearby in Angré and will marry soon. Aya asks Heather and Viviane to pray to keep evil spirits away from her daughter's marriage. Another daughter has lost her job, and Aya asks for prayer for her to find work again and a husband.
The big picture
While prayer is an important component of Heather and Viviane's visits, they use Chronological Bible Storying to explain the truth of salvation through Christ to the women they see regularly. Heather and Viviane work together to tell the stories. Sometimes Heather leads by telling the story in French, and Viviane then discusses with the women what Heather has said. Other times, Viviane takes the lead.
Storying is an effective way to share the truths of Christ, especially in oral cultures like those in Africa. And while some Old Testament stories are familiar, the story of Jesus' forgiveness and grace is a new idea for many Ivorians.
Heather and Viviane's partnership began when Viviane asked Heather to teach her how to reach her neighbors. She knew how to share Christ with women of other beliefs but wanted to learn good approaches to use when talking with local women. Then, instead of Heather simply explaining her process to Viviane, she offered to walk alongside her. Thus the partnership was born.
Heather is quick to point out that she has learned so much from sharing life and ministry with Viviane: the meanings of cultural cues and dreams, how to handle conflict in this culture and many other insights.
"It's really fun for me to watch what she does, to know that she's grown up here and she knows what people are thinking and she knows what's going on behind the scenes when I don't always know," Heather said.
She said it's a special thing to her that even though she and Viviane don't look anything alike, people see the similarities between them.
"There are a lot of things that are different, but she has a heart for people, she loves people, she loves to share the Gospel with people and she loves to be involved in ministry," Heather said.
"I found a kindred spirit in her and so from that day on, we've been called the twins."