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The value of being on the ground

The value of being on the ground - Mergon Foundation

In this blog post, Mergon Foundation’s regional manager for sub-Saharan Africa, De Wet Spies, shares moments he might have missed, had he not travelled to spend face-to-face time with our ministry partners. He gives us a fresh, personal take on what he sees as ‘the value of being on the ground’.

‘Cabin crew, prepare the cabin for landing…’ rang the pilot’s voice over the intercom as the thatched houses on the outskirts of Antananarivo gradually became more distinct.  As I leaned over the shoulder of my fellow traveller to get a better view of the changing Madagascar landscape, I pondered over the question that had stayed with me since I had stepped onto the aircraft in Johannesburg: ‘Why am I doing this… again?’

Expect the unexpected in Africa

Travelling in Africa is not for the faint-hearted. During the past three years, I’ve visited more than 12 different African countries as part of my role in Mergon Foundation’s sub-Saharan Africa team. In most cases, reaching your destination involves an overnight transit, a red-eye boarding time, a multi-hour layover, or spending almost the same time getting from the airport to the hotel as the number of hours spent in the aircraft.

Some of the trips and destinations have been more comfortable than others – sometimes sleeping on a down pillow, and sometimes not. Sometimes receiving what you ordered for lunch, and other times simply graciously smiling and eating whatever was served to you. Sometimes you are gasping for breath at the serenity and untouched wonder of the African landscape, and other times you are gasping at the cold water from the bucket shower that washes off the dust and sweat after a long, humid day. Hours can feel like minutes as you hang on the lips of the storytelling masters, or minutes can feel like hours as you get stuck in traffic or bounce between potholes at the mercy of a taxi driver.

On this particular trip, sitting on a plane heading to Madagascar, some might think that I was indifferent. After all, the country isn’t quite at the top of the global development index. Ground transport can be arduous – especially outside the capital – and communication is either in a fragmented English or in a translated dialect of French or Malagasy. Instead, a sense of gratitude and anticipation welled up in me as the airplane approached the ground: ‘I need to do these trips.’

As Mergon Foundation, we want our primary vehicle of giving to be through partnership because we believe that the DNA of the Kingdom is relationships. Jesus came for us because he loved us, and we want to be funders who consider relationships in the same way. For this reason, we aim to be resource partners to those who are doing God’s work across the nations of Africa and the Middle East. This means funding on the one hand, but also means visiting, building relationships, equipping, connecting, encouraging and praying with and for these partners. As a result, I’ve come to realise how deeply impactful these trips have been on my personal life too.

Had we not gone…

Had I not been on the ground in Burkina Faso, I would not have understood the tremendous witness that an act of love from a voluntary doctor would have on a community where Christians make up a minority. I would also not to have seen the deep encouragement new converts would experience by simply being around fellow believers in this highly persecuted country.

It was on this same trip that I witnessed hundreds of vibrant churches in an area where the church was non-existent 30 years ago. The community had been gripped for decades in strongholds of animism and witchcraft, but started to change after one student radically came to faith whilst sitting under a tree overhearing a foreign missionary speak to a tiny group of people. Truly God’s word is confirmed in Isaiah 55:11: ‘So will my word be which goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.’

Had I not travelled to Nigeria with my team, we would have missed out on the opportunity to fast and pray with 120 church planters from Northern Nigeria and surrounding countries to overcome the barriers that are preventing the multiplication of the gospel amongst the unreached people groups in this extremely volatile region. What made this even more poignant was knowing that an estimated 10,000 believers have been killed for their faith in this area alone since 2015! Praying with believers who are facing this reality on a day-to-day basis moves something in you. It challenges your own view of God and your commitment to His calling on your life. It confronts the obsession we often have in the West with materialism and comfort, or our lack of faith and perseverance when prayers are not immediately answered. It inspires me to go deeper with God, to listen more to His voice, and to respond in simple obedience whenever He speaks.

Whilst travelling in DRC, we started to understand the disheartening reality of girls and women in this country. Often kept out of school because it’s deemed unnecessary for them to be educated, girls become extremely vulnerable and often end up in prostitution to earn an income. If not for our in-person visit, we would have missed out on hearing countless real-life stories, but also on the opportunity to see the incredible work of a partner ministry who have started more than 200 centres providing basic literacy and skills training for young women. Through these centres, hundreds of women have now met Jesus and have been equipped to earn their own income.

The gift of going to the nations

The list could go on and on… Every trip has shaped the way I experience God and conduct myself in my work. Witnessing our partners’ tenacity, love and servant hearts to traverse arduous terrains to bring the Good News of Jesus, or hearing the stories of countless, daily miracles humbles me and often radically shifts the lens through which I view the world.

Often, the people our partners serve in these regions have no plan B – if God doesn’t intervene, there is no alternative medical provider to go to, there is no security company that will protect, there is no grocery store to deliver food. For many who choose to follow Christ it means deserting their families and livelihoods with the possibility of never being allowed to return. I am moved by people’s selfless acts of kindness and generosity towards others, often at a great personal expense.

Yes, Africa has a lot of challenges, but behind every person is a fascinating story waiting to be told, a community that is interwoven throughout the daily life, and a nation beaming with potential, inspiration and hope. Witnessing how God uses ordinary, ‘unknown’ people of this world to radically expand His Kingdom has truly been a tremendous privilege.

As the aircraft doors open, I can’t wait to see what God has waiting on the other side… I am reminded that we don’t have to do this. We choose to do this. I am grateful for Mergon’s approach to partner with ministries in Kingdom work – to regularly be on the ground with our partners to build relationship, talk, dream and strategise. By doing this I believe we are given the opportunity to witness and partner with God in ‘those good works which He planned beforehand for us, that we should walk in them.’ (Eph. 2:10-13)