Working at Galmi Hospital in Niger truly is an amazing way to spend your life.
I used to dream about becoming an astronaut. But here, rather than exploring barren planets devoid of life, we get to venture into uncharted territories where there are living beings made in the image of God.
Last Sunday, I felt like the captain of the first mission to the moon. Or maybe that's an understatement. Our crew of six included our two nurses, Halima* and Zipporah, who work with our malnourished children, along with Zipporah's husband and the two of us.
Primary qualifications that united us as crew members were our mutual desire to make Jesus known where he is least known, and the willingness to accept the risks and uncertainties of this voyage to a place where none of us had ever been before. A secondary qualification was the personal connection that four of us had established with those living at our destination.
The objective was to follow up on Faroukou, a five-year-old who came to Galmi as skin and bones, too weak to eat, drink, or hold up his head. His mother is a good mother. She is smart and learned how to feed Faroukou through a naso-gastric tube.
But the nutritional supplement wasn't enough because Faroukou was also suffering from an extrapulmonary form of tuberculosis, and his condition only started to stabilise after we began giving him effective medicine. He and his mother spent two intensive months with us, during which time she listened attentively to all we shared with her from the Bible.
She patiently endured the hardship of being away from home for so long, knowing that her other children also needed her. When we discharged them to return to their village, Faroukou was still too weak to walk, but his condition had stabilised.
Two months later, Faroukou and his mother returned for a follow-up visit, and Faroukou had gained four pounds. He was walking and smiling! During this encouraging visit, Faroukou's mum explained they lived far away and that travel to Galmi was difficult. Last Sunday, we found out first-hand she wasn't exaggerating.
Saturday was preparation day for the voyage. This included checking all the fluid levels in the Land Cruiser, verifying tyre pressures, packing drinking water, putting new batteries in the GPS and... making strawberry milkshakes. These milkshakes would be a nutritious treat for Faroukou, his friends and his siblings.
We set out early Sunday morning and drove two hours to a village where there is a small group of believers who meet in the pastor's home. We arrived just in time to join them for worship.
Sitting next to me was a man who had just put his faith in Jesus last month. He listened intently with us as the pastor explained what happened in Numbers 21, when Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness and how all who looked on it were healed.
Nancy and I are still learning Hausa. I learned a new word in Hausa last Sunday: "kwatanci" is something that is analagous or symbolic. The pastor explained that what Moses did was a kwatanci of Jesus on the cross, and that all who put their faith in his sacrifice will likewise be healed. This was exactly the message we needed to take to Tounga. So we were delighted when, after worship, the pastor accepted our request to join our crew. The most difficult part, in terms of rugged terrain and uncertainty of the route, was still ahead.
For the next three hours we traversed terrain that was either rocky or sandy, dodging thorns and deep gullies and termite hills, often guessing where the path was that led to the next village. After stopping in about a dozen different villages to ask directions to the next one, we landed in Tounga.
The house of the village chief was our next stop, predictably next to the mosque. He was just returning from the 2pm prayer time with the other elders. As we waited for them all to gather within earshot, we could sense their curiosity about this unexpected visit.
We explained we were from Galmi Hospital and had come to see one of their little boys for whom God had heard our prayers. When we said the names of his father and mother, the chief said 'follow me', and escorted us on foot to their home.
Walking through the village, more and more children congregated, and we kept looking for the familiar face of Faroukou. As we entered his house, we saw his mum put her hand over her mouth in disbelief as she saw four of the familiar faces who had cared for them.
Then Faroukou came out, walking steadily, looking stronger and healthier. A few minutes later, his father returned early from working in the fields, having received the message that we were here. We exchanged hugs and got to meet Faroukou's younger sister and several of his older siblings.
The family still had the MegaVoice player that we had sent them home with months earlier, through which they listen to The Way of Righteousness in the Hausa language.
The family, the village chief and many of the neighbors and children sat down in the shade and listened as we xplained the reason for the existence of Galmi Hospital and our desire for people to receive not only good health for their bodies, but also forgiveness of sin and everlasting life through Jesus Christ.
The pastor then asked the audience if they had any questions, and one young man asked: "So who, then, do we worship? Allah or Jesus?" The pastor's wise answer to the question challenged all the listeners to consider the identity of Jesus and to listen to what he said about himself in the holy writings.
We then presented the chief with the gift of a solar-powered radio that plays the gospel of John in the Hausa language.
Next, it was refreshment time! We passed out the strawberry milkshakes. In a place far from electricity and refrigeration, it was undoubtedly the first time many of them had enjoyed a drink as cold and creamy as this one.
When we got ready to leave, we had to politely decline their gift of a live goat, which would not have travelled very well over the long road back home.
As we blasted off to re-enter the vast, barren landscape separating their home from our home, we had the surreal sense that we were probably the very first group of believers in Jesus ever to set foot in Tounga. Certainly we were the first people to ever engage the chief and such a large group of his people in the challenge to learn more about Jesus.
We didn't make our goal to be home before dark, but we were able to navigate the most difficult part of the return before sunset. We landed back in Galmi safely that night and slept very well.
I'm so thankful that God is far too loving to give me what I want. My flawed sense of priorities would have had me choosing to be a part of the Apollo 11 mission to be the first man on the moon, rather than Sunday's mission to Tounga.
But now I can see the strong probability that eternity will show our mission to Tounga to be far more significant and profitable. Thank you for sending us to make Jesus known in places like this where he is least known. We've left his mark again.
*Some names have been changed.
For the people of Tounga and Niger to open their hearts for Christ
For the staff of Galmi Hospital, who serve as his hands and feet where it's so desperately needed.
Thank God for missionaries like the Zoolkoskis's, who have chosen to serve.
Could God be calling you to use your medical skills for Him overseas? Contact Serving In Mission today - just email firstname.lastname@example.org!