It was once called ‘a snake in a French desert’. Descending into Banjul gave a fine prospect of the River Gambia, weaving its way west from the foothills of Guinea, through the parched land of Senegal and The Gambia, and into the Atlantic Ocean.
The Gambia has its fair share of annual visitors. Enthusiastic sun-seekers, charity workers from northern Europe, migratory birds crossing the Sahara desert – this narrow, riverside country welcomes all.
2017 set this small country on an uncertain course. In January, The Gambia made headline news across the world as controversial Yahya Jammeh, in his 22nd year as president, disputed Adama Barrow’s electoral victory.
Tensions mounted in the build up to the deadline for the transition of power. As Gambians fled through borders, ECOWAS forces entered the country in a show of regional military might. Was another West African country about to slide into conflict?
Miraculously, a few days later, Jammeh stepped down following the offer of exile in Equatorial Guinea. The Gambia’s reputation as a West African country of peace and security held fast. As the media spotlight shifted to a country divided by newly elected US President, Donald Trump, Gambians united in celebration of a new chapter in their country’s history.
So it was that I came to visit The Gambia in March, to see the work being undertaken by Mission Partner Jonny Burgess at Servants of the Word (SOW) – a small college training men and women to understand and teach the Bible.
Crosslinks has been building connections with The Gambia since 2003. Each January, teams of school-leavers on their gap years arrive from the UK to take part in five months of discipleship and evangelism. They have opportunities to share the gospel at the university, in schools and through local churches. In October 2015, former gap year team member and leader Jonny Burgess returned to The Gambia long-term, to join the team at SOW.
In the fallout of the election, plans for the fourteenth consecutive Crosslinks Gambia gap year team were abandoned, and the team were re-routed to Thailand. Africa had thrown up another surprise, but God’s sovereignty over his mission was in no doubt.
On route to Banjul – The Gambia’s capital city - I enjoyed the company of a delightful Gambian Muslim lady who, for several hours, put me in the picture of this nation in transition. For her, it was a victory of faith. In a country with an overwhelming majority population of Muslims, she was arguably right. And yet I came to see that for this small country, there is an altogether different God at work. A very big God at that.
One SOW student, Lazarus, pointed out to me, ‘God has used the political heat for our goodness. The Church has united, coming together in prayer at the stadium. The military band even played a Christian hymn at President Barrow’s inauguration! I want to play my quarter in telling young people about their need for the word of God.’
True to its name, students at SOW want to serve the word. That is, they want to see the word of God do the work of God. In Acts 13:44-49, it is the word that is at work. Luke says ‘the word of the Lord spread through the whole region’. It was driven out.
This vision, a remarkable blend of bold faith and sensible wisdom, is shared by SOW’s director, Pastor Steven Musa-Kormayea. It is the reason he is now overseeing building work for a permanent college site, with three classrooms, an administrative block, library, kitchen and student accommodation.
Steven, Jonny and many others in this Gambian harvest field have a big vision that comes from faith in our big God. The Gambia is the smallest mainland African country (about the size of Yorkshire), but the scope for influencing many surrounding nations is unmistakable. SOW is small, but the current handful of students includes people from The Gambia, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Guinea and Ghana. Plans for the new SOW site include language classes (particularly for those from French-speaking African countries) to enable a wide range of students to be trained for gospel ministry in their contexts.
Crosslinks wants to encourage churches and individuals to invest in SOW’s vision to train people to share the gospel through teaching and preaching the Bible. Would you consider a three-year commitment to pray for and give towards the growth of this strategic work?
The Gambia is beautiful but impoverished, spiritually as well as economically. Yet what greater hope is there, than the stunning truth that the Lord Jesus Christ holds the nations in his hands and will build his church. The word will go out. He will gather his people. As the SOW students sang repeatedly and in glorious harmony, ‘I have a very big God, who is always by my side’.
This is the real ‘good news story’ in The Gambia.