My Missionary Chronicles: Ogoja Refugee Settlements
I lead a lot of short mission trips. We were on one of our routine short mission trips in January 2019 with a 10-man team to visit with missionaries of Faith House Missions – a team planting churches in extreme locations along the mountainous southern borders of Nigeria and Cameroon. We were also using that opportunity to send two volunteers sent out by Insight Bible Church who had decided to each spend 3 months teaching at a primary school in one of the villages established by the missionaries.
As we followed our schedule for the trip, a conversation came up randomly about the number of refugees flocking in from Southern Cameroon into Nigeria through those villages, fleeing from the civil war currently ravaging that part of the country which was only a few hours walk from where we were. It came as a surprise to many on our team as this was the first time they were hearing of anything like this. Somehow, this discussion never died down, until we decided to go out of our schedule and pursue this story. So what was really happening and why were there hundreds of families fleeing their country, sometimes on foot, heading to a land they don’t even know?
How it all began
Cameroon a bi-lingual country bordering Nigeria, divided between a French speaking majority and an English Speaking minority had had internal tensions for a long time. In 2017, the English speaking regions collectively known as Southern Cameroons declared independence of a new nation from the Cameroon government. Starting as a low-scale insurgency, this conflict had spread to most parts of the Anglophone Cameroon with the sitting government doing everything to clamp down on the movement. As at 2019, the United Nations estimated that over 437,000 people had been displaced with tens of thousands crossing the border to seek refuge in Nigeria. Our host – ‘Rich’ told us that every week, they received new refugees arriving, and that there was a transit camp in a nearby village.
Although this wasn’t part of our schedule for this trip, we decided to pay a quick visit to verify these stories for ourselves. He however warned us that what we would see could be heart breaking. What could be so hard? we thought. We fueled our bus, drove to a nearby market and bought two bags of Garri, a carton or two of Maggi, salt and whatever else we could afford with the little spare money we had. After all, this wasn’t on our budget for the trip. On arrival at the village, we were welcomed by a small crowd, which quietly began to build without any announcement. As soon as they saw Rich, they new help had come. He never comes empty handed. We decided to share the little supplies we brought, and in an attempt to collect one custard bowl of Garri and a few cubes of Maggi, we nearly caused a stampede. Adults, family men were scrambling and rushing for a bowl of Garri.
I remember a few members of our team struggling to hold back tears as they distributed those items. Nobody had the courage to pull out a camera to snap. Some of these people are educated and responsible people who had jobs and businesses a few months ago, today they are scrambling for the next meal.
We drove back to our base in silence. No comments. But it was something nobody could forget. To add salt to injury, we were told we had not even seen them. These were the ones on transit to the real refugee camp in Ogoja where the United Nations was receiving them into an established refugee camp.
February – April 2019
We finished that trip, returned to our base in Uyo and everyone seemed to move on with their lives, but we really could not. 35,000 refugees were reported to have been documented into the settlements in Ogoja with many more who couldn’t get ‘accepted’ and just floating around. Many of them with families, mostly children, and were starting their lives from the ground up again. Something needed to be done about it.
By February of 2019, we shared with the pupils in the school my wife and I run in Uyo – Brainy Hive Schools about this, and on Valentines day, a few of them gathered items to donate to the children in the refugee camps. We had always known that every platform God has given to us needs to be used actively for His purpose. A few weeks later, two of our teachers traveled the 8 hour journey to the refugee camp to both deliver the items donated by the students and to verify the claims. At least, we needed to be speaking on verified information if we needed to take further steps.
As soon as we were sure of the needs and the situations there, we began to mobilize a larger team for a more impactful visit. This time, we mobilized Christians from Insight Bible Church and families who attend Brainy Hive Schools again. We told them the stories we had experienced and why we needed to get involved in the lives of these refugees again. There was no bigger reason however than the fact that this is what Jesus would have done – and as Christians, we are called to represent Him on earth.
This second time, we tried to be more prepared. A lot more gifts were collected and we were going solely for them and not as a side attraction. We were amazed at the generosity of all who gave, we hired a bus and filled it with clothes, toiletries, Bibles, discipleship materials and some food items.
We did not want our coming to be as insignificant as it was a year earlier when we visited one of the refugee transit camps. Were we successful this time? In my opinion, it was even more insignificant. Not because we took fewer items, but because we found more need than we had capacity to meet. The people were more than we expected, the needs were more complex than we thought. But it’s not all bad news, there was good news too.
THE GOOD NEWS
Our visit was a source of joy for many people. Let me share some with you.
- Local leaders had already emerged from among the people. Some people who were pastors and leaders back in their home country before the displacement had risen up to respond to the leadership gaps in these settlements. They were overjoyed to see us coming to just share their experience and encourage them. Just the thought that they were no longer alone and that someone sees them in their plight was a lot of encouragement to them.
- Lots of children got clothes, shoes and gift items. Some families even received new fabrics, bags and some very good supplies.
- We shared fellowship with some of the refugees, encouraged them and shared God’s word with them.
THE NOT-SO-GOOD NEWS
- Our full bus load of supplies was just like a bucket of water in a desert. While we were happy that some people got gifts and donations, many only saw what their friends got. It wasn’t their fault, it just never got to them. There were too many more people than we had expected.
- While the UN is doing a great job caring for these people, the situations of many are still pathetic. With our sweaters and blankets sleeping inside a well built room, many of us were still cold. Some of these people live in half built tarpaulin halls with no walls, without mattresses or blankets. They sleep on the bare floor. I had a camera on me, but I didn’t have the courage to pull out my cameras to take pictures of the pathetic living conditions of many. That itself sounded very inhumane.
- There are needs that are beyond what NGOs can handle. Spiritual needs, moral breakdown, hopelessness, despair and more. While there are systems in place for health and educational interventions, the question of effectiveness still comes to play. There is no better time for the Church to rise up to its holistic role than now.
- There is an open invitation for us to come and provide leadership trainings for the leaders and pastors from the different refugee settlements. We still hope to launching a Leadership Development outreach there before the end of 2020.
- What we have been doing so far is relief. Inadequate relief. It is like quenching thirst with a cup of water. What the people need is development. We need to think around something that empowers them to quench their thirst each time they are thirsty rather than feeding them cups of water periodically. While there are still urgent needs such as clothes, beds, blankets etc that can be met through interventions and short visits of 1-2 days, there is need for more long term intervention such as trainings and empowerment that will enable the people to be lifted permanently out of despair and poverty. It is estimated that the refugee situation may continue for another 4-5 years.
In subsequent posts, I will be sharing specific stories of individuals within these settlements. There may be 35,000 – 40,000 people living there, but each of them has a unique story. Some are stories of hope in the midst of despair that will bring joy to your heart, other stories will break your heart, because as pathetic as they are, they remain unattended to, unless we rise up to do something.