Friday, October 02, 2020

Africa Memoir: Most Likely to Become a Martyr

I was twenty-one years old, all alone in the middle of the night, and six thousand miles from home. Well, almost alone. In a vacant, dilapidated airport terminal, full of dust and plastic chairs, I sat beneath the gaze of an African soldier, just three paces away. He had a machine gun under his arm—ready, if necessary, to use it on me. At that particular moment, I was an illegal immigrant (though unintentionally so). As I sat there beneath his silent gaze, with two thousand dollars in cash hidden in my belt, Christian literature in my suitcase, and no entry visa in my passport, I had nothing I could do but wait and pray.

So I waited and I prayed. And that’s how I began my life in Sudan.

~ ~ ~

A couple years ago, I learned that my college friends had once dubbed me “most likely to become a martyr.” (It’s perhaps a telling sign about my sensibilities that I consider that a high compliment.) From the perspective of my current life in small-town Maine, martyrdom now seems unlikely. But as I think back on it, reflecting on the places I went in my twenties, and the things that I did there, I can see where my friends may have formed their impressions. The story of my African journeys began on that night of my arrival in Khartoum in early February of 2004, but the roots of my relationship with Africa go back even further, to when I was sixteen years old.

One day I had happened across an article in one of my parents’ magazines which told the story of a man who accepted a dare to choose a country and pray for it for forty days. He took up the challenge, thinking little of it, and began praying for Uganda. The long and short of it is that by the end of the story, not only had that man prayed for Uganda, he had gotten the opportunity to go to Uganda, and while there, he happened to fall into a set of circumstances in which he was able to influence people in the highest levels of Ugandan government. Well, I thought, if that random guy can do it, so can I. So I chose the country of Sudan. I had no personal connection to the country at all. But I knew that it was a place deeply in need of prayer—with the north being almost entirely Muslim, and the largely Christian south under severe persecution, while at the same time suffering from the fallout of a savage, decades-long civil war. I started praying daily for Sudan. I got a “Pray for Sudan” bracelet from Voice of the Martyrs and wore it every day for more than three years as a reminder of my pledge. I learned the name of the Islamist president, Omar al-Bashir, and began praying for him too.

Three years later, when I was in my junior year at Houghton College, I was looking for a short-term missions engagement for the spring. The following summer was already booked: I was signed up to go on one of my college’s semester-length programs in Tanzania. But that left the spring open, and I felt ready to head back overseas and do some service for the sake of the Kingdom. Specifically, I was interested in doing ministry in Muslim contexts, so I got in contact with a mission agency that specialized in that field. They sent my applications out to their team leaders around the world to see what needs I might be able to fill. And when the responses started coming back in, there was one that jumped out above the rest: a leader in Khartoum, Sudan, had seen my file and wanted to offer me a place on their team. And the appeal didn’t end there—out of all the responses I received, theirs was the only one designed to fit my current area of expertise and training: they had a linguistics project for me to work on. So I signed up to go to Sudan, and sent my passport off for an entry visa.

My trip was supposed to commence in January. Unfortunately, we had heard no word from the Sudanese embassy. My visa application hadn’t been rejected; it just hadn’t been reviewed at all. It was sitting in a pile in someone’s inbox on an embassy desk, untouched. Days turned into weeks, and I was waiting at home in Maine, watching January slip by into February. I had already lost one month of my Sudan trip, and there was still no word on when I might get approval to go. At this point, my team leader in Khartoum, a European missionary named Ernest, suggested that I recall my passport from the embassy and book my flights anyway. We talked about the plan over the phone: “We have an agent here in Khartoum who can meet you right at the airport. He’ll have the entry visa and all the necessary fees in hand as soon as you arrive.”

It was a bit of a leap of faith, but Ernest sounded confident that it would work. So I packed my things, together with some Christian literature and other books that the team had asked me to bring. The Sudanese government was under American sanctions, which meant that it was unconnected to the global banking system, so I had to take all my funds with me in cash—thousands of dollars strapped around my waist.

My flights took me from Boston to London (where I had a brief opportunity to pop in on some friends who were studying there), and then to Nairobi, Kenya. I can still remember the feeling of emerging into the bright, humid Kenyan air, and the smell of the equatorial world—a smell I hadn’t taken into my lungs since my boyhood in Brazil—filled my soul with joy. I had a layover of a couple days in Nairobi, and had arranged to stay with the family of another college friend, who graciously let me sleep off my jet lag at their house and then give me a ride back to the airport.

Finally, I was standing in the terminal of Jomo Kenyatta airport, ready to embark on the flight that would take me to Khartoum. I handed my ticket and passport to the British Airways agent behind the counter.

She looked at the documents quizzically, then said, “You are going to Khartoum, Sudan?”

“Yes,” I replied.

“But you don’t have an entry visa for Sudan. We can’t allow you to go.”

I explained that all the arrangements had been made, and that my team leader had someone to meet me at the airport, with my visa already processed and ready to go. I gave her a Sudanese phone number to call if she wanted to confirm it.

She left the counter and went to consult with another woman, then returned a few moments later. “We don’t have to let you on this plane, but we will,” she said.

“Thank you.”

“But before you decide to go, I need to tell you that if you enter Sudan without a visa, they can do whatever they want to you. Deport you, arrest you, put you in jail, and so on...”

It was that “and so on” that captured one’s imagination. I knew what she meant by it. Sudan was run by a radical Islamist government with no love for America (especially since American cruise missiles had targeted Khartoum just a few years before). If an American showed up as an illegal immigrant, he could be held for espionage and subjected to whatever tortures the regime saw fit. The political prisons in Khartoum had been nicknamed “ghost houses” because no one ever came back from them. Add to that the fact that some of the literature my team had asked me to bring might possibly be considered illegal.

But here’s the strange thing: I didn’t feel at all afraid. I suspect it was because I had so many folks at home praying for me.

“Thank you, but I would like to go,” I told her. “I’m sure they’ll have my visa there for me.”

So I climbed on board the plane and got ready for takeoff. It was evening, and the flight had one other stop, in Asmara, before it was to touch down in Khartoum. There were about twenty other people on the plane, many of them English-speaking expatriates, which added a comforting sense of normalcy as we took to the sky. But that comfort fled quickly when we landed in Asmara and every other American and European got off. With just a handful of Sudanese passengers, and I the sole Westerner, the plane took off again into the night, now on its final approach to Khartoum.

It was just about midnight when we touched down. Our little line of passengers walked into the terminal over a dusty tarmac, and the rest of them immediately got into line at the passport control booth. I gave a long glance around the empty terminal. It was a tiny airport, and if my agent with the entry documents was around, it would be impossible to miss him. But there wasn’t anyone there.

I looked around again. But no, there was no one waiting, no one trying to wave or catch the eye of a passenger. No one at all.

After the others had gone through, I finally approached the passport checkpoint. Maybe, I reasoned, the arrangements had already been made, and the man inside the booth knew about it and would have my documents on hand. With my heart sinking, I handed him my passport.

“You have no visa,” he said.

I tried to explain my situation, but he immediately waved me over to a corner room, where several uniformed officers, guns strapped to their belts, sat watching an Arabic-dubbed version of the movie Titanic. The head officer, a lean, mustached man who was lounging back in his chair with a look of abject boredom, took my passport and flipped through it. Then he looked up at me.

“This is big problem,” he said in broken, heavily-accented English.

I tried once again to explain, but the language barrier proved insurmountable. I didn’t know enough Arabic to make it work, and he didn’t know enough English. I had only one recourse left: I pulled out a slip of paper with Ernest’s phone number on it, and motioned that he should call the number.

With a bit of a scowl (mostly, I think, because he was missing the movie on my account), he dug out a cell phone and called the number. I could hear Ernest’s voice faintly from where I stood, but couldn’t understand anything that was said. The officer sounded fairly irate. After a few minutes, the call ended, and the officer waved me back out into the main room of the terminal.

“You, sit there,” he commanded.

So I went and sat in the plastic chair, and the officer stationed one of his machine-gun-toting guards to stand watch over me. Across the room, my suitcase stuffed with Christian materials stood in the middle of a circle of customs agents, still unopened. It was now well past midnight. I didn’t know what would happen next. All I knew was that I had been told to sit. So I sat there, and waited, and prayed.

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