“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat; I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink; I was a stranger and you invited me in…”
“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ “
Kubitierere. A village marked by incessant tribal warfare with Koritambe, its direct neighbor. A village known for its members being vengeful and unforgiving. A village with a deserted church building from years past, due to the pastor being held at spear-point and told to fight or die. Bloodshed marked the lawn next to the church building, as entire families were killed by spears on their way to church one Sunday. The pastor and his family fled for their lives. Innocent people were lost. And the church that once was thriving dissipated.
Today, things are different. There are still many vengeful families, and there is much work still to do, but the empty church building no longer exists. God is at work within this village in a powerful way, and that church now has Christians attending each week and a pastor who is willing to shepherd them.
It is here in the village of Kubiterere that God gave me my favorite memories from my recent trip to Tanzania. We worked in three villages while we were there, 2 days in each village. All of the work remains special in my mind, but over the years, it seems that God always has given me a special blessing of a memory that just “makes” the trip for me. In this last village of Kubitierere, He did that not once, not twice, but three times. Three amazing mental images I will never forget.
Today, I write about the first. Her name is Anastazia Robi. I don’t know much about her, really, but I can tell you I love her deeply, as if we were old friends. She had but one child, a son. Having only one baby in African culture is a stigma, because having many children is looked at as a sign of prosperity. While Anastazia Robi had only one, her son apparently made up for that barrenness by having 12 offspring. I also know that she was born in the ‘year of the locust’. My Tanzanian translator told me that he thought that the locust hit Tanzania in 1940, but when I googled it, the year appears to be 1949. That would put her at only 67 years old, but her leathered hands appear to be so much older.
Our team was originally supposed to host a medical clinic, and we are sure she walked into the church building for that sole purpose. But God had other plans. We were on our lunch break when I first laid eyes on her. She was a tiny thing; carried a stick nearly as big as her, and she walked very slowly.
When I saw her struggling to negotiate the step into the church building, I immediately stood up and grabbed a plastic chair for her to sit down close to the door. I then pulled up another chair for me, and thus began a sweet rafiki-friendship.
Since it was our lunchbreak, I had no translators nearby to help me know more about this sweet lady that just walked into my life. So I sat there. She talked to me. I conversed back with her. She pointed at the ceiling of the church, and I responded that yes, I see those cobwebs up there. She said something else in her native tongue, and I responded that “this is Africa, and I agreed. I had to learn to not be afraid of spiders.” The conversation went back and forth like that for quite a while, until one of our translators returned.
I cannot explain to you the feeling of chatting with this sweet woman about two completely different things, all while being 100% unified in spirit with her. We laughed together, and I knew a bond of friendship was forming. Even without a translator present, there was one thing evident: this woman had a serious toothache. She kept opening her mouth wide so I could take a look. (Of course I didn't realize until later that the toothache & the original plans for a medical clinic was what brought her into the church building to begin with!)
I just kept telling her that I couldn’t do anything about that toothache she had, and I really didn't even want to see it. Then I would change the subject to something else and try to be funny.
She seemed to laugh on cue. I guess this mzungu (white person) intrigued her!
About 20 minutes of chatting had passed when our gracious hosts from the community marched into the church with several large pots of rice, cabbage, beans, and some beef chunks in broth. I immediately got up to get her some food, which she of course gladly accepted. She made it clear that she didn’t want to have anything to do with the cabbage, and it was also apparent that she couldn’t chew that meat, but she gladly accepted a healthy portion of everything else.
Since the government had put a nix on our plans for the medical clinic, the only thing I could offer her for the toothache was a Tylenol, which she gladly accepted.
Soon afterward, we began to dialogue; thankfully, this time with the use of a translator.
I then had my translator ask if I could take her picture so that I could remember my new ‘rafiki’ (friend). She told me, “No, because if you take my picture, it won’t be fair because I don’t have a picture of you.” Now that was not the response I was expecting, but God interceded in really a miraculous way. For the first time that I can ever remember happening, one of our team members brought with her a Polaroid camera! The rest of the team had noticed my ongoing chatting with Anastazia Robi, and without missing a beat, the awesome Olivia Grace Todd came to my heart’s rescue with her camera. I almost had to pinch myself to see if what I was experiencing was true - just another example of God's providential plans! Together, we watched the image appear of the two of us, and at that moment, I knew that she loved me back just as much as I loved her. A tear fell from her eye as she realized she would have a picture of us together to cherish.
In my heart of hearts, I felt that I needed to invest in this woman, meet her physical needs as best I could, but I also was compelled to build a relationship with her before sharing the Gospel. Missions is not just 'telling people about Jesus." It's about being sensitive to God to know when you need to meet physical needs & build relationships, and it's about listening to God's timing on when you should move the conversation to the spiritual. My very wise pastor John Meador (FBC Euless, TX) has said that "relationship" is the most important word in the English language. After my experience with Anastazia Robi, I believe that we were able to bond because I met her physical needs first...even that silly tylenol that we take for granted.
After about 40 minutes of taking care of Anastazia Robi, I knew it was time to get down to business. After all, we weren’t on lunch break all afternoon, and soon we would have to break for our discipleship groups. I knew that it was time to start sharing the Gospel with her. I then quickly learned that my translator spoke Swahili, but Anastazia didn't fully speak Swahili. She understood some, but her native tongue was Lugha. So I shared with her in English, which was then translated to Swahili, and then translated again to her native tongue of Lugha.
She told me she was from a works-based religion. In most cultures, her religion means her entrance into heaven was based on the works she did or did not do here on earth. I shared with her that being a good person and living a good life is not the way to have a relationship with God. I then shared with her the plan of salvation and showed her the verses in the Bible that say it’s not by works of righteousness that we have done, but according to God’s grace that we are saved. (Titus 3:5, Ephesians 2:8-9). On Tuesday, August 2nd, Anastazia Robi bowed her head and with tears in her eyes prayed a simple prayer of forgiveness. And at that moment, God invaded her heart, never to leave her.
Since she had her picture of us, she was now more than happy to let me take pictures, and that I did…en mass. We took selfies together. We made silly faces. (Well, mostly I made the silly faces, because try as she might to imitate my facial gesture, the look on her face never really changed much!) We laughed. Big, belly laughs. She referred to me as “rafiki”, and all during the discipleship group, our hands stayed gripped together. As our first day in the village came to a close, I didn’t have any idea if I would see this sweet woman again, but I knew that she had made a decision to accept Christ for herself, and because of that, I would see her in heaven one day.
On our last day of ministry before leaving Tanzania, we met again in the church building to go out in teams and share the Gospel. I knew she wouldn’t be there, but I hoped she would be back in the afternoon for the discipleship group. Hope did not disappoint. In fact, she was there waiting for me, big toothless smile across her face. Empty chair saved just for me, her new rafiki.
We took more selfies. We laughed. We talked as if we could understand each other, and she swatted away the children who were trying to photo-bomb “our pictures”. I took some video of us together, and she even learned how to say my name and “I love you” in English. During the discipleship time, she once again gripped my hand, and every time I glanced over at her, she would look back with a sweet smile. My Rafiki, my friend – Anastazia Robi.
As our hands were inseparable, I knew our time together was drawing to a close. Through my translator, I explained to her that I was leaving to go back to the USA the next day, and I had to say goodbye. She understood, and she told me that she would be waiting for me to come back next year. I made no promises, only that I would try! I slipped my favorite necklace off my neck and latched it around hers. I made her promise that she wouldn’t let one of her grandchildren have it, and that it was for her, as a symbol of our friendship. She promised to keep it, and then I helped her through the door of the church, down the step, and she sat there waving goodbye until I was out of sight.
I still know very little about this woman who impacted my heart. Her name is Anastazia Robi. She had but one child, 12 grandchildren, carried a stick nearly as tall as her, and she was born in the “year of the locust.” I know that she is my life-long friend, and I know God's timing is perfect. Had the medical clinic taken place, I never would have had the opportunity to invest in her, nor she in me. She is my rafiki, but most importantly, she is a friend of God now.
Notice the picture above, my black & silver necklace...
then in the picture below, she is wearing it. :)
And this story, my friends, is my sweetest memory from this last trip to Tanzania. I'm so blessed to have opportunities like this that make a forever impact on my heart.
Pray for the people of Kubiterere. Pray for those in this village that has been through such times of tribal warfare. Many are still vengeful for the wrongs that were done to their family and need to know about Jesus.
And please pray for my rafiki, my friend, Anastazia Robi.
-- Beth Banfill