When Jamie, our three children, and I lived in Africa during the 90s as Southern Baptist international missionaries, the AK-47 was the preferred weapon used by the police and military throughout the sandy capital city of Niamey, Niger Republic. The AK-47 has a reputation for functioning under the worst conditions and the desert sands provided proof enough. Two decades later, I still recall the sound of those weapons sweeping over us. During our mission trips, in and out of the city, and even moving around within the city, uniformed officers, carrying AK-47s, had the authority to flag us down to the side of the road at their discretion; and they frequently did so.
Once stopped, two men paced up and down both sides of our dusty, white 4x4 Toyota gawking at the children and ogling Jamie with their weapons raised, as if we were escaping criminals. A third man would take his position, squared-up to my left shoulder, where I would be required to present my government papers from my driver’s seat. Routine questions would start and before you knew it, the outspoken armed man would insist that there was some reason I should pay a cash fine personally and instantly before we would be released. With the red dust of the Sahara Desert staining his soiled and sweat-soaked uniform he and his men repeatedly tried to extort money from us during our first year as missionaries. By the grace of God, I was always able to talk the extortionists down without incident until one day when I was alone.
I was inside the capitol city, when my encounter began as a typical shakedown, but took a serious turn when the lead officer refused to give back my government documents. He took everything; my passport, my Nigerien driver’s license, and the papers for the dusty, white 4x4 Toyota. He cooked-up an allegation that I was driving illegally and insisted that I drive the vehicle to the police station, with him sitting in the passenger seat; but, then he offered a “convenient” alternative. He whispered, “Pay me whatever you have in your wallet right now and I will accept that as the fine. You can go on your way as soon as you pay me.”
At that moment, I don’t know who was being more stubborn; the officer with a sidearm holstered on his white belt against his sun-faded fatigues, or me, the infuriated expatriate just trying to help these people. Without thinking, I replied in the loudest French I had ever spoken, “I cannot believe you. You are entrusted to serve and protect the people of this country and instead you spend your days robbing from expatriates like me. I have never given any of you money and I am not about to start now.” I wanted to cover my mouth in surprise of what I had just said.
While I was still in shock at my comments, the officer exited the passenger seat of the 4x4. Just before shutting the door and with a steely-eyed glare, he leaned back into the vehicle and said in a menacing tone, “When you are ready to pay your fine and retrieve your papers come by the police station. I will be there.” The officer sped off on a motorcycle and left me there without one shred of proof of who I was and that I legally owned the vehicle I was driving. I was worse off than I was ten minutes earlier. As I sat alone in my 4x4, I reviewed the incident and reflected on what I saw as my three options:
Option 1: “I should have paid that jerk some money. That could have gone much worse than it did.”
Option 2: “I could go see Jamie and the veteran missionaries and seek their advice.”
Option 3: “I could go get my government papers for my vehicle and me without telling anyone.”
As you would suspect, option three seemed the most gratifying at the moment. So, I drove carefully to the police station, a distance of nearly two miles away from where the officer had taken all of my documents. While I was driving, I passed two other sites where other officers were stopping and searching vehicles. By God’s grace, I arrived at the busy police station without further incidence. There were uniformed officers of all ranks roaming the open courtyard while other officers were reciting their morning prayers on rugs, shoulder to shoulder under the shade of a large neem tree.
As I exited my vehicle, a junior officer, in his best French language, innocently asked me if he could be of service. As I scanned the crowded courtyard locating my blackmailer, I replied loudly enough to interrupt the dozens who were reciting prayers, “Yes, take me to the chief of police because I want to file a complaint against the conman who is dressed in a police uniform and reciting his prayers, right there!” I Pointed my finger toward the man with my arm stretched as far as it could in arrogance.
In less than two minutes, my blackmailer and I were escorted from the courtyard and found ourselves standing in front of the chief of police of the capital city of Niamey. At first, the chief of police and the officer spoke together in one of the African languages of the Niger Republic rather than using French. “What did you do?” “I just tried to get a little money from the expatriate.” “Who is he?” “I don’t know, but he is angry and he might cause us trouble.” “Let’s try to settle this and get him out of here!” they said.
After two or three minutes of what the two men thought was a private conversation, the chief of police looked toward me and addressed me in French, “I’m sorry there’s been some misunderstanding. Here are your papers. You are free to go.” I received the papers and clutched them in my hand but before leaving I spoke to them in a firm and respectful tone in the same African language they had been speaking supposedly in private, “I understood everything you just said because I have learned the language your mothers spoke to you when you were children.”
The expression on the faces of the chief of police and the officer was priceless! They were in shock. They knew their con game was up. I continued in the Zarma language, “I cannot believe you. You are entrusted to serve and protect the people of this country and instead you spend your days robbing from expatriates like me and you rob the people of your own country in police clothing. I have never given any of you money and I am not about to start now.”
The chief of police responding with a beaming smile rose to his feet. He pumped my arm in a large handshake and called me his brother. The offending officer followed his lead. They escorted me to my vehicle introducing me, in the Zarma language, to officers in the courtyard, “This is our brother from America. He is here to help our people. He speaks our language.”
From that day, officers never stopped me again. In fact, they would salute me as I drove past their sites. On occasion though when Jamie was driving through the city, the notorious officer would flag Jamie to the side of the road and he would ask, “How is Tony?” After Jamie offered an update, the officer would salute her and wish her well then let her go without a threat. There were no more AK-47s, no more random inspections, and no more extortions.
So, what is the takeaway from this brief account in my personal history? Simply this, learn to “speak the language” of the people you are trying to reach for Christ. Learn to relate to them where they are and you will discover the advantage of listening carefully and speaking up when it really counts. Be strong in your beliefs. Don’t back down. Be a spokesperson for Christ.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Tony Lynn is the State Director of Missions for the Baptist State Convention of Michigan. Before coming on staff at the BSCM, Tony served as lead pastor for more than six years at Crosspoint Church in Monroe, Michigan. He and his wife, Jamie, also served with the International Mission Board in Africa and in Europe.