Based on the true story of an evangelsit in the deserts of Africa


Cherisse’s grandfather, Gerald McGarvey, told her this story when she was a child. McGarvey was an Alliance missionary for 40 years and knew Ibrahima, a member of the Dogon tribe of Mali.

The sun cast its early morning rays onto the cliffs of Sangha, creeping into the cracks and caverns to shed light onto the dark faces. One after another they began to stir and crawl out of their caves, like ants climbing out of holes in the trunk of a gnarly old tree. Mothers tied ropes around the waists of their children and cautioned them to be careful on the cliff edges. Should they fall, though, the ropes would save their lives.

Ibrahima, known to most villages as simply “the evangelist,” had left his cave before the night’s cold had begun to melt in the morning sun. He had been praying while he waited for the sun to light the pages of his worn leather-bound Bible. The naked desert stretched endlessly before him and seemed to almost sing as it was illuminated. Red, pink, orange, yellow—the colors were brilliant. He never tired of the clear desert sky.

The cool sand was glowing with the early sun-fire upon it. Soon it would be hot enough to blister the poor feet of any shoeless wanderer. Then again, to be shoeless was probably the least of a wanderer’s concerns, if he were traveling in this dry desert alone. Sandstorms were a common danger. A sandstorm would fling sand into your mouth, eyes, ears and nose if you had nothing to cover your head. Much worse though was the effect of the sandstorm on the paths in the desert. A traveler would have very little hope of finding his way to a village after his footprints were erased.

Deal of a Lifetime

An elderly woman sat humming a song never before hummed as she carefully repaired a rope ladder. The Dogon people used rope ladders to climb up and down from their homes to get food and water. When the ladders weren’t being used, they pulled them up so their enemies couldn’t climb them. The Dogon people had been enemies with the tribe of Bambara for many years. They fought because they both lived on oases and felt threatened by each other’s herds (cattle and goats).

Only the day before, the Dogon chief, Bakari, had spoken to Ibrahima and made him a deal. Bakari said to Ibrahima, “Listen, evangelist, I have a problem. If you can fix my problem, then I will allow the whole tribe to believe in your God.”

“Tell me what your problem is,” Ibrahima said.

“You know that my tribe has been enemies with the Bambara for many years. Many men have died in disputes between us. My son is now of age to be married, and I have a plan. If your God is as powerful as you say He is, then He will assure your success. I ask you to go to the Bambara tribe and ask Hamad’s [their chief’s] daughter if she will marry my son. This would unite our tribes, because family is obligated to be at peace with one another.”

A Desert Journey

Ibrahima kissed his wife goodbye and filled his bidon (a small thermos) with water for the journey. He knew he was risking his life when he set out, but he trusted in God, as he had so many times before when he traveled in the desert. There had been many journeys before this one, where he had traveled from one village to another, preaching the Word of God. He knew the feeling of thirst, the feeling of cracked lips and a thick, dry tongue, but he did not know what lay ahead of him now.

He traveled on an old red bike that looked as if it might fall to pieces at any moment. As the wheels turned, they threw dust on the path behind him. The path ahead of him seemed to warn: Go back; there is nowhere to go forward from here. Look ahead and see—there is nothing but sand for miles. Surely you go to your death if you go this way.

Ibrahima ignored the road’s warning and peddled his bicycle faster. The wheels whirred in protest, but he was determined. In his mind there was no risk too great, no risk he would not take to save the people of Sangha.

In the Presence of His Enemies

It was not yet dark when Ibrahima reached the village of the Bambara. Now, however, he had a new fear. He was in enemy territory. If they decided to kill him in the night, his wife would be burdened with the life of a widow. His heart ached at this thought, but he prayed that his fears would be taken away.

The Bambara chief greeted him with hesitation but no hostility. Hamad asked, “Why have you risked your life to come here this evening? Surely you must have an important reason for coming.”

Ibrahima kept his real business a secret and told Hamad that he only wanted to speak with the Bambara people about his God.

“Speak with them if you want, but they do not believe in your God,” Hamad told Ibrahima.

Ibrahima was given food and a place for the night, but he could not sleep. At the first light of dawn, Ibrahima asked to speak with the chief’s daughter. When she was brought to him, Ibrahima wasted no time in explaining his real reason for coming. He asked her to marry Bakari’s son and told her that if she agreed, it would bring peace to their villages. Hamad’s daughter agreed to marry Bakari’s son on the next new moon.

Waiting to Die

When Ibrahima set out for the journey back to Sangha, his heart was filled with joy. He praised God for the long hours that he peddled his red bike along the path. He barely noticed the hot sun on his back or the salty sweat that crawled down his cheeks and onto his cracked lips.

Suddenly the wind began to pick up. The desert wind is not refreshing. It is a suffocating, hot wind that serves only to stir up sand and build dunes. Sand! The sand was rising in a thick, brown cloud, like a wave.

Ibrahima jumped off his bike and looked frantically for brush to hide under. There was nothing close enough for him to dive under before the sandstorm would hit. He pulled his shirt over his head and hid behind his bicycle. Minutes seemed like hours as the sand stung his bare back and legs. The sound, the darkness, the heat was like a glimpse into hell.

Finally, the storm passed, and Ibrahima was able to climb out from under the inches of sand that had been dumped onto his body. He shook himself in an attempt to get rid of all the sand that clung to him. His red bike was partially buried, but he didn’t bother to pull it out because there was nowhere for him to go. As he turned slowly in a circle, he realized he was going to die there. The path that led home had been completely erased by the sandstorm.

Ibrahima sought shade several feet away under a bush that was mostly branches and thorns. He knelt and dug into the hot sand with his fingernails, pulling it toward his knees. One of his fingers suddenly stung. As he pulled his left hand up to his face he saw a four-inch thorn protruding from his index finger. He yanked the thorn out and carelessly tossed it aside. Blood dripped from his finger and mixed with the sand. It burned as he continued to dig, but he was rewarded with cooler sand to sit on under the thorn bush.

Hours passed more slowly than they ever had before. His bidon was empty, and he could feel the effects of extreme thirst. Death was like the desert; it was before him, inevitable and infinite. As he sat in the sand and watched the blood dry on his finger, he began to pray. He prayed that the village would be saved so that his efforts would not be a waste. He prayed that his wife would be comforted and blessed. Lastly he prayed that he would live to help save many more people.

Not a Mirage

Ibrahima stared at the expanse of sand and watched the air ripple like thousands of clear flames. Sweat dripped onto his lips and he licked them frequently, but he knew it would make no difference. There was nothing in any direction.

Then, he thought he saw a dark figure out of the corner of his eye. Probably a mirage, though. No, now he could hear footsteps in the sand. He could hear the slosh of cool water in a calabash (a large, hollow gourd). He turned his head and saw a woman, dressed like a Tuareg (another Malian tribe), and she was very near to him.

She stood next to him and said, “Son, get up and drink.”

Ibrahima rose to his feet and eagerly took the calabash. He drank a few gulps before lowering the gourd to thank her, but she was gone. He looked all around, but she was nowhere to be seen. But there was nowhere for her to go! He could see for half a mile in all directions.

Ibrahima stood and wondered at this for several minutes before taking another drink. He then filled his bidon with the rest of the cool water and pulled his bike out of the sand. Suddenly, he knew which way to go. He trusted that God had sent the woman as an angel and had guided him. Within an hour, Ibrahima could see the cliffs of Sangha in the distance, and he knew his time on earth was not at an end.

Upon arriving at Sangha, Ibrahima was given a wonderful welcome party. The Dogon people celebrated the coming of peace, the bravery of Ibrahima and the faithful God that had saved Ibrahima’s life. Bakari kept his promise and allowed the whole village to turn to God.

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