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A Tale From Two Cities
Two pastors live out the Word in the ancient Malian cities of Gao and Timbuktu—now fortified with the Scriptures in their Tamasheq language.

Photographs by Dave Crough

The desert is full of the unexpected.

Only about 15 percent of the Sahara is sand. Each year millions of tons of it are blown across the Atlantic and over Europe by the hot breath of the desert, or harmattan—seasonal winds which perpetually erase and redraw the landscape.

A Tale From Two Cities
"If you get lost, remain calm, for the desert is calm." Tamasheq proverb

Travel through its shape-shifting sands, mountains, hard scrabble flats, or scrub is measured in days rather than fixed distances. Desert dwellers, like the nearly 700,000 nomadic Tamasheq (pronounced TAWM-a-shek), navigate by the rising and setting sun, the stars, seemingly insignificant landmarks and even by the varying smell of the sand.

Historical evidence supports the belief that the Tamasheq were once Christian, but wandered from that faith because they had nothing to guide them. Even their name in Arabic, Tuareg, means "abandoned of God." When Islam swept across North Africa, the Tamasheq initially adapted rather than adopted it.

This desert environment in the West African country of Mali sets the scene for yet another layer of the unexpected—in the form of two pastors who are decidedly not abandoned of God.


Seemingly unfazed by frequent drop-in visits, Pastor Ibrahim Ag Mohamed patiently faces each request as it comes. A need for food, church concerns and personal matters—all these are met with the same gentle care and compassion. Giving of what he's been given is what Ibrahim does best. His calm, even-handed nature flows up from his very roots as a Tamasheq of the Sahara.

A Tale From Two Cities
Ibrahim considers his ministry an urban one. His church includes approximately 100 adults from seven different language backgrounds.

Contentment. Ibrahim learned this from his early childhood among his family of nomadic shepherds. There was "nothing to covet, because nothing is there," he recalls of his upbringing in the desert.

One of the highest values for nomadic people is freedom—to go wherever you want, do whatever you want, whenever you want to. This is basic, even essential to the group's lifestyle. But their freedom, Ibrahim concludes, comes with a cost.

"Westerners, please get rid of this romantic, panoramic view of the nomadic life," Ibrahim advises. "It is a hard job to be a shepherd, to be a nomad. I was following my father since I was three or four years old. This is when the training starts for boys."

To be independent from society is a labour-intensive existence.

Dramatic change

Ibrahim's customary life fell apart in 1970 when the government began to gather nomadic male children to attend national schools. Because of their strong family bonds, and fear that these schools would eradicate their children's Tamasheq language and culture, parents desperately attempted to disguise their boy children as girls. But when Ibrahim was five, he was found without his disguise, captured, and taken away to a government school where his life changed dramatically.

A Tale From Two Cities
In the small town of Djebock, outside of Gao, camel power pulls the ropes attached to cowhide buckets, drawing precious water from the 80-meter-deep well.

During his years of schooling, in which he learned French and later English, the influence of Islam also shaped Ibrahim. Required to commit the Qur'an (or Koran) in Arabic to memory, he was compelled to believe its tenets without question, though he did not fully understand its meaning.

As a young adult, along with a group of other young men, Ibrahim burned Bibles and any Christian literature he could find. According to their Muslim beliefs, these writings were the corrupted Word of God, and therefore should be destroyed.

One day Ibrahim found a Gideon New Testament that belonged to a cousin who had become a Christian several years earlier. Ibrahim could see that his cousin's life had changed in ways that he admired. Also, his cousin prayed in his own Tamasheq language, demonstrating it was possible to communicate with God in one's mother tongue.

While reading the New Testament, two concepts struck Ibrahim. First, the genealogy in Matthew outlined a history he was familiar with, including such names as Abraham and King David. His interest piqued, as chapter after chapter drew him in.

Then he read Jesus' own words: "Come to me, all you who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest" (Mtatthew 11:28, NKJV). "This," says Ibrahim, "is my best word in the Bible: 'Come.' It's an invitation. … "

A powerful invitation

"I was sitting in this room alone," Ibrahim continues. "Nobody was preaching to me, and I stood up and said, 'You are telling me to come. I am coming.'"

A Tale From Two Cities
Visiting with displaced Tamasheq (top photo) who live in poor encampments on the outskirts of Gao is very important to Ibrahim (bottom photo, back to camera) and his wife Gosia (at left). Sometimes they distribute food from the church—but always there is discussion about the Christian life, punctuated by laughter and inquiries about family needs.
A Tale From Two Cities

That moment was very powerful for Ibrahim; he realized he was a sinner separated from a Holy God and he rose to his feet in repentance to meet the Lord.

"The Book which I burned came to my heart and burned my heart," he says.

A hunger to understand the Scriptures led Ibrahim to attend the Evangelical Baptist Bible School in Gao (pronounced Gow), where he studied for four years. He then went on to further studies at a seminary in England. One of six Tamasheq pastors trained thus far, Ibrahim eventually desired to translate the Bible for his people.

The more he examined God's Word, the more Ibrahim could see that it is ideally translatable, keeping its same vitality in any language. In contrast, he realized that in translating the Qur'an into another language, such as Tamasheq or French, it lost its impact.

"When you hear them reciting the Qur'an in Arabic, it's wonderful; it rhymes. But translate that into French—no!" Ibrahim explains. And yet "the Word speaks in Hebrew in the same way it will speak in Tamasheq, the same way it would speak in Greek. … It still keeps its power."

Ibrahim's core motivation for translating the Bible into Tamasheq was so that his people would know that they are not forsaken by God, as their Arabic name suggests. Rather, they are beloved, treasured by God.

Like the wind changing the desert landscape, God set in motion the new outline of Ibrahim's life.

Three 'calls'

In 1992 Ibrahim accepted an invitation to attend linguistic courses at the SIL school in England. There he met a young woman named Gosia, the first Polish person to receive SIL training. Soon Ibrahim and Gosia discovered that their mutual interest went beyond Bible translation. The two were married in Poland in 1994.

Visiting displaced Tamasheq is very important to Ibrahim and his wife Gosia (at left). Sometimes they distribute food from the church—but always there is discussion about the Christian life, punctuated by laughter and inquiries about family needs.

Toward the end of his SIL training in 1993, Ibrahim accepted a call to pastor in Gao. At that time he joined the Tamasheq translation team, and began translating the book of Acts.

Gosia also joined the Tamasheq project. In the beginning, she mainly typed revisions of the translation. In more recent years she has become invaluable for her administrative skills as project manager, finance manager, organizer and fundraiser. Gosia maintains her connection to churches in Poland and to the Wycliffe partner organization there. When she and Ibrahim, and their daughters Yemima and Lidya, visit her home country, they have been able to encourage the church there to pray for the Tamasheq. They have also received some funding from Polish believers for the translation project.

A Tale From Two Cities
"Riverboats come from the south, salt camels come from the north, wisdom and knowledge reside in Timbuktu" Tamasheq proverb.

Photographs by Dave Crough

To follow Pastor Nouh (pronounced Nock) Ag Infa Yattara around his hometown of Timbuktu is to walk with a friend, one whose life witness has stood the test of time. Everyone seems to recognize him. He knows and greets rich and poor, Christian and Muslim, all with equal warmth and respect. His widespread rapport throws into contrast the unsuppressed cruelty he experienced in his youth.

Nouh credits God's grace for bringing him to where he is today, but the road has been long and arduous. Kidnapped along with other nomadic children by French guards, and forced to attend a government school, Nouh was ultimately led to a profound relationship with God. Rejected by his family and other Muslims, Nouh learned about unconditional acceptance from his Heavenly Father. Today, he reflects that same acceptance to anyone in his presence.

A Tale From Two Cities
Pastor Nouh and his wife Fati greet some of the many visitors to their home in Timbuktu. Over the course of history, the lighter-skinned, desert-dwelling Tamasheq possessed servants and slaves, and intermarried with darker-skinned Africans from regions such as present day Senegal and Nigeria. Timbuktu emerged as a hub for slave trading, along with salt and gold. For Nouh and his family, it is the Tamasheq language and culture, not their darker skin, that identifies them as Tamasheq.

Fast forward through young adulthood: Nouh received four years of training from a Bible institute in Côte d'Ivoire, before serving in full-time ministry in the north of Mali. He then completed three years of training in economics and community development in the U.S., earning a master's degree in 1998 from Eastern University in Pennsylvania.

Nouh gained much from all his travels and training, not the least of which were an understanding of the global Church, and the ability to interface with and facilitate numerous aid organizations to benefit his people, the Tamasheq.

Back to Timbuktu

In the end there was no question as to where Nouh would land. His desire to show God's love to his own people guided him back home to Timbuktu. Unlike the common perception of Timbuktu being the remotest location on earth, this ancient intellectual and spiritual centre for the Islamic world once surpassed many European cities with its universities, schools and libraries. Yet this crossroads of the Sahara's historical trade routes for salt, gold and slaves, now casts only a shadow of its past greatness.

When he returned to Timbuktu, Nouh began leading a small fellowship of believers, the Evangelical Baptist Church. Sadly, he found the spiritual climate discouraging, even dangerous. In the 1980s, Christians experienced the whole spectrum of negative treatment, from a closed-door attitude to open persecution.

"It became an issue just to be alive here," Nouh remembers. "Nobody wanted to talk to us. Even in the market, we couldn't sell things."

A Tale From Two Cities
As reflected in its Christian cemetery, down through the centuries Timbuktu has not always been welcoming to foreigners. Yet that did not deter explorers such as the frenchman, Rene Caillie. In 1848, although not the first outsider to reach the fabled, yet forbidden destination, he was the first to return alive. He stayed two weeks in this house (above), now marked with a plaque commemorating his visit.

Making a living was increasingly difficult for the Christians.

"That is when we started to pray and even fast to see how the Lord could change it," Nouh recalls.

Their prayers resulted in a vision from God to serve one of the neediest groups of people: single mothers. Many women in this society are abandoned, some by very short-term husbands.

The idea of serving this forgotten segment of society presented a paradox. In the midst of their own suffering, Nouh and the other Christians in Timbuktu chose to reach out to others who also suffered. The potential for positively affecting the rest of the community gave added incentive to do the job well.

So in 1990, with 15 participants, a centre for women opened. Nouh, now a skilled networker, was in touch with World Vision, which backed the centre and provided sewing machines. The women were taught skills in sewing, embroidery, knitting and tie-dyeing.

Transformation and elevation

"It was just incredible, the transformation and quality of life we brought to those ladies," Nouh relates. To the delight of the centre staff, some of the women were able to remarry because of the elevation in their social position.

A further mark of success was evident at the start of their second year.

A Tale From Two Cities
(Above) The highly successful, church-run women's centre provides a range of services and education to these Muslim women, most of whom are single mothers, widows, or divorced. (Below) Nouh's church also operates a ministry to orphans, providing a meal before the children go to school.
A Tale From Two Cities

"The following year we had 70 women forcing the gates to enter. Now we have more than 450 candidates wanting to enter the women's centre, but 90 is the maximum our buildings can hold, and the support we receive can manage."

The women's centre, housed on the church grounds, has operated at maximum capacity each year since 1992. Besides acquiring a trade, the women receive instruction in literacy in Tamasheq, health and hygiene issues (including AIDS and malaria prevention), as well as Bible teaching. At the end of their stay, these women re-enter society with improved productivity and status.

Success breeds success. Nouh continued to be approached, sometimes day and night, by needy Tamasheq people, most of them Muslim. In 2002 the church opened a small centre called Elijah House, offering a program to the many local orphans with funding from Partners International. Besides giving 30 kids breakfast, lunch and a place for a siesta each day, many are assisted in organizing their paperwork, including obtaining birth certificates.

During this time, in the early 1990s, another proposal of Nouh's was underway. In response to his 1989 request to SIL, the New Testament was being translated into Tamasheq. A Bible translation existed, but was considered too difficult to understand.

In the midst of these acts of service, Nouh could see God's design emerging. Out of the painful circumstances of his past, and the turbulent climate his church had endured, God was fashioning something of enduring value.

Explaining the vision

In March 1999, Nouh received a most portentous visitor. A highly esteemed officer and seasoned warrior journeyed from the desert into Timbuktu to tell Nouh about a vision.

He said that hundreds of people from the desert north of Timbuktu saw the same vision: a man, hovering above the ground, holding a book. They all identified the man as Jesus. Muslims know that the Qur'an speaks about the anticipated return of Jesus, and the visions provoked great curiosity and wonder.

A Tale From Two Cities
As a child, Ibrahim was beaten for speaking his own language in school. Now he reads and teaches from the Tamasheq New Testament on a local radio station, his message heard by thousands of Tamasheq.

Visions are foundational to Islamic belief, and interpreters of visions inspire considerable respect. Yet the fact that this officer, a fierce defender of Islam, came to a Christian pastor for a vision interpretation, stepped beyond the unlikely, to the unheard of.

"I was sincerely nervous!" Nouh laughs, "[but] I just tried to keep calm and to share what I know about the coming back of Jesus."

Then the owner of an FM radio station (one of four broadcasting in Timbuktu), approached Nouh, asking him to talk about the return of Jesus on the radio. That launched a weekly Sunday evening broadcast.

Ultimately, the people's hunger to know what the visions meant grew into an interest in all of what the Bible had to say.
A Tale From Two Cities
A journey along the north side of the Niger River between Gao and Timbuktu entails a 10 to 12-hour drive with a four-wheel drive vehicle. Most drivers don't rely on signposts—standing or not. In the vast expanse of the desert that lies to the north stretching into Algeria, travellers have been known to erect small stone cairns, which act as guides. Visible at a distance, these cairns serve as waypoints, similar to the inukshuks constructed by the Inuit in Canada's far northern, barren landscape.
The radio program was satisfying an overwhelming desire for understanding. Soon Nouh was teaching the Gospel, not only over the airwaves, but also by invitation from schools, hotels, offices, even Qur'anic schools and the Islamic University of Timbuktu.

In all this, Nouh is amazed.

"We didn't do anything," he insists, except to follow "the road prepared by those people [who saw the visions]."

Guided by signposts

City of Mystery—that's how Timbuktu has been described fro centuries. Early European explorers were drawn sometimes by nothing more than the allure and mystery of the name. But many were disappointed once there—if they lived to tell the tale of their journey, with its hardships, disease and attempts on their lives. Now, some may feel disappointment in finding Internet connections available in town.

The decades inevitably bring adjustments. Understanding the times is vital for Nouh and the Church in Timbuktu—as vital as for the caravans of salt-bearing camels to find their way through the desert to the mysterious city.

Looking for signposts, sometimes faint or indistinct, takes a unique perspective; to be guided by them takes a cultivated trust. As God directs Nouh's life, He demonstrates that far from abandoning the Tamasheq, He wants to give them something to direct their path—something to guide them to Him.

That is the greatest revealed mystery of all.

Deborah Crough is a staff writer with Wycliffe Bible Translators of Canada.

Originally published in Word Alive (Spring 2005), the periodical of Wycliffe Bible Translators of Canada.

To request a free sample of Word Alive magazine or to subscribe, visit the Wycliffe website. If subscribing, a donation of $10 annually is suggested to help cover the cost of printing and mailing the quarterly magazine.




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