Samuel Akaakaa is an experienced past-employee of Beacon of Hope, a national development agency in Jos, Plateau State, Nigeria, begun as a ministry of World Renew. He and wife Marilyn are raising their own young family and have deep hearts for vulnerable children.
The crisis in Nigeria of internally displaced people
For several years Samuel and Marilyn kept hearing reports of Boko Haram atrocities in northeastern Nigeria. Many camps near Jos are filled with internally displaced people (IDPs). Their number grows weekly, the need always outstripping the availability of shelter, clothing, bedding, food and other basic necessities of life. Many are orphaned children; others have been separated from parents and siblings in the turmoil of fleeing and trying to survive. Boko Haram, though, is not the only cause forcing people to flee their homes, disrupt their families.
Roots of the current crisis
Samuel and Marilyn know well the tumultuous history between the Birom and Fulani peoples that rarely grab national or international media attention. Birom are village people, subsistence farmers; Fulani are largely nomadic cattle herders who follow the seasons to find forage for their animals. In the last 150 years most Birom have accepted Christianity. The Fulani are mostly Muslims.
Moving about in extended small family groups with their cattle, they have resisted Christian evangelism.
For long periods Birom and Fulani have lived peacefully. Birom children were often apprenticed to Fulani herders to learn cattle-raising in the harsh savannahs of West Africa. Fulani, for their part, have in some places acquired farming skills from Birom people.
Regardless, as Birom and Fulani populations grow, land becomes harder to share. Cattle eat and destroy growing crops; in revenge or self-protection, farmers capture and kill cattle. Some Fulani burn villages; Birom families flee traditional lands. In the turmoil of flight children and parents are frequently and hopelessly separated. Refugee populations swell towns and cities. The pressures on resources and land add to Boko Haram’s random brutality.
Yet tribal competition for food and land and Boko Haram’s militant Islamic warfare are by no means the only reasons for today’s violence and its resulting flood of IDPs. Still older root causes have long divided tribes, feeding into current tensions.
A legacy of colonialism
Christian mission work has not always worked historically as an altruistic spiritual boon to indigenous people in many lands. Before Europeans colonized Africa, Catholic priests in Latin America accompanied Spanish and Portuguese conquistadores in brutal enterprises of settlement. Indigenous people were baptized, enslaved, forced to mine gold and silver on treasure ships returning to Europe, financing further exploration and conquest. Over centuries the Iberian empires gave way to British power that produced an empire on which the sun never set; the Anglican Church accompanied those conquerors too.
By the nineteenth century, although slavery was outlawed in England, British businesses in African colonies mined large deposits of tin in today’s Plateau State. Such unregulated open pit mining damaged the environment and compromised Birom agriculture. Today, where long played-out mines pierced aquifers, lakes dot the landscape, having flooded former Birom fields or Fulani pastures. Such past industry over years helped create conditions ripe for tribal conflict that displaced thousands of people.
House of Recab rises again in Nigeria
Parts of all those separate infernos of long violence converged in several short days in November 2014 outside Jos. But instead of continuing to burn out of control, in an astonishing example of God’s grace in action, joining with the perseverance of a growing number of saints, destructive fiery furnaces were banked into heart-warming ministries of rescue, relief and hope for some of Nigeria’s children.
With touching courage and mighty flexible talent for making the most of little, when Samuel and Marilyn saw ashes of ruined families, they determined to make whole what was broken. They established the House of Recab. Christian Reformed missionary Mike Vander Dyke, a friend of Samuel and Marilyn, explains, “The name comes from Jeremiah 35; the Recabites were praised by God for being obedient to teachings handed down by their ancestors.”
In November 2014 the Akaakaa family was living in Rayfield, outside Jos. In the mid-afternoon on November 7, an acquaintance who knew Samuel and Marilyn’s dedication to children, drove to their rented house. He opened the doors of his 14 passenger van; fifty-two children from three years of age to early teens burst out. The magic of cell phones soon led the driver’s friends to the Akaakaa home. By mid-evening 130 children jammed the once-spacious house. Recab’s house rose again in Nigeria, but not without difficulty.
Though the children’s arrival was not a total surprise to Samuel and Marilyn, the sheer number descending upon them in in one day jolted them. Experienced in relief and development, the Akaakaas had prepared by stockpiling mattresses, blankets, food and staple supplies. As well, networks of friends and colleagues soon joined to help care for and house the flood of children. After a year, the owner of the house, quailing at the wear and tear on the property, demanded the operation move.
Now in a larger house in Jos proper, the number of child refugees has often climbed to more than 200. Children and staff worship daily, giving thanks for life and new hope. Teachers give school lessons in English, the common second language among many tribal tongues. Older children take courses in welding and other trades. Others plant gardens to supply some of the food, all prepared on wood fires. Some children have moved out after family members or friends were located in surrounding areas. Soon after others arrive, looking for shelter and a hope.
Who are they? How will they live?
Aside from the daily difficulties of housing, feeding and teaching the children, often a more basic social problem looms: How do these children become documented Nigerians? Almost all have lost any identity cards they may have once had. During my January visit, Samuel said 30 of the current residents were orphans; four had lost complete contact with family; most were “half-orphans.”
Yet House of Recab’s children are no longer lost. In pregnant, paused phrases, Samuel declared, “Someone dropped the kids off. Someone knows who they are.” House of Recab staff is working with Nigeria’s National Population Commission to generate birth certificates, establish basic identity.
“But how?” I asked. “It’s not easy,” was Samuel’s understated reply, “but we start with what we have. Few children know when they were born, but each child has a name. We work from there.”
“For example,” he continues, “several children are called ‘Guvna.’ We’ve figured out they were born around the time a public official visited their village. By their birth language, we try to determine their home district and when a high official made a visit nearby. Then we assign a date of birth we hope is close to accurate. Home village, birthdate and name are the foundation of their documents.”
That’s as good as today’s obedient Recabites can do. Samuel concludes, “But the skills the children learn here, along with faith in Jesus we pray keeps growing, will help them find community when they leave. Because we know that each of these children is a child of God.”
And I pray that Christian churches and people in Plateau State continue welcoming God’s children, embracing them into God’s family.
Samuel and Marilyn Akaakaa with their son.
Class of four- to six-year-olds at House of Recab.