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When God tests you to despair in the poorest country in the world

The struggles and joy of working in a Niger hospital

When medical missionary Anne-Sophie Rowcroft returned to Australia from Niger, a desperately poor country that is 80 per cent covered by the Sahara Desert, she was struck afresh by the beauty of God’s creation.

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Back in Niger, where she serves as a GP-obstetrician and chief medical officer at Galmi Hospital, Anne-Sophie says it’s harder to see beauty in her surroundings.

“When you are constantly surrounded by sickness and death it is hard to see God’s goodness.” – Anne-Sophie Rowcroft

Niger is the poorest country in the world. Ranked the lowest on the human development index, Niger is a place where people suffer many hardships because of its harsh geographical location. Drought leads to failure of crops, which leads to malnourished children, which is followed by rain, which brings malaria – which kills hundreds of children and pregnant women.

“When you are constantly surrounded by sickness and death, it is hard to see God’s goodness,” admits Anne-Sophie.

“In my work on the maternity ward, we see a lot of women come in way too late, where a baby is already dead. Sometimes the woman is also very close to death on arrival to us – and we’re not always able to save her life. And we know that that’s not the good that God wants for the world.”

Anne-Sophie is struck by the inequality she has seen in Niger, compared with Australia, and it has caused her to ask blunt questions of God. “When you’re surrounded by bad birth experiences, where the mum or the baby or both have died, and it’s a regular occurrence to see children under the age of five dying of malnutrition and of preventable diseases like measles – then it challenges us … ‘well God, this is the world that you created and you redeemed, so where are you?’”

When Anne-Sophie spoke at Christian conference OneLove last year, she was asked to speak on the theme of perseverance. In her context in Niger, she declares it is a myth that God will not test you beyond your capacity to endure.

In her work, Anne-Sophie has regularly been pushed to despair about the brokenness of this world and her capacity to persevere amid it.

“Paul also has that experience where he says that he despaired of life itself.” – Anne-Sophie Rowcroft

“It’s a myth that we have; people misuse 1 Corinthians 10:13 to falsely encourage people that God won’t allow us to go through difficulties beyond what we can bear,” says Anne-Sophie, challenging a common view.

“But we know from our experiences that’s not true.”

Anne-Sophie turns to another statement in Scripture by the Apostle Paul – writer of 1 Corinthians – to explain further: “Paul in 2 Corinthians 1:8 actually goes into his own experience of how that’s not true.”

“We have our own experiences where we feel we’re out of our depth, we’re facing things that are really challenging.

“Paul also has that experience where he says that he despaired of life itself.

“Paul is a missionary and I understood that as part of the missionary experience as well. But he’s able to get to the point a few chapters later, saying ‘we’re hard pressed on every side but not crushed, perplexed but not in despair, persecuted but not abandoned, struck down but not destroyed.’”

Anne-Sophie Rowcroft

She believes Paul was able to overcome his despair by working through his challenges in a community “and seeing that it’s not about God putting these things in our way but that we are living in a broken world”.

“God is actually giving us resources to draw on in order to get out from a place of despair … to a place where we can say ‘okay, well, yeah, we’re perplexed about what is around us – struggling with what’s around us – but not in despair.’”

For herself, Anne-Sophie found two ways of thinking have helped her climb out of a place of despair – one that looks forward, and one looking back.

“This is the time for mourning with those who mourn, and feeling the brokenness of it because Jesus is yet to return.”

Looking back, she is able to remember different times when God was there for her and be encouraged that he will be there for her again.

“Just like the psalmist reflects back on the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – reflecting on how God brought the Israelites out of Egypt, reflecting on how he delivered them – then the psalmist trusts that God would continue to deliver them,” she says.

“Then looking to the future, this is the time for mourning with those who mourn, and feeling the brokenness of it because Jesus is yet to return. But we also look to the future and knowing, as Revelation 21 says, that there will be a time where God will be with his people and he will wipe every tear from their eyes. There’ll be no more death or mourning or crying or pain because the old order of things has passed away.”

“We’re allowed to keep bringing these things to God and keep crying out to God and pleading with him to make things right in the world.”

“That concept is what we look forward to and it’s okay to cry and mourn in this life because we’re not in the new creation yet.

“Because we know that that’s what’s coming, we kind of want that already; and because we know that Jesus does have the victory on the cross, we expect that we should have that already – there’s the whole now-and-not-yet thing.

“We have to deal with the brokenness in the meantime, deal with the fact that we know what God has done, we know his power, we know what he can do and we know what he will do – and yet we are surrounded and personally affected by the brokenness.”

It’s in this context, she says that Paul urges Christ’s following to pray in the spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. “We’re allowed to keep bringing these things to God and keep crying out to God and pleading with him to make things right in the world,” she says.

Anne-Sophie’s hard-won wisdom comes from relying on God and his word in Scripture whenever she feels incompetent to face the scale of the challenges before her.

“It’s actually kind of better for me spiritually to be surrounded by things where I’m out of my depth because it causes me to come to him.”

“Perseverance comes in having a community of prayer, comfort and forgiveness, and realising that our competency in ministry comes from God. I’m not saying that we can’t be incompetent as Christians or missionaries in our everyday life, but that God does equip us for the work that he would have us do.”

“We learn to rely on him.

“For me, my personal journey, that is a big part of the joy that I have in the difficulties, knowing that the difficulties that I face push me to depend on God in a way that I find very difficult to do in Australia. It’s the difficulties that pull us to him and draw us to him and cause us to be dependent on him – and I like that in my relationship with God; I want that in my relationship with God.

“It’s actually kind of better for me spiritually to be surrounded by things where I’m out of my depth because it causes me to come to him.”

As a Christian hospital run by SIM – an international, interdenominational Evangelical Christian mission organisation – Galmi Hospital uses the compassionate medical care it offers as a bridge to share the love of Christ.

Its website states: “Every day patients have the opportunity to hear the gospel message through Bible teaching and other forms of media.”

Anne-Sophie comments: “I think it’s really strategic for Christians to go to this sort of environment and we’re able to offer compassionate care as a conduit for the love of God. As we welcome people who come to the hospital as people made in the image of God, and [we] value them and care for them and respect them, offer them dignity, offer them a safe place to grieve, then I believe we are offering Jesus’ love in that.

“We have many, many opportunities to share his love because of this context that we’re able to live and work in.”

Established in the 1950s, the hospital continually needs medical and administrative staff and accepts volunteers for varying lengths of time.

“We want them to take pride in the area that they’re in because it is nice and clean and lovely to work in.”

Currently, Anne-Sophie is fundraising for a new medical and paediatric ward which the team hopes to start building at the end of 2020.

“The current medical ward is really dilapidated. It’s really hard to work in because it is so old, so we’re working towards putting in a new combined medical/paediatric ward. We completed a new maternity ward about six years ago. We’ve been working on the renovation of our outpatients’ department and the triage system.”

“Working on things like that gives dignity to the patient as they come in to a nice, clean, well looked-after area. It gives dignity to our staff – we want them to take pride in the area that they’re in because it is nice and clean and lovely to work in.

Anne-Sophie says when she arrived, there was no air conditioning in the room where she was working. There were regular power cuts and it was very hard trying to work in 44C heat.

“And we can make this less hard, so with the outpatients’ redevelopment, we now have tiles on the ground, not just broken cement. And each room has an aircon, has got an examining table and a sink … all of those things just help to care for people in that place.”

The new paediatric and medical ward is a significant building project that will enable a higher level of care for those seeking medical help from Galmi Hospital.

Currently during malaria season, two to three children share a bed due to the limited capacity of the ward.

The new construction will have space for more beds, as well as having an area dedicated to staff teaching, and isolation rooms for patients with diseases like tuberculosis.

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