The Lemon Tree

Planting seed in an arid land


When will this tree bear fruit? A simple question we keep asking ourselves as we look at the lemon tree in our courtyard; a question we’ve been asking more and more as the years go by.

Our yard has several different plants: banana, guava, a mango tree and a pomme cannelle, each bearing fruit in their season. But the lemon tree—the tree I really wanted to grow fruit—has yet to even blossom. How long will this take? Over the years, this little seedling has grown to seven feet tall. There are times when the aroma coming from the foliage is a promise of great things to come. Yet there are other times when the leaves curl up, change color and fall off, making us think it is dying. Maria and I keep trying new things in order to see this tree succeed and produce that long-awaited fruit to delight our palates. But nothing seems to be working.

Our struggle with the lemon tree is symbolic of our life’s work among Mali’s fishermen, the Bozo. When Alliance missionaries first moved into what was then called French West Sudan in 1923, one of their first converts and national evangelists was a fisherman named Bokari Saba. But the Bozo rejected Bokari, banishing him from their villages. He then worked alongside missionaries in more receptive areas. So there was a long time when the good news was absent along Mali’s rivers.

When our family moved here in 1989, our desire was to see the living Word of God sown among the Bozo people and a vibrant church grow up as a result. We set about learning their unwritten language, building relationships in villages along the Bani River and planting seeds we were certain would bear lasting fruit. We traveled the river by various means, eventually acquiring a 20-foot pontoon boat through the generosity of people in the United States. Our desire always was to live full time among the Bozo, but we were hindered in various ways. Then, in 2005, Maria and I and our second son, Jacob, finally moved into the Bozo village of Sofaraba.

For years we were only in the village a couple of days each week because the elders thought we were going to “steal” their children. Several years earlier, the chief had given us property on which to build, but without the approval of the elders we could not begin. In late 2004 we asked again about building on the property but without success. We began looking for other places along the river where the Spirit of God was active—yet all the time we knew God wanted us in Sofaraba.

Then one day, out of the blue, an elder came and asked why we still hadn’t built on the property the chief had given us. The door of opportunity had flown wide open. Within two months the entire village was involved in helping to construct our mud-brick houses. After ministering from the outside for 16 years, we were able to live day in and day out in Sofaraba. New opportunities arose for us to share Jesus. There was a never-before-seen curiosity about God’s Word.

One of the first to show interest was Bara Kase, about 30 years of age and a good friend of Jacob’s. Daily, Bara would come to hear a Bible story or to talk about God. Later, Bara said that he had seen us for 16 years, but not until we moved into the village did he understand—by observing our daily lives—what we had been saying.

In December 2006 Bara became the first in Sofaraba to seek forgiveness of his sins through Jesus. Bara’s conversion was real, and the effect was instantaneous. He was very outspoken in his testimony, not only in Sofaraba but also in the villages of Malobana, Kunti, Jamula and Kembajamula. Bara even walked more than two hours to visit his friends Seku and Mamia, who came to faith in Jesus as a result. After watching Bara’s behavior for more than a year, his older brother, Mami, and Mami’s first wife, Kobi, saw that following Jesus changes lives.

At first glance Mami Kase and Kobi Jiga appear to be average individuals, but they truly are anything but ordinary. Mami is a 42-year-old blacksmith from a family that has lived in Sofaraba for the past 50 years. Members of the blacksmith clan work as witnesses of important and formal events and mediators in all disputes. Mami was very proud of his 12 years of Koran study with Sofaraba’s imam.

Kobi, Mami’s first wife, is around 39 years old and a mother of seven children ranging in age from 1 to 18 years. She is from the storyteller clan , those who are responsible for keeping the history of the families in the area. Neither Mami nor Kobi had a trustworthy reputation. It has been said that after shaking Mami’s hand, one must verify that all five digits are accounted for. Kobi could catch the scent of a five-franc coin (about a penny) from miles away.

But one dark night the miraculous occurred. The Kase family sat for the third evening in a row to watch the JESUS film. Afterward, I began preaching about the saving power of Jesus Christ. The entire yard was quiet as the Holy Spirit descended.

“What will you do with this Jesus?” I asked.

“I want Jesus!” Kobi responded.

The crowd erupted. Maria, who was sitting beside Kobi, asked just what she wanted and why. The noise became deafening as Kobi answered. Maria then told Kobi that she would lead her in a prayer. The noise grew even louder.

“Be quiet! I’m going to convert!” Kobi yelled. And the courtyard became still.

That night the first Bozo woman entered the Kingdom of God. Kobi’s prayer was short but filled with tenderness and humility. Since griots are known to be loud, brash, shameless, egocentric and untrustworthy, Kobi’s transformation was immediate and obvious.

I then asked the rest of the courtyard, “What will you do with Jesus?”

Mami responded, “I too want to follow Him!” He was led in a prayer of repentance followed by his own personal prayer to Jesus in Bozo, the language of Mami’s heart.

After talking with them about their new faith, we returned to our house rejoicing in the new life and light that had come to our village. Now Bara was no longer the only Christian in Sofaraba. The church had grown to three.

The following day was spent interacting with the Kase family and many others who came to sit under the large tree outside our courtyard. When Kobi lifted her face to greet Maria, she was glowing. Maria asked her how her heart and mind were that morning. Her smile grew bigger as she responded, “Peace!”

Later, Mami disappeared, but we continued to sit with others under the tree and talk about Jesus. In a while Mami returned from his wandering. “Where have you been?” I asked.

“I went to repay my debts,” Mami said. He told us that because he is a blacksmith, there is an expectation of trickery, so everyone he visited kept asking him what he really wanted. He would reply that since he was now following Jesus, he wanted to be honest in all his dealings.

Time has passed, and Mami and Kobi have grown in their relationship with the Lord. Mami spent many months working in another village to provide food and money for his extended family. While there, he learned the importance of daily Bible study. He had owned a Bible for more than 10 years but found that he couldn’t understand it until he chose to follow Jesus. Every time he returned from his work village, he shared what he was learning and how God was giving him opportunity to study every night with others. For the past several months, Mami has been living full time in Sofaraba, and his interactions have become authentic as he grows in the grace and knowledge of Christ.

One afternoon, as Mami was working under the tree, several men came to warn him that during evening prayers they were going to announce to the other men at the mosque that Mami had become a Christian.

“Will you?” Mami responded excitedly. “If you are going to do that, can you find a microphone and loudspeaker so that everyone in the village can hear?” There was no fear in Mami’s heart. They meant to force him back into the ordinary life of the village, but Mami is now extraordinary.

Kobi’s mother ordered her daughter to renounce Jesus Christ and return to her previous lifestyle. But Kobi would not. Her father-in-law demanded that the family cease reading the Bible, but Kobi stood up to say that they must continue to study every night.

Mami and Kobi, when possible, watch a Christian film each night so that those who enter their courtyard learn of Jesus and see others’ testimonies. Accompanied occasionally by Kobi, Mami has been going to other villages weekly to witness. Like his younger brother Bara before him, Mami desires that all their friends and family not only hear the good news but also come into life with Jesus.

So the seed began to sprout and even bear fruit. But would that fruit blossom into a vibrant tree? At times this little tree looks healthy; at other times it looks a little haggard and weary.

Bara was growing in his understanding of Jesus. Twice a day he came and read his Bambara Bible, and we would discuss what God’s Spirit was teaching. He continued visiting other villages weekly, determined to share Jesus with his friends and family, despite blatant opposition from his father and the men of Sofaraba.

Then one Sunday Bara’s father sent him to care for a friend’s son, Oumar, who was ill. Bara and Oumar were sent to Bamako, where Oumar was to get treatment. After two weeks of not communicating with us, Bara finally called to explain what was going on—and then we didn’t hear from him for a few more weeks. He and Oumar traveled to westernmost Mali and finally down to the Congo, always seeking medical help. Oumar died, and Bara finally called to say that he was working there to raise enough money to return to Mali. Bara said he was remaining faithful to Jesus and even studying his Bible.

Finally, in September 2011, Bara returned to Sofaraba. Our conversations with him were limited by his availability. Even when we showed Christian movies in his courtyard for five consecutive evenings, Bara was conspicuously absent for all but one night. Then Bara left unannounced again. Word came that Oumar’s family had called him to return to Congo to take care of some business. But this time we have heard nothing at all from Bara. Mami is concerned for the spiritual wellbeing of his brother.

So the tree looks a little wilted and even sickly right now. While Mami and Kobi continue to grow in faith, the first bud of the tree is out of sight.

Please pray for the Bozo believers to remain faithful in spite of continued opposition from their family and friends. Pray that they will grow strong and bear lasting fruit.

You Plant the Seed with Us

Bozo ministry is committed to taking the gospel to those who have not heard and where the national church is unable to go. Thank you for your faithful and sacrificial giving to the Great Commission Fund, which has enabled us to live and work among Mali’s fishermen since 1989. Thank you for your continued prayers for us, these new believers and the lost around us.

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