The missionary son who found
redemption in Timbuktu.
For years, I'd thought Timbuktu was just a made-up name for "the ends of the
earth." When I found out it was a real place in Africa, I developed an
inexplicable fasci-nation for it. It was in 1986 on a fact-finding trip to
West Africa for Missionary Aviation Fellowship that this fascination became
an irresistible urge.
Timbuktu wasn't on my itinerary, but I knew I had to go there. Once I arrived, I discovered I was in trouble. I'd hitched a ride from Bamako,
Mali, 500 miles away on the only seat left on a Navajo six-seater air-plane
chartered by UNICEF.
Two of their doctors were in Timbuktu and might fly back on the return
flight, which meant I'd be bumped, but I decided to take the chance. Now
here I was, standing by the plane on the windswept outskirts of the famous
There was not a spot of true green any-where in the desolate brown Saharan
land-scape. Dust blew across the sky, blotting out the sun as I squinted in
the 110-degree heat, trying to make out the mud-walled buildings of the
village of 20,000. The pilot approached me as I started for town. He
reported that the doctors were on their way and I'd have to find another ride
"Try the marketplace. Someone there might have a truck. But be careful," he
said. "Westerners don't last long in the desert if the truck breaks down,
which often hap-pens."
I didn't relish the thought of being stranded, but perhaps it was fitting
that I should wind up like this, surrounded by the Sahara. Since I arrived
in Africa the strain of the harsh environment and severe suffer-ing of the
starving peoples had left me feel-ing lost in a spiritual and emotional
desert. The open-air marketplace in the center of town was crowded. Men and
women wore flowing robes and turbans as protection against the sun. Most of
the Berbers' robes were dark blue, with 30 feet of material in their turbans
alone. The men were well armed with scimitars and knives. I felt eyes were
watching me suspiciously. Suspicion was understandable in Timbuktu.
Nothing could be trusted here. These people had once been prosperous and
self-sufficient. Now even their land had turned against them. Drought had
turned rich grasslands to desert. Unrelenting sun and windstorms had nearly
annihilated all ani-mal life. People were dying by the thou-sands.
I went from person to person trying to find someone who spoke English, until
I finally came across a local gendarme who understood my broken French. "I
need a truck," I said. "I need to go to Bamako."
Eyes widened in his shaded face. "No truck," he shrugged. Then he added,
"No road. Only sand." By now, my presence was causing a sensation in the
marketplace. I was surrounded by at least a dozen small children, jumping
and dancing, begging for coins and souvenirs. The situation was ex-treme, I
knew. I tried to think calmly. What am I to do?
Suddenly I had a powerful desire to talk to my father. Certainly he had
known what it was like to be a foreigner in a strange land.
But my father, Nate Saint, was dead. He was one of five missionary men
killed by Auca Indians in the jungles of Ecuador in 1956. I was a month shy
of my fifth birth-day at the time, and my memories of him were almost like
movie clips: a lanky, in-tense man with a serious goal and a quick wit. He
was a dedicated jungle pilot, flying missionaries and medical personnel in
his Piper Family Cruiser.
Even after his death he was a presence in my life. I'd felt the need to talk
with my father before, especially since I'd married and become a father
myself. But in recent weeks this need had become urgent. For one thing, I
was new to relief work. But it was more than that. I needed Dad to help
answer my new questions of faith. In Mali, for the first time in my life, I
was sur-rounded by people who didn't share my faith, who were, in fact,
hostile to the Chris-tian faith, locals and Western relief workers alike.
In a way it was a parallel to the situation Dad had faced in Ecuador. How
often I'd said the same thing Dad would have said among the Indians who
killed him: "My God is real. He's a personal God who lives inside me, with
whom I have a very special, one-on-one relationship."
And yet the question lingered in my mind: Did my father have to die? All my
life, people had spoken of Dad with respect; he was a man willing to die for
his faith. But at the same time I couldn't help but think the murders were
capricious, an acci-dent of bad timing.
Dad and his colleagues landed just as a small band of Auca men were in a bad
mood for reasons that had nothing to do with faith or Americans. If Dad's
plane had landed one day later, the massacre may not have happened. Couldn't
there have been another way? It made little impact on the Aucas that I could
see. To them it was just one more killing n a history of killings.
Thirty years later it still had an impact on me. And now, for the first
time, I felt threatened because of who I was and what I believed. "God," I
found myself praying as I looked around the marketplace, "I'm in trouble
here. Please keep me safe and show me a way to get back. Please reveal
Your-self and Your love to me the way you did to my father."
No bolt of lightning came from the blue. But a new thought did come to mind.
Surely there was a telecommunications office here somewhere; I could wire
Bamako to send another plane. It would be costly, but I could see no other
way of getting out.
"Where's the telecommunications office?" I asked another gendarme. He gave
me instructions, then said, "Telegraph transmits only if station in Bamako
has machine on, message goes through. If not," he shrugged, "no answer ever
comes. You only hope message received."
Now what? The sun was crossing to-ward the horizon. If I didn't have
arrange-ments made by nightfall, what would hap-pen to me? This was truly
the last outpost of the world. More than a few Westerners had disappeared in
the desert without a trace.
Then I remembered that just before I'd started for Timbuktu, a fellow worker
had said, "There's a famous mosque in Tim-buktu. It was built from mud in
the 1500's. Many Islamic pilgrims visit it every year. But there's also a
tiny Christian church, which virtually no one visits. Look it up if you get
I asked the children, "Where is Eglise Evangelique Chretienne?"
The youngsters were willing to help, though they were obviously confused
about what I was looking for. Several times eld-erly men and women scolded
them harshly as we passed, but they persisted. Finally we arrived, not at
the church, but at the open doorway of a tiny mud-brick house.
No one was home, but on the wall oppo-site the door was a poster showing a
cross covered by wounded hands. The French subscript said, "and by His
stripes we are healed."
Within minutes, my army of waifs pointed out a young man approaching us in
the dirt alleyway. Then the children melted back into the labyrinth of the
walled alleys and compounds of Timbuktu. The young man was handsome, with
dark skin and flowing robes. But there was something inexplicably different
about him. His name was Nouh Af Infa Yatara; that much I un-derstood.
Nouh signaled he knew someone who could translate for us. He led me to a
com-pound on the edge of town where an Ameri-can missionary lived. I was
glad to meet the missionary, but from the moment I'd seen Nouh, I'd had the
feeling that we shared something in common.
"How did you come to have faith?" I asked him. The missionary translated as
Nouh answered: "This compound has al-ways had a beautiful garden. One day
when I was a small boy, a friend and I decided to steal some carrots. It was
a dangerous task. We'd been told that Toubabs [white men] eat nomadic
children. Despite our agility and considerable experience, I was caught by
the former missionary here. Mr. Mar-shall didn't eat me; instead, he gave me
the carrots and some cards that had God's promises from the Bible written on
them. He told me if I learned them, he'd give me an ink pen!"
"You learned them?" I asked.
"Oh, yes!" he exclaimed. "Only gov-ernment men and the headmaster of the
school had a Bic pen! But when I showed off my pen at school, the teacher
knew I must have spoken with a Toubab, which is strictly forbidden. He
severely beat me."
When Nouh's parents found out he had portions of such a despised book
defiling their house, they threw him out and forbade anyone to take him in;
nor was he allowed in school.
But something had happened: Noah had come to believe that what the Bible said
was true. Nouh's mother became desperate. Her own standing, as well as her
family's, was in jeopardy.
Finally she decided to kill her son. She obtained poison from a sorcerer and
poi-soned Noah's food at a family feast. Noah ate the food and wasn't
His brother, who unwittingly stole a morsel of meat from the deadly dish,
be-came violently ill and remains partially paralyzed. Seeing God's
intervention, the family and the town's people were afraid to make further
attempts on his life, but con-demned him as an outcast.
After sitting a moment, I asked Nouh the question that only hours earlier I'd
wanted to ask my father: "Why is your faith so important to you that you're
willing to give up everything, perhaps even your life?"
"I know God loves me and I'll live with Him forever," he replied. "I know
it! Now I have peace where I used to be full of fear and uncertainty. Who
wouldn't want to give up everything for this peace and security?"
"It couldn't have been easy for you as a teenager to take a stand that made
you de-spised by the whole community," I said. "Where did your courage come
"Mr. Marshall couldn't take me in with-out putting my life in jeopardy. So
he gave me some books about other Christians who'd suffered for their faith.
My favorite was about five young men who willingly risked their lives to take
God's good news to stone-age Indians in the jungles of South America." His
eyes widened as he contin-ued. "I've lived all my life in the desert. How
frightening the jungle must be! The book said these men let themselves be
speared to death, even though they had guns and could have killed their
The missionary translator said, "I re-member the story. As a matter of fact,
one of those men had your last name."
"Yes," I said quietly, "the pilot was my father."
"Your father?" Nouh cried. "The story is true?"
"Yes," I said, "it's true."
The missionary and Nouh and I talked through the afternoon. When they
accom-panied me back to the airfield that night, we found that the doctors
weren't able to leave Timbuktu after all, and there was room for me on the
As Nouh and I hugged each other, it seemed incredible that God loved us so
much that He'd arranged for us to meet "at the ends of the earth."
Nouh and I had gifts for each other that no one else could give. I gave him
the as-surance that the story that had given him courage was true.
He, in turn, gave me the assurance that God had used Dad's death for good.
Dad, by dying, had helped give Nouh a faith worth dying for. And Nouh, in
return, had helped give Dad's faith back to me.
Author's Update on Nouh: Nouh, along with his lovely wife Fati, have three
sons. They finished more than two years of study in the U.S. and faced many
hurdles when they returned in January 1999 to the fourth-poorest area of the
world. Please pray that they will continue to be faithful and that God will
bless their commitment to spread His light in a dark and dangerous land.