Colin and Teena Ovenell
FBM - Benin, Africa

June 22, 2020

Our main purpose in writing is to inform you that our family has arrived safely back in Guene. Calm has returned to our recently destabilized world. Relief from what was beginning to appear to be a drought came about as the rains began to fall once again this past week. The villages are very quiet as most able-bodied individuals are busily tilling and planting cotton, the local cash crop. Most are still waiting further rains to begin planting grain crops which require more humid conditions. The fields are nearly a month behind (under ideal conditions) this year. The rains have turned the minds of the people from warring with one another, to the more imminent battle for survival in a region that yet struggles year after year with supplying basic food provisions. Thank you for your prayers for our family. For more news from the region, read on...

I am often amazed that a region so rich in material resources could appear so abjectly poor. Many here would be offended to be described as poor. Indeed, poverty is defined much differently here than in the Western world. If shorter life spans, rampant disease and illness, and lack of resources are proper indicators, then Benin still struggles greatly with poverty. Millions of dollars in aide, projects and foreign assistance have done very little to bring this part of the world out of poverty and into the kind of prosperity enjoyed in the Western world. Only the gospel, spiritual growth and an informed christian world view can bring the kind of change that we long to see. This is a long process and yet we see glimmers of hope within our marginalized christian communities. They are different, not perfect of course, but distinct from those around them. Often it means that they are mocked, rejected, abused and sometimes even living in fear for their lives.

A number of our staff come from different villages. They own no home, have no land to cultivate their own crops and yet they have come in response to the gospel need. They are of course compensated monetarily for their labor but that doesn’t always translate into enough to thrive outside of their home village setting. For this reason we set out to build a few model homes to encourage these families. Several years ago we purchased land from a local land owner with plans for development. This past year we decided it was time to build. Another step forward... or so we thought.

A man named Biliba, from a nearby settlement, laid claim to the land. He had previously farmed the land for several years as an uncontested squatter, refusing to compensate the land owner. Knowing that we had duly purchased the land, he tried to bribe local officials. One official admitted to having accepted the money, until he discovered that it had been purchased by the clinic for the overall good of the community. He returned the money to Biliba. On multiple occasions our development progress has been brought to a halt. The start of a well, abandoned by the digging crew. The start of a home crumbling from the wind and rains. Because he has resources and influence, local politicians on up to our regional governor asked us to hold off on development until voting was over, at which time they promised to disavow his claim. It is likely they were also on the receiving end of bribe money. Once the vote was taken we were given the green light by the authorities to resume. Then it became a security issue, as he went to the local police and threatened to start a war. Instead of dealing with him appropriately, they urged us to stop. We received further permissions to build from the local governor which were accepted by the police at which time he filed a complaint with the courts. In order to investigate the matter, the courts issued an order that we vacate the land. Our medical staff who have given of themselves to serve the local population will once again not have access to a home of their own or land to plant crops this season.

The local court system is likely to rule in our favor, although we can be sure that bribes will be paid and the process will be drawn out. The official complaint was issued against one of our local pastors (Isaac) and the village chief, citing the two men as having unjustly removed him from land he had claimed ownership to for over 40 years (a blatant, easily disproven lie). Local residents from multiple villages have repeatedly asked for the go ahead to burn his house down and chase him and his family from the region. “That is how we deal with things of this sort,” they say.

While allowing the mob to deal with the situation often seems easier in this part of the world, we know that there is a better way. You have prayed much for us the past few weeks. I am not generally occasioned to write so frequently but I would ask that you continue to pray that justice might be served for those who walk justly.

Meanwhile, COVID-19 is still on the move. Dr Steven Boutrus, our ministry colleague refers to it as a slow burn. Just a few weeks ago places of worship were reopened throughout the country. We are informed that soon we will likely be returning to some form of a shutdown. Pray that the church will respond well to these challenges and others that are before us.

June 13, 2020

“Things fall apart,” is the title to a book written by Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe some 60 years ago. It continues to be the story of conditions in our fallen world in general, and for Africa in particular, as aptly illustrated by the author Achebe. Unfortunately, things have unraveled further in Northern Benin since we wrote our last prayer update. I am writing this from a residence that was offered to our family by the director of Trans World Radio in Parakou, in the event that conditions worsened in our region. I have a comfortable office to work from, the children have a beautiful yard to play in and we are close to a few of our shopping outlets for restocking supplies.

It has been over 3 months since we have traveled from our home in Guene. In order to avoid alarming the children with the situation we informed them that it was time for our family to take a little vacation. Having been on alert for several days and with tensions seemingly escalating, upon recommendation from our mission leadership, we hurriedly began packing and preparing for a temporary evacuation.

Our reaction was primarily in response to confirmed reports that a group of approximately 16 men, light skinned and wearing turbans arrived heavily armed at the entrance of Park W roughly 30 miles south of Guene. The director of the park took flight in his helicopter and confirmed their presence heading north shortly before nightfall. He avoided getting too close to the men to avoid being shot down and informed the local police of their presence. Several hours later the men were reported to have left the park and passed through the village of Goungoun heading toward Nigeria. It was speculated that they were unable to traverse the park because of physical barriers and the presence of military. Further, unconfirmed reports, indicated that the men were actually Fulani that had been called upon from Nigeria to respond to the ongoing conflict. It was rumored that they were plotting attacks against certain settlements and possibly even an attack on the Guene market. One rumor that was circulating more widely was that they were holed up in a village roughly 3-4 miles from Guene and Boiffo preparing for reprisal.

At 10 am on Wednesday morning I met with the local police commissioner and his regional superior to confirm the above details. Present at the station were over 50 soldiers, police, and forest service, heavily armed, loading into vehicles and preparing to circulate through out the region to provide security. That evening they camped outside of several Fulani settlements in order to keep them from departing and in the morning they began entering homes and searching for munitions that were reportedly being fired in preparations for ongoing assault attempts. We were also informed that a unit had been present outside the clinic to provide security through the night.

There remains a great deal of tension and uncertainty in the region. As for the ongoing tribal warfare, we are friends to both sides of the conflict and do not believe that we are targets in the affair. The greater concern is for the confirmation of foreign militants in the region. We have enjoyed relative security in Benin while all around us in Niger, Burkina Faso and Nigeria regions have erupted with terrorist activity. We were somewhat comforted by an unconfirmed report that the armed militants were sighted at the border of Benin and Nigeria and then again 15 miles inland inside Nigeria heading east where conflicts are ongoing.

Teena will be remaining in Parakou with the children until we have reassurance of their safety. Colin and the Boutrus’ intend to return home to reassess the situation and keep things moving at the clinic and with various ongoing projects on Monday.

For today we are going to relax and enjoy a day at the lake with our friends. Peace and tranquility in a time of turmoil.

June 7, 2020

Tensions are once again elevated in our region. The senseless killing of a young Monkole farmer in his field by a Fulani herdsman reignited the longstanding feud between two of the different tribes of our area. Shortly thereafter, 6 Fulani were killed by mob violence in the farmers village. A local man who helps with certain maintenance projects on our mission station was nearby with a hunting party when he was shot and then beaten to death by Fulani. Multiple Dendi villages are now implicated and military reinforcements struggled to bring peace back to the region. The stories are gruesome and the number of the dead included reports of children who were not able to escape when those seeking vengeance came upon their village. A man seen attempting to purchase ammunition was beaten to death in our village causing an uproar and bringing things to a halt for the day. We were encouraged to stop our construction near the Fulani settlement behind Boïffo until things settled. More than 30 were reported dead two days into the fighting. The past two days have been calm once again. The area is being patrolled with police and military reinforcements. Patrols passed by 3 times through the course of one day stopping to greet us as we worked on a project near the clinic. The tensions have eased but still simmer below the surface. We did consider leaving the region for safer territory but since we are more likely to be targeted on a major roadway than near our home and places of activity we decided it best to stay put.

I often regret waiting 2 months to send out a newsletter. It can become difficult to express all that has taken place and so much information has to be left out. It usually takes me the better part of the day to get a letter off so it is easy to let more seemingly urgent matters press in upon that process and yet we know that very few things are more important than communication and accountability. Many times, it requires a defining event like that above to drive me back to my note pad. Most of our lives and ministry are defined by small events. Repairing a well for a community in town and telling them the story of Jesus and living water. Building a community well outside the wall of the clinic to service the needs of our long-term care patients living nearby. Building a new latrine toilet facility for the Bible School station (yuck! Who mentions that in a prayer letter!) Taking a moment with a mostly unbelieving work crew to describe how following Jesus means loving our enemies when conversations turn toward violence towards another ethnic group. Every day brings new opportunities and so many of them seem unremarkable.

Construction on the new church building in the village of Kofuno is nearing completion. An entryway slab and some final painting details will bring the project to a close. This Sunday will be the first gathering in the new facility. Dedication to follow!

Progress is slow in this part of the world with many things interfering with the best-laid plans. Government interference is a major factor. Changes in regulation, obstruction of progress, ineptitude as described by a recent conversation that I had with a government official regarding paperwork we need for title to one of our properties. “You must be in possession of your proof of ownership documents, he said.” “How would one get those documents? I asked.” “From the committee in the village where you purchased the land.” “Who is the head of the committee?” “We don’t know, it exists but it is not yet functional.” Final answer, after waiting 3 years…wait some more.

COVID-19 has not had a measurable health impact on the region but uncertainty continues to rule the day. Government statistics are woefully inaccurate due to lack of testing capability. The uncertainty of the virus continues to keep many restrictions in place and our borders are still closed. We are thrilled to finally have some relief in that worship gatherings are no longer forbidden. With proper precaution, churches are now allowed to gather in public. After weeks of meeting in homes, this Sunday will be a great time of celebration for many.

This morning marked a very important milestone in the life of our Dendi churches. The first wedding that we can recall between two young first generation believers whose unbelieving families have allowed them to have a Christian ceremony. Attempts were made by one uncle to convince the local police to stop the proceedings but he was apparently unsuccessful. The celebration moved forward and Moustapha, a member of our clinic staff, and Roukaya “tied the knot.” Notice in the image at the top how social distancing is observed in our area. A hand washing station was provided at the gate, many wore masks…(mostly strapped under their chins so that they could speak freely to their neighbor who was pressed up against them), as somewhere around 400 people gathered in a space designed for 200.

Time marches on as each day brings new joys and trials. Elias turned 7, shortly after his mother turned 40. Eliana will soon celebrate her 9th birthday and Ethan will be a freshman in high school. It all goes so quickly! Thank you for loving and praying for our family. We are blessed!

March 31, 2020

We are enjoying the cool of the morning here in Northern Benin. It is 90° inside and out of the house and will soon be 100 in/110°out. Despite the heat, we are grateful for improved health as the past month we have been plagued by various ailments. Beginning with a rough bout of malaria for Eliana, an early diagnosis and treatment of the same for Colin, followed by all three children dealing with fevers and respiratory infections. Now would not be a good time for COVID-19 to make its way to our region. As for the current epidemic, 9 cases have been confirmed in Benin and we are under relatively strict guidelines similar to surrounding nations. International flights are extremely limited, our land borders are closed, certain areas are cordoned off, particularly the more populated centers around the commercial capital of Cotonou. Social gatherings are forbidden. In our village, they are forbidden under threat of force, as evidenced by the presence of police forces with batons dispersing a local religious gathering this past week. Despite certain limitations, the gospel is not hindered and in fact we find that opportunities for ministry are only heightened by these circumstances.

Our family has enjoyed access to online services held by a number of our supporting churches. Although sometimes limited by an unstable internet connection, we have more recently enjoyed our fastest connection speeds ever. This past Sunday we visited some of the families from our local area churches, dropped off bibles and reading materials to our local law enforcement officials and made our way out to finish stocking up on fuel and food supplies as we increase prevention measures. We are well prepared for an extended period. It is doubtful that our neighbors are able or even attempting to make the same preparations. Pray for God’s mercy on this region as we face the uncertainty of the ongoing pandemic. Our people are saddened to hear of the impact of this illness on the US and uphold you in their prayers.

Bible School sessions came to an end just days before things started to change so rapidly around us. January through March are the busiest months of the year with hosting visitors, facilitating courses, teaching courses, and traveling to teach.

It was a privilege to join Steve and Julie Nunemaker (above) once again in Cotonou for a module, followed by a graduation ceremony for three students. I am still wrapping up grading sermons from my homiletics course. Nunemakers were on a marathon tour of Togo, Benin (North and South) and Niger. We were blessed to have them with us for a week of fellowship and training the first week of March.

Wrapping up our season in the Bible Institute, we held a three day conference to address pressing matters related to the current status of our mission organization in Benin. New government regulations have rendered our original paperwork from 1967 obsolete and we are working toward finding solutions to re-register our association in time to avoid whatever ramifications may follow. The medical clinics legal status is also tied into this process so we ask your prayers for expediency as we move forward through complicated waters. Administrative issues related to the mission, the clinic and our local church consume a great deal of time and resources and are also the source of a fair amount of insomnia.

In spite of ongoing challenges, we continue to make progress in a number of areas. Stemming from our recent conference, our churches have expressed a desire to begin work in 4 additional villages this next year with a view toward planting churches where there is currently no gospel witness. We are still awaiting the completion of our New Testament audio recording. As we wait our translators are busily preparing Jeremiah, Daniel, Nahum and roughly 30 Psalms for completion in 2020. We are making additional progress in Job.

During the hot, dry season, the emphasis is upon construction. Families build or rebuild their homes and concessions in anticipation of the farming season. The rains that come in late May begin to limit building progress. It is also a time to work on improving water supplies by digging and/or deepening wells. Currently we have 5 such projects needing attention.

We have completed the foundation on the Kofuno church building (above) and will begin building the walls next week. A land dispute, that is currently nearing resolution, is holding up construction of two homes for our clinic staff. Building block, rebar and roofing supplies are all sitting idle as we await the go-ahead from our local government officials. Infrastructure development for the elementary school in Boiffo will soon move forward although we will hold off on actual building construction until we have a clearer view of our ministry staff.

Plans are in the works for a large expansion to enhance the clinic ministry. Pray for the planning process and for additional ministry personnel to meet staffing needs. Currently, Dr. Steve Boutrus and his wife Katrina are leading our medical staff, which has grown to 22 individuals, in ministering to over 500 patients a week. For more information on the clinic ministry click the following link to sign up for the Boutrus' monthly ministry updates. BoutrusNewsletter

The stifling heat and dampening effects of the ongoing pandemic are certainly being felt by our family, yet we manage to find ways to endure the challenges. We are ever grateful for your ongoing prayers and concern for us. Prayerfully hoping that we might find even greater opportunity to proclaim the glory of our Savior Jesus Christ in this peculiar season.

February 4, 2020

Greetings from a serene lakeside in Northern Benin. Our family has taken a couple of days away to fulfill a birthday promise to Ethan. Ethan turned 13 this past month and spends most of his time thinking about fishing and other outdoor adventures. The time away affords Teena and I the opportunity to get away to rest and spend time planning and preparing for the weeks ahead. Since returning from furlough we have maintained a very busy schedule and now we are in the middle of the Bible School program.

In Bible class this week with the clinic staff, the subject was edification as a function of the local church. Specifically, the building up of members of the body of Christ. A crucial ministry of the local church is to bring new believers into a mature relationship with Christ. Jesus Christ is more than our subject of study, he is also the source of our ability to grow and reflect his perfect nature to others around us. We drilled down on some of the building analogies from the New Testament. Jesus Christ, “the chief cornerstone”, promised to build his church. The apostles and prophets are referred to as the foundation which extends from the cornerstone, and Paul reminds the Corinthian body that the church is God’s building. Our class is held outdoors under a shelter in view of several new structures. We observed that they have already developed hairline cracks in the concrete walls. We were reminded that the church needs constant attention and repair. We were also reminded that the physical structures that are built with hands are not to be confused with the church. The church is a spiritual edifice that extends to the four corners of our world today. We are blessed to be a part of building in our corner of the world.

On the subject of building, we are going to be doing a lot of it this year! First up is a new church building for a small but growing body of believers in the village of Kofuno. This past month we met with leaders of the church to discuss property issues and to go over building plans. We hope to break ground before the end of this month. This will be the fourth structure erected in Kofuno. The first two were destroyed by the elements and the third is a tiny mud structure that is not suitable for everyone to gather. The church members have been busy making bricks and getting ready to dig the footing and pour the foundation.

This past week we began digging a well on the property that will one day soon serve as the location of an elementary school in the village Boiffo. Plans are coming together for this exciting project and your prayers are appreciated as we move forward. We are in the process of putting together a board of directors for the school and securing teachers and administrative staff for eventual opening, Lord willing in September of 2021.

In the first of our bi-annual board meetings for the medical ministry, it was determined that we should move forward with a much needed expansion of our current medical facility. The new buildings will be constructed to address the needs of the growing opportunities that we are experiencing. They will help us to address the need to separate urgent care services from day to day outpatient care and pave the way for a future maternity ward. Plans are in the works and again, your prayers are appreciated.

In our last letter we mentioned our residency status. We were informed last week that our residency permits were officially issued. This allows us another 3 years of opportunity to minister here.

In closing, a number of our local pastors and ministry leaders are currently being pressured to step into high profile political roles in our region. The opportunities also come with potential for great peril. Please pray for our churches and leaders as they experience and navigate through exciting and challenging periods of growth. Thank you for praying with us. Your prayers are being answered.