Hadiza had a daughter named Salama. Hadiza raised Salama alone in the town of Ayarou, a town on the river, on the border with Mali. Life was not easy, but Hadiza did all she could for Salama. She made porridge at home and sold it on the street. She made enough money to keep them alive, but not much more than that. Hadiza loved Salama, but Salama grew up and one day she left. She went away to Benin, and Hadiza barely heard from her at all.
Time went by, and then one day Salama came back to Ayarou. But she did not come alone. She came with her husband – they met and were married in Benin. And she came with the baby that she was carrying inside her. After a few months, the baby was born. Her name was Saratou, and she was born with cleft lip.
Salama and her husband decided to go back to Benin and to leave Saratou with Hadiza. They left her because to keep her would be difficult. It would mean shame and prying questions from strangers and mockery and rejection and extra work. A child with cleft lip is a difficulty, and not one that you can ignore. It is a difficulty that you see in the face of your child every day. Salama and her husband could not face this difficulty, so they left.
Now Hadiza was left with Saratou. She raised Saratou in the town on the river. She did all she could for her. She made porridge at home and sold it on the street. When Saratou got a bit older she would take the porridge and sell it on the street to help Hadiza. Hadiza had hopes for Saratou – she hoped that she would marry one day, and have children of her own. She wanted Saratou to be able to live a normal life. But along with her hopes, she had fears. She feared that Saratou would never marry, and never have her own children. Who would marry her with a cleft lip? Who would accept her?
Saratou started going to school, but the other children were so mean to her that she eventually quit. They would laugh at her and stare and talk about her. She got into fights almost every day. Hadiza still had hope for Saratou, but her fears seemed to be justified every time Saratou came home crying or got into a fight. She had hope, even though she knew she had no reason to hope. She had no money and no connections to anyone with money. No rich relatives who live in the city, no one who could support her and no one who could help find Saratou the medical treatment she needed. She had nothing, and in Niger that usually means you will not get the medical attention you need.
We hear it over and over again. Almost every patient we talk to at the hospital tells us the same thing. Their disability is seen as a curse. It is something terrible and unfortunate that has happened to them, yes, but also something that they are responsible for. You must have done something wrong. You must have somehow invited this upon yourself. And if it wasn’t you, then it must have been your parents. Sometimes people say it is a curse from an evil spirit, sometimes they say it is a curse from God. But either way they are saying that if you have a disability it is your fault.
Even though every single one of us knows that bad things happen to good people, something in our soul fights against this idea. We persist in believing that the good are rewarded and the bad are punished, in spite of all evidence to the contrary. And if this is true, then we understandably come to the conclusion, even if it is a subconscious conclusion, that suffering is punishment, and if you are being punished then you must deserve it.
After all, if there is smoke there must be fire.
This understanding of things isn’t limited to Niger. We find it everywhere. In the Bible, it is a point of view that is articulated by Job’s friends, when they try to convince him over and over again that he must be responsible for all the terrible things happening to him. It is hard not to think of Job in this context, because of how righteous he was and because of the terrible things that happened to him. The story of Job is one that has fascinated people throughout the ages, and continues to do so. Part of the reason for this is that it deals with this very universal question of suffering, but also, because it shows the inadequacy of the popular wisdom of Job’s friends. They persist in trying to attach some kind of blame to Job, some kind of culpability, until he finally says, “Oh, that you would be silent, and it would be your wisdom!” (Job 13:5 NKJV).
He speaks out of pain, the kind of pain that anyone who has gone through suffering can understand. The kind of pain that is generated not by the suffering itself, but piled on top of the suffering by those (perhaps) well-meaning “friends” that try to comfort by commentary. They try to make sense of suffering that is not their own because they are afraid of what the suffering signifies. In fact, they are trying to comfort themselves by reinforcing the idea that suffering is simple. Its source can easily be identified. It is an obvious problem with an obvious solution. No mystery involved.
In this way, the victim of the suffering is blamed for the suffering, and made into a scapegoat, to ensure that nobody is too troubled or put out. The scapegoat is actually a good image, since often those who suffer from disabilities are sent out. They are rejected or kept hidden away from view. Because to see them is to have our understanding of suffering called into question. We don’t like to question this idea because to question it is to question everything. Including God. For if the innocent can suffer, then everything is turned upside down.
But we don’t question God. We praise God when things are good, and when things are bad we say, “God works in mysterious way,” with a half-smile, and try not to think about it too much. We don’t question God because we think we aren’t allowed to.
But where does that idea come from? Certainly not the Bible. In the Bible people did question God when they didn’t understand the situation they were in. Look at Jeremiah, for example. He said, “Righteous are You, O LORD, when I plead with You; yet let me talk with You about Your judgments. Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why are those happy who deal so treacherously?” (Jer. 12:1 NKJV). In other words, “Why do good things happen to bad people? Why do the very people who oppress others seem to be rewarded?”
Job had no problem questioning God. He didn’t curse God, or stop praising God, but he did question his treatment at God’s hands. He said, “Know then that God has wronged me, and has surrounded me with His net.” (Job 19:6 NKJV). Later on in the same chapter, he goes even further, saying, “He breaks me down on every side. And I am gone; my hope He has uprooted like a tree.” (Job 19:10 NKJV).
This is not a little thing. When hope is uprooted like a tree it means that all hope is gone. If the tree is damaged, hope remains. If a few branches of the tree are chopped off, hope remains. Even if the tree is cut down to a stump, there is still a degree of hope, for as long as the roots are in place, some regrowth is possible, even if it is only a tiny sprout. But once the roots are taken out, the tree will never grow again. All hope is gone. Once the roots are uprooted, the tree is dead.
Hadiza still had hope for Saratou, but she never actively looked for a hospital or clinic where she could be treated. She knew that even if she took her to the hospital and she could be healed, she would never be able to pay for it. But then one day, she heard about the CURE hospital in Niamey on the radio. The voice on the radio described the different conditions that are treated at the hospital, and they described the condition Saratou was born with. They called it cleft lip, which Hadiza had never heard of, but the way they spoke about the condition they treat convinced her. It was as though they were talking about Saratou herself.
After she heard the radio, Hadiza decided to take Saratou to Niamey. They came even though they didn’t know where the hospital was, and didn’t know if what the radio said was true. Even on the way to the hospital, children in Niamey saw Saratou and started calling her names. She went to fight them, but Hadiza held her back.
Once they arrived at the hospital, they found that Saratou could be healed. They saw other children with cleft lip who were healed, and they were excited. Saratou was operated on, and even though she was scared, she was healed. For a few days her lips were puffy and swollen, but she was still smiling. She was happy, and Hadiza was happy as well. They left to go back to the town on the river. Saratou went back to her life. She would continue to help Hadiza make porridge, and help her sell it on the street. But she had been changed, and she was going back to a changed life.
Hadiza and Saratou soon after Sararou’s surgery.
A month after Saratou’s surgery.
When you really boil it down, hope is one of the central messages of the whole Bible. It is a peculiar type of hope that his hopeful in the face of despair. It is unflinching hope that is aware of the very bad things that are happening, and aware of the chance that even worse things are on the way. But through it all there is still hope. Impossible, unbelievable hope.
When hope is impossible and unbelievable, we sometimes call it faith.
Faith means believing that God can do something even though there is nothing to be done. When you are in the position of Job’s friends, this seems very silly. Maybe even irresponsible. If up is up and down is down, then you must have done something to end up so far down. But we forget sometimes, that this is an attitude of privilege. Not all can afford to think this way. Only those who don’t face problems can think this way, or who face problems but have the means to make the problems go away. But for the majority of the earth’s population, the problems are always there and they do not go away.
However, no matter how privileged you are, there are some problems that everyone has to face. Death touches everyone, and so can disability. And when that happens, no matter how reasonable you are, and how wise your choices in life have been, you might find yourself in the silly position of hoping for the impossible. You might also find yourself questioning God. For when you are forced to face the big problems, the problems you cannot resolve or outrun, the most natural reaction in the world is to question God. Why death? Why disease? Why injustice and evil? These problems make us question the way this world works, and that is normal, because the world is broken.
This is exactly the point. The world is broken and needs to be restored. The world is in need of redemption. The world is in need of a redeemer, someone who will wipe away the tears and the blame. There may not be much evidence of this redeemer in the world, but those who continue to believe in spite of the evidence are not convinced by evidence. They are convinced by hope, and consequently, they may find themselves in the same silly position that Job was in when he said in chapter 19 (only 15 verses after saying that God has uprooted his hope like a tree), “my Redeemer lives” (Job 19:25 NKJV).