We asked James Gervais 10 questions about his time serving in Africa:
1. What’s your name and where are you from?
James Gervais, from Omagh, Northern Ireland.
2. Where in Africa did you go?
Tanzania – based at En Gedi (Arusha), with prolonged visits to team sites in the centre of the country.
The TIMO (‘team-o’) team seeking to reach the unreached Wasi people with the good news of Jesus. TIMO is AIM’s two-year, team-based, hands-on programme teaching the skills needed in pioneer cross-cultural work. TIMO is designed for those considering long-term work in Africa. To find out more about TIMO, click here.
3. What did you do while you were there?
- I worked in Tanzania for just over 6 months as part of the industrial placement year of my degree in civil engineering.
- I worked as a volunteer engineer with the TIMO programme, helping to plan and construct housing for a new TIMO team about to be placed among the unreached Wasi people group.
- I also helped to plan and construct a new house at the Engedi base for a new family coming to work there.
- I worked alongside the team leader (an African Inland Church Tanzania pastor), the Engedi team and several short term volunteers from America who were working in a similar capacity to myself.
4. What was the best experience of your time in Africa?
Working with people from different cultures, both African and American, was a lot of fun, and hard work at times. Learning some kiswahili was great, especially when I reached the point where I could go into town by myself and do my business without needing someone to translate for me all the time. I also had the chance to climb Mounts Kilimanjaro and Meru while I was there, which as a climber I was rather pleased about.
The single most memorable experience from a human point of view was when, down in the village where we were building, the local Muslim leadership came to where we staying and asked if they could officially welcome us to the village. This would involve them praying for us. In what seemed like a very awkward situation to me (refuse and offend them; accept and be prayed for to Allah) John, the logistics guy from En Gedi, showed his experience and accepted on one condition, that after they had finished, we could pray to our God for them. They agreed and, after sitting in a circle alongside us, they took it in turns to pray, both individually and collectively. While they were Muslim, they were not strict enough adherents to be opposed to the odd drink. This was rather apparent, as several of them seemed to get lost at times and had difficulty staying awake and remaining perched on their low stools. When they had finished their rather long prayers, John very simply prayed to our God, the almighty God of heaven and earth, for them and for the team that would come to live among them.
The difference in the two sets of prayers was obvious, and reassuring. Allah had no power over us, while we had our God protecting us.
5. What did you find most difficult or unpleasant?
You want me to be honest? OK, the toilet conditions in the village were rather rustic for the first few months, until we got the first house renovated.
I had issues with the local food, at the start, but thankfully after a month or so I came to like it, and my liking for goat and fish stood me in good stead.
6. What is the greatest lesson you have learned during your trip?
The seemingly endless level of patience required to work in a culture different from your own, especially when you are the lone westerner (as I was at times) and when the days have been long and tiring. A genuine love for people is needed, not just the theory of evangelism.
7. How has your experience affected your view of mission?
While my comments above still stand, mission is for anyone, including engineering students. The people I met out there showed me how very different people can work together to achieve great things for God when they are willing to work together. Coming from a mono-cultural Northern Ireland, I learned a lot about how to relate to Muslims, coming to a greater appreciation of the fact that they are normal humans the same as me, who just need guiding in the right direction.
8. Would you recommend going on a similar trip?
Yes, people need their eyes opened to the world, and the realities of it. In my experience the churches that are effective at home are those with a genuine knowledge and interest of overseas mission. That does not necessarily mean that they have to have many members serving overseas, although that’s always a good thing. Short term missions trips are very effective in increasing the knowledge, both of those who have gone and those who support them, read the prayer letters, and show an interest.
9. Is there any advice you would give to people planning a similar trip?
Having your heart in the right place definitely helps. I was able to avail myself of the TIMO library for books to read, which was really great. I had a lot of free time to read in the evenings – depending on the type of placement this could be an issue for some. You need to know how to amuse yourself. An ipod to listen to in the tent in the village was great for being able to chill out. I funded myself out of wages from the first 6 months of my placement year when I worked with a construction firm in Ireland. I did not really suffer from culture shock either when I started my placement or when returning to the UK, although I know that others have.
10. Why did you choose Synergy?
Pot luck really. I was in contact with several different organisations seeing what they could offer me and AIM offered the best opportunity. I originally compiled a list of organisations to contact by searching through the Mission Agencies Partnership list from their website. I knew of MAP as a result of their visits to Queen’s University Belfast, Christian Union, of which I am a member.