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God is Bigger than Storms and Spiders

I want to tell you about the time I witnessed God intervene.

It’s a story about a spider.

But not the spider you see here. No. This type of spider — I called them two-dimensional spiders — was a regular inhabitant of my mud hut, and looks infinitely more terrifying in a photograph than it did in real life. I called them 2D spiders because it looked as though they were merely a drawing of a spider. They’d just sit there, never moving, so flat that you could press your face alongside them on the wall (at a cautious distance, of course) and not see any protrusion of their bodies from the surface of the mud. They were harmless enough — no webs or anything — and when I attacked with bug spray their 2D bodies would crumble into a tiny dot of a spider corpse. Imagine my surprise when I developed this photograph, only then realizing my hut companions had fang-like appendages and a fuzzy exoskeleton.

Maybe God had blinded me to the creepy details of the 2D spiders in the same way he’d blinded me for a year from encountering a chariot spider. Towards the end of my service, I’d discovered that the Peace Corps training site was infested with chariot spiders. But when I was a trainee I never saw one. I believe it’s because God knew I would have been on the first airplane back to America if I had.

You see, before I moved to Niger I was terrified of spiders. As I child, upon seeing a spider I would scream until my dad came to squash it with his hand, which I found incredibly disgusting. When I moved out of my parents’ home, I was left to guerrilla warfare — stabbing the unsuspecting creature with a thousand blades of my broom and smearing the remains to oblivion. I hated, hated, HATED spiders.

Still don’t love them. But, I can tolerate a lot of things after living in the bush.

When I joined the Peace Corps, I thought that seeing a tarantula would be the limit to what I could endure. Fortunately, Niger does not have tarantulas. Unfortunately, I’d never heard of a chariot spider. What is a chariot spider, you ask? Well, the best introduction I’ve found is a language lesson. In Hausa, chariot spiders are called “Dokin Konama,” which means “Scorpion Horse.” The horrifying reason is because these spiders are so enormous that scorpions can literally hitch a ride upon their backs. Yes, as if it isn’t bad enough that a chariot spider is as big as your hand, is lightening fast, and comes out in the darkest night, chasing light with a flurry of crazed tentacle-legs — it can also be carrying a hellish-looking scorpion.

The first time I saw a chariot spider, I thought I’d seen a mouse run across the room. A few minutes later I noticed a strange creature on the wall, and realized that was the “mouse.” I stared at it curiously — it seemed to be more like an animal than an insect. On that occasion I was with some friends in a well-lit building, so the chariot spider wasn’t so terrifying. Things were always much more emotion-filled when I was alone facing demons in my very remote village.

But God was always there to protect me.

One night during rainy season, I arranged my bed under the stars as I always did — laying my mattress on the wooden bed frame, tucking in a flat sheet, securing the mosquito net at four corners and tucking it in to make an invasion-proof seal around where I sleep. I saw lightning on the horizon, and knew that I’d likely be awakened in a few hours to a storm front. This would happen a couple of times a week during rainy season, and when I heard the first clap of thunder or felt the rush of dusty wind I would only have a few seconds to pull the slip-knot from my net and toss the entire bed back into my hut. Then, I’d have to rush to set it back up before I noticed how many other beetles, flying termites, lizards, earwigs, and spiders had also sought refuge in my home.

At about 2am I felt the wind and knew the storm was coming. I grabbed my flashlight, jumped out of the mosquito net, and ran to unlock my door. As I opened the entrance to my hut, I witnessed — in absolute horror — a chariot spider race across the room towards where my bed would soon be placed.

I froze.

Then I looked at the storm. There was no doubt the rain would begin dropping in bucketfuls any moment. I’d seen it during many long, sleepless, scary nights before. But I’d never seen it in the company of a chariot spider. And I couldn’t do it. When faced with the options, I chose to weather the storm. It was only rain, I figured. Sure, rain so fierce that it had once drowned a baby goat that got lost in my yard, and another time melted my chicken’s coop so that she was buried alive with only her head poking out (that was pretty hilarious — her legs had fallen asleep by the time I discovered her and she walked all funny for about an hour later). I could handle getting wet — it would still be 80 degrees, after all — but I couldn’t handle being trapped in a room with a chariot spider.

So I crawled back into my trusty mosquito net, curled into a tight fetal position, and prayed. The wind whipped the grass mats that hid my bed from spectators, and my sheet was coated in sand. I was shaking in fear.

And then a miraculous thing happened. I looked up at the angry sky and there, right above my bed, was one small patch of clear night sky. All around me the clouds were thick, black, rolling, and electric with lightning. But directly above me, I could see the stars. It was like I was looking at heaven.

I kept praying until I fell asleep, and awoke still tucked tightly in a ball. But as the sun rose I realized with amazement that not a drop of rain had fallen. I was wind-whipped, but dry. God had intervened to calm the storm. And I hadn’t had to face the chariot spider.

It’s kind of silly to think that God, in his omnipotence and glory, would care about my fear of spiders. But it really wasn’t about the spider. It was about giving me a moment where I felt eternally loved and protected. When I knew that God could see me, and intervened. And I’ve been left with an unwavering confidence in how much he cares for me.



Thankfully, The Terrorists Only Wanted Our SUV

Last Friday, two young Frenchman were sitting in a bar in Niamey when a group of armed, turbaned men entered the establishment and kidnapped them. One of the men was about to marry a Nigerienne woman. The other was his childhood friend, who had flown from France earlier in the day to help prepare for the wedding. Their lifeless bodies were found near the border with Mali on Saturday.

The story is tragic, and my heart hurts for the fiancée and the families of the victims. It’s not the only story of kidnapping in Niger in recent years, but the stories don’t usually end in death.

For me, the story is disturbing in some very personal ways.

First, this horrific crime occurred in a bar where I spent an evening dining and drinking with my husband during our trip to Niger in 2006. Most terrorist acts in Niger happen in the desert or in the eastern part of the country. And I’m quick to point that out when justifying my potential future trips to Niger. This attack happened at a popular restaurant in the middle of the capital city. A place where many expatriates, including Peace Corps volunteers, like to frequent. It was close to home.

And second, because I was once the target of armed, turbaned men.

the 4x4 that came to our rescue in Agadez

In August of 2001, just a few weeks before America would be savagely and horrifically terrorized, I hitched a ride with a Peace Corps staffer, Cindy, who was traveling up to the exotic northern part of Niger to visit some volunteers. I hadn’t seen the Sahara Desert yet, so I was looking forward to exploring life amidst the sand dunes.

We met two of the volunteers in Agadez, after a tiring 12-hour ride up a gravel road. They’d traveled nearly as far from the opposite direction, so to relax a bit we decided to give our Nigerien driver the rest of the night off and the four of us women drove the 4×4 to a local restaurant where we enjoyed beers and good food on the rooftop bar.

The police later told us that the hijackers had likely spotted our vehicle the moment we arrived in Agadez, and upon reflection the signs were there. When we asked for the dinner check, our waiter was strangely preoccupied gazing down to the street below us. When we exited the restaurant, I looked around to pay the guy who was supposed to be guarding our car, but there was no one nearby. Instead, passersby were standing across the street watching us from a distance.

We piled in the car to head back to our hotel, and in a matter of seconds our pleasant evening became a terrorist’s dream. The instant Cindy turned the ignition a turbaned man was at her window. “Get out of the car,” he ordered in French. We all ignored him and the French didn’t register at first, as it’s common in Niger for men to approach NGO vehicles begging for change. He repeated the phrase just as the words began to translate in our minds, and that’s when we heard Cindy announce that the man had a gun. Four doors opened without hesitation, and we walked, heads down and briskly, back into the restaurant a few feet away. I remember passing a second turbaned man, who took my seat in the 4×4 just before it peeled off into the dark streets.

Those hijackers won the jackpot that night. The car they stole was a brand-new, shiny, white 4×4. It was carrying two full canisters of fuel on the top, and a supply of transmitter radios that were to be given to a remote desert village. We had left much of our luggage in the vehicle, including food and cameras and video recorders and at least $1,000 cash. But none of us really cared about all of that, because they didn’t steal our lives.

We immediately called the local police, and then the Peace Corps office. A new vehicle, accompanied by our Country Director, was dispatched immediately to come to our assistance and remove all volunteers from the area. As for the local police, well, they needed to borrow a car from the Agriculture Department, and then they had to fuel it up, and then they came to interrogate us a few hours later.

After assuring that the officers had sufficient snacks available, the four of us were taken to a room where we were separated from one another and asked a series of questions: “What were you doing at the restaurant?” “Did you get a good look at the hijackers?” “Where do you live in Niger?” “Could I come visit you sometime in your village?”

Tired and annoyed, I responded with a question of my own: “Do you really think you’re going to catch these guys?”

No. There’s no question — no. How could they? When the police didn’t have a vehicle of their own, how could they catch an SUV equipped enough to be in Algeria before anyone came to our aid?

So we counted our blessings, which were many. While armed, the terrorists were not violent. While we’d lost many possessions, we were still breathing. While they could have waited until we were deep in the desert, they chose to hijack us in the middle of the quiet city. While we felt alone, we had a support network on the way to rescue us.

The next morning our entourage arrived, accompanied by armed soldiers in separate trucks. We voyaged into the dusty desert (where I saw no sand dunes) for 6 hours until we arrived in Iferouane, where the region’s remaining volunteers were given a few hours to pack up all their belongings and say their goodbyes.

After that incident, Agadez was closed off to foreign travel. Occasionally it is deemed safe enough to re-open, and then another hijacking closes it off again. It’s much less feasible to close off Niamey. And much more of a strike against the people of Niger as a whole. If only terrorists were still satisfied with merely material gain.

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