To heal Africa, Part 1
MATSAPHA, Swaziland — "If we can get Matsapha under control, we…
Less than a year after the kidnapping, Bob Whittaker was back in Nigeria.
He traveled to Yola, in the country’s predominantly Muslim north, with 10 students from the School of Biblical Studies in Jos. He treated nearly 200 patients as the students conducted a gospel meeting.
In 2011, the Whittakers traveled to East Africa to fill in at Tanzania Christian Clinic for Dr. Danny and Nancy Smelser. Annette Whittaker conducted Bible studies among the indigenous people, teaching the Maasi about the Messiah.
Eventually, the couple settled in Swaziland — a small, landlocked kingdom surrounded almost entirely by South Africa. The differences took some getting used to, Annette Whittaker said. The roads are mostly free of potholes. In some places, the water out of the faucet is safe to drink. The elevation keeps away malaria-carrying mosquitos.
But the suffering and need she’s seen across the continent also exist here, especially in Matsapha. And every day thousands of people walk past the meeting place of the Church of Christ, which sits atop a hill overlooking the community — the epicenter of the country’s HIV epidemic.
So that’s where they built a clinic.
Constructed in 2014, the Mathangeni clinic includes a pharmacy and counseling rooms. The Whittakers and local health workers provide HIV testing, immunization, prenatal care and screenings for cervical cancer. They hope to add a maternity clinic. The clinic’s official opening, presided over by Swaziland’s king, is proposed for April.
Last year, from September to December, more than 300 people tested positive for HIV at the clinic, Bob Whittaker said. Many, especially men, are reluctant to take the test. So the clinic initiated a program that allows patients accompanied by an adult male to skip the sometimes-lengthy queue for services. But those males are counseled to test for HIV.
“One day three young men came,” Annette Whittaker said. “When they became aware that they were going to be asked to test, there was a flurry of excitement, screaming and laughter as they literally ran away.”
Counselors talked to the young men and convinced them to take the test. All three got negative results and were overjoyed.
Another man who, at first, gave the typical “I’m not ready to be tested today; I’ll come another time” excuse later agreed to the test, Bob Whittaker said. His result was positive and he gladly began treatment for the virus — all in the course of two hours.
“I was amazed and delighted,” the physician said. “This restored my faith that the Swazi HIV pandemic might be stopped — stopped by everyday people thinking like this man.”
Bob Whittaker is an elder of the Matsapha Church of Christ, a 110-member congregation that for years had dreamed of opening a clinic on its property, said Edith Mamba, whose husband, Bheki, also is an elder.
“Our dream was fulfilled,” Edith Mamba said. The clinic gives church members the opportunity to distribute World Bible School correspondence lessons to patients.
“Some have been converted,” she said. Others have returned to their communities to share their stories of healing.
Back in West Africa, “Bob’s strong spiritual influence is especially missed at Nigerian Christian Hospital,” said Jerry Canfield, board chair for Arkansas-based International Health Care Foundation, which oversees the hospital. But Canfield said he’s certain “that the Whittakers will contribute to the strengthening of the church in Swaziland.”
“I am but one of many,” Canfield said, “who have learned much about faith, humility, perseverance, spirituality and reliance on God by observation of Bob.”
In Swaziland, on a quick break between patients at the clinic, Bob Whittaker reflected on the long journey of faith that’s led him across the vast African continent.
“My joy,” he said simply, “is serving the Lord wherever he wants me to serve.”
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