Shortly before leaving Australia and meeting her for the first time, I'd read a verse which I felt had particular import to what lay ahead. It was Joshua 1:9 –
'Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go.'
Two people independently approached me to encourage me with this same verse before leaving, saying they felt it had some particular relevance to the trip I was taking. I have never in my life had that happen, and so I was a little worried as I was sure something untoward might occur that would stretch my faith in some sort of 'trial by fire'.
On fact, quite the contrary occurred. When I met Sylvia, we were both leaders on a camping trip, taking 40 underprivileged children to see Victoria Falls. Being Australian, and she Zambian, we were paired together to overcome any communication and cultural boundaries with the children. This pairing worked well as we are still paired together today, even though we live now in Australia.
Neither of us up until that time had ever considered the possibility of being with someone outside of our nationalities, let alone marrying someone with so different a culture or upbringing from ourselves. This being the case, when we had to separate and I returned to Australia, we really had no idea what to expect. We had, however, committed our relationship to the Lord, which was just beginning, and trusted that if this was what He wanted for us, all issues such as distance and cultural differences would be solved in time.
As time passed, and phone bills increased, we found that instead of dwindling under the pressures of distance and faulty phone lines, our relationship strengthened. It became obvious to us that our relationship was not going to fizzle out, and as we made plans for our future, we also had to make plans to meet and be introduced to the wider family circle.
Sylvia was a little uncertain how her parents would take the news that she fell in love with a Muzungu (white man). In all honesty, these sort of relationships in Zambia are met with a degree of scepticism, and in my time there I had heard stories of 'marriages of convenience' where travelling foreigners working in Zambia married Zambian women even though they were already married back home.
I recall that last week I was in Zambia, holding Sylvia's hand and walking down the street. the looks of surprise and suspicion we got were, for me, a little unexpected, and when a fellow in a passing bus took it upon himself to lean out the window and shout in Bemba 'hey... you're making a new breed...', I realised that this relationship would be little different.
So it was with a fair bit of encouragement from me, and much trepidation, that Sylvia one night sat her parents down in the living room and told them both that she was in love with a white guy, and that I would be coming soon to meet them. To their credit they handled the news as well as could be expected. Sylvia's mum handled the news well, but Sylvia's father, a strong Christian, had many concerns and questions, most of which were about my character and faith.
Who is this white guy? Why can't he find someone in his own country? What does he believe in, and is he genuine? Who are is parents? What is his family like? Obviously this made me, back in Australia, very nervous. Three months before I returned to Zambia, Sylvia's father, who was a truck driver, was in a nasty truck accident. His leg was shattered just below the knee, and the family were very worried. He spent some time in hospital where his leg was set in a cast before returning home to recover.
To me, God is absolutely amazing, as during this time, my sister who was also in Zambia on mission at the time, is a nurse, and was able to give my soon to be father-in-law some simple care and advice. The Lord was introducing my family to Sylvia's family. Over that three months, despite receiving medical treatment, his leg worsened instead of healing, and so it came to be that when I landed in Zambia, and I was taken to meet him, I met him on a bed where he had remained for the previous few weeks.
The leg was in a very nasty way. The cast had been taken off by the doctors, for reasons which will remain a mystery, and I could see that he was in tremendous pain. Whenever he lifted his knee, the shin would bend in the middle like a carrot that had spent way too long in the fridge, and he was at risk of amputation. Despite this, he made me feel welcome, and even asked me a few questions about who I was, why I wanted his daughter, and most importantly what I believed in. It was obvious though that he was in a lot of pain and I could only visit for a short time. We prayed together briefly before I left.
I left with a sense of wanting to help any way I could, but I had no clear direction on what to do. I also wanted to demonstrate that I had nothing but honourable intentions for his daughter, and to put his mind at rest that I was a trustworthy guy. At the time I was staying with a missionary couple relatively new to Zambia as my sister and her husband at that time, were back in Australia having a well deserved break. Being new in the country myself, neither the couple I was staying with, or I had any idea how the healthcare system worked, or even who to contact for assistance.
Both Sylvia's, and other people's experience of Zambian health care essentially boiled down to consulting whichever doctor was available. There was no specialist referral system to speak of, the only real chance of getting specialist help was to medivac to South Africa, which was way too expensive, and so I shot out a general SOS to a couple of family members..... none of which had any real experience or knowledge of Zambia, or medicine in developing countries. Sylvia and I started praying.
A day later I received an email from a good friend of the family, who had heard of some doctor who had left England a little while ago to help out in central Africa somewhere, and that he might be in Zambia. She sent his email address which I used to make the first contact, briefly explaining the situation and giving him my phone number.
To my delight, the very next day I received a text message from a man called Alan Norrish, a travelling paediatric surgeon who specialised in reconstructive surgery! He explained that he was in the country for two more days, and that if I had recent x-rays, and if I could get my father in law to a hospital in Lusaka by lunch tomorrow, he would operate. Praise God, we had recent x-rays from the last check-up, He had given us a way forward!
We immediately made plans to pick up Sylvia's father that afternoon so we could make the 5 hour journey to Lusaka the following morning. As my sister and brother in law were back in Australia, I was able to use their car to make the journey (thank you Lord!). Unfortunately due to a run down set of solenoids the car was not turning over, and unable to start. We could potentially jump start the car, however Sylvia had never driven before. I doubted whether her father would get in and travel in the condition he was if the car wasn't reliable, and required his wife's help to push start!
Finding parts at such late notice was an issue, and using a bus would have been an impossibility as we would not have been able to make it there on time. A 5 hour trip on a cramped bumpy bus ride would have been unbearable for such a badly broken leg.... but it was the only other alternative we had as we had so little preparation time. So again we prayed.
Early the next morning I got up and tried to start the car, which had been rendered un-startable for the last three days. It turned over first time! I was able to take it to the fuel station without incident, so we decided to risk it. We picked up Sylvia's parents and headed off to Lusaka.
We arrived at midday, and met Alan Norrish, the surgeon for the first time. Taking a look at the x-rays we brought, and after examining the shattered leg, to our delight he announced that rather than having to undergo amputation, Sylvia's father would be up and walking again within 3 days. His leg would be pinned in several places and bone would be grafted in from his hip. I had just enough money in the bank to pay for the surgery and get home (2 trips to Africa within 6 months is not cheap – so this was a miracle in itself)! Even so, after explaining the situation to my folks, they were also happy to chip in.
And so it was with a deep sense of relief and gratitude towards the Lord, and the surgeon that Sylvia I climbed aboard the car, leaving her parents at the hospital to undergo the hastily organised procedure that would allow my father in law to use his leg again. Turning the key, the car failed to respond... but by this stage I didn't really mind. The Lord had allowed the car to run without issue for just enough time to get the job done. Sylvia and I were able to eventually jump start it and limp it back to Ndola.
Upon returning back, Sylvia's family had a lovely surprise waiting. Even though we didn't arrive until around 11.00pm that night, her family had stayed up to say thank you as I was due to fly home to Australia the next morning. They had even baked a cake with a special 'Thank you Ben and God bless you' message on top.
For me this really was 'the icing on the cake'! It was such a relief and a blessing to me to be put in such a position where God would use me to bless my soon to be extended family. I had come to Africa nervous about how I would be received by Sylvia's family and keen to make a good impression. I had wanted to be able to demonstrate that I was a nice guy with good intentions who only wanted to bless and be part of their family.
Over a small period of time, Jesus had done all these things and more. The verse in Joshua He had given me rang true, the Lord did go before me and made my path straight. All I had to do was be strong in not letting my anxieties or fears dictate my actions, and to keep walking forward in trust. I didn't have to push, muscle, force or fight anything to make it happen, all I did was to keep walking down the path as it took shape before me.
As in most things, the battle started within, challenging the doubts that such a cross cultural relationship would go anywhere, let alone the doubt in trusting that I would ever get married to start with! Once dealing with my own doubts and fears, funnily enough the challenge moved to fending off other people's misgivings, yet the Lord continued to faithfully work out his plan for us.
As time passed and I moved to Africa, that verse had a broader, more far reaching application, but I can happily say that it was one of the most special times of answered prayer I have experienced thus far. For me it has been a real encouragement to 'take my hands off' life's steering wheel and simply trust that God is in control.
Whether its through challenge or blessing, its a great comfort to know that the Lord will always be with me. All He requires is that we be bold enough to resist our own misgivings, and the misgivings of others, and to simply stand and wait patiently as He continues to reveal His magnificent love and faithfulness to us.