Last week we had someone to visit. She lives on the other side of the city, so into the car we went and dodged through African traffic, which of course includes donkeys, camels, overloaded cars, and thousands of pedestrians and motorcycles. The missionaries had warned me that the sweet lady we had gone to visit has been sick. Very sick. For a long time.

It took a bit to arrive at Ella’s place, since so few roads are paved, and since we stopped on the way, in true African fashion, to get her family some vegetables as a gift. Her husband opened the gate of their crowded little compound to reveal the small church he pastors and two tiny huts that serve as the family’s living quarters. Gin and I walked to an open door and called out to announce our presence. Ella groaned to let us know she was awake. As I ducked and entered the room, I was greeted by the strong smell of sewage. As my eyes slowly adjusted, the dark revealed an emaciated figure huddled on the floor, legs straight out in front and ankles covered in partially-healed wounds. Our friend was bent completely in half at the waist, forehead resting on her knees. She raised her head slightly when we entered, but kept her eyes downcast and her arms resting on the floor.

The room was very small and hot, with no furniture to speak of save a dusty bench in the corner where we placed the vegetables. Gin had sat down on the floor beside Ella, took her hand, and spoke gently to her, coaxing her to raise her head and make eye contact. I inched closer to take her other hand, squeezing my knees carefully between Ella’s hunched shoulders and an open bucket of human waste. Another lady, Sara, came and squatted in the doorway, explaining that Ella was in great pain today and very tired. Gin is afraid that she’s not taking her medicine.

We smoothed her skirt and looked at the wounds on her ankles, Gin explaining quietly that the sores were from a compromised immune system, but delirious Ella thought they were caused by rats coming into the compound to chew on her legs at night. Ella wouldn’t look up, so Gin took her face ever so carefully in her hands and began to pray for her. As we sat there, huddled in the dirt, sweating and crying and praying, swatting away flies, coughing against stench, the funniest thing happened – the presence of God entered the room. He didn’t care that there was no paint on the walls, no stained glass in the open windows, and no air conditioning to keep the wicked heat at bay. He was content to just be with his daughters and to share in the suffering there in that little hut.

Before we left, Gin took out some lotion and began to massage Ella’s hand, so I followed suit and began to massage the other as Gin explained that she does so in an attempt to restore some sense of dignity to this dear lady. Ella’s husband came in and Gin urged him that he must make her take her medicine and try to move her out into the sunshine when possible, though her limbs have been rendered nearly motionless and she cannot move. He nodded, but I could tell he felt just as helpless and useless as we did.

We stopped in the other hut to visit with Sara’s husband Isaiah, who recently had surgery. He sat shirtless on the floor under a ragged mosquito net, clearly in pain, sporting a bandage and a forced smile. We prayed with him, too, and gave each family money for more medication. Then we left the compound, walking past a group of street children who were holding their hands out to us to ask for money, yellow eyes betraying sickness and bare feet betraying poverty. We climbed in the car and quietly made our way back across the city, wishing desperately that we could do more. “How can we possibly make a lasting difference here? The need is too great.”

Working in Africa is often overwhelming. You could dedicate an entire lifetime to this country and there would still be a line of people like these, huddled in pain in the dirt or malnourished or poverty-stricken or desperate for the Gospel. Sometimes that knowledge, that sense of hopelessness in the face of it all, is enough to make you want to give up. But a friend of mine once sent me the quote by Isaac Asimov that is often the thing that gets me out of bed in the morning:

“I continue to try and I continue, indefatigably, to reach out. There’s no way I can single-handedly save the world or, perhaps, even make a perceptible difference – but how ashamed I would be to let a day pass without making one more effort.”