Ema Billings, an LDS American woman, spent the last two and a half years in Nigeria doing service work as a peace builder, human rights activist, and psychological trauma facilitator. She shares her thoughts on the constant need for volunteers everywhere and how her experience has affected her faith.
From the time of my childhood, the only thing I ever wanted to do was help people. That desire eventually led me to Nigeria, in sub-Saharan Africa, where I completed a practicum as part of my master’s program in conflict transformation. After my practicum, I was offered a job as the training coordinator for Search for Common Ground (SFCG)–Nigeria, an organization that helps communities and nations create solutions for conflicts. My fervor for service came out of my love for humanity and understanding that Heavenly Father created each of us in His image and that we are all therefore inherently deserving of rights, dignity, and love.
During the two and half years that I lived and worked in Nigeria, the opportunities for service were as vast as the Sahara Desert. Everywhere I looked, warm-hearted villagers and community members were suffering from poverty—including a lack of running and drinking water, electricity, proper healthcare, sufficient education, and jobs. Moreover, many of these people were in dire need of emotional and spiritual support—this was especially true for Nigerian children and youth, no matter their religious affiliation or clan.
Almajirai children from northern Nigeria are often torn from their families and forced to spend most of their days begging on the streets for money and scraps of food. These children are afflicted with disease and poverty and have little opportunity for a higher education, let alone jobs. These children, living under some of the most hopeless situations, were constantly on my mind during my service in Nigeria. They motivated the work that I performed for SFCG and the hundreds of hours I spent volunteering to help them when I was not working.
The desire to help them was never an issue, but I did feel limited because I knew I couldn’t help everyone that I wanted to on my own. However, the desire for service is contagious: the more I desired and put forth effort to serve those around me in Nigeria, the more my family, close friends, and other organizations in America were willing and able to support my work. Their monetary and material support was invaluable.
Help also rallied from the locals. Michael Oneh Akogwu, a new convert to the LDS Church, picked me up every Saturday morning during my stay in Jos to make the 30-minute dusty, potholed drive to the Gyero village on the outskirts of town. At the village, we spent numerous hours playing, dancing, worshiping, wiping away tears, and just talking with our Gyero children at the orphanage. On Sundays after church, we visited one of three other orphanages scattered throughout Jos, where the children also became like our family.
Other groups from Jos, including the LDSJos Branch, donated various needed items for the orphans. We also received monetary support from the U.S. and Canada, which provided school fees for several students, an eye surgery that helped a near-blind man to see, 204 pairs of children’s slippers, and Christmas gifts for over 200 orphans in 2014. Additionally, I was able to build the Trauma-Healing Fishpond—a catfish pond that helps provide food for orphans along with teaching children how to farm fish. By caring for the fish, the children can overcome feelings of isolation and rejection that they are often faced with. The support we received also funded a security wall, dedicated as the “Peace Wall,” along with an alarm system to protect one of the orphanages from violent attacks.
Family and friends who are members of the LDS Church also helped support a youth temple trip for the Jos Branch. This was the first temple trip for the youth because the Aba Nigeria Temple, approximately 10 hours away, closed for two years due to roadside attacks and the constant threat of kidnappings. Furthermore, most of the kids come from poor homes barely able to provide for basic needs, let alone find spare money for a four-day trip. Astoundingly, the youth performed 1,000 baptisms for the dead on that temple trip and all returned home safely.
While these fruits of our labors are astounding, what is even more impressive is the love and support that so many people gave to help those in need, whether it was for family, the dead, or an orphaned child who received much-needed supplies.
To go to bed hungry is bad enough, but to go to bed lonely, feeling unloved and dejected, is misery. Service alleviates loneliness and allows people to feel cared for and loved. As Christ taught, “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me” (Matthew 25:40).
For more information on how to engage in similar types of service, visit ldscharities.org