It was hot, sandy, desolate yet chaotic—and did I mention sandy? The country I travelled to is like no other I’ve been to. It occupies a vast swathe of the Sahara Desert, with mile upon mile of sandy desolation trying to reclaim the few real roads there are. Where is it? Well, imagine the middle of nowhere. Then keep going.

The capital city is a sprawling mish-mash of concrete houses, apartment blocks, businesses, and street vendors spread out along dusty roads, most of which look the same to the foreigner’s eye. The majority of this country’s people live in the chaos of the city, a place full of crazy drivers who ignore red lights, and with a population that thinks any open ground is a suitable place to dump their garbage—and worse. Goats freely roam the neighborhoods looking for scraps, and donkeys daily haul water and other goods by cart all over the city. The harshness with which these gentle animals are treated is really just an outward sign of the deeply entrenched worldview in a country crippled by grinding poverty and hopelessness: it is all simply understood as “Allah’s will.”

Our MercyWorks medical team partnered with a Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) which facilitates getting humanitarian aid to the poorest of the poor through medical clinics, working in the prison system, and setting up small business cooperatives enabling women to provide for their families.

We spent the first part of our two-week trip holding clinics for men and women in prison, as medical care is minimal. Some prisoners are hardened criminals, but others find themselves wrongfully imprisoned. For example, if a woman is raped and the crime is reported, she is the one imprisoned, not the perpetrator. Regardless of the reason for their incarceration, unless a prisoner has some sort of connections or a wealthy family, he or she has no access to legal representation.

On a more encouraging note, some signs of reform are visible at the women’s prison, due to the persistence of the NGO in demanding more humane conditions. The women are allowed to cook their own food (if their families bring them any), and the NGO holds regular sewing classes, giving the women a skill that can bring in a little income in the future. However, it’s still prison, and it’s difficult to see children being raised in these conditions, having been born to a mother in prison.

The men’s prisons are pretty appalling, and we stood and waited for a good half hour one morning as the guards at one prison “cleaned” the area where we’d hold our clinic. The room was actually fine, although the bathroom left a lot to be desired. It baffled me how it could have been allowed to become so squalid. This bewilderment was something that frustrated me during my whole time in the country. It’s a place of wild beauty like nowhere else. You can travel for miles through arid desert and suddenly come upon an oasis of palms and greenery, and then rugged mountains appear out of nowhere an hour further down the road. I questioned our hosts about the land’s natural resources, and learned that the country is rich in iron ore, gold, and oil. It has everything it needs to be self-sustaining, even prosperous. Yet everywhere you go where there are human habitations, there is garbage strewn everywhere. Everything is unkempt. It struck me that there is a distinct lack of pride in things, not just materially, but there is little incentive to excel. The people are hardworking, but the majority of them are poor, with absolutely no prospects of ever climbing out of their situation. However, there are tight controls on the educational system, and there are few opportunities for people to further themselves even if they want to. Again, it’s all just attributed to “Allah’s will.” I found it hard to reconcile the amazing geography, natural resources, and warmth of the people with this fatalistic mindset.

That first week, our team also traveled far into the desert, stopping at a small city to hold a clinic in a prison. We continued on the next day to a village so far off the beaten path that we had to drive about 20 miles off-road through the sand to get there. The villagers gave us quite the welcome, with the women singing and dancing, and the men lined up to greet us.

On the way to set up our clinic, we were invited to look at a young cow tethered to a post. It was a great honor to be shown our future lunch, although I was increasingly anxious they were going to slaughter it in front of us. Thankfully we were spared that, and the next time we saw the beast it was on a plate. And very delicious it was too!

We ran the clinic until it was too dark to see, after which we all went up and gathered on the roof. We sat under the stars until dinner was served at 11pm. I almost had to pinch myself every time I thought about where I was—sitting in a village in the middle of the Sahara Desert eating from a communal bowl without any utensils, and enjoying the company of old and new friends, believers and Muslims alike. That night, we fell asleep to the sounds of donkeys braying. We woke to the sound of a rooster early the next morning, hitting the road right away to make the long drive back to the capital, where we would hold more clinics in prisons.

Week two saw us on the road again, heading off to a city where we worked in yet another prison, and also with a government agency helping women and children. One of our long-term workers is in the process of setting up a medical clinic there, and our going there was not only a matter of bringing practical help, but was part of the prep work needed to be able to get this project off the ground. Building trusted relationships with key people in the area is essential to the project’s long-term success. This is often done over tea or food or both.

The culture holds hospitality in high regard, so going to someone’s house is a big deal, and usually time-consuming. There is really no such thing as just dropping in for a few minutes, as even making tea is a labor-intensive production worthy of a write-up in National Geographic. I lost count of the number of steps involved, how many times the tea was swooshed around the shot glasses and then poured back into the pot, and exactly how many spoonfuls of sugar and sprigs of mint were added to the burgeoning concoction before it was finally served. But it’s a joyous art in which you feel you are participating even as a spectator!

It would be easy to become discouraged when you see the overwhelming needs in a place like this. The curse of poverty along with hopelessness, the appalling conditions in the prisons, the astronomically high divorce rate, and the pitiful results of seeing life through the fatalistic grid of everything being Allah’s will seem almost impenetrable—unbreakable even. Yet, these things are not God’s will and, little by little, holes are being punched in the darkness and the truth of the Gospel is taking root. Although this country is rich with natural resources, its real treasure is its people. And they need to understand why they are treasure—they are valuable because they are made in the image of God, and loved by the same. This may seem far from their reality, but there is a growing number of local believers who have discovered this Truth.

Was it worth all the time and effort going there? Well, I’m reminded of the story about the little boy walking along a beach where thousands of starfish had washed up. One by one, he was throwing them back into the sea. A man passing by told him that there were so many, it wouldn’t make any difference throwing just a few back. The boy looked at the man as he threw in another starfish and said, “It made a difference for this one.” That’s how I see what we do sometimes. We see hundreds of patients and many will go on their way and perhaps not give it a second thought. But there are those who really will be touched, those who may be seeking the Truth and questioning their own beliefs. Also, there are the long-term workers who faithfully plug away day after day, month after month. A team coming to support their work is like a shot in the arm. Yes, it makes a difference.