The agony of Angola

In a country wasted by conflict, OM brings healing to Angola’s people by strengthening local churches, training leaders and caring for children at risk.

“One of our main focuses is children; we don’t have old people in Angola. It’s difficult for men and women to reach the age of 45.”

Wessel van der Merwe is talking about the country he and his family first adopted back in 1996. They were deported a few months later but returned when the war finally ended, in 2002. By then a total of 40 years of conflict had wasted 900,000 lives, and left millions more individuals homeless and displaced. Even now the Angolan countryside is riddled with land mines that continue to cripple and kill.

Having a base in the capital city of Luanda was essential if the team wanted to establish credibility with the government—and with churches. “Luanda was the last place I wanted to be,” relates Wessel. “I thought there would be a lot of missions, but there were only a few others.

“Relationships matter in Angola—and building them takes time,” he goes on. “We’ve worked on relationships for eight years. Even in churches, pastors can be corrupted. One pastor took a huge amount of money from me. A year later he came back and asked forgiveness. It was a tough year, but the Lord didn’t allow me to push this man out of my life.”

Although a large percentage of Angolans claim to be Christians, many are mixed up in cults and animism. Church splits are common, and there is little unity in the gospel. It became obvious that OM could best serve Angola by strengthening local churches, training up leaders and challenging average believers to live for Christ.

One of the team’s key strategies is to take leadership training to the common people. Although the country has traditional Bible schools and seminaries, these often don’t fit the lifestyle or economic means of the average person. So the team created a programme that allows students to work and study at the same time. Classes start at 6:00 in the morning and are held three times a week, and students only pay 12 USD towards their studies. Seven Bible schools are now running and Wessel takes satisfaction in the fact that they are training pastors from five different denominations. A Bible correspondence course is also meeting a need on another level.

But from the start, he and his wife Joan knew they had to make a priority of helping the country’s huge population of children at risk. Over a third of Angolans—six million—are under 15 years old, and only one in three has a birth certificate. One child out of every five dies before they reach five years, and a large per cent suffer chronic malnourishment.

“So,” says Wessel, “we train church people to work with children. Joan took a course in South Africa, and since 2007 we’ve had a partnership with Petra College for Childrens’ Ministry there, which supports our children’s work. Our focus with this ministry is to equip Sunday school teachers in the different denominations so that they are able to reach children effectively with the gospel of Jesus Christ. Part of this means meeting the need for good lesson materials by presenting workshops in this area. We also hold kids’ clubs in different areas to reach non-churchgoing children, and God has opened a door for us to teach English and His Word at some of the government schools.”

Caring for orphans is becoming a major aspect of the ministry. “We prayed about where to put a home for children, and the government gave us a piece of land with water on it in Menongue. A steel building was put up by an outreach team from South Africa, but there was no money to complete it. The Lord stopped the building process. We could not understand this at first, but as time passed we realised that God has a specific time in mind for this step.

“Kids on the streets are looking for ways to earn money, so it’s essential that we do vocational training. Menongue is an agricultural area. We want to give the children agricultural projects and divide some of the land into small plots for widows to use too. We have a chicken run and fish pond already in place that we hope to use in training kids. We want to equip them for other trades as well, like carpentry, building and mechanical work.”

Wessel made his first acquaintance with Angola as a soldier in the South African army. He is grateful that God brought him back to this land with a very different brief: to bring healing and hope. But his years there have not been without personal pain. The greatest blow came in 2004 when the van der Merwe’s small son Stephan fell critically ill. People had warned Wessel and Joan that they shouldn’t take their sons to Angola—particularly young Stefan who had contracted meningitis as a baby and suffered two strokes. Efforts were made to fly the six-year-old to South Africa, but the Lord intervened and took him to be healed in heaven instead. Thankfully, second son Tiago has thrived in Angola.

But the team has also had to endure other kinds of opposition. In 2007, Wessel’s “right-hand man” was imprisoned for 55 days. In May 2010, all of the family’s personal belongings as well as book boxes and supplies that were stored in a container in Luanda were lost in an accidental fire.

By God’s grace OM Angola is now officially registered as a non-government organisation with a current team of 18 “volunteers.” Wessel is looking forward to having the first Angolan country leader take responsibility, hopefully by the end of 2011.

With so much to pray about these days, Angola seems to have dropped off the map for a lot of world Christians. Wessel and his team ask us not to forget the agony of this nation—because God hasn’t. They know He is eager to work though the prayers of His people to rebuild what was destroyed and replant what was desolate.*
*Ezekiel 36:36 (NIV)


By Debbie Meroff