Joel Doba was a young man from an animistic background from the south of the Republic of Chad. It was leprosy that drove him from his home area to a leprosarium in Nigeria near the large northeastern city of Maiduguri. He had come to the leprosy hospital a young man, very bitter and rebellious toward God and in utter despair. He had no friends to welcome him, no hope in his heart, no testimony to share. During his early days at the leprosy hospital, he suffered a great deal with the condition known as lepra reaction. Sometimes he would be the patient; but when he was in remission from that condition, he demonstrated a loving spirit to fellow sufferers and frequently was seen helping others who were in need of such compassionate care.
During his stay at the leprosarium, he began to hear the message of salvation. He had come from an animistic, idolatrous background. It was also at about this same time that a new medical regime was instituted that greatly speeded his healing and restoration to wellbeing.
There was a young lady who came from the same background, had the same disease, and was also steeped in animisms. She likewise, through the preaching of the Word, saw her sinful condition and put her faith in Jesus Christ. She chose as her Christian name Hannatu (Hannah).
The doctor in charge of the leprosarium saw the bitterness and anger toward God in the life of Joel and gave him a French New Testament, which he received gladly. It was largely through the reading of that New Testament and also later when he was given a New Testament in the Hausa language that he began to understand the way of salvation; and it was at the leprosarium that he first understood the way of salvation through faith alone in Jesus Christ, and he became a radiant Christian.
There was a blind evangelist at the leprosarium who read the Hausa Bible in braille, and that was one of the clinching factors that brought Joel to saving knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ. Joel saw how rebellious he had been toward God and offered himself unreservedly for God to use.
The African church in Nigeria at that time was reaching out to isolated areas on the west side of Lake Chad and also to the many islands in that great lake. The head African nurse at the leprosarium became a part of this missionary outreach; and, because of Joel's evident love for and skill in medicine, he stepped into the position of head African nurse at the leprosarium. It was about this time that he married Hannatu.
On several occasions, for short periods of time, he would go to the dispensaries that were being established along the west coast of Lake Chad, and it was there that he caught a vision of the need of the Buduma tribes people who inhabited the islands in Lake Chad. In due time, Joel and Hannatu offered themselves for missionary service there in Lake Chad. That was in 1965.
They were assigned to several different posts over the next few years and then finally settled on an island called Magi, where they made their home and base as they ministered to these Muslim tribes people that inhabited the islands. Joel was not content to minister only to the limited population of this village, but he would trek out to surrounding settlements, taking with him a few medicines and always preaching the Word of God, caring for those who were in spiritual as well as medical need. Travel on foot and wading in the shallow water was slow and very tiring; and, where the water was a little bit deeper, he used reed canoes that were bulky, large, and heavy to propel with a long pole through the marshy reeds and water vegetation. He began to come to the conclusion that there must be a better way to reach the surrounding islands with their Muslim populations.
He thought of the long-legged camel. He communicated with his supporting churches in the south of Chad that supplied him with sufficient funds to buy this means of transportation. I first met Joel about 1969 when we were serving in Chad. He told me that when he bought the camel he thought that he should give it a name, but camels are very strange and obstreperous animals and, unlike other domestic animals, are rarely given a name. If they were to be given a name, it would probably be one of those unrepeatable names. He thought back on missionaries he had known, and almost all had sturdy four-wheel-drive Land Rovers; so he chose to call his camel Landrover. Now it was with greater ease that he was able to travel from island to island on his medical and evangelistic outreaches.
It was during these early days when he was learning this new language that he became fluent enough that he could, without difficulty, communicate the Good News of the Gospel to these island dwellers. The first man that he led to the Lord was a man named Ali. He had been a man who became a friend to Joel and, on many occasions, helped him in the clinic work.
My contact with the family was via the Missionary Aviation Fellowship's amphibious plane, which would take me to these remote islands periodically to be of help to Joel in his medical work and also to preach to the people, as most of them also knew the Hausa language. It was always a joy to fellowship with him and Hannatu and their growing family. It was on one of my visits he related this incident. Having been on visitation to nearby islands and being transported by Landrover, he was coming back to Magi. Just coming up out of the water, they met face to face with a very irate elephant. Landrover bolted and threw Joel on his back spread-eagle in a couple inches of water, and the camel raced off into the village, leaving Joel to confront a very angry elephant whose domain had been entered. He looked from side to side and saw those huge feet. If they were to move only a few inches they could have crushed the life from him. He looked up into those long white, pointed tusks that could very well have impaled him ending his life at once and that long trunk that could have picked him up and thrown him to his destruction. What to do? He said, "I didn't know whether to play dead or to try to run, but I chose to play dead and barely breathed, all the time looking up into the angry face of that beast. How I did pray!!" he reported. It seemed like an eternity, but in all probability it was only a few minutes. Finally the elephant backed away and went back into the tall reeds that surrounded the island. Then Joel got up and ran for his life into the village.
I was holding clinic on the occasion when he related that story. We were in a small, temporary hut, the walls of which were constructed of reeds woven together in a long mat affair. There were spaces between these reeds, making it very easy to look out and to look in as well. Joel had a very rickety small table on which I placed by diagnostic tools and a stool that looked rather unserviceable. I was seeing patients for him, when I had the sensation of someone looking over my shoulder. As I was sitting right near the back wall of the hut, I turned around to see what it was that had caused that reaction and found myself looking eyeball-to-eyeball with an ostrich that had come, stuck his head through the reed wall, and was looking around seeing what was going on. Fortunately, he didn't come into the clinic for treatment on that occasion.
I made periodic visits to Magi and to some of the other national missionaries' ministries to help and encourage them in their work and to give advice in medical matters. As I look back, I see that this was an encouragement to me as much as I to them, for I saw that the nationals could and were doing a tremendous work without a resident missionary by their side.
My last visit to Joel was in 1970. The work was still, relatively speaking, in its infancy. During the next number of years, a European missionary family was stationed on the island. Their main ministry was to study the language and to assist in the evangelization of the tribespeople. But there was a rising rebel activity from the Chadian side, and it became evident that it was not safe for families to remain on the islands. Hannatu was expecting their next child, and so sadly she returned to the capital of Chad, N'Djamena, to await the delivery; but Joel chose to stay in spite of the advice that he should leave. The European couple with him on the island and their family did leave at that time.
The first encounter with rebels, they threatened Joel and confiscated anything of value from the missionary's home as well as from the dispensary. On the second encounter with the rebels, they led Joel and several other nationals out in the desert threatening to kill them. But for no known reason they let Joel go free, and he returned to the island to carry on his ministry. Finally the rebels came and completely destroyed or confiscated anything of value, burned the clinic and the missionary's home, and carried Joel off into captivity. This was in 1978.
At first the guerilla leaders tried to make Joel deny his Christian faith by saying the Muslim prayers, but he refused. They beat him, but he would not comply. They carried him off to their headquarters camp. On several occasions they again, after long interrogation, tried to make him deny his faith in Christ and convert to Islam; but he staunchly refused to do so. They valued his medical skill, and he became the main medical caregiver to the rebel group that was holding him. On two different occasions he was carried out into the desert and threatened to be shot. On both occasions, he was the target, but none of the bullets came near him. On a third occasion, military planes loyal to the government of Chad spotted the encampment and strafed it repeatedly with many bullets. Many rebels who were standing by Joel were killed, but again nothing harmed Joel. He became known as a man whom God protected. Many of the rebel soldiers wore charms that were supposed to prevent any physical damage, but they were the ones that were being killed, and Joel was spared. Finally, because of very poor diet and continual moving about with the rebel troops, he became ill and weak and unable to do very much. Then, much to his surprise, the commandant of the rebel movement came and said that he was setting him free, gave him an official document of release, and provided him with two guards to escort him back to Maiduguri. He had actually been in captivity for over seven months and had had virtually no nourishing food during those months.
When he had been taken captive, he had nothing save the clothes on his back. One day one of the rebel soldiers came to him secretly and handed him a small parcel. When he opened it up, he found that it was a French Bible in a leather zippered case. The rebel had seen it in the missionary's home and thought it must be something valuable. Unable to read the French, he nevertheless had kept the book; he gave it to Joel and said, "Maybe this is of value to you." It was indeed. He thrilled to be able to hold the Word of God in his hand again. Soon after that, in a miraculous way, one of the African missionaries on the Nigerian side was able to secretly send in to him a Hausa Bible which was a thrill to Joel. He kept these treasures hidden from the eyes of his captors, but feasted his soul on the Word of God.
After his release and three days of travel, weak and exhausted, he finally reached Maiduguri and found his way to the home of the senior pastor in that area, the one who had married him and Hannatu a number of years earlier. There he was tenderly cared for, transferred to a mission hospital where he was given excellent care, and finally then transported back to N'Djamena, Chad, and reunited with his family.
As Joel became stronger, he began to get back into the work at the hospital in Nigeria but found the work very taxing as on occasion he had to trek up into mountainous areas. Weak and ill, he realized that he was no longer able to carry on the rigorous meetings and ministry that he had had earlier. But after considerable rest and good nutrition, he regained his strength.
Joel became involved in training new missionaries to go to some of those outreach areas. Joel's staunch, unflinching testimony and impeccable life example were great encouragement to many of the African believers. During his incarceration, he had been able to lead two of the rebels to faith in Christ. Some said that he should change his name from Joel to "God answers prayer."
Joel sickened and died early in the 1980s. I do not know the exact date, but I think it would have to have been in the summer of '82. Here is the story of an outstanding African who came to Christ and gave himself unstintingly for the spread of the Gospel to people who often were hostile to him and to our Lord. How we need to learn from these national believers!