"Even though I was afraid I felt a deep sense of peace"
We asked Jannine Ebenso, Head of Quality Assurance for The Leprosy Mission International, to share about her faith and her time working as a missionary for TLM in Nigeria
Journey to faith
I didn’t grow up in a Christian family. Then in 1978, at the age of 11, we moved to Bury in Lancashire. I was invited by my new nextdoor neighbour, who was the same age as me, to accompany her to the Girl Guides which met at Seedfield Methodist Church every Friday night.
Once a month, the Guides attended a church parade. After a few months, the organist noticed I enjoyed singing the hymns (I grew up in North Wales, so was always singing!) and invited me to join the church choir practice on Thursday nights. Soon, I was attending church every Sunday too.
If you had asked me then, I would have told you I was a Christian. I knew the Bible stories and could score top of the class in Bible quizzes.
Then in June 1983, during one of our youth fellowship meetings, we watched a film. Journey to faith I can’t remember the title of it now, but I can remember the final scene. It was the crucifixion, with the words: “Either you believe this to be true or just a story.” I believed it to be true. “If it is true, you now have a choice – to accept Jesus as your Lord and Saviour or reject Him. You can’t do nothing – there must be a response and the time is now.”
That night, quietly in my room, I told Jesus that I knew I was a sinner and that he had died and risen from the grave to save me from my sins. I wanted him to be Lord of my life. There were no flashing lights or anything, but I felt a strong sense of peace that this was the start of something new. At 16 years old, I was born again.
In September 1985, I started my training at Salford School of Physiotherapy. Once I graduated in 1988, I went to work for St. Helens and Knowsley Health Trust.
I really enjoyed my job – particularly working with adults and children with neurological problems. While working I asked God what he wanted me to do with my life. Leprosy started coming at me from every angle – on the radio and TV, in sermons, in Sunday School lessons and in the newspapers.
Then one night, at women’s fellowship, a speaker came to tell us about the work of The Leprosy Mission. As I listened, I felt the Holy Spirit telling me to look into this work – that my skill as a physiotherapist could be used to help those with leprosy.
So, I wrote to TLM, and other missionary organisations. TLM replied: “Come and see us.” I travelled to TLM England and Wales’ office in Peterborough and, within two minutes, I felt that this was where I belonged. They recommended me to TLM International who accepted me for overseas service in May 1991.
In August 1991 I left the NHS and spent a year as a ‘missionary-intraining’ attending various courses including biblical and crosscultural studies. During that time, The Leprosy Mission was not sure where to send me.
But then I met Andrew and Carol Macintosh. Andrew was the Director of TLM Africa at that time. They immediately said ‘Nigeria’ – feeling that my personality would be very suited to the culture there. I asked for time to pray and felt this was from God. So, on 4 November 1992 I left for a new life at Qua Iboe Church Leprosy Hospital, Ekpene Obom, Nigeria.
A new life and new community
One of the great things about Nigeria is the sense of community. It’s very different to the individual mind-set in the UK. Women who were having babies were supported by the whole village as well as their extended family. It was a joy for me to support my ‘sisters’ as they laboured to deliver new life.
I met and worked with some very inspiring people affected by leprosy. One of those was Okon Akpan Okpon. He was my language teacher when I first arrived at Ekpene Obom and we worked together in helping patients with leprosy-related disabilities.
Okon was a small boy when he came to Ekpene Obom for treatment for leprosy. Unfortunately, he was not diagnosed early enough, and he had to have his right leg amputated below the knee. The hospital provided him with an artificial limb and later arranged for him to learn how to make the limbs himself. First in Tanzania and later in Northern Ireland to learn more advanced skills. His life has been turned around. Now he is the head of the orthopaedic workshop and is training others to make prostheses.
Okon is using his skills to transform lives – not just his limbmaking skills, but his evangelistic skills. Learning how to use an artificial limb takes some weeks – so Okon and his team take the opportunity to share the gospel with their clients. Many new believers have been baptised in the river that runs near the hospital thanks to Okon’s witness.
A difficult experience
In November 1993, I had been at Ekpene Obom for a year. One night as I and a colleague listened to the BBC World service by candlelight on our battery-operated radio, we were suddenly aware that there were four men with guns in the room. They wanted money and other valuables. It was a terrible experience, but one that assured me that when God promises to never leave us or forsake us, he really means it.
One of the men held a gun to my temple and told me in a vicious whisper: “Don’t look at me or I will kill you.” However, in the other ear, I heard: “Don’t be afraid, this is a terrible experience, but tonight is not the night you are to die.” The second voice was as real as the armed robber’s voice, and, even though I was afraid, I felt a deep sense of peace.
The biggest impact
Of course, the event that had the biggest impact on my life was meeting Bassey, my husband. Bassey came to the hospital in December 1993, a month after the event I have just described. He became a close friend and supported me through the court case and through illnesses (malaria, cholera, typhoid).
We married in September 1996 and were delighted to share our happy day with a church bursting at the seams with friends and neighbours, plus a lot of people affected by leprosy who also joined us for the day. Well over a thousand people attended our wedding!
Experiencing God’s provision
God’s presence and protection were very evident during my time in Nigeria. As was his provision. It was something I experienced day after day in Nigeria, from the small things – receiving just the right amount of money at the right time for things we needed at the hospital – to very large things that completely blew us away.
One example of the latter was in 2008. Bassey had applied for a PhD course at the University of Leeds. I was very happy for him, but also a bit anxious. A PhD would cost £20k or more per year and we did not have that kind of money.
We were praying hard for his admission to the course. But at the same time, on my own, I was praying: “Lord, if you don’t provide the course fees, please don’t give him the admission, as it will break his heart to not be able to go.” Then one day Bassey came home early from the office and he was very excited. He had been admitted to the PHD course and he had been awarded not one, but two scholarships – one for his school fees and one for a living allowance. Oh, me of little faith!
God used my time in Nigeria to help people affected by leprosy and others. But God also used my time in Nigeria to teach me so much about him and about myself. I was also privileged to work with Dr Esther Davis for a few years in Ekpene Obom (see pages 6-7). She was a great personal mentor to me, teaching me about leprosy and also how to live and work in Nigeria.
In 2008, Bassey and I felt God calling us back to the UK. In 2014 I became part of TLM International’s senior leadership team as Head of Quality Assurance. God is now using my experience with people affected by leprosy in Nigeria to help those in other countries as I support TLM’s offices in 34 countries around the world.
Read our article about what it means to be an Everyday Missionary