By Esther Gwan | First Published: March 17, 2016
As a young girl growing up in Cameroon, in Central Africa, I often walked from our small village in the Northwest Province to take food to my father, an orderly at the Bamenda General Hospital. I was mesmerized by the nurses in their crisp, white uniforms and caps, so much so that I dreamed of growing up and becoming a nurse myself.
In school, I worked hard to pursue my dream, doing so well on my secondary school final exams that I was admitted to high school. I took biology, chemistry, physics and French and was finally ready to take the admissions exam for nursing school.
It was at that point I learned that I should have taken the exam two years earlier. That opportunity had now passed, and my dream was crushed. Then Helen, a girl in my village, proposed an idea I had never considered. Why not take the entrance exam for the School of Medicine and become a doctor instead? Her question caught me by surprise. I had met a few doctors, but not a female one, so I was intrigued. When I mentioned this notion to my father and to others, they encouraged me to move forward.
Two weeks after high school, I traveled alone to Yaoundé, the capital city of Cameroon, to take the medical school entrance exam. I didn’t pass, so I pursued more biology, chemistry, mathematics and geology. I passed the next time and started my journey of medical training in Cameroon and the United Kingdom.
That journey is closely intertwined with my journey of finding God through faith in Jesus Christ.
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My father was Muslim, but because he couldn’t read there was no Quran in our home. Daddy did pray, though. My brothers, sisters and I watched him as he did so—first to Allah, then regularly to his ancestors, calling each one by name. He would also pray outside when the moon was shining brightly, not bowing as when he prayed to Allah, but with his hands lifted up and talking to the moon.
My mother was a member of the Basel Mission Church, which later became the Presbyterian Church in Cameroon. Since most of the congregation was illiterate, most of the teachings of the faith were communicated through dramas and songs.
Though Muslim, my dad did go to church on New Year’s Day, Harvest Thanksgiving and Christmas Day—and when one of us children was baptized.
I had been baptized as a baby, had gone through confirmation classes and had begun taking communion at church. My heart was primed for the Gospel while attending the all-girls Sake Baptist Secondary School, which was staffed by American and Canadian missionaries. We would have movie evenings, and some of the films we watched featured an American evangelist named Billy Graham. I loved his eloquence, and his messages spoke to my heart.
So when a missionary came during my third year and preached about sin, repentance and our responsibility to make things right with God, I was ready. I responded to his invitation to come forward and pray for forgiveness.
Unfortunately, I didn’t know the personal implications of living the new life in Christ, so I didn’t grow spiritually. But that all changed in February 1976 during my first year at the University of Yaoundé when a professor personally led me to understand what it meant to walk with God and to obey His Word. Christ had to be living in my heart, said the professor, who had come from Uganda. There had to be transformation, and transformation had everything to do with having a personal relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ. I rededicated my life to the Lord that day, and since then there’s been no more questioning about whether or not I would go to Heaven when I died. I know I’m saved, and that’s certainly been a work of the Holy Spirit.
This time, my life did change. Before then, I had been laser-focused on my hardships, especially my financial problems. I had become calloused and didn’t care much about what was going on around me, including with my college roommate. Once I began following the Lord, I started to feel compassion for other people. God was transforming my heart and giving me a growing concern for the welfare of others.
My mom and dad and other extended family members were open to what I had to say about the Lord. One of my uncles initially protested strongly. However—praise God—most of his children are believers today, and some are serving the Lord as ministers of the Gospel. And my brothers and sisters have also come to know the Lord!
God took care of my financial situation. My father had retired from his orderly job even before I started high school, so money was tight. I had anticipated some scholarships when I entered the university, but they didn’t come through. When I prayed to rededicate my life to Christ in February 1976, half the school year was gone, and I felt there was no hope of any further scholarships. But my Christian friends thought otherwise! They prayed for God to provide the money to meet my needs, and in May, an unexpected list of scholarship awards from the Ministry of Education appeared on the bulletin board at the university. My name was on the list. God’s gracious answer strengthened my faith in His ability to answer prayer.
I completed my medical studies at the University Center for Health Sciences in Cameroon in 1982. I later earned a master of science degree in maternal and child health from the University of London and a diploma in tropical child health from the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine.
From 1992 to 2012, God allowed me to work in Cameroon as a pediatrician and a Peace Corps Medical Officer before joining World Relief—first in Africa and then in the United States. I now serve as a global health advisor with Samaritan’s Purse in Boone, N.C.
But God didn’t just guide my medical career. He led me to my husband, Moses, in 1979, through a mutual friend. We married in August 1980 and have four wonderful children—John, Beryl, Rhoda and Lydia—and a 13-year-old granddaughter named Cynthia.
God is still at work in my home country. In the middle and late 1970s, seeing someone who actually had a relationship with Christ in Cameroon was cause for celebration because it was so uncommon. Today, there are thousands of individuals who have a personal relationship with the Lord, and there’s a greater emphasis on discipleship and evangelism.
I’m so thankful for how God worked in my father’s life. I believe he was a seeker who didn’t know where to find what he was looking for. When he prayed to Allah, to his ancestors, to the moon or when the owl cried in the middle of the night, I believe his prayers were desperate cries to be heard in the divine realms.
When I came back to the village after one year in the university, I talked to Daddy about Christ. He took the time to question me at length, and when he finally understood the Gospel, he surrendered his life to the Lord. He stopped praying to Allah and only talked to God through Jesus Christ. Daddy passed away unexpectedly in 1982. My mother has also given her heart to Jesus and is now in her 80s.
I continue to thank God for answered prayer, and to yearn for a deeper knowledge of the Lord and the working of His Spirit in my life. I want to become more like Christ and to share His love with more people—whether here in the United States, in my beloved country of Cameroon, or elsewhere around the world. What a privilege! ©2016 BGEA