There is a word in the Igbo language, the tribal tongue of Nigeria’s southeastern state, a word that has been growing like a seed in my mind these last weeks. I learned it last week from Okola Eric. But it is not a word that can be given a hard and fast definition, though its literal translation is quite simple in English. Rather, to understand this word you must first come to know the life of the man who taught me how to say in Igbo, “chika.”
I met Eric in Romania, of all places. A friend, a woman who had spent time helping Eric and other refugees adjust to their new lives in Timisoara, introduced him to me. Four years ago, Eric fled Nigeria, leaving his mother and sister behind in the hopes of finding asylum in a new country, a country where he did not have to live in the fear of war or terror or riots. A country with a future for him. A country where he could work to send money home to his family. You see, seven years ago Eric’s father was killed in a riot in Nigeria. One year later, he lost his brother in the same way. Eric was left to provide.
I asked him if he was angry after the deaths of his father and brother, sitting sipping coffee one morning. He looked at the table and said gently, pointing to his stomach, “Of course. The pain of that is still in my body. The pain of my father, the pain of my brother, it is here…I didn’t forget.” We talked about Nigeria, about the riots that had taken the lives of countless friends and family members, living in constant fear of fights breaking out in the market, the violent lashing out of freedom fighters and political groups and police alike, always leaving loss. We talked about the life of a Christian in a country constantly in the news for attacks by radical Islamists from the north and the threat of terror day in and day out. “They are ready to fight us…” Eric shook his head. “But we are not ready to fight. To shed blood.”
We talked about his decision to leave his country, how he had to give up school when is father died to go work in the city to support his family. But even then it was not enough. Eric told us how he missed his home, the country under the green and white flag that he had grown up in. “That flag, in Nigeria, wishes us peace and prosperity. Green means prosperity, white means peace.” And when I asked him if there was such a thing in his country, he smiled sadly. “Prosperity is there. But no, I can see no peace.”
And then we talked about his faith. “To be a Christian means to give your life to Christ,” he told me. “A Christian makes peace. And a Christian life will bring that blessing.” Eric told me how in his country the grim reality of life lived shackled to Muslim law magnified the difference of knowing Christ, and the freedom that was found therein. An overwhelming freedom. I asked Eric how he saw God working in his life and his reply was bursting with this inundated sense of God’s love, speaking in his broken English about resettlement in Romania.
“God can make a way for you. God love me. God is the one that make a way. Even in another country.”
He told me about growing up in a Christian home, how he had always known and believed in Christ, but how four years ago in the face of fleeing his homeland and seeking asylum in the world beyond this knowledge became a true belief that he grasped all the more tightly, knowing that God was the only one who could and had taken care of him. How when he arrived in Romania, he sought out a church to worship at and a church family to walk beside him. He told me of his current situation, how he had just received his documents to be free to travel wherever he wanted, of his job at the machine factory that paid just barely enough to live on, of his hope to one day have a home in a country where he could provide for himself and support his family back in Nigeria, of the dreams of going back to school and studying English and computers. And he spoke as one who knew firsthand the faithfulness of God to the brokenhearted.
“How God work in my life? I can see that. Why God love me like that? God love me too much. Even to plant my feet in this country, I don’t know how it happened.”
We prayed together near the end of my time in Romania. I told Eric that I was happy to have met him, that I was encouraged by his story. I explained that I wanted to write about him, to tell the rest of the world about their Nigerian brother Eric living in Romania, to tell of how vast and huge our family in Christ is and how great the God we serve is. He smiled.
“In my country, we like to assign names that have meaning. Like Chokoma, ‘God knows.’ Chinos, ‘God is near.’ They are our names, our language names. ‘God is king,’ or ‘God is merciful.’ My mother is Chidema, “God is good.”
And then he told me his.
“That is why I told you my name is Chika. It means ‘God is great.’ Okola Erik, yes, but people call me Chika.”
I have thought a lot about that word these last few weeks. How I have set out to write the stories of God in all His greatness, at work around the world. How I have so often reduced the word “great” to merely mean “really good,” as in “I had a great day,” when it means so much more. When it so much bigger and so much more full. My Nigerian brother Eric reminded me that God is great. That what he is called in Igbo, this word Chika, is more than just a word, more than just his name, but it is a truth spoken over him every time someone calls out to him. His life gives witness to his name, and in turn his name defines his life.
Chika. God is great.
Pray for Chika, that he will continue to trust in God’s provision, that his story will be a testimony to the other refugees in Timisoara of God’s greatness. Pray that he can find a country to call home, and a job that will enable him to provide for himself and his family back in Nigeria.