His name was Andibo. Blood was still trickling from his ears as I took his small body in my hands. Eighteen months old, he had died moments before we crawled into the simple, twig-and-leaf hut he and his mother called home. I held his tiny, lifeless hand, and as I cupped his head, which fit in my palm, blood dripped onto the tips of my fingers. Andibo’s mother sat off to the side, listless, watching me cradle the remainder of her family. Her ribs protruded on both sides of her gaunt frame and the roots of her jet-black hair had turned pure white. She was suffering from such drastic starvation and malnutrition that she didn’t have tears or the energy to cry. I hadn’t known that was possible.
I had only two more days before I left the Democratic Republic of the Congo following a monthlong stay. It was my second trip in a year to the war-torn country to see the Mbuti Pygmies, a peaceful, but heavily persecuted indigenous people buried eighty miles deep in the Ituri rainforest, a twenty-four-thousand-square-mile region of dense jungle in northeastern Africa.
Only two years earlier, I had been a professional cage fighter in the sport of mixed martial arts. I’d been on a hit reality TV series. I’d made it to the Ultimate Fighting Championship, the pinnacle organization that every hopeful dreams of fighting for. But I’d given all that up to become a missionary in a rainforest halfway around the world during its rainy season, tending to the most hated and unloved people on the planet. I’d gone from fighting people to fighting for them.
My goal for this second trip had been a simple one: to live among the suffering Pygmies, to listen to them, to learn from them, and then figure out a practical way to love them. I was on a quest for the knowledge that could help end their anguish, or at least ease it. I had no clue the lengths or depths it would take to acquire this “head knowledge” and transform it into “heart knowledge.”
With only forty-eight hours left, my missionary buddy, Shane, and I had hoped we’d already seen the worst. The things we’d seen on that trip no human should have to see, much less live: children with tuberculosis, rape victims abandoned by their husbands, orphans with HIV. We’d heard the most gut-wrenching, heartbreaking tales any human being could tell, stories of indignities, persecution, and even cannibalism.
We’d watched the Mbuti Pygmy tribes struggle to survive under the oppressive control of their Mokpala slave masters, who exploited the hunting-and-gathering peoples’ dependency on them after deforestation had taken away the only way of life they’d ever known. The Mokpala claimed the land underneath the Pygmies’ feet and forced them to either work it for pitiful “wages” or move off it. The government didn’t recognize Pygmies as citizens, so, devoid of the most basic human rights and with nowhere else to go, they quietly complied with the Mokpalas’ cruel degradation.
During my trip, I’d witnessed a sixty-year-old Mbuti slave woman get paid twenty cents’ worth of bananas for a twelve-hour workday in the fields. I’d watched another Pygmy woman carry 120-pound sacks of jagged coal on her back for three miles through the treacherous terrain and receive a patch of goat fur, not as clothing but as food. I’d observed Pygmy children, no older than four or five, wield machetes as big as themselves, clearing the fields for their slave masters. With my own eyes, I’d seen an elderly Mbuti slave gladly accept two tiny minnows, normally only used as bait, for his daily toil to take home and share with his sickly wife.
Just two more days and I would have missed Andibo altogether. In another village, I’d been shown the graves of eight other infants, but I hadn’t truly believed the stories of Pygmy children dying after being denied medical care at hospitals. Nurses and doctors get into medicine to help people, don’t they? I just couldn’t imagine it.
Holding Andibo’s lifeless body in my arms made it all sink in. How did this happen? Why, God? These questions raced through my mind over and over as Shane and I tried to assess the situation at hand. We’d delicately gather the details of Andibo’s story over the next two days as we tried to help his village mourn and begin the healing process.
Our first priority was Andibo’s mother, who was nothing more than skin on a skeleton. I handed some money to our two Congolese translators, who hiked back out of the jungle to a dirt road where they caught a ride on a boda-boda, or motorcycle taxi, for the three-hour ride to the town center where the Mokpala lived. Sending them ensured the Mokpala wouldn’t jack up the prices the way they would have if they were selling goods to a mzungu, or white man.
They returned hours later with fresh mango, passion fruit juice, tilapia, and rice, which we fed to Andibo’s mother slowly, reminding me of my wrestling days when a teammate would carefully rehydrate his body after a hellish weight cut. Gradually, her hollowed-out eyes began to flicker with life again. She was able to stand, and then a single tear fell down her cheek, chased by another and another as she began to weep.
Earlier, I’d quietly asked our translators to also purchase a shovel and a casket. In another village, the Pygmies had given me the name Eféosa, which means “The Man Who Loves Us,” and if I was really going to be this man, I wouldn’t let these starving slaves dig a grave. I was here. I was able. I wanted to ease their burden in any way I could.
The next day, myself, Shane, and our two translators took turns digging until our hands blistered and bled. The tribe wailed in unison for hours as we worked silently. I never knew the shedding of tears could be accompanied by such a horrific sound of pain. When we laid down Andibo’s thin, wooden casket—covered by an ill-suited bright blue fabric dotted with vibrant red roses—the mourning villagers covered their faces. Though they’d attended funerals countless times before—as many as one in two Pygmy children die before the age of five—they still couldn’t bear to watch. I wanted to cover my eyes, my ears, and my heart all at the same time.
I wish we’d been able to bury just a little bit of this village’s heartache in that grave, but the Pygmies’ grief was a continuous, never-ending circle. During our dig, the chief had asked if we’d make a second grave for Andibo’s mother. Like her son, tapeworms had burrowed into her stomach from what little contaminated food she’d been able to get. Through the polluted water supply, parasites had found their way into her blood. The Pygmy adults had stopped going to the hospital altogether; it wasn’t worth the half day’s journey only to be turned away. So it was a foregone conclusion that she’d die as well, said the chief, and there would be some solace in that. She’d lost her husband and a second son to disease and was now alone. She had given up, he said.
As we spoke with the chief through our translators, we gathered that Andibo’s mother had previously taken him to a local hospital run by the Mokpala for aid. The first time, the staff had turned them away because they were too dirty to even enter and didn’t have the money to pay. In desperation, the village had culled their sparse resources together and had returned to lay out firewood, salt, a chicken, eggs, and the equivalent of three dollars on the hospital steps—more than enough to cover the cost of Andibo’s medicine. This time, the staff made it clear that no amount of money would be enough. They wouldn’t waste the medicine on a “Pygmy animal.”
Andibo’s ailments had not only been preventable, his cure of just one pill had been affordable. It would have cost only a few dollars to save him. Instead, I spent $48 on his coffin.
As I’d quickly learn with the arrival of the tribe’s Mokpala slave master, Andibo was a name we were never supposed to know. Andibo was a child we were never supposed to have heard of, and his was most definitely a story that was never supposed to be told. Why? Because there were countless others with stories just like this one and the Mokpala were determined to make sure they never left the confines of this jungle. The slave master argued with the chief as I stood on the fresh grave I’d just filled with my own hands and described what I’d witnessed into the camera phone that Shane had fixed on me. When the slave master approached to make me stop, trying to intimidate me with harsh words and threatening gestures, it took all I had not to beat him senseless. Fighting, at least the kind where I used my hands, was not the answer on this day. I’d have to fight for the Pygmies in a different way.
Before we said good-bye, I made arrangements and left payment to make sure Andibo’s mother would be given the right medicine and not an overpriced handful of useless Tylenol, like a greedy staffer had doled out on a previous occasion. Two days after we’d gone, the translators delivered her to the hospital, where she recovered for a week before she returned to her village.
As we packed up to leave for the airport and said our final good-byes, the Mbuti chief made one final request of me. It was something I’d been asked before, but never agreed to for fear of not being able to come through for these poor, disenfranchised people.
“Can you help us have a voice?” asked the chief. “We have none.”
With Andibo occupying my thoughts, for the first time ever I mouthed what my heart had been screaming all along: Yes.
On the plane ride home to Dallas, visions of the last month danced around my mind. How had God placed me in this position, in this dilemma, in this exact location, in this brutal place? I’d had such a drastically different plan for my life. A life immersed in the everyday comforts of the American dream—that had always been my plan. Was it a sense of adventure that had brought me to this uncomfortable, war-torn jungle filled with creepy crawlies? Had this all begun with some misguided and uneducated desire to go on a human safari of sorts that brought me to this sickness-ridden, slave-driven region? Did I need some false sense of purpose that I was really making a difference with my life?
Maybe I was secretly carrying a death wish to want to travel to such a rebel-infested jungle in a chaotic country with an unnatural taste for blood. Or maybe I was really there for just one reason—to love the most unloved people, as God did. Living among them, I’d fallen in love with the Mbuti Pygmies of the eastern Congo rainforest. Though they looked and lived so differently from me, I’d found my second family. Whatever I’d hoped to learn, I hadn’t learned with just my head, but deep within my heart. Whatever motivation I’d gone there with, God had now turned it into something that would fuel future goals that most people would either laugh at or never dare to achieve.
How did I find myself as a voice for an entire people? It’s a responsibility I never knew I’d have to carry. It’s one I almost wished I could hand off to someone more fit, but it’s one I knew I had to uphold. If not me, who? This question haunted me for days and months to come as I settled back into my comfortable, familiar life of grocery stores, running water, and goose-down beds in heated houses that kept the rain out at night.
It would have been easier to forget what I’d seen, what I’d heard, what I’d felt, to tell myself I’d done all that I could and resume some semblance of a normal life. And then I’d think of Andibo, the most innocent of this destitute group of undeserving victims, and the questions would come flooding back. If I didn’t care for them, who would? If I didn’t give them a voice, how would they be heard? If I didn’t love them, who would?
I knew what it was like to not have a voice. I’d been bullied in my childhood, alone in my suffering. I had lived in my own private prison of depression and drug abuse and it had nearly killed me, until God pulled me out of that dark dungeon. God had breathed purpose into a life I didn’t think was worth living, and I had been set free. I knew the same God who loved the Hell out of me deeply desired to love the Hell away from my new family, the Mbuti Pygmies. Using me, somehow, He’d make sure they weren’t forgotten.
How a Mixed Martial Artist Stopped Fighting for Himself and Started Fighting for Others
Fight for the Forgotten
How a Mixed Martial Artist Stopped Fighting for Himself and Started Fighting for Others
Justin Wren knows what it’s like to feel like the world is against you. Like many kids, Justin was bullied as a child, but had a dream that kept him going. Fueled by the anger he felt toward his tormenters, Justin trained hard and propelled his dream of becoming a UFC fighter into reality. But the pain from his childhood didn’t dissipate and Justin fell into a spiral of depression and addiction, leading him on a path toward destruction. After getting kicked out of his training community, his career was in shambles and he had nowhere else to go, so Justin attended a men’s retreat, and it was there he found God.
As Justin began piecing his life back together, he joined several international mission trips that opened his eyes and his heart to a world filled with suffering deep in the jungle of the Democratic Republic of Congo. There he came across the Mbuti Pygmy tribe, a group of people persecuted by neighboring tribes and forced into slavery. His encounter with the Pygmy tribe left him wondering who was there to help them and in that moment Justin stepped out of the ring and into a fight for the forgotten.
From cage fighter to freedom fighter, Justin’s story is a deeply personal memoir with a bigger message about a quest, justice, and the amazing things that can happen when we relinquish our lives to God.
- Howard Books |
- 288 pages |
- ISBN 9781476765587 |
- September 2015