THEY had their home looted by rebel soldiers and lost everything they owned - right down to precious photographs of their children - but even that wasn't enough for Paul and Marina Briggs to pack their bags and say goodbye to their friends in the Ivory Coast, West Africa.
The Portadown couple have been working in the remote region with the New Tribes Mission since 1985 and are currently home on extended holiday until the end of the year. They are virtually the only white Westeners to base themselves in the grim landscape of the north of the war-ravished country, but since the civil war and enforced evacuation in 2002, it has been safer to set up home just across the border in Burkino Faso.
Their work in the village of Gogo has concentrated on teaching the villagers to read and write in their own Loran language, humanitarian aid and Bible translation - the couple have now 40 per cent of the New Testament translated. The literacy programme has also proved extremely successful, with 160 adults currently participating in the course and 17 local teachers now trained up to continue the work in nine literacy centres set up in the area.
In addition to this, Paul and Marina have established nine churches in the vicinity and trained 12 local tribe members as Bible teachers. There are now around 400 Christians among a population of 10,000 Loran members who scratch together a living from the primitive resources afforded by the mainly wooded Savannah-type terrain.
"Since the civil war, the country has been in a really poor state, but gradually things are starting to stablisise and UNICEF is now establishing a presence in the area," said Paul. "Educational, medical, telecommuncations and travel infrastructure has crumbled in Northern Ivory Coast.
"Schools no longer function properly, hospitals and clinics lack staff and medical supplies and telephone and postal networks have been destroyed. Large sections of dirt roads in the region have also been washed away. The north has been badly neglected, with the main industry - coffee and cocoa plantations - based in the south of the country."
Yet, despite the hardships, Paul and Marina have been unable to leave the work they started - even when that meant a home full of memories being virtually wiped out overnight when the rebel soldiers went on the march - with devastating consequences.
"When war broke out, we had to flee our home immediately and everything was left behind and destroyed by the rebels who arrived in the village and beat up some of the local villagers," said Paul. "They basically took everything - kitchen utensils, clothing, a sewing machine and radios. We also lost quite a lot of ministry equipment, including mopeds, generators, photocopiers, printers and a library of Bible commentaries.
"Ironically, we knew we were living in a fairly unstable area and we had a contingency escape plan worked out in case something happened. Unfortunately, you can't plan for every contingency and, in the event, our escape was nothing like the one we had planned!"
It has been a bit of a culture shock coming back to civilisation at their Brook Lodge home at Mahon Road, but the hard-working husband and wife team have certainly earned a few of life's little luxuries after many years struggling with the bare minimum. Their trip back home will not be all rest and relaxation though, as they are hoping to generate some wider awareness of the vast need in this isolated part of Africa which has been largely abandoned by the usual charities and missionary organisations.
"One of the pressing needs is for books for the local primary school in Gogo, as these were burned by the rebels and have never been fully replaced, although we have provided some text books," said Paul. "There isn't even a proper teacher at the moment, but children are arriving at school anyway and are very keen to learn."
Community development is also a large part of the work carried out by Paul and Marina, who are both members of Bethany Free Presbyterian Church in Portadown. This has included building a mill to help women grind corn and millet, a medical clinic where villagers have been trained in basic medical care, providing finance for well pumps and maintenance and helping establish a 4X4 ambulance service for the region.
It is already quite a legacy left by the couple who completed four years of missionary training in England and America, before leaving with their four children - now grown up - and setting up home in the Ivory Coast. They both spent four years learning the Loran language and culture, during which time Marina also home-schooled her children up to primary six level, before they continued their education at boarding school.
"We have tried to be sensitive to the culture of the Loran people, while at the same time introducing Christianity to them," said Marina. "We can't impose Western values on these people who have lived with their own deep-rooted beliefs for centuries. For instance, they still have their 'fetish' or idol at the centre of their lives, they still live in mud huts, wear traditional shell headdress after initiation ceremonies and many of the elders still have buttons inserted in their lips.
"Some unsavoury rituals, such as female circumcision, is still practised, but is thankfully now outlawed by the Government. It is expected this horrific custom will eventually die out with the older generation. Already, other beliefs, such as the ritual killing of handicapped children, which they believed carried evil spirits, is no longer part of the culture."
And yet despite being saturated in age-old customs and suspicions, it is strange to see local children walking around carrying Coca-Cola, or seeing the old men with a Guinness in their hand. "Such signs of modern life are slowly filtering through to the Loran people, but even though they may now enjoy the relative luxuries of radio and think a tin roof is progress, many are still dying for want of an antibiotic," said Paul. "Indeed, disease continues to be a major cause of death - even treatable illnesses such as tetanus, malaria and meningitis, while AIDS has virtually wiped out an entire generation."
Precisely because of this - and in spite of it - the Briggs will continue their life-long commitment to the Loran people and to the Ivory Coast in general. Fresh hope dawns with summer elections, which will bring the once outlawed rebels into the political arena, heralding what Paul and Marina believe may be a new era of peace and prosperity for the country and for the people they have grown to love - and did not forsake in the bleakest of times.
Before they return to Burkino Faso and the Ivory Coast, there are other dates this summer in Africa. Marina hopes to attend a translation seminar in Senegal in August, while Paul will be in Mozambique for a literacy programme. Both will be giving talks on their life and times in the Ivory Coast and a visit Stateside has also been planned for June.
"It's going to be a busy sort of holiday back home," adds Paul, "but it
is great to see everyone again and it will be great to let everyone who has supported our work so generously know of the very real improvements they have helped bring to the lives of a people who need it most."