Distinguished Alumni Award recipients Dave and Jan Dykgraaf’s life work can be summarized in a word: Ushimashima. It’s a name that was given to Dave by the Tiv people, a large tribal group in the middle of Nigeria. The name means “one whose heart is like our heart.”
The name is especially meaningful to the couple who have spent more than 40 years as missionaries, striving to communicate the good news of God’s love for all people in all places. “Immersion into language study won me acceptance into Tiv compounds and hearts,” Dave said. “I learned a life lesson: People like you to be interested in them.”
Long before the couple became missionaries, they were interested in people and other cultures. “My family subscribed to National Geographic, so I was exposed to many different cultures through pictures and articles,” Jan said. “I was fascinated by the variety of differences in cultures and customs in God’s world. I remember wondering what it would be like to live like the people in the magazines.”
As a child, Dave took a keen interest in missionary visits to his home church, Comstock Christian Reformed Church in Kalamazoo, Mich. As children, both Dave and Jan entered a contest for the Women’s Missionary Union; Dave won first place for the boys and Jan won first for the girls. Their prizes—each received one of a matching set of carved ebony elephant mantelpieces—were reunited when they married eight years later.
“I learned a life lesson: People like you to be interested in them.”
Still, a lifelong career in mission work was far from either of their minds when they attended Calvin in the mid-1960s.
“I wasn’t firm in my choice of any career,” Dave said. “I bounced from pre-sem to psychology to education, and in all that exploration found the professors teaching about the lordship of Jesus Christ in all careers in life. So ending up as a teacher of English language, African history, health and agriculture fits the picture.”
The Dykgraafs’ first missionary experience was a 2½-year term in Nigeria. “We thought we would go for a few years to see what it was like, never dreaming that God would keep us there for 40 years,” Jan said.
“In fact Rev. Henry Evenhouse [then the Christian Reformed Church’s director of foreign missions] tried to impress on us the need to consider becoming career missionaries, but we agreed to just one term,” added Dave.
One term soon turned into two decades in which the Dykgraafs learned the Tiv language, taught and helped start a church-owned agricultural project.
“I didn’t do well in languages while at Calvin,” said Dave. “In fact, I dropped out of Latin, and that was the end of my attempt at pre-sem training; my scores in German weren’t impressive either. (When I became a missionary) motivation was the only difference. There were real people in Tivland that I wanted to know. Memorizing and correctly using all those noun classes was closer to delight rather than a bore.”
Their experiences among the Tiv people helped prepare the Dykgraafs for the second half of their career among the Avadi people in northwest Nigeria in Niger State. Here they have spent the most challenging and most rewarding time of their lives.
“The Avadi are a group of people that had never heard about God’s love,” Jan said. “They live in an area of few roads, schools or medical facilities. They were the low people on the social totem pole and were the last to receive government advantages; their language was not yet written.”
The Dykgraafs came to the area in January 1988. They began, with others, to study the culture and religion, write the Avadi language, do evangelism and church planting, disciple new Christians, drill wells, bring medical treatments, build schools and improve agricultural practices.
“The most important part of our mission here has been to speak and live God’s love to the Avadi and help the new Christians realize belonging to Christ envelopes the whole person in every aspect of his or her life,” said Jan. “Seeing men and women come out of the darkness of African traditional religion into the light of God’s love and peace has been the biggest blessing we could have ever received.”
Jan directed the development of Christian schools in the area. The first Avadi children to attend the mission schools will graduate from grade 12 this year. Jan is currently consultant to the present school supervisor. She also tutors local church leaders on how to be effective adult literacy teachers.
Dave has been involved in agriculture teaching and was team leader of the missionaries. Both Dave and Jan helped build churches, primary schools, a medical clinic, a guest house and housing for employed teaching, medical and evangelism staff. Currently, Dave teaches at the Bible school—one of four staff members—instructing in English language, history, church history, geography, health, agriculture, Bible translation principles and comparative religions.
Throughout their time in Africa, the Dykgraafs raised two daughters, Annelies ’91 and Jayne Bahr ’92. Being separated from family all of these years has been one of the significant trials of their work—and one of the reasons they accept this award with gratitude.
“We are happy that mission work is being recognized as worthy of such an award,” said Jan. “We accept the award gladly in honor of our faithful Lord, Christian Reformed World Missions, our mission colleagues, our supporting churches, our prayer partners, our Nigerian Christian brothers and sisters, and our families from whom we have been separated for so long.”
Among the Avadi people, David received another name: Habara Uri Magaji Debi, “the old white man, David, who holds the religious title of pray-er.” For that David is grateful to the Avadi: “Thank you, Avadi, for hearing me say, ‘Bring your issues, requests, desires to the Lord in your own language because He is the risen Lord who hears and answers your prayer.’”
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