How do you do business in a country that your home country says it is illegal to do business in? Forget about export markets. Forget about connections to the international banking system for personal or business funds. Forget about visiting the ATM. You need to carry as much cash in with you every time you come and then stick in a safe in the corner of your bedroom because you cannot have a bank account in the country.
The bureaucracy and corruption were just the tip of the iceberg of doing business where we lived in North Africa. War and instability, currency fluctuations, international sanctions and constant anti-Western sentiment from the country’s government were just some of the things we contended with day to day. Even the weather could be hostile, with highs of 45°c (113°f), along with sandstorms and power cuts!
Although war was almost constant in different areas of the country, it rarely impacted daily life in the capital. We often told our family that even though the country had been through decades of civil war, the rebels had only attacked the capital once and that was 30 years ago. That was until they attacked it while we were there! The situation returned to normal after a week, but it was hectic. The city shut down for that week while battles went street to street.
On another occasion, we had an outreach team ambushed with grenades and AK-47’s while doing ministry in a remote district that we thought was safe. A number of team were killed and wounded. We still don’t know who was behind the attack.
Day to day, the instability of the country impacted life and business in a few ways. First, security was tight and the government was suspicious of foreigners, there was constant pressure from the government and plain-clothed security. We needed permission to leave the capital and travel outside of the city. Leaving one town and entering the next town would most often involve passing through a checkpoint. We would also randomly be stopped inside the city and questioned, sometimes taken to the local police station.
Beyond this, we struggled to ever have our residence permits. Often our passports would live in the government offices for a month or two or three, meaning we could not leave the city or the country during that time. Then when they did approve our one-year residence, we would then need to apply for permission to leave the country. Frequently they would delay granting this permission until your trip had passed. The red tape and bureaucracy were a serious hindrance to business; the inability to receive paperwork in the form of visas, work permit, tax numbers and licenses made operating a company precarious or often impossible.
We had a guessing game of trying to figure out which of the students in the Educational centers were from security. This was constant. Then there were open visits from “security” to ask questions, investigate or invite us to meetings to share more. The constant scrutiny was tiring.
One of our coworkers who was African was called in by security. For two weeks after that we could not find where he was being held or confirm his well-being. We eventually found him in “secret” prison, being held without charges. They released him after about six weeks. Much to our surprise, he came out saying it was “a time like honey”. He had an incredible prison ministry, praying for and sharing with the Muslims in the cells with him. A number of them became believers during this time. A number of expats were imprisoned for anywhere from 2 weeks to a few months. Most were deported upon release.
In a country marked by decades of civil war, your friends, neighbors and co-workers had often been deeply impacted by war. Many had lost friends and family in the war. Many had grown up in displacement camps. Some had lost everything in “scorched earth” campaigns. Beyond the bureaucracy and intimidation, this takes an emotional toll on you.
It was easy to see the pain and brokenness in the country, however we also strived to see the beauty too. We enjoyed the beaches and deserts when we were able. We enjoyed the local food and camping. We enjoyed the hospitality. We felt safe with our friends and neighbors. We were able to build deep relationships.
One of our strategies was deciding to not to live in the expat part of town, not drive huge beautiful, armored car and not have excessive amounts of security around us. It worked for us for the seven years we lived there.
We also laughed a lot as a team. I think it was spiritual warfare. Our team was made up mostly of Africans and a few Western expats. Most had lived their entire lives in war and continued to live in relative poverty and hardship. So when we worshipped and ate and laughed together with them, it was hard to harbor too much self-pity. Every time the team broke into laughter over a joke or a game, I felt like it was a slap in the face of Satan. All the violence and destruction he had thrown at these people and in the midst of the desolation, the Kingdom of God still stood. Jesus was bringing joy, peace, hope and salvation in the middle of it.
Our last couple months in the country were chaos. A couple expat friends running a business were thrown into prison and then deported after a few weeks. Although we all owned and operated different companies, we knew each other and sometimes worked together. We were not sure if it was just their company that the government had problems with, or if it would be part of a wider crackdown. We soon found out it would be a much bigger crackdown then any of us had imagined. They started pulling dozens of people into security each week. Some were given a week to leave, some were given a few days. Some were able to sell their personal items and close their businesses and others were not. Some business had few hard assets to lose, while others lost significant amounts in the form of vehicles and buildings.
One of the security directors asked the head of our company for our passports and told us we had a week to leave. So we did. At that point, our presence there was under such scrutiny that interacting with us would immediately put nationals in the focus of government security agents. We were concerned for the locals we had worked with. Many were losing their jobs and livelihoods, but some would also face interrogation, imprisonment and beatings.
One our national staff members was beaten badly by security as they were closing our company, confiscating our property and expelling expats from the country. Another staff member was imprisoned just two months ago and remains there today. Another friend from the local church is also currently in prison.
Although the daily pressures wore on us, in the end we loved many parts of life and ministry in the country. Through our life in business there we creating jobs and opportunities for people, and opened up opportunities to share the Gospel with those who’d never heard it.
Jo Plummer was interviewing Luke.
‘Luke‘ lived with his family in a country in North Africa for 7 years and was involved with a number of educational businesses for children and adults.