With GPS, they bike into Africa's bush

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SENEGAL, West Africa —Their bikes lie nearby as the short-term missionaries sleep in their tents. Beside them are enough supplies to last a week in the African bush — cans of Spam for when they can't find local food and patches for their tires when they spring a leak.

And their Bibles — reminders of why they're here in the first place.

As the sun rises, Jed Richards, 21, and Andrew Smith, 22, prepare for another tough day of biking. These Hands On workers are using a GPS to map unmarked villages in southern Senegal.

Hands On is an International Mission Board program that places young people like Richards and Smith in high-impact ministries in several African countries. The two spent a semester from Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and College in Kansas City, Mo., on this mission.

Richards reads the GPS coordinates of a village out loud while Smith writes them down. The information they gather will help other missionaries create strategies to reach the Fulakunda, a people group in this area who are 99 percent Muslim.

Their maps highlight villages the Fulakunda people frequently visit — where they sell their cattle and send their children to school — which are prime spots for future ministries.

"Our prayer is that [American] churches would be willing to come in and adopt these areas," says missionary Scott Bradford, the team supervisor. "These guys have helped us identify that there are ... at least eight to 10 areas we need to address."

The young men's research trips often are eye-opening and marked by unexpected adventures. They've seen herds of wild monkeys running over the plains. They've eaten fresh cashew fruit straight off the tree. They've learned to rig up broken bike chains and ride without brakes or good gears. And they've coped with scorching temperatures.

"Flexibility is one of the biggest things you need," says Smith, from Faith Baptist Church in Andover, Kan.

"You never know what type of village you're running into," Smith adds. "You never know your sleeping arrangements. You never know what you're going to eat."

The young men cover about 10 miles and eight villages before lunchtime. Soon the midday temperatures are boiling and sweat has soaked their clothing. They will repeat this scenario for the next three days.

Richards, from First Baptist Church in Crestwood, Mo., says he prayed throughout the day, even as he and Smith powered their bikes through deep sand.

"When I'm praying throughout the day, it makes things easier," Richards says. "If I don't take the time to get into the Word when we are out on the road, it's a lot harder ... it's just work."

For more information about Hands On, visit www.hands-on-africa.com or www.thetask.org/handson.