JACKSONVILLE — For most of us, it would be hard to pick a single defining moment in our life.
For John Megoliki, though, that's easy.
One moment profoundly altered his life, first nearly ending it, then adding layers upon layers of change to it.
At age 6, a crocodile bit off his right arm.
It was an event that didn't just forever affect him in the obvious physical ways. It changed him spiritually and professionally. It led him to forsake an ordained-at-birth job — witch doctor for the village — and give up all that came with it.
First, though, it led him to North Florida. At age 9, he underwent extensive surgery and treatment here, got a prosthetic arm, then returned home to Tanzania. At the time, the people who got to know him in Jacksonville — doctors and nurses, church members, families who opened their home to him — thought it might be the last time they saw him.
But he has come back twice, first in 2000 for a prosthesis replacement and again recently for a new, adult-sized prosthetic arm. He no longer is the little boy who only spoke Swahili. He now is 6-foot-5 and speaks fluent English, albeit often softly and sometimes reluctantly.
He has been using this change from his first visit — no more need for a translator — to speak to local Baptist churches and youth groups, telling them a story. His story. The boy who lost his arm to a crocodile.
Chore: Shoo the crocs
Megoliki grew up in a village just south of the Serengeti. One chore, as the oldest boy in the family, was taking his father's 25 cows down to the Pangani River for water. Before the cows entered the water, he waded in to scare away any crocodiles.
The inherent dangers in this task are obvious. But until a day in May 1990, he had never even encountered one. On that day, though, a 6-foot crocodile bit into his right arm and tried to pull him underwater. He managed to get free, grab a tree branch with his left hand and swing to shore.
"When I look at what happened, it seems like something lifted me out of the river," he said last week. "I wasn't able to hold the tree with two hands. That day, I held it with one hand. I look at that and say it is impossible. Sometimes I say, maybe it was an angel who took me out of the river."
He knows exactly who took him to a faraway hospital.
Tim Tidenberg, a Southern Baptist missionary, was driving through the area when he spotted Megoliki's father frantically waving. Tidenberg stopped, got the boy and drove him to a hospital about three hours away. Megoliki spent five months there, before eventually returning to the village — and to his old job of tending to the cattle.
Education all around
Three years passed. Jack Brymer, a mission volunteer from Jacksonville, accompanied Tidenberg to Megoliki's village. And the Florida Baptist Convention arranged for the boy to travel 10,000 miles to Jacksonville, a place where the otherworldly oddities included people who seemed to worship orange-and-blue Gators.
"We were an education for him and he was an education for us," Carolyn Nichols said.
The Nichols home in the Julington Forest subdivision became his home. He bonded with their two daughters. He played soccer with kids in the neighborhood. He became a country music fan.
Fifteen years later, he is back for a visit that serves several purposes. He met with Bruce Steinberg, the physician who operated on him in 1993, and returned to Hanger Prosthetics. He also is speaking at churches, trying to raise money to help pay for college. And in the process, Nichols says, he is putting a face on the churches' international missions. A familiar face.
"That smile hasn't changed," she said.