About a year ago, I was returning from my first visit to West Africa. There were countless sights, sounds, and experiences to process. But what kept rising to the surface of my thoughts was the prayer request of a young Christian woman, mother of four and wife of a village pastor: “I just recently became a Christian. Pray for me, that I’ll grow in my faith even though I’m illiterate.” A* and her request for prayer represent a huge need in the West African church. The majority of women in the country where I live cannot read or write. And the situation is no different among Christian women. Since last year, I’ve wondered, How will A* engage with God’s Word & teach it to her children if she can’t read and if no audio recordings are available?
Earlier this month, I was able to participate in the same kind of trip that I came on last year — a week-long retreat for West African pastors and their families facilitated by a group from Dallas. Only this time, I was already in country and joined my fellow Americans as they made their way south from the capital city to the pastors’ training center. Like last year, I’d be helping out with the women. Only this time, I’d done some research into audio resources available in their mother-tongue, Serer-Sine.
An audio recording of the New Testament in Serer-Sine is available on micro-SD card. It can be played on certain kinds of cell phones or on radio players (like the ones above). So I placed my order. I then had some fun playing around with the memory cards and radio players, trying to follow along with a printed Serer-Sine Bible. I don’t understand much Serer-Sine, but if I could just show the women how these tools worked, they would understand — and that was the goal!
The week with our West African sisters began, and I was excited to see most of the women that I’d met last year, including A*! Tracey, part of the Dallas crew, had prepared a week’s worth of study in the book of Ephesians, incorporating lots of engaging stories and object lessons. As Tracey pulled out the main themes of Ephesians, we discussed as a group what it all meant for them here in West Africa. How inspiring to see several passages in a fresh light, as we listened to the women (through translators) respond from their experience.
But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. (Eph. 2:13-16)
Peace is the ultimate ideal in this country — between ethnic groups, between religious groups. “But are there times when peace is lacking?” I queried. Several nodded their heads. I learned how to refer in Wolof to “false peace” (jamm gistal) — surface-level good will between two people even when there is enmity between them. “What kinds of problems come up in a family compound?” The women described situations where a dispute or disagreement creates division. “So what happens when peace is lacking in the compound?” I prompted. One pastor’s wife answered, “It may get to the point that a group moves out and starts another compound.” Another woman added, “And the first thing that happens is that the ones having the dispute stop eating out of the same bowl.”
Bingo. We went on to imagine together a family compound that had been divided into two sets of dwellings separated by a wall. Through Jesus, God brought those two groups together and said, “You will live in peace again.” And God doesn’t bring jamm gistal but true, lasting peace. He built a new compound, with no dividing wall and with Jesus Himself as the foundation! And through Jesus, God brought those two groups around the same bowl to eat together again, partaking of Christ Himself! I don’t think I’ll eat the Lord’s Supper in quite the same way again.
When it came time for small group study and discussion, we introduced the micro-SD cards and radio player. In their groups, the women listened to a passage in Ephesians, all in the language tied to their ethnic group and that they use most, then talked about it together — what they learned about God, about themselves, and about what the church should look like.
We also did some listening and responding as a whole group. The afternoon that we listened to Ephesians 4 was memorable.
You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness. (Eph. 4:22-24)
When the chapter ended and the stop button was pushed, the women were silent for several minutes. And then, one by one, they began sharing the stories of what they’d “put off” when they became believers. Here in West Africa, becoming a Christian is often a process of physically “putting off a former way of life” — gris-gris (“amulets”) and charms, images of the marabouts, ancestral fetishes. One pastor’s wife explained that when she met Christ, she knew He was stronger than any charm; she took off all the gris-gris she’d been wearing and burned them. Another pastor’s wife recounted her conversion and subsequent search for her “sacred stick,” an object that represented her life and that was kept hidden with the rest of her family’s “sacred sticks.” Holding the attention of every woman in the room, she explained that if one’s stick is damaged, it’s assumed that death will come on that person. Once a Christian, she discovered where hers was kept and destroyed it. “My family all thought I’d die, but so far nothing has happened to me,” she concluded.
And other women proceeded to share the “new self” they’ve “put on” as believers. A wife returned to her husband after being separated. A woman continues to show love to her village neighbors — none of whom are Christian and who ostracize her family for believing in Jesus — despite the pain and difficulty in doing so.
Above, the women are memorizing Eph. 1:3 in their mother-tongue: “Yaasam Roog Fee no yaal in Yeesu Kirista a simatel, a barke a in, in we mbogno Fa Yeesu ye ta ci’na a in barke yiif Luu refna na asamaan.” MA*, one of a few among them who can read Serer-Sine, led the group in call and response to learn this key verse.
Along with much learning, listening, and discussing, the women also sang and danced. These were some of my favorite moments because it was when the women came alive — even the ones who were pregnant or had a baby on their back! Tracey and I had no excuse not to join in!
And we witnessed spontaneous dancing on the last day, when one of the women, named MC*, received her own micro-SD card and radio player. As I handed them to her, a smile broke over her face, she jumped to her feet, and she began to dance, finishing by kneeling to the ground in a gesture of thanks. It was hard to hold back the tears upon seeing her joy. Each woman received a copy of the audio New Testament as the whole group clapped.
And a year after hearing her prayer request, I was especially grateful to put a micro-SD card and radio player into the eager hands of A*, who told me “how glad it made her heart to listen to it.”
Roog a faaxa! (“God is good”)
*This country is a sensitive location, due to its majority Muslim population. To protect the identities of national Christians, I don’t include their full names.