There are many rewards to be experienced when learning a new language. One that I’ve written about before is particularly motivating for me (as I struggle through the less enjoyable aspects of language learning) – it’s when I can understand God’s Word in a new way through the different words, expressions, and view of the world that the new language offers. I have finally gotten to the point with Wolof that I’m starting to glean such insights.
The church among the Wolof is small, but it is here. Over the past month, I’ve relished the opportunity to be part of one of the believing communities present among the Wolof specifically. Composed of nationals and missionaries, the group of Christians regularly gathers around God’s Word in Wolof. Wolof is one of several languages in this country in which the New Testament is translated. As I listen to them read God’s Word and discuss it, as I learn new words and compare them to what I find in the passages, my understanding of God is refreshed and deepened.
One example: I had seen a Wolof word that I didn’t know on a billboard advertisement. It was noflaay. I asked several people before getting an answer for what it means. My new friend Marième explained in Wolof, “You know, it’s when you have no work and nothing to think about; you’re at peace and at rest. That’s when you have noflaay.” Hmm, I like this word! I thought. But she went on to say, “Noflaay is bad. If you have work to do and you have noflaay, that’s not good because you’re not taking care of your responsibilities.”
Interesting. I figured that this concept just didn’t exist in a single English or French word. And then this intriguing noflaay popped up in a Scripture reading one Sunday morning. The passage was John 9, the account of Jesus’ healing a man born blind.
As we read together about Jesus’ making mud and putting it on the blind man’s eyes, the man seeing for the first time in his life, and the mixed reactions of the man’s neighbors and the Pharisees, we came to verse 14: “Ndekete Yeesu, bés bi mu tooyale ban, ubbi bëti gumba ga, bésub noflaay la woon.” (Now the day on which Jesus had made the mud and opened the man’s eyes was a Sabbath.)
As I followed along in Wolof (and compared with my French Bible for what I didn’t understand), the light bulb came on. Noflaay! So that’s how “Sabbath” is translated in Wolof – bésub noflaay, or the day of noflaay.
And as I remembered how Marième had explained this new Wolof word to me, suddenly I had a freshened and even deepened view of the Christian Sabbath. For one whole day per week, Christians can leave their various responsibilities in the hands of God and choose to be at peace and at rest in Him. It’s so radical that, on any other day and if God hadn’t commanded it, this behavior could be called lazy and irresponsible.
It’s striking to me that the word “Sabbath” is a bit of a foreign word in modern-day English. When else do we use it other than referring to the Christian observance of a day of rest?
Here, on the other hand, noflaay is a concept which seems current enough in Wolof that it shows up on a billboard and a young woman my age (who isn’t a believer) can quickly describe the concept. Since learning its meaning, I’ve noticed the word come up several times in everyday conversation. I wonder how an English-speaking unbeliever would hear a passage discussing the Sabbath, compared to a Wolof-speaking unbeliever hearing a passage discussing bésub nooflay.
And I wonder what English-speaking and Wolof-speaking Christians can learn from each other about the Sabbath/ bésu nooflay based on how each language captures it?