On October 5, I experienced my first Tabaski. Tabaski is the most important Muslim holiday here in this country. In their tradition, the holiday commemorates Abraham’s act of obeying God in being willing to sacrifice his son Ishmael, and it commemorates also God’s provision of a ram as an acceptable sacrifice. And so once a year, faithful Muslims spend the money they’ve been saving up for months to purchase a ram. The ram is slaughtered as a sacrifice atoning for one’s household.

It’s an all-day affair as there is a great amount of lamb meat to grill and consume! The meat cannot be sold as that would be symbolically like selling one’s son. But meat is distributed to all one’s neighbors (regardless of religion).

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I spent most of the day with the Sankhare-Soumare household, with whom I lived for the month of August. I was grateful for their continued hospitality in inviting me (and I admit I was also grateful to have arrived after the five sheep were slaughtered on the roof). I count it a privilege to know this Muslim family with whom I could spend my first Tabaski, since it plays such an important role in the culture here.

There’s a special series of Wolof greetings said at Tabaski:
Baal ma aq. (“Please forgive me.”)
Baal naa la. Nga baal ma. (“I forgive you. Forgive me too.”)
Ya nanu Yàlla bole baal. (“May God forgive us together.”)
Amin! (“Amen”)
Deweeneti (“Next year…”)
Fekkeldi woon. (“…may you be found here.”)

During this holiday people are especially conscious of their sin against others and their need for a sacrifice.

So I couldn’t help but be moved to tears as I happened to read the following prayer from “The Valley of Vision” on the morning of Tabaski:

O Source of all good,
What shall I render to thee for the gift of gifts, thine own dear Son, begotten, not created, my Redeemer, proxy, substitute,
his self-emptying incomprehensible,
his infinity of love beyond the heart’s grasp.

Herein is wonder of wonders:
he came below to raise me above,
was born like me that I might become like him.

Herein is love;
when I cannot rise to him he draws near on wings of grace,
to raise me to himself.

Herein is power;
when Deity and humanity were infinitely apart he united them in indissoluble unity,
the uncreated and the created.

Herein is wisdom;
when I was undone, with no will to return to him,
and no intellect to devise recovery,
he came, God-incarnate, to save me to the uttermost,
as man to die my death,
to shed satisfying blood on my behalf,
to work out a perfect righteousness for me.

O God, take me in spirit to the watchful shepherds, and enlarge my mind;
let me hear good tidings of great joy,
and hearing, believe, rejoice, praise, adore,
my conscience bathed in an ocean of repose,
my eyes uplifted to a reconciled Father;
place me with ox, ass, camel, goat,
to look with them upon my Redeemer’s face,
and in him account myself delivered from sin;
let me with Simeon clasp the new-born child to my heart,
embrace him with undying faith,
exulting that he is mine and I am his.

In him thou has given me so much
that heaven can give no more.

Why do you do what you do? (Or, put another way, why do you choose not to do what you don’t do?)

I was forced to consider these questions recently as I took in a chapter of Celebration of Discipline, one of my recent reading selections. Author Richard Foster compares “self-righteous service” to “true service.” I was convicted in reading the contrasting lists. As it applies to any of us in whatever work and place we find ourselves, I wanted to share it.

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Self-righteous service:

  • is impressed with the ‘big deal’
  • is concerned to make impressive gains
  • enjoys serving, especially when service is titanic
  • requires external rewards
  • needs to know that people see and appreciate the effort
  • seeks human applause with proper religious modesty
  • is highly concerned about results
  • waits for reciprocation of service
  • is bitter when results fall below expectations
  • picks whom to serve (the low and defenseless in order to gain a humble image; the high and powerful to gain other advantages)
  • is affected by moods and whims
  • serves only when there is a ‘feeling’ to serve
  • is temporary
  • functions only while specific acts of service are being performed
  • is insensitive
  • insists on meeting needs even when doing so is destructive
  • demands the opportunity to help
  • fractures community
  • centers on glorification of the individual
  • puts others into its debt and becomes one of the most subtle and destructive forms of manipulation known

True service:

  • doesn’t distinguish small from large service
  • rests contented in hiddenness
  • doesn’t fear attention but doesn’t seek it either
  • finds the divine nod of approval to be completely sufficient
  • is free of the need to calculate results
  • delights only in service
  • serves enemies as freely as friends
  • is indiscriminate in ministry
  • ministers simply and faithfully because there is a need
  • knows that the service disciplines the feelings, rather than allowing the feeling to control the service
  • is a life-style
  • acts from ingrained patterns of living
  • springs spontaneously to meet human need
  • can withhold service as freely as perform it
  • can listen with tenderness and patience before acting
  • can serve by waiting in silence
  • builds community
  • quietly and unpretentiously goes about caring for the needs of others
  • draws, binds, heals, and builds

Inevitably, there are certain things for which one is unprepared when it comes to life overseas. Certain topics aren’t covered in the pre-field training. One just has to wait, discover for oneself, and hope one has the wherewithal to handle what cannot be taught ahead of time. And “fake it ’til you make it” becomes one’s mantra.

A case in point: getting dressed.

Clare & I wearing our first traditional outfits made soon after our arrival

Clare & I wearing our first traditional outfits made soon after our arrival

There’s a Wolof proverb that goes, “Lekkal li la neex waaye solal li neex nit ñi.” (Eat what you like, but wear what others like – meaning, You eat for yourself so the foods you choose matter only to you, but you dress for others so the clothes you choose matter to everyone.) As always, the proverb reveals an important cultural aspect. How you dress in this part of West Africa is a primary way of respecting and honoring both the people that raised you and the people who will see you. You don’t have to be here very long to realize that clothing is what people spend their money on. When women here in the city go out grocery shopping, they often are dressed to the gills (heels included sometimes). If there’s a proverb about something, and a society’s economics corroborate its importance, you can be pretty sure it’s a significant cultural value.

To what extent does a foreigner living in this context question or follow suit with the value on nice clothing? Believe me, I’ve wondered about that a lot. But right now, I’m just trying to decide what to put on before leaving my apartment.

Deciding what I’ll wear on any given day in West Africa is a process fraught with questions, from philosophical to practical. “Who will see me today and what will they think of this outfit?” “What is more important to me today — comfort or respect from passersby?” “How many car rapides will I be climbing into and jumping out of today, and will I be able to do it in this skirt?” Do I feel like fighting with a pagne today?” (I still haven’t perfected that fine art of walking in a West African wrap-around skirt. My years as an athlete certainly didn’t help me on that one.) “Do I want to dress more like my age group here (tending towards a more progressive, Western style) or do I go for the more traditional style, hoping to display my appreciation for the culture?” (Ladies, wondering what your West African style as an expatriate might be? Simply consult this handy flowchart.)

And that’s nothing compared to the process of procuring outfits here in the first place. No one would obligate me to dress in the local style. I certainly don’t every day. However, if I’m wanting to understand and participate in everyday life here, then the process of getting clothes is not a step to bypass. And the region is well-known for its fabrics and tailors, so why not take advantage of the beautiful workmanship?

I’m all for beautiful workmanship, but here’s where I must confess that it’s only been in the past month or so that I’ve found any joy whatsoever in the process of buying fabric and getting a West African outfit made. Up until recently, it was stressful and only stressful. It’s hard enough in my home culture, where I know the process and the language, to care about buying clothes!

Step 1: Navigate block upon block, stall after stall of cloth vendors like the one below, looking for a cloth you can imagine wearing. I remember the first time I did this back in March. I was completely overwhelmed. All the fabrics looked the same to me! And if I had no idea what I would have the fabric made into, how could I choose? And how much to buy? And now I have to bargain for the price?? Fabrics come in different thicknesses, different materials, different motifs, different degrees of “fancy,” widely-varying prices. And of course, in an unending array of colors.

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Step 2: Find a tailor that you trust to make something wearable out of the fabric you’ve bought. By this point, you really do need to have at least a general idea of what you’d like the tailor to make for you. And here comes the hardest part: explaining your idea to the person who will actually create it. The tailor may have some catalogs, or you may have other sources of pictures of West African-style outfits. Or, you may feel ready to put your drawing skills to the test and sketch it yourself. Or, you may even feel up to putting your language skills to the test and verbally explain it. I haven’t been brave enough to attempt that last one, with my limited sewing vocabulary in any language! I’ve found it’s easier for everyone involved if there’s at least a visual starting point. It was after my first trip to the tailor, when my mind nearly exploded attempting to decide what I wanted and how to explain it, that I really started looking hard at the clothing around me. I started to observe much more closely. I started to pick up on how outfits are sewn, what fabrics are used in which ways, what kinds of additions are possible. And slowly, I began accumulating ideas of styles I could imagine myself wearing.

Once you’ve completed your explanation, the tailor takes your measurements. The only things left are deciding when it will be ready to pick up (with the standard Inshallah — “Lord willing” — which leaves room for any myriad of changes to the time agreed upon) and how much it will cost (more bargaining).

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Moustapha, my tailor

Step 3: Return to the tailor to pick up your finished outfit!

If all goes well, you could end up with a dress like the one below, which even my younger brother had to compliment me on when he saw me in it via Skype.

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If all goes somewhat less according to plan, you may end up with an outfit like the one below. The dark blue piece wasn’t part of the original skirt. The first result: a skirt that I could put on but that I could barely walk or get in a taxi in, let alone climb up into a car rapide in! But not to worry: there’s always more fabric to be bought and alterations to be made. Thanks to my tailor’s dark blue insert in the seam at the back (and why not throw in there a matching head scarf?), I can do more than just stand in this outfit.

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I’m still figuring the whole system out. But one secret I quickly discovered was to hold lightly to one’s ideas of how an outfit will turn out (and this is where my uncaring attitude about clothes comes in handy). If you’re willing to trust the tailor, if you’re willing to wear whatever fits and seems culturally appropriate (whether or not it’s exactly what you were imagining or even what you’d choose to wear in your home culture), you’ll be satisfied.

And here’s hoping that everyone taking notice of my clothes here is satisfied as well!

My planner tells me that it’s the first day of autumn today. Not that I would have had the slightest clue from the climate and fauna here where I’m living. Those familiar four seasons don’t apply in this part of the world. Something in me is sad to be missing the beautiful fall colors and crisp air. But a big part of me is rejoicing at the discovery of a new cycle of seasons. I’ve experienced the long-awaited rainy season after the dry season. And it’s a glorious thing.

A rainfall is usually announced by a strong wind that whips through the hot, stagnant air. (I will never forget my first experience of that wind. As the family I was living with rushed around to shut windows and doors, bring in the drying laundry, and pull in furniture not under shelter, all I could do was stand in front of my open window and take in with all my senses that cool, abrupt wind.) The drops begin to fall; everything comes to a bit of a halt. And after the rain ends, the stuffy humidity has been replaced, for a time, by air so fresh that one wonders on which new planet the storm dropped its happy hostages.

another storm rolling in...

another storm rolling in…

I had the opportunity to leave the city and travel into the Seereer countryside a couple weeks ago. The trip was to visit in their villages the women who had received the audio New Testament in their language back in July. Little did I know what was awaiting me out in the bush…

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…lush, green pastures!

I could hardly believe my eyes. These very fields were little more than sand the last time I was here in July. Rain can really make that big of a difference? Of course I’d heard about the crops that would grow during the rainy season. But I never expected it all to be this green.

driving through millet fields

driving through millet fields

The millet is at varying heights, depending on how much rain has fallen in an area. This crop is not as high as it should be by now, as the rains were late. But the millet is growing now, and the farmers are praying that enough more rainy days will come for it to reach the point of harvesting.

The millet is at varying heights, depending on how much rain has fallen. This field’s crop is not as high as it should be by now, as the rains were late. But the millet is growing now, and the farmers pray that enough more rainy days are left for it to reach the point of harvesting.

I had to share the green-ness since I’ve often made note of the lack of it. I’m going on record to say that the region where I’m living can be more than dusty and brown. Seven months into life here, I’m discovering new layers of beauty and color. I’m learning that I won’t see all that this part of West Africa has to offer until I’ve been in it, at the very least, a whole year.

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Good things come to those that wait through the dry season. And one needs to hang around in a new place long enough to glimpse the full array of beauty through the whole cycle of its seasons.

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The tree stretches up to the sky and displays its fruit and leaves for all to see. The tree’s branches trace a line for the observer to the source of what it produces. But the tree only reveals as far as its trunk. In order to look deeper — the roots underground — one needs to dig and study. Only then does one see the source of what was easily visible but not fully understood.

Last week, I (temporarily) traded in the heat and humidity of the Sahel for the cool, damp air of the West African mountains.

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A glorious view during the drive… my soul was refreshed to be in mountains that reminded me of Pennsylvania!

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I spent a week in Togo for an SIL conference on “The Gospel and Culture.” The staff and attendees represented eight West African countries and all work in the area of Scripture Engagement, facilitating the use and understanding of the Bible in minority languages. The group included a multiplicity of nationalities, denominations, and backgrounds. Out of 35 participants, I was one of only five non-Africans, one of only three Americans. I’ve never been so thrilled to be outnumbered.

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My “contribution” was largely listening. I spent the week learning from West African Christians studying their own cultures. They were absolutely inspiring. Committed to Jesus and proud of their cultures, they want to see their communities redeemed and transformed in authentic ways. The sessions spilled over into coffee breaks and meal times as we shared experiences. The discussions were far from theoretic — we were talking about the practices and beliefs that compose their everyday lives. The specific theme guiding the week’s work was marriage — its celebration, the beliefs underlying it, its place in church life, its place in the Bible, its outworking in the community. Because marriage affects families and communities so profoundly, we were discussing the very fabric of the West African cultures represented.

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What does a tree have to do with “The Gospel and Culture”? The image is used as part of a Scripture Engagement method to understand how traditional practices relate to the Bible and vice versa. In any culture, the fruit and leaves will be easy to see — these are the visible practices. For the curious observer, the branches also become visible as questions are posed about what else goes on surrounding the practice. But at a certain point, the cultural observer reaches the ground, where the answers disappear from sight. He or she may hear, “I don’t know why; we’ve just always done it.” That’s when the observer starts to dig for the set of beliefs and forces of motivation that drive the visible practice.

The observer may be an insider or an outsider. A combination of the two perspectives is ideal. Each brings an important point of view in applying biblical truth. We need outsiders to point out our blind spots, and we need insiders whose experience guides our study.

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That’s why the conference was so rich. As outsiders and insiders we worked and learned together. I was grateful for the opportunity to watch various outsiders in action, modeling how to listen, ask questions, and facilitate a mutually deepened understanding. The foreigner who enters a culture anthropologically – seeking to understand the Other, from within the culture itself (to the extent that it’s possible for an outsider) – is an agent for insight and possibly for change. Repeatedly I thought, “Lord, could you use me in that way?”

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I felt privileged to hear from the insiders of several West African cultures, and to learn how Christians work through and live out their faith in those contexts. Does God require of Beliyan Christians to observe wedding celebrations within the church community, or just between families as is traditional? How can the Jola Kassa church help young couples who are ready to marry but who can’t afford the cost of a ceremony, considered necessary in their culture? How does a man “leave his father and mother and be united to his wife” in various West African cultures where it is imperative for the man to stay in his parents’ compound and for the woman to join him there when they marry? The insiders identified practices which they see as either neutral, incompatible with God’s will, or affirming of God’s truth.

Inevitably, though, I hit moments of full-on culture shock. There was the recurring emphasis on virginity in the various dowry-giving rituals — proof of the woman’s virginity is sought and enormous shame (without inquiry into the cause) accompanies the failure to prove it. I felt a twinge of anger. I was bothered to hear so much advice given to the bride and teaching on submission to her husband, with seemingly little given to the groom and teaching on loving his wife. And a lively, drawn-out study of divorce and remarriage led to a surprising discovery — remarriage is more or less categorically opposed by many West African church leaders. Even in cases of abuse and abandonment, participants (both pastors and lay people) expressed great reluctance in supporting the victim’s divorce and remarriage. “How could that be just?” I thought to myself. In these moments of culture shock, I was faced with the question, “Am I bothered because the way of Jesus is somehow being violated, or simply because of my own cultural norms?” I had ample practice at not judging a culture’s visible fruit until I’ve learned the underlying root system.

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It was with the topic of remarriage that we practiced using the tree model to see below the surface. Through panel interviews, small group discussions on Bible passages, and much listening, we identified the following fears that West African Christians have of participating in separating a husband and wife:

  • of offending spouses and their family (who might attack the former spouse and who would blame the pastor if they ever came back and repented, only to find the spouse remarried)
  • of church hierarchy (preferring to defer to higher authorities)
  • of damaging the church’s honor (by allowing the original marriage vows taken before God to be broken)
  • of going against Scriptures (since the passages aren’t always clear)
  • of God and His judgment (for “separating what God has joined together”)

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Many also raised the question of how the church would care for an abandoned spouse and the affected children. But at the mid-point of the conference, it seemed that these matters were lost in the quest to find the elusive black-and-white principles in Scripture regarding divorce and remarriage.

By the end of the week, though, a change was taking place in my colleagues and myself. No conclusions were reached on any topic (that wasn’t the point, after all). But one pastor stood up and asked the group if we weren’t doing exactly what the Pharisees of Jesus’ day did with the law. “Have we forgotten mercy and compassion in all this?” I heard from several that they were planning to introduce for discussion the various topics once they returned to their communities. As one pastor said, “We never learned about these things in seminary.” Some colleagues had ideas for changing the way marriage is viewed and practiced, and others left with new realization that their culture’s view of marriage actually affirms biblical truth. All of us were leaving with gained insight and tools.

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The change in myself continues as I consider the root system I got a glimpse of in Togo, a root system not my own but that I can appreciate. My West African brothers and sisters view marriage as built on a bond reaching far beyond vows and physical union. At marriage, they believe that something happens to a couple, something that not even infidelity or the breaking of the wedding contract or even divorce can change. They see a sort of mystical bond there that God Himself has participated in forging, and that is therefore holy. From their understanding, to participate in separating this bond in the slightest way is most dangerous.

Does my home culture provide me with the same weighty, profound view of marriage?

I’m still processing and conducting my own informal interviews. One thing is for sure, I read in a new light the passages calling Jesus the church’s husband. Even the best among us humans give a poor picture in any of our relationships, in any of our cultures of Christ’s faithfulness to us. He paid more than any dowry in order to love us. He stays committed to us despite our many shortcomings, and He longs for the day when He will take us home with Him.

Our joy in Him may be a fluctuating thing: His joy in us knows no change.” -Hudson Taylor

I joined the others up on the roof just in time to catch the slaughtering of the first sheep.

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This was last Friday, when my household held a small ngente, the naming ceremony for newborn babies practiced by Muslims here. I had learned about this custom in Wolof class, and now I was attending one!

According to the tradition, babies aren’t named until they reach 8 days old. On that day, the family hosts a party and invites everyone to join them in celebrating. A sheep, or another expensive animal, is killed – both to welcome the new baby and to pay homage to the mother’s pain in delivery (quite literally, as the sheep’s blood is spilled to commemorate the mother’s blood). The sheep’s meat is used to serve the many guests for the midday meal.

But first, guests partake in the traditional lax – millet that has been ground and formed into small balls then cooked with spices and sugar. It’s accompanied by sweetened soow, a liquidy yogurt. This is a treat reserved for special occasions. The lax is distributed to the guests, then it’s portioned out to all the households in the neighborhood.

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At some point during the ngente festivities, the imam (local Islamic leader) comes and the family tells him what the baby will be called. The imam holds the baby and speaks the name twice, once into each ear of the baby. Traditionally, once it is thus announced, the family’s griots (praise singers) go up to the roof to sing and shout the name so all the guests can hear.

After this, one of the most beautiful parts of the ngente occurs: the new baby appears to the guests, and the mother is cheered like the heroine that she is! I witnessed this at the ngente of a neighboring household, and it was moving. The mother was greeted with music and singing and clapping and dancing! I thought, ‘Now that’s how a woman who’s just given birth ought to be received!’ She herself even danced a bit with her age-mate friends.

It was helpful to have learned some about the ngente custom before attending one. Even so, I don’t think I was quite prepared to witness the slaughtering of two sheep right on the roof, a central gathering place of the household and where the main kitchen is located.

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Nor was I ready to watch the animals in various stages of dismemberment as we guests ate our lax nearby (photo above). The lax was too delicious to pass up, though.

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“It was a cultural experience.” That’s been the theme this month. Sometimes it’s the only way to summarize how interesting/ strange/ helpful/ confusing/ boring / stimulating my days have been.

I’ve been living with a local family this month. I moved out of my apartment without another plan for long-term housing. Technically maybe that makes me homeless – except that I’m living in a country where hospitality is a way of life, so I’m not really worried. And I moved out in order to do what I’ve wanted to do since my arrival, something that has nevertheless been daunting: make direct contact with local culture by living with a family.

I needed help arranging such a thing. Thankfully there’s an organization here in the capital city that sets up short-term home stays with local families. So I haven’t changed cities, but I’m now in a different neighborhood. I’m now the only foreigner in the large household that has taken me in. I’m making the most of this opportunity to experience a piece of local life and immerse myself in Wolof. I’m keeping my eyes and ears wide open.

rooftop view of my current neighborhood

rooftop view of my current neighborhood

MamAwa, the matriarch of the household whose smiling eyes I liked right away, introduces me to others as her daughter. By the second day, my new family insisted that I take their last name. That’s just normal here. Call me Yacine Soumare. And I’ve only received three offers to find me a husband!

various members of the Soumare household; MamAwa is in yellow

various members of the Soumare household; MamAwa is in yellow

I eat when they eat, and my diet is the same as theirs, for the most part (i.e. never lacking starch). I follow their cues for knowing when, how, whom to greet; how to eat; how to come and go from the home. I join them in sitting together, often in close proximity and sometimes for hours, even though I can’t participate in conversation and have nothing “to do.” That’s what families here do – they spend as much time as possible together. I’m being stretched in my need for privacy and alone time. Thankfully I have my own room (I think I’m the only one in the household who does!).

I’ve given myself permission to not follow their sleeping hours; my fatigue level can’t handle staying up until 3am, as they often do. What’s the balance between integrating into a new culture and maintaining personal wellness? Part of what motivated my doing a home stay was to gain insight into that question. I’ve been praying that God would lead me to a family in the place where I’ll eventually settle. I don’t know where or when that will be; in the meantime, this is a trial run of sorts.

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I’m so grateful for the Soumare family and for this ideal learning opportunity. In many ways, this is what I’ve been waiting for. I’ll be honest, though; it’s not always enjoyable. It’s not easy to feel like a misfit whether I’m sitting around with my family or whether I decide to stay in my room for a bit of space – either way, I’m only reminded of my other-ness. It’s exhausting to only have enough Wolof to constantly be trying to figure out what’s being said, yet rarely understand even the general topic of overheard conversation. It’s frustrating to never really know what’s going on – new people constantly coming and going; various outings, on some of which I’m invited to go along; never understanding which husband goes with which wife, which child goes with which parent. I’d been told that this is a high-context culture – meaning it’s unnatural to give explanations and foreigners are often left to infer from the context – and now I’m experiencing that more than ever. So again, I keep my eyes and ears wide open, and I trust that someone will tell me if and when I need to know or do something. Most of the family members speak French, so when I really want to understand something more complex than my Wolof can handle, I can. But I use that as a last resort. “Bul ma wax ci francais,” (don’t speak to me in French) has been my mantra, which I tell my new family nicely, explaining to them that I’m here to learn Wolof.

Despite the challenges, though, I can say without a doubt that it’s worth it.

The ngente is just one example of the experiences I’ve had. I find parts of this name-giving ceremony beautifully symbolic, and it raises the question: how would a Christian in this culture host and celebrate an ngente? What aspects of the tradition would need to change, and which could be kept and even enhanced for followers of Jesus? This question is vital anytime Scripture and culture intersects (i.e. everyday, in every culture!). The question is foundational for Scripture Engagement, the area of SIL’s work that involves applying and putting into use mother-tongue Scriptures among minority language groups.

And as I gave MamAwa my ndawtal (the monetary contribution expected of family members at the ngente), I received many thanks, a Wolof blessing, and the offer to hold an ngente here in their home when I have my first child! How often does one get an offer like that??

“Kyria, what do you think it means to preach the gospel to all creation?” my friend Katie asks me as we sweat over a garden bed in preparation to plant the next rotation’s crop. We’re working in the vegetable garden that Katie oversees. My sore muscles, blistered hands, and fatigue level (not to mention the continuous trickle of sweat down my back) are reminders that I’m not yet accustomed to serious manual labor in the West African climate. I smile at Katie’s question; after almost three years living here, she can work tirelessly all day and still has the mental energy to have deep philosophical conversations, mid-swing of a hoe. I invite her to share with me how she’d answer her own question.

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Let me tell you about an oasis in the West African Sahel, a place you should visit if you’d like to see how a group of people are answering Katie’s question. This oasis is called The Beer-Sheba Project. It’s where Katie works, along with a whole team of people who have a vision for agriculture, community life, and transformational development. It’s a place where faith and farming are joined, where the Creator and His Word instruct interns in caring for the creation, where future leaders of the West African church are trained to also be agricultural leaders in their communities.

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The Beer-Sheba Project is 100 hectares of hope. From atop the water tower (which is another story in itself), one can clearly see where Beer-Sheba starts. Inside the fence, it’s a forest. On seeing the forest, one older Muslim man from the driest region of the country commented, “This has given me a picture of what my land used to look like and a vision of what it could be again.” Outside Beer-Sheba’s fence, the landscape is typical of the Sahel – dry and with little growth. Yet I was surprised to learn from Katie that the surrounding shrubs and the trees making up Beer-Sheba’s forest are actually the same species. What makes the difference?

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Care. When the shrubs are pruned and protected from free-roaming livestock, they grow into shade-giving trees. Within the fence of Beer-Sheba, interns are taught to care for and appreciate the trees. This is important because when many West African farmers see trees taking up space in their fields, they see it as competition for the crops that will feed their families. And so trees are chopped down, uprooted, burned. But some trees in a garden or field are ideal because they provide cooler growing temperatures, they serve as breakers against the strong wind, and they trap nitrogen from the air, bringing it down to the soil. Perhaps most importantly, trees help the rains come. As Katie explains, trees are the connection between the soil and the atmosphere: they allow the rains to come by collecting water from the soil and releasing it into the atmosphere, playing a key role in the water cycle.

sahel map

photo courtesy of http://www.caritas.org

And rain in the Sahel is crucial. This region of Africa is named after the Arabic word for “shore.” But the Sahel isn’t the shore of an ocean; it’s the shore of a desert. The region stretches across the continent in an arid band of semi-desert south of the Sahara. Farming in a semi-desert climate is no easy task. It takes skill, knowledge, hard work, perseverance.

And Beer-Sheba is a place where Christian village farmers are equipped and encouraged to take on this most honorable work. Along with care of trees, they learn to amend the soil with compost, wood ash, charcoal, and the leaves of the neem (a naturalized tree which adds nitrogen to the soil and keeps pests away). They learn the crop rotation of “bean, leaf, fruit, root,” which breaks the pest cycle and replenishes the soil. They learn to “cut and mulch or compost,” instead of the common “slash-and-burn” method. And in classes, interns learn how all of these farming methods reflect God’s heart in caring for His creation.

interns working the compost

interns working the compost

Where did the Beer-Sheba Project come from? When Eric and Heesuk came to the region of the Serer-Sine people group to work with SIL International and to plant a local church, they realized several things. They witnessed the trend of urban exodus and its effects on the church. The younger generation increasingly seeks education, employment opportunities, and “the better life” in cities. For the church to be healthy and self-sustaining in a village setting, Christians would need to be motivated to stay in the village and equipped to thrive there so as to support their families and churches. Before this could happen, though, the image of the farmer would need to change.

For the Serer-Sine, as for most of West Africa’s people groups, farming is a village-dweller’s main livelihood. However, with urbanization has come a diminished esteem for the small land-owner and cultivator. Farming is seen as second-class work. It’s fit only for the poor who don’t have the means to live in the city and seek “more dignified” work. And if an entire generation loses the sense of dignity in work which is already difficult, why wouldn’t they leave their families, homes, and churches to seek something else in the city?

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Yet the work of farming is foundational and absolutely vital in any culture. This is where Eric and Heesuk saw the need for a place like Beer-Sheba – a place that would show from God’s Word that farming is a sacred calling and that would empower those taking on this calling here in West Africa. Interns are accepted into the year-long training program as long as they have the support of their local church. This year, they are a mix of men and women hailing from four different West African countries. The Beer-Sheba Project exposes and trains them in organic gardening, animal husbandry, beef production, ecological charcoal-making, and much more. The interns live on site in community. Their day starts at 6am with a time of prayer and worship before breakfast. Between the morning and afternoon work hours, they attend classes centered on the integration of faith and farming. Oh, and they read through the entire Bible over the course of the year. At the end of the program, interns return to their home village and put their training into practice.

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There’s much more to say about this little oasis, but you’ll just have to come and see for yourself. In the meantime, check out the website (click here) and pray for the work.

I’ll let a couple past interns express the impact of the Beer-Sheba Project:

« Mes yeux se sont ouverts pour voir comment respecter la forêt et les animaux en même temps de servir Dieu. Le Projet Beer-Sheba ressemble au jardin d’Eden avec ses arbres et ses cultures. » –Pierre
(“My eyes have been opened to see how to respect the forest and animals while serving God. The Beer-Sheba Project resembles the Garden of Eden with its trees and crops.”)

« Je rends grâce à Dieu pour cette année de formation à Beer-Sheba. J’ai appris à connaitre Dieu d’une manière merveilleuse au travers de l’agriculture et sa volonté pour moi – paysan sérère en zone Sahélienne. Maintenant, je suis plus ambitieux et j’ai de plus grandes idées pour ma vie. Je vais me servir de ce que j’ai dans les mains pour faire de grandes choses. » –Ernest
(“I thank God for this year of training at Beer-Sheba. I learned to know God in a wonderful way through agriculture and His will for me – a Serer farmer in the Sahel. Now I’m more ambitious and I have greater plans for my life. I will use what I have in my hands to accomplish great things.”)

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