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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.

Evangile et Culture Kara 2014 (10)

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?”

Evangile et Culture Kara 2014 (12)

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.”)

The first of August has come and gone, and still, the rains haven’t started in this part of West Africa.

When I arrived back in February, I was told that the rainy season would start sometime in July in the city where I’m living. With the rains come flooding and increased cases of malaria. But oh, how we need the rain.

It has sprinkled a few times in the past couple months, but I have yet to see the first significant rain. A definite murmur has started among the locals. Everyone says the rains should have started by now. Many are worried about the crops. The millet isn’t as high as it should be by early August to feed the number of people who depend on this staple crop.

In two of the past three Sundays, I’ve heard the late rains mentioned from the pulpit as cause for prayer and as reason to remind Christians to trust God to send rain. Two Sundays ago, Pastor I* encouraged his congregation to “not pay attention to the rumors and lies concerning the rain.” I was curious and inquired; apparently, it’s common for local clairvoyants to predict when the rains will start. If the rains are slow in coming, they will also prescribe certain sacrifices to appease the spirit world and bring the rains more quickly.

And one of last Sunday’s readings came from Psalm 135:

I know that the Lord is great,
that our Lord is greater than all gods.
The Lord does whatever pleases him,
in the heavens and on the earth,
in the seas and all their depths.
He makes clouds rise from the ends of the earth;
he sends lightning with the rain
and brings out the wind from his storehouses.

I admit I’m being challenged to examine what I believe about weather and the power of God. Who or what does bring the rain, anyway? When one comes from a culture that functionally ignores the connection between climate and food production, that has the “luxury” of imagined control, and that largely thinks humans can escape the effects of unfavorable weather, one doesn’t often ask the question.

Do I have the faith to pray for rain? Do I believe that God alone makes the clouds rise even here in the Sahel? Do I believe God is actively involved in the everyday affairs of humans – here in West Africa, or anywhere else for that matter?

*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.

This lunar month is Ramadan in the Muslim world. The word “ramadan” comes from the Arabic for “scorching heat” or “dryness.” Until the moon completes its current cycle (this year, around the end of July), Muslims abstain from eating all food and drinking all liquid between sunrise and sunset. The fast is broken every evening. In the Islamic calendar, Ramadan serves as a time of purification and spiritual improvement. Muslims show their devotion by praying more often, reciting more of the Quran, and giving more to the poor.

I’m experiencing my first Ramadan in West Africa. There has been a noticeable change in the pace of life here — many shops and food vendors are closed during the day, and the streets are quieter. With the fast added to the rising temperatures, people’s activities and bodies have slowed down. Fatigue levels are higher; patience is in short supply. During this month,one should just expect to pay more for a taxi ride.

There’s also been a noticeable change in billboard advertisements.

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I’ve learned a new Wolof phrase for my lexicon of greetings: Naka woor gi ? (“How is the fast?”) It’s safe to ask that of most people here, since the majority is Muslim. I’ve been told that only the sick and pregnant or nursing women are excluded from the obligatory fast. Children begin participating around the age of 12.

The vocabulary of a language reveals a lot about a people’s culture and worldview. The more numerous the ways of referring to an object or idea, in all likelihood, the more preoccupied people are with it.

In Wolof, how many different words exist for an intermediary who can broker peace between a human and the spirit world or the High God?

  1. sëriñ charia
  2. sëriñ ndaw
  3. sëriñ daara
  4. yelimaan or imam
  5. serif
  6. sëriñ alxuran
  7. sëriñ bu mag
  8. xaalif
  9. sééx
  10. wasila
  11. muqàddam
  12. boroom barke
  13. sëriñ xaatim
  14. sëriñ tariax
  15. doomi soxnayi
  16. sëriñ jibar or jibarkat
  17. xérémkat
  18. boroom tuur
  19. saltige
  20. ndëppkat
  21. seetkat
  22. luggkat
  23. mocckat
  24. boroomi reen

According to anthropologist David Maranz (Peace Is Everything, 1993), the number is over 24. He compiled the above Wolof words with nuanced definitions, a list which he says is by no means exhaustive.

ramadan moon

To know when the lunar month of Ramadan will start, Muslims watch the night sky for the new crescent moon. The first sliver signals that the fast will start the next day at dawn. As the month lengthens, the moon waxes then wanes overhead. Muslims fast and watch until the end of the lunar month is marked by the final crescent. Ramadan then ends with the words, “May Allah accept your fast and all your efforts during Ramadan.”

As I learn about this important Muslim tradition and see so many around me observing it, I think of the only Intermediary I know of who can bring lasting peace between humans and God. And I’m reminded of his words – though I admit I don’t fully understand them: “Then will appear the sign of the Son of Man in heaven. And then all the peoples of the earth will mourn when they see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven, with power and great glory. And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other. … Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come.” (Matt. 24:30-31, 42)

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.

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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!

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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.

2014-06-30 12.55.09 HDR  listening group

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.

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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!

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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.

Welcome to West Africa, Papa!

Welcome to West Africa, Papa!

 I think our smiles were as wide as the ocean between us the past 4 months!

I think our smiles were as wide as the ocean between us the past 4 months!

Sharing lunch together around the bowl after church

Sharing lunch together around the bowl after church

Chatting with some church members... Papa blends in already!

Chatting with some church members… he blends in already, n’est-ce pas ?

Taking notes and taking it all in at the training center of a national church group

Taking notes and taking it all in at the training center of a national church group

Papa facilitating a training session of West African church leaders

Papa facilitating a training session of West African church leaders

2 good-looking toubabs!

2 good-looking toubabs, if I do say so myself!

7

Preparing to cross back over that ocean, thinking, "I'll be back!"

Preparing to cross back over that ocean: “I’ll be back!”

This daughter was so thankful for time with her papa!

This daughter was so thankful for time with her papa!

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