The car rapide didn’t even come to a full stop as I jumped out the back and onto the road, crossing quickly to the familiar sidewalk — we were almost back inside the confines of the SIL Center, “home” to us for now. This particular afternoon, my sense of accomplishment was growing after Clare and I did our week’s grocery shopping at Marché Castor and, on top of that, caught two buses to return to the center. Back on solid, familiar ground, we giggled and congratulated ourselves as we walked the remaining distance. And just as I began to confidently greet a security guard, I realized where my feet were. Too late, I looked down to realize I was stepping across a mat laid out on the sidewalk. My mind was lagging, still processing the Wolof phrases I’d heard in the car rapide, how we’d managed to get off at the right place, the face of the security guard, his response to my “asalaam aleekum.” A few seconds and several steps later, I realized with horror that I’d just trampled across a Muslim prayer mat.
Welcome to life overseas, where for every step forward, you inevitably take two steps back. For that matter, I’ll venture to say it’s not just life overseas. Maybe I should say, “Welcome to life on this planet.”
Actually, I’m still so new to West African culture that I don’t know for sure how my careless gesture was interpreted by onlookers. I do know that when Muslims in this part of the world are praying, one must not greet or speak to them, out of respect. And the #1 “rule” of life and language here is ALWAYS GREET PEOPLE PROPERLY. So the fact that Muslim prayer time is an exemption to the greeting rule is saying something. Knowing all of this, I wasn’t optimistic — at best, I’d just revealed the depth of my cultural ignorance; at worst, I’d highly offended the Muslim neighbors whom I regularly see.
Yet, on that particular afternoon, I’d been feeling great about my cultural integration. Clare and I bartered our way into a week’s worth of fresh vegetables and other staples, using more Wolof phrases than the previous time. Several of the vendors recognized us and received our bumbling Wolof with wide smiles. Those are my favorite moments of any day — when my feeblest attempt to use the trade language (rather than French) is rewarded with looks of surprised delight. Every time, I remember why I’m here. This particular outing, I used Wolof to explain that I don’t yet know how to make ataya (a traditional tea known to everyone here), to ask whether certain peppers were spicy, and to say that “slowly, slowly one catches a monkey in the bush” (a local proverb that never fails to impress; I’ll let you guess the meaning).
The return trip via car rapide, however, was the height of our cultural integration that day. These multicolored vehicles are one of the most common ways for people to get around in the city. We could have just caught a taxi, as we often do. That mode of transportation is more costly but also the quickest, most direct, and least crowded. But we weren’t in a hurry, and we’d ridden in our first car rapide the day before. Now that we’d seen how it was done, could we figure out how to get home in one? There was only one way to find out.
Car rapide stops are often unmarked (by Western standards), but we’d seen some buses stop nearby. Our groceries in hand, we walked up to the back of one of the waiting vehicles and asked the apprenti (the guy hanging out the back), “Capa?” (an intersection where we needed to go). We got what seemed to be a positive response and climbed aboard. There were still a handful of seats unoccupied, which is practically empty for these perpetually crowded buses. (Here’s another unwritten rule of life in this part of the world, especially pertinent for a car rapide ride: there’s always room for one more. Just when I thought that not another single human body could possibly fit, another woman got on. The passengers simply pressed a little closer together and made room. Limited space is accepted as part of life here.)
No one announces a bus’s approaching stops; passengers keep a lookout and know when to get off. Near Capa, the car rapide slowed to a stop, and we and several others got off. We walked to where we knew more buses would pass on their way downtown. We didn’t have to wait long; soon we were aboard our second car rapide, surprisingly less crowded. Now we just had to keep our wits about us and communicate at the right place that we needed the get off.
When we were approaching Rue 3, where the SIL center is located, the apprenti was busy collecting passengers’ fares and giving change. It’s his job to signal the driver to stop. I announced in approximate Wolof that we’d soon get off. He didn’t seem to hear. I repeated the phrase and stood up to add some non-verbal emphasis. Still no response. I said the phrase yet again, this time less confidently and with a question mark, half asking myself if I was remembering the Wolof phrase correctly. And then I heard several other passengers speaking up, and the apprenti seemed to understand. I can only presume that our fellow passengers chimed in on our behalf. (This too is a pattern I’m starting to notice here as a clueless expat; I must say the readiness to help is very reassuring. Does the same sympathetic impulse await foreigners in my own home culture?)
I’d like to think my sense of accomplishment was deserved, albeit short-lived. The prayer mat incident considerably tempered my feelings of progress. Exhausted and discouraged as I opened the door to our apartment, I mumbled the prayer, “Lord, please undo any bad impressions I made today. Or help those whom I accidentally offended to understand that I don’t know what I’m doing.” And then I moved on to the chores that always follow a shopping trip: sorting the pile of vegetables, carefully cleaning with filtered water, and storing them (hey, at least we have a fridge to store them in!).
In the grand scheme of things, of what importance is a trip to buy groceries, a bus ride, or a few accidental steps across a prayer mat? But my days and my life right now are comprised of moments like these. Nothing glamorous, yet sometimes they are all I have by which to measure a day and measure my progress.
The wonder of grace, though, is that God doesn’t measure my days, my steps in cultural adaptation as I do. Once we belong to Him and He to us, there are no steps back — not ultimately — though it can certainly feel that way to us. He is moving us along, wherever He has placed us, toward a completion, a glory we can’t even fathom. He delights in our baby steps as much as our leaps and bounds. And when we fall backwards (as it would appear from our vantage point), He delights to show us His limitless ability.
One step forward, and two steps back? Or three more baby steps?