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.

prayer mat

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

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?


To enter any culture, at some point one needs to enter the culture’s kitchen. Like in most regions around the world, the inhabitants of this part of West Africa are quite proud of their traditional meals and beverages. A foreigner is likely to be asked, “How do you like our country? And don’t you love ceebu jen?” Ceebu jen is one of their traditional meals; it’s a savory meal of rice, fish, and vegetables. That’s probably the most famous dish, but this region’s cuisine is varied and extensive. And based on my limited experience, it’s all delicious!

Zita & Clare waiting for our yassa ginaar to be ready

Zita & Clare waiting for our yassa ginaar to be ready

As part of my SIL Orientation, I got to help prepare a traditional meal (emphasis on the ‘help’) called yassa ginaar. This dish is prepared with chicken, slow-cooked in a mustard-onion-lemon-juice sauce until the meat is falling off the bone, and served over rice. If I’ve got you salivating, don’t worry: I reconstituted the recipe after our cooking session with Zita, born and raised here and an expert in the kitchen.

Zita at the stove

Zita at the stove

Yassa Ginaar

1 small chicken
9 small onions
1 head of garlic
2 carrots
2 ½ lemons
2 large spoonfulls Dijon mustard
salt/ pepper
2 large spoonfulls white vinegar
1 Maggi cube (2 cubes chicken bouillon would probably substitute well)

1. Cut the chicken into serving size pieces, and remove the skin. Place in large pot.
2. Dice 2 onions, and mince the garlic; then add the Maggi/ chicken bouillon cubes to the onion/garlic and mash together. A food processor could be used instead of the West African pestle and mortar. Mash until you have a chunky pulp.

I used the pilon et mortier to mash the onion, garlic, and Maggi to cook the chicken in

I used the pilon et mortier to mash the onion, garlic, and Maggi to cook the chicken in

3. Add the garlic mixture to the chicken, along with the mustard, vinegar, and a generous seasoning of salt and pepper. Halve and squeeze the lemons over the pot to get most of the juice and pulp over the chicken. Add water to the pot until the chicken is almost covered, and stir. Heat to boiling, and let it keep cooking on high and uncovered, stirring from time to time.
4. Dice the remaining onions and carrots. Put a generous amount of oil in another large pot over medium-high heat, and add the onion and carrot. Cook until tender and beginning to turn golden.

5. Once the chicken is cooked through, remove from heat. Remove the pieces of chicken, leaving the juices and sauce in the pot. Generously coat the bottom of a large frying pan with oil and put over high heat; then add the pieces of chicken and turn every few minutes, allowing each side to brown.

6. Add browned chicken to the cooking carrots and onions. Pour in the reserved sauce, and cover the pot. Cook over medium heat until done (30-45 min. or longer, depending on how hungry you are!).
7. Serve over cooked rice. Bon appétit !

yassa poulet (8)

And what better accompaniment to your yassa ginaar than some locally made jus de bissap? Clare and I also tried our hand at making this popular tea or juice, called by some “the national drink.”


Jus de bissap  is made from the dried sepals of the hibiscus flower, something readily available in the local markets. We boiled the dried bissap in water, along with a handful of fresh mint. We strained it, reserving the liquid. We added fresh water to the pot of bissap, repeating the process several times and still getting a dark crimson liquid each time.

bissap juice (5)

Once all the bissap liquid was strained, we added the juice of 1 lemon and 2 1/2 cups of sugar. We mixed it all together then let it chill. The end result was a pretty thick liquid that we dilute to taste — very refreshing!

And there are many more traditional flavors to taste and to recreate. Thanks to the local vegetable and fruit markets, and our coastal location’s supply of fish, fresh ingredients are pretty easily found. Some are familiar to me; many are new.

our fresh bounty after a trip to Marché Castor

our fresh bounty after a trip to Marché Castor

From my cuisine to yours… “yum” (English), “miam” (French), and “neex na” (Wolof)!

Well I’m a day late for St. Patrick’s Day, but this prayer attributed to the historical Patrick of Ireland is fitting for every day of the year. I discovered it last year and have returned to it many times since. A friend passed it on to me as a farewell gift, not even knowing what it meant to me. And last month, I read it aloud in the car as my dad drove me to the airport for the start of my adventure into the unknown with God.

A lorica was a prayer recited for protection. St. Patrick’s Lorica is lengthy but oh so rich and powerful:

“I arise today
Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity
Through belief in the Threeness
Through confession of the Oneness
Towards the creator.

I arise today
Through the strength of Christ with his baptism,
Through the strength of his crucifixion with his burial,
Through the strength of his resurrection with his ascension
Through the strength of his decent for the Judgement of doom.

I arise today
Through the strength of the love of Cherubim
In obedience to the Angels,
In the service of the Archangels,
In hope of resurrection to meet with reward,
In prayers of patriarchs,
In predictions of prophets,
In preaching of Apostles,
In faiths of confessors,
In innocence of Holy Virgins,
In deeds of righteous men.

I arise today
Through the strength of heaven:
Light of sun
Brilliance of moon
Splendor of fire
Speed of lightning
Swiftness of wind
Depth of sea
Stability of earth
Firmness of rock.

I arise today
Through God’s strength to pilot me:
God’s might to uphold me,
God’s wisdom to guide me
God’s eye to look before me,
God’s ear to hear me,
God’s word to speak for me,
God’s hand to guard me,
God’s way to lie before me,
God’s host to secure me
against snares of devils
against temptations of vices
against inclinations of nature
against everyone who shall wish me ill,
afar and anear,
alone and in a crowd.

I summon today all these powers between me and these evils
Against every cruel and merciless power that may oppose my body and my soul,
Against incantations of false prophets,
Against black laws of heathenry,
Against false laws of heretics,
Against craft of idolatry,
Against spells of women and smiths and wizards,
Against every knowledge that endangers man’s body and soul.

Christ to protect me today
against poison, against burning,
against drowning, against wounding,
so that there may come abundance of reward.
Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me,
Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ on my right, Christ on my left
Christ where I lie, Christ where I sit, Christ where I arise
Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of every man who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.

I arise today
Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,
Through belief in the Threeness,
Through confession of the Oneness
Towards the Creator.

Salvation is of the Lord
Salvation is of the Lord
Salvation is of Christ
May thy salvation, O Lord, be ever with us.”

A vehicle honks right behind me as I walk down Route de Rufisque, the main road outside the SIL Center where I live. A couple weeks ago, the honk might have startled me. But now, I know the sound doesn’t mean what it does back where I come from. Without turning around, I know it’s a taxi driver simply announcing his availability to a (white) pedestrian whose walking capability may be doubtful in his mind.

Sounds here don’t always mean what we foreigners would first think. Vehicle honks are commonplace in this part of West Africa and usually not, that I can tell, rude or threatening. They are only rarely accompanied by menacing looks or gestures. It’s mostly a communication device, like the honk of the available taxi driver. Or of the truck driver entering a roundabout announcing to the approaching drivers that his wheels are higher than theirs. Or of a driver signaling to a pedestrian crossing the road that his vehicle is close to the spot where he is walking. In fact, it would be considered rude of the driver not to honk and give fair warning in that situation.

sharing the roads

sharing the roads

I’ve been sprouting a new set of ears and eyes here in the part of West Africa where I’ll be living and working. By this I mean that I’m learning to recalibrate the way I experience my surroundings. I’m learning to ignore a lot of what my senses would have told me while living in the US, in order to make more accurate meaning associations with the sights and sounds here.

Another example: bus stops. My American eyes were completely blind to them for the first week. Now I know that a group of people standing beside the road, with or without a sign, is a bus stop. And the wooden signs that mark certain bus stops may or may not be clearly and accurately numbered. But bus stops can be found if one has the eyes to see them.


a neighborhood and its mosque

Then there’s the new sound — off in the distance or right nearby depending on one’s neighborhood — that is heard 5 times a day. There were times when it sounded to my American ears like the fog horn of a large ship or like the howl of a coyote, but now I’ve learned otherwise. It’s the Muslim call to prayer, sung or chanted and amplified from the local mosque. One will often hear it from several mosques at once.

the street where I live at the SIL Center

a view of the street I live on at the SIL Center

Or what about that structure at the street corner behind the center, the one that my American eyes told me was a shack when I took my first stroll? Well, it turns out to be much more; it houses a local business. It’s one of the neighborhood boutiques where one can purchase household staples: matches, oil, rice, tea, dish-washing liquid, powdered milk, etc. A similar-looking structure down the street is the place where a woman makes home-cooked meals and takes orders, though my American eyes would have never told me that. Her yassa poulet is known to be delicious.

Do you see and hear all the things I’d be missing with only my American set of senses? Even these initial sight and sound discoveries will continually be revisited and re-evaluated as I spend more time here. I have so much to see, hear, touch, smell, taste of my new surroundings.

Not necessarily traditional tastes but delicious! Shawarma for lunch during a day out to learn our way around the city

Not necessarily local tastes but delicious! Shawarma for lunch during a day out to learn our way around the city

Of course I’ll never completely shed the eyes and ears that I came with; I don’t think I’d want to. But my American senses aren’t enough to live here, so I hope that the discovering and sprouting never stops!

Asalaam malekum, and I’ve made it! As the sun set on Day 1 for me in West Africa, it was surreal to finally be here.

star-gazing up on the roof my first night

star-gazing by city lights up on the roof my first night

In my first week, I’ve felt every combination of relaxed (seriously, thanks to the welcome and hospitality of SIL International!), antsy, invigorated, stressed, overwhelmed, and giddy with joy. Phase A of SIL’s Orientation Course has begun for several of us new orientees. This means appointments, meeting people, outings (with guides so far) — but all at a manageable pace. The idea is to take baby steps and acclimate — to the climate, the rhythms of life here, the tasks necessary for survival. The questions of what we will do and where we will go are intentionally (and sensibly) put on hold. Phase A will last for the next 4-5 weeks or so.

moved in to my room at the SIL Center

moved in to my room at the SIL Center

I was given an article to read on my first day entitled “What Missionaries Ought to Expect,” and it contained a list of 6 “attainable objectives” for a missionary’s first term:

  1. Learn the language.
  2. Adjust to the field.
  3. Learn about the mission.
  4. Understand the field.
  5. Find your gifts & place in the work.
  6. Confirm your missionary call.

This will be plenty; any other agendas or expectations will need to wait. I’m excited to dive in to all that I have to learn. So far, I’ve really just climbed onto the diving board. We’ve covered basic food preparation, introduction to local culture, health & hygiene, computer use in a semi-desert climate, brief history of the SIL branch here, induction into the city’s public transportation system. I’ve experienced my first bank transaction (lots more to that story), my first shopping excursion downtown, my first church service, and my first taxi ride (ever, come to think of it).

taxi orientation with Andrew, SIL colleague, & a driver named Malick

taxi orientation with Andrew, an SIL colleague, & a friendly driver named Malick

Besides all these adventures, there are lots of people to meet and get to know. We’ve entered the world of some 50 SIL colleagues spread throughout the country among various minority language projects. Before we can hope to discover our places in this mission, we obviously need to get to know the people who comprise it and the work they’ve been doing long before we showed up. Lots of names to remember, lots of conversations to be had.

my flatmate Clare from Northern Ireland, here on a 2-year assignment

my flatmate Clare from Northern Ireland, here on a 2-year assignment

And of course much more is in store. The refreshing part of being in West Africa for the “long haul” is that I’ve got plenty of time for everything. No need to rush; after all, I may have the rest of my life here.

rooftop view of the SIL offices & a part of the city beyond

rooftop view of the SIL offices & a part of the city beyond


Sometimes I try to answer that question with the scraps that I do know: SIL Orientation, Wolof-learning, the city I’ll live in initially. But beyond that, the only honest answer is, “I have no idea. I’ll let you know when I find out.”

Last month, I finally got my official “job description” for my first term in West Africa: “Participates in local culture as a change agent to foster Scripture Use using both print and nonprint delivery systems. Applies appropriate methods for the training of members of the local community in Biblical concepts, including literacy where required/ appropriate.” So theoretically, that’s “what I’ll be doing.” What does that look like practically? I have some ideas from my training, though nothing certain or concrete. What will my normal day look like? Will there even be a normal day? [insert the answer above.]

The unknown can be stressful. On the other hand, maybe what one doesn’t know one can’t stress about.

In December, I read John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley. It’s a travelogue written as Steinbeck toured the US with no one but his dog Charley. As a lover of road trips, I often wanted to jump through the pages and into the passenger seat of his transformed pick-up truck. And although my imminent trip is different from his, I found that he gave some insights on traveling into the unknown.

Once a journey is designed, equipped, and put in process; a new factor enters and takes over. A trip, a safari, an exploration, is an entity, different from all other journeys. It has personality, temperament, individuality, uniqueness. A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless. We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us. Tour masters, schedules, reservations, brass-bound and inevitable, dash themselves to wreckage on the personality of the trip. Only when this is recognized can the blown-in-the-glass bum relax and go along with it. Only then do frustrations fall away. In this a journey is like a marriage. The certain way to be wrong is to think you control it. (p.3-4)

Even if I had concrete plans of what my journey will hold in the next year, they would only last until my plane landed (if even that long). I’m thinking of returning for my first home ministry assignment (HMA) in the summer of 2016, but a lot could change between now and then. In the words of T.S. Eliot,

And so you are going abroad; and when do you return? But that’s a useless question. You hardly know when you are coming back, you will find so much to learn.

My responsibility for now is getting over there. I’m entrusting the rest with the One who called me in the first place. If He’s gotten me this far, He can certainly handle the year ahead. And could I even handle knowing all that my first year as a missionary in West Africa will bring? Probably not. Maybe that’s the point.

Last night I watched some videos from my trip last summer to West Africa. My Sereer brothers and sisters once again reminded me in song of what I can be certain about (click here to watch & listen/ sing along): “Everything is good now, everything is good now; the Lord is the King!”


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 155 other followers