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.

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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!

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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!

How much can one fit in during a 2-week “village phase” in West Africa? My time from June 13-26 was spent finding out!

  1. Wake up every morning to the sounds of roosters crowing and donkeys braying
  2. Get a lesson in hand-washing laundry (from girls who must have wondered what kind of household I’d escaped from where I hadn’t learned such things)
  3. Learn how to grill peanuts

    Learn how to grill peanuts

  4. Play soccer in a dress with the local boys (and still manage to impress them with my “strong kick”)
  5. Carry a basin of water on my head
  6. Get an offer from a local woman to share an American husband (since polygamy is the norm here and she’d be happy to come back to America with me)
  7. Pound some millet

    Pound some millet

  8. Meet more women by the name of “Fatou” than I could count
  9. Start learning how all the Fatous are referred to in order to keep them straight
  10. Make fataya

    Make fataya

  11. “Help” chop firewood with a machete
  12. Chat with two co-wives in their living room as their Muslim husband bowed on his prayer mat out in the hallway
  13. Start responding to my village name “Kura Ndione”
  14. Learn which family line is the “joking cousin” of the Ndiones (Candum) and tell one of them that all they do is eat (what joking cousins are supposed to say to each other)
  15. See some really cute kids in a local preschool multi-lingual education program

    See some really cute kids in a local preschool multi-lingual education program

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  16. Receive my first visitor (who came of her own volition) and learn how to show culturally-appropriate hospitality: give a seat under the tree, offer a drink of bissaap juice, and sit together chatting about how hot it is

    Receive my first visitor (who came of her own volition) and learn how to show culturally-appropriate hospitality: give a seat under the tree, offer a drink of bissap juice, and sit together chatting about how hot it is

  17. Hold and be spit up on by a baby (twice)

    Hold and be spit up on by a baby (twice)

  18. Get another local baby to smile at the strange toubab lady

    Get another local baby to smile at the strange toubab lady

  19. Try making ataya enough times to get told that I do a poor job
  20. Get asked by curious girls about my hair and freckles
  21. Stay connected to the outside world for significant matters by attending political rallies (local elections were imminent) and watching World Cup matches in various households
  22. Receive the “husband and children blessing” from 2 local women and respond appropriately (Woman: “You’re 26? That’s plenty! May God give you a good husband and may you bear children until you’re a grandma.” Me: “Amin!”)
  23. Dance in my best version of the local style in front of the whole village, get told by countless gracious dwellers of said village (including the chief) that I can really dance, and probably give them something to talk and laugh about for years to come

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I’ve recently enjoyed the opportunity to attend several cultural events and festivities!

Cissoko in concert

I saw a famous kora player named Noumoucounda Cissoko in concert at the cultural center downtown. This traditional instrument is absolutely captivating in style and sound. I got about two hours of the beautiful music, but a clip of Cissoko performing can be found here if you’d like a shorter listen.

A Jola wedding

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I was invited to the wedding reception of a colleague’s cousin. Her family belongs to one of the Jola people groups, so I was introduced to the Jola greetings and style of celebration: lots of attendees from the extended family, all wearing fancy clothing, a live band playing traditional music (click here to watch and listen), and of course, dancing — which looked more like serious exercise than leisure! I was content to just watch and take mental notes this time.

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Though the form that this wedding event took was altogether different than the receptions I’ve attended in my home culture, the joy being expressed was the same. A bit more sobering was the conversation with my colleague when she listed the four instructions given to brides by their aunts right before the wedding: 1) be deaf, 2) be blind, 3) be mute, and 4) have short legs. A wife is expected to pay no attention to rumors she hears about her husband’s affairs, to ignore what doesn’t concern her about her husband’s doings, to stay quiet rather than contradict her husband, and to stay with her husband and children instead of seeking comfort outside her home. I later read that more broadly in this culture “la qualité première d’une femme est la docilité” (“A woman’s most important quality is her submissiveness.” Bâ, Une Si Longue Lettre p. 61).

Pentecost, West African style

Why would entire families wake up before daybreak, pile into a crowded 40-seat bus, and travel several hours into the interior at the beginning of hot season? (Click here for a taste of the festive ambiance on the bus.)

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Well, because June 9 was Pentecost, and it’s a big deal here for Christians. Celebrations take place in various parts of the country among multiple groups. This year, I attended the Presbyterian churches’ gathering, riding along with a busload from the local church I’ve been attending. The other congregations from the surrounding countryside were also bused in. Someone explained to me that the celebration is open to all, as inhabitants of the immediate village are invited to attend whether or not they are part of the church.

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To kick off the ceremony, Pastor M* announced to the assembly that the day would be both culturally and spiritually rich. And what followed did not disappoint. Any day worth celebrating in West Africa will have its share of singing, dancing, and drumming — and a Church history milestone like Pentecost is no exception.

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The occasion was also marked by impassioned preaching and Scripture-reading, recalling to attendees’ minds why we were celebrating Pentecost and what it means for us today. Pastor I*, who gave the message, reminded us that the Holy Spirit did not come upon a perfect group of people who managed to manipulate His coming. Yet, he explained, this unmerited grace called for a response on their part, just as it calls for a response from us — including a separation from certain things. Gris-gris (“amulets,” used to ward off spirits) and charlatants (men and women consulted as intermediaries in order to appease the spirit world) were specific aspects of this culture that the pastor mentioned. And he shared that in this response, we are not alone. We who are in Christ find courage since we too have received the promised Helper.

The Pentecost gathering was a personal highlight because I saw some of my friends from the retreat that I helped with last year during my first visit to the country — national pastors, their wives, and their children. I hadn’t seen most of them since my arrival in February. It was a joy to be reunited with them and to find that they remembered me. A couple of them hugged me (a first for me here, maybe hugs are culturally appropriate here after all!). One pastor even gave me the traditional “forehead-to-forehead” greeting, which was a surprise since I’ve only seen it on a couple significant occasions. How humbling to hear several of them say they’d been praying for me to be able to come back (as I’d asked them to do), and now they knew God had answered their prayers!

Isn’t it worth celebrating that “there is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called” (Eph. 4:4)?

*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.

If you need reading ideas, and if you want a glimpse of life for women in one corner of West Africa, check out Mariama Bâ’s So Long a Letter. I recently finished reading the original French version, Une Si Longue Lettre. The author’s depiction of typical family situations among Muslim West Africans, and the resulting social atmosphere, paints a memorable picture of the world I’ve stepped into. Several of the passages struck me as particularly poetic. And they seemed to narrate the scenes I see everyday now.

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“Nous longions la corniche, l’une des plus belles de l’Afrique de l’Ouest, véritable œuvre d’art de nature. Des rochers arrondis ou pointus, noirs ou ocres dominaient l’Océan.” (p. 46-47)

“We would walk along the Corniche, one of the most beautiful in West Africa, a sheer work of art wrought by nature. Rounded or pointed rocks, black or ochre-colored, overlooking the ocean.”

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“L’air marin nous incitait à la bonne humeur. Le plaisir que nous goutions et qui fêtait tous nos sens, enivrait sainement, aussi bien le riche que le pauvre. Notre communion, avec la nature profonde, insondable et illimitée, désintoxiquait notre âme. Le découragement et la tristesse s’en allaient, soudainement remplacés par des sentiments de plénitude et d’épanouissement.” (p. 48)

“The sea air would put us in good humor. The pleasure we indulged in and in which all our senses rejoiced would intoxicate both rich and poor with health. Our communion with deep, bottomless and unlimited nature refreshed our souls. Depression and sadness would disappear, suddenly to be replaced by feelings of plenitude and expansiveness.”

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“Les baobabs tendaient aux cieux les nœuds géants de leurs branches; des vaches traversaient avec lenteur le chemin et défiaient de leur regard morne les véhicules; des bergers, en culottes bouffantes, un bâton sur l’épaule ou à la main, canalisaient les bêtes. Hommes et animaux se fondaient comme en un tableau venu du fond des âges.” (p. 57)

“The baobab trees held out the giant knots of their branches towards the skies; slowly, the cows moved across the road, their mournful stare defying the vehicles; shepherds in baggy trousers, their sticks on their shoulders or in their hands, guided the animals. Men and animals blended, as in a picture risen from the depths of time.”

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  • cows (and lots of them) on the beach
  • a soccer match interrupted by a donkey cart transporting massive logs on the path through the dirt playing field
  • barefooted soccer players
  • a soccer player playing with only 1 shoe
  • a clock with no hands on the gas station wall
  • 2 people wearing watches… that were very fancy and flashy but didn’t work
  • the egg vendor balancing rack upon rack of eggs on his shoulder, the stack reaching high above his head and kept from falling by his artful balance alone, as he walks from boutique to boutique
  • a church worship leader sweating from the energetic dancing and clapping
  • a bus passenger giving coins to the apprenti, the apprenti leaning out the door and passing the money to the coffee guy on the side of the road, and then the apprenti handing the bus passenger a steaming, fresh cup of coffee – all taking place with little verbal exchange and within the several seconds that the bus was stopped before continuing down the road (adding a whole new meaning to “drive through coffee”)
  • the woman in a wheelchair (the one who sits at the end of the road everyday to pass the time and to beg from passersby), after I greet her as is my habit, reaching into her bowl of rice and offering me a handful, saying, “Kaay lekki.” (“come eat”)

The translation of the Mankanya NT began in 1997, when a Mankanya Catholic priest decided that his people group ought to have God’s Word in their language. Mankanya is one of the 37 or so West African languages spoken in the country where I live. It was surreal to attend the dedication ceremony for this translation project that finished shortly before I arrived (and started when I was just 10 years old). I have truly stepped into a long history of SIL’s work here, and an even longer history of God’s work here.

How wonderful to listen to the Lord’s Prayer in Mankanya! And how inspiring to hear a priest exhorting the Mankanya attending, from Jesus’ parable of the sower, to work at preparing the soil of their hearts, now that the seed of God’s Word is in their language and now that it is being sown among them.

But maybe the most moving part of the ceremony for me was the procession of the Mankanya Scriptures, carried by one of the several Mankanya men who were the translators. Following in the procession were 4 symbols, 4 parts of everyday life for this people group. Verses were read from the Scriptures — first in French, then in their mother-tongue — where God speaks through those very object lessons. How powerfully communicative to see a concrete link drawn between God’s Word and Mankanya culture!

I’ll let a few photos tell the rest:

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Staple crops for the Mancagne: peanuts, bissap, cashew apples, peas, okra, tarot, & millet

Staple crops for the Mankanya: peanuts, bissap, cashew apples, peas, okra, tarot, & millet; and followed by farming tools

Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” -Matthew 4:4

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Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” -John 4:13-14

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Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light on my path. -Psalm 119:105

Mancagne singing...

Mankanya singing…

...Mancagne dancing...

…Mankanya dancing…

...and Mancagne instruments, all used to express joy

…and Mankanya instruments, all cultural expressions of joy!

And I’ll conclude with the following verses which were read in the liturgy that followed:

Then Moses went up to God, and the Lord called to him from the mountain and said, “This is what you are to say to the descendants of Jacob and what you are to tell the people of Israel: ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words you are to speak to the Israelites.” So Moses went back and summoned the elders of the people and set before them all the words the Lord had commanded him to speak. The people all responded together, “We will do everything the Lord has said.” So Moses brought their answer back to the Lord.
-Exodus 19:3-8

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Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light on my path. I have taken an oath and confirmed it that I will follow your righteous laws. I have suffered much; preserve my life, Lord, according to your word. Accept, Lord, the willing praise of my mouth, and teach me your laws. Though I constantly take my life in my hands, I will not forget your law. The wicked have set a snare for me, but I have not strayed from your precepts. Your statutes are my heritage forever; they are the joy of my heart. My heart is set on keeping your decrees to the very end.
-Psalm 119:105-112

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While a large crowd was gathering and people were coming to Jesus from town after town, he told this parable: “A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path; it was trampled on, and the birds ate it up. Some fell on rocky ground, and when it came up, the plants withered because they had no moisture. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up with it and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up and yielded a crop, a hundred times more than was sown.” When he said this, he called out, “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.”
-Luke 8:4-8

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