Ahmet was 11 months when I moved into his grandparents’ home. That made him my “host nephew.” I remember the first time I met Ahmet; his mother, who lives several houses away with her husband and children, had him on her lap as we chatted in the living room. She got up and left the room to go check on something, leaving Ahmet with one of her brothers, Ahmet’s uncle. Ahmet, who up until that moment, had been staring with wide, uncertain eyes at the strange white woman, burst into tears when he realized he was no longer in the safety of his mother’s lap. He was soon taken out of the room; he was apparently not having anything to do with that strange white woman.
I was so taken with Ahmet. He is adorable. But, for a while after I moved in with his relatives, Ahmet would still have nothing to do with me. We celebrated his first birthday soon after I started living there; that was also not that long after I’d been in his country for one year. I guess that made us about the same age in West African years. He wasn’t yet walking. He wasn’t yet talking; and I was learning to speak his language. I guess we were learning Wolof together.
If what I had told people before I left the US was true in response to their question, “What will you be doing?” – becoming a baby again, learning to walk and talk again but in a new world – then that made Ahmet and I peers and companions in the endeavor.
On a daily basis, Ahmet and his mother and siblings were in and out of the house where I was living. Ahmet would be left with his grandmother or one of his aunts or cousins while his mom went to the market. Ahmet became a part of my daily life. At some point along the way – though imperceptibly to me as I look back on it, for in the daily rhythm and monotony, how does one trace the shifting, the changing in the way people relate? – Ahmet warmed up to me. I don’t know exactly when I realized that he wasn’t crying or looking for an escape from me anymore. But six months after meeting him, he was giving me hugs.
As I’ve spent the past seven months in the US continuing to process and reflect on my first term in West Africa, I’ve thought of Ahmet as a representation of the West African people and culture I was coming to know and learning to love. I’ve gleaned insights on this knowing and loving from the writings of a dear friend Esther Meek, whose books I’ve quoted here before. In her 2014 work A Little Manual for Knowing, Meek writes, “For all of us, entering a knowing venture requires at some point that we trust: We must trust others who know what we do not yet know, about the world, even about ourselves.” (p. 23)
In West Africa, I had to put my life into the hands of people I didn’t know, trusting that they knew this new world in which I was living, that they knew what I needed to know.
And I was surprised and touched on the occasions when that trust was reciprocated. Ahmet had begun letting me hold him. When he started walking, he’d look for me, wander over to my room. He would sit on my lap during meals around the bowl. When he started talking, he’d say my Wolof name with a cute little lisp – “Yashine” – that made my heart melt. The family and the neighborhood kids started joking that Ahmet thought I was his mom. They’d ask him, “Ahmet, kan mooy sa yaay?” (who is your mother?) And sometimes he’d reply, “Yashine.” And they’d all smile or laugh and say, “Ahmet, doomu Yacine Toubab” (Ahmet the child of Yacine the white person).
Meek writes, “All knowing is coming to know what we do not yet know entirely. What’s more, where reality and knowing are transformative, coming to know isn’t going to be linear or additive. …What it means is that the thing we do not yet know but pledge ourselves to know is not just a mere procedural step away. It’s going to take something like a miracle.” (p. 26) Ahmet’s acceptance and embrace of me, who had nothing in common with him, felt a little bit like a miracle in some ways.
Why? Well, I’d taken a risk by moving to a foreign country, by choosing to live with a local family.
What was the risk? Rejection. I’d risked rejection by people like Ahmet. I couldn’t follow a procedure to force the acceptance. I couldn’t demand their embrace of me. Even in living among them, I couldn’t presume that they would let me into their existence. I had to come to know them and learn to love them on their terms. I was welcomed as a guest, yet – as a guest in Ahmet’s family – I had to offer welcome to him as he chose, in his own time and in his own way, to invite me into his life.
I guess this was true of every interaction for me in West Africa. I was a guest trying to live in a posture of welcome.
As Meek writes, “Welcome can’t guarantee the very thing it looks to do. So it risks rejection. It is made to depend on the response of the other. It honors that response.” (p. 41) And again, “Any knowing venture…will be blessed with reality’s fertile disclosure only as it ensures a welcoming space, in which respect, humility, patience, and attentive listening are practiced.” (p. 45)
For every Christian worker in a foreign country, he or she must decide what this posture of welcome will look like for him or her. For me, it has meant living with a local family, learning a local language, often eating the local food, sometimes wearing the local style. I have wanted to do as much as I can to learn the culture, the mindset of the people among whom I live. Meek has given me words to express this, and one of them is indwelling. She writes, “Indwelling involves empathetically putting yourself inside the thing you want to know, and taking it inside you. Indwelling is a strategy to invite the real.” (p. 48)
Indwelling feels so fitting to me as a Christian. After all, we Christians are those who have been transformed by the miraculous reality of the incarnation, Jesus who indwelled our human existence to bring us salvation. As a follower of Jesus, my indwelling of West African reality will never in and of itself bring salvation. But my indwelling can help me better see how the Saving One is at work among them. My indwelling can help me better understand them and be understood by them so that I can then better point them to the One who saves.
I lived in their homes because I wanted to know a little better what it was like to do so. I wore their clothes because I wanted to know a little better how it felt to be in their clothes. I learned one of their languages because I wanted to see the world more the way they did. As I came to know this culture and learned to love the people, I was slowly transformed.
And yet there were limits to what I would do and how much I’d be changed. I was not indwelling in order to become West African. I was seeking to know and love West Africans, not become one of them. Trying to become one of them would be disrespectful towards them and dishonest towards myself. And so I related to Ahmet as an adopted aunt, but I wouldn’t try to play the part of his actual mother. And so I asked to have my own room in my host family’s house, even though in their culture it would have been more normal for me to share with others. And so I didn’t get my hair braided, largely because I just couldn’t get over the irony in the fact that they’d pay for wigs that looked like my hair and then ask me why I wasn’t getting my hair braided to look like their hair. Again, Meek captures this dynamic when she writes, “If knowing involves self, the self that knows must be there, at home, present. This involves being okay with not being some other, including the thing that is the not-yet-known. Presence grants otherness to others. This is essential to healthy knowing… Presence is being present to attend to the other without being threatened by it. It is being present to welcome hospitably the yet-to-be-known.” (p. 39)
As I walked this ambiguous line between indwelling West African reality and remaining myself, I had to patiently wait for the West Africans that I was living with, eating with, worshipping in church with, to invite me into their world. I could never predict what form the invitation would take or when it would come. It was on their terms, and all I could do was accept it. Sometimes it was literally getting pulled into the dance line or circle (symbolic on so many levels). Sometimes it was having the calabash of rice shoved into my arms while lunch was being prepared and being told to go get it ready for the meal with no instructions (and I had to trust my memory of what I’d seen done countless times but had never done myself). Sometimes it was getting called on to give condolences on behalf of my group on the occasion of a death (in my third language in which I did not feel confident). Sometimes it was being offered in marriage (entirely in jest) by my host family members, because this is a way to make conversation, joke, and solidify ties in their culture.
On each occasion, I had the choice to hold up my hand and say, “Wait, hold on. This is not who I am. You don’t understand me or the culture I come from. You can’t expect me to do this.” Or rather, to accept it as an invitation to be led one step further into their reality. And then humbly fumble my way through.
It could easily come across as romantic and rose-colored. Yes, it was rewarding and exhilarating. But it was also hard and uncomfortable and isolating. It felt useless and pointless much of the time. It wasn’t until I was preparing to leave for furlough that I started to put my finger on why. When the object of your knowing and learning to love is another person, ideally the trust, interest, and deeper understanding is mutual. However, when you are a guest in a foreign country, your efforts to understand are not reciprocated by everyone. How could you have learned to understand them except by leaving your culture and entering theirs? And so how could you be understood by people who have never entered your culture? We foreigners must make the larger effort, whether or not it is always reciprocated.
There were exceptions to this rule, though, which give me hope to continue. Meek compares it to a dance, writing, “The dynamic of knowing is overture and response. In our knowing ventures, we should notice that we take a step, make an overture, and then wait for response. In light of the response we take another step, and then look for further response. A waltz is liable to move a couple around the entire dance floor. So our journey, and our relationship in its overture and response, moves us together in surprising though recognizable directions. … Overture and response are asymmetric. First one partner acts while the other receives, then the other acts while the first receives. A dance requires asymmetry to move forward. Each move is a gesture of hope–in hope of gracious response. Each partner has to be okay being off balance for a time, and waiting for and trusting the upcoming move of the partner.” (p. 82)
I as a foreigner may need to accept being off balance more of the time than the West Africans in the dance. But again, it is on their terms. It’s on Ahmet’s terms.
My last day in Ahmet’s relatives’ house before leaving for furlough, his mom said they’d come over after the evening meal to say goodbye. After we’d finished eating, we sat in the common area where the television was on, as we did every evening. Ahmet’s mom came walking through the door from outside. I noticed Ahmet wasn’t with her. We chatted. And then she said to me, “Yacine, you know what’s funny? I told Ahmet we were coming over to say goodbye to Yacine and he said no, he wasn’t coming. He just went to bed.” She laughed and I smiled.
And so, Ahmet didn’t say goodbye to me. Who knows what his two-year-old brain understood of what was happening. But if these were his terms, all I could do was accept them.