Just like that, I watched as you walked into the night. I had been on a long journey this first term in West Africa, and you were one of a few that had been with me through all of it. I couldn’t believe that we had just shared our last evening of laughter for a long time.

This evening I had told you, just like that, what I’d known for some time – that you were God’s answer to my prayers for that one special friend, the one from my “host culture” who also knew enough of my own culture to help me as I learned to live in this new world. How did you understand so much of my culture having never visited the United States? How did you know the differences between my culture and yours to be able to guess what I might struggle with? How did you know just enough about my culture to know it was very different from yours and that it would take time for you to understand me and me to understand you? How did you know that, even before fully understanding each other, it was worth reaching out to me and looking out for me?

You knew from years and years of experience with foreign missionaries in your country, of teaching them two of your languages, of befriending them, of having them in your home, of going to their homes, of worshipping and studying God’s Word with them, of learning to love them, of watching them leave and saying goodbye to them. We are a complicated bunch, we foreigners. No one knows that better than you. And after all those years, you’ve refused to grow cynical or bitter. You have chosen to continue opening your heart and your home, just like that, to other foreigners, including this one, who you know will leave, just like that, sooner or later.

You were my first Wolof teacher. Well, everyone on the street in the country was my teacher, but you were my first formal teacher. Some days I couldn’t make heads or tails of this language you were trying to help me learn, but you sure made me and my fellow Wolof students laugh. Just like that, I knew I liked you. I knew I wanted to keep learning with you. And so after those first 30 hours of lessons in a group of other Wolof students, I arranged to keep meeting with you for one-on-one conversation.

When you’re learning a new language, you become a baby again, learning to talk from scratch. The only problem is, as an adult, you have the inhibitions of an adult. It is hard and humbling to try to string together sentences in this new language that just does not fit your mouth quite right. It can quickly give way to despair unless you find someone with whom you’re completely comfortable to practice making conversation.

Well, you were that person. We got together every day, and you’d patiently wait for me to finish my sentence. Or, if I obviously couldn’t finish it myself you’d try to finish it for me. And then you’d respond, speaking slowly and methodically, saying the same things over and over, until I internalized all your colloquialisms.

Just like that, you could make me laugh; I could make you laugh. When nothing else was accomplished during my Wolof lessons, we laughed a lot. That’s when I knew you were different. It wasn’t with a lot of your fellow countrymen that first year there that I could laugh freely and who could laugh freely with me.

Just like that, we became friends.

So over several months, you watched another little Wolof-speaking baby of yours grow up just like that and start to be able to talk. You were proud of me and told me so. Completely of your own initiative, you called my supervisor to let her know of my progress and how good it was for the organization of which I’m a member that I be doing well in my Wolof-learning. That’s when I really knew you were different – positive affirmation and verbal encouragement are not necessarily done in your culture; but it is in mine and you knew that and you knew I could use the encouragement. That was just one of many times that you set aside your culture, just like that, to meet me where I was.

You weren’t obligated to do that. I was the foreigner after all, the guest in your culture. I needed to learn. But you chose to help me learn by meeting me halfway. You chose even to offer help according to my foreign norms.

I moved away to embark on a host family experience, living with a local family in a new town where I’d be immersed in Wolof. Our Wolof lessons ended. But our friendship was just beginning. Again completely of your own initiative, you began to regularly communicate with me just to check on me. You’d call me on the phone, and you’d ask how I was doing. Initially it was just to practice talking on the phone in Wolof. I’d ask you cultural questions and language questions that were coming up as I made my way immersed in Wolof culture. What’s the blessing to say to a new mother when you visit her and the new baby? What does it mean when someone offers me a millet cookie in the street accompanied by a certain spoken word that I’d never heard before?

Was it because I’m a Christian and so are you and so you saw it as a ministry? Was it because of your honor-shame culture which would compel you to check on your former student out of a sense of duty? Whatever the reason that you went beyond the contractual teacher-student arrangement which was now over, I am so grateful you did. You prayed for me, you listened to me, you gave me the answers I needed for everyday life in your country, you made me laugh. Free of charge and simply because you knew I needed it and you knew you could give it. And so I began calling you on the phone because I enjoyed speaking to you in Wolof, not just as a language exercise. I could be honest with you, and I could be myself with you. What a rare gift in this new world where I was learning better and better how to play a part.

The very fact that we began to consider each other friends was another example of your setting aside your culture to meet me where I was. You are old enough to be my mother; in your culture, this age difference means we couldn’t be friends as age-peers would be. We could have a mother-daughter kind of relationship but not friendship between equals. I’d have to talk to you differently. But you didn’t care; or if you did, you set your culture aside once again to embrace me as a friend. Just like that.

We began to confide in each other. We could let our guards down with one another (if they had ever been up between us!). I’d ask you the cultural questions I couldn’t ask anyone else out of embarrassment. And the sensitive questions which were confidential. How do I know if a certain host family member is upset with me but not telling me, and how can I approach her about that? You’d ask me about my culture as you interacted with other complicated Americans. And the sensitive questions which were confidential. What a rare gift in this new world where suutura (in English, “discretion” or “privacy”) is worn as thick as a curtain over people’s faces and hearts, where heart-to-heart trust is not worn on one’s sleeve nor easily given nor quickly earned. Where we outsiders can spend years feeling like we don’t really know the people we see every day.

What a refreshing experience to feel like I’d gotten past some of that, just like that, with you. We would visit each other and laugh and laugh.

What a journey it had been. And what a companion you had become to me.

How could this be our last evening already? We would see each other again, we knew. But I would soon leave for the US for a year-long furlough. It felt as though we both knew we had to get in as much more laughing as we could this last evening, and yet neither of us could completely bury our sadness either. How often had you seen us foreigners come and go? How did you manage to not get tired of it, jaded? I know you will keep befriending and embracing others like me, just as you befriended and embraced many before me.

We are so grateful. I hope you know how inadequate those words are to express our indebtedness to you.

And so just like that, we exchanged one last handshake, one last smile – though more tinged with sadness than is our style. And then just like that, you walked into the night.

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Imagine my surprise and delight when I found out a West African woman from the country where I work was attending the recent linguistics conference held at GIAL, my training school here in Dallas.

Vivianne speaks Wolof, among several other languages. (So for the first time since my US furlough began over four months ago, I got to have a live Wolof conversation!) She has lived in the US for a number of years now with her husband and children. They currently reside in Dallas; she’s pursuing a teaching degree through the University of Texas. She grew up in the West African capital city where I initially lived during my first term. There Vivianne attended university and caught the linguistics bug. Her father is Bainouk, a people group and language based in the south of the country. As a university student she began working to document this minority language which she grew up speaking, despite the heavy influences of the French and Wolof languages in the capital city. Vivianne still has the Bainouk dictionary which she began creating back in university and would love to continue language development work in Bainouk. One of my GIAL professors was able to tell her about dictionary software SIL has developed to be available to people like her involved in language development.

Vivianne assured me there are many others from her country in the Dallas area, so who knows what other West African connections are in store!

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The Northeast autumn. I have certainly missed it the past couple years. There is no autumn in West Africa’s Sahel.

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This year I got the treat of glimpsing the very beginnings of autumn. I traveled out to western Maryland last weekend, visiting with several supporters and friends along the way. The destination was Faith Presbyterian, a faithful supporting church of mine.

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Their missions conference in which I was invited to participate came at the perfect time to enjoy the start of this season I’ve been looking forward to since arriving back in the US.

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And what better place to enjoy it for the weekend than with my kind hosts Blair and Karen in their home that they built in the woods?

Driving back through Maryland to catch my return flight to Dallas, I soaked in the telltale signs of autumn, those single crimson and gold sparks flaring up across the rolling green hills that will be fanned into colorful flame in the coming weeks.

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I’ve been back from West Africa for over three months now, and that world is feeling further and further removed from my day to day life in the US. But there are things that I couldn’t get out of my system if I tried. One of those things is their beats and rhythms.

Last Sunday, my friends at Christ the King Presbyterian who lead worship agreed with my crazy idea to teach the congregation a West African song I know. This is a common song in the country where I work, the lyrics for which are simply, “My God is good.” Any of the country’s 30-some languages saying “My God is good” can be inserted and added as another verse in the song.

Well we sounded (and looked) pretty good doing it, if I do say so myself. Check us out here, and use the following password: desoto1. (Video courtesy of Lucy Griffiths.) A huge thank you to Paul, Cathy, Brad, Christy, Kevin, and Rachel who helped me pull it off.

I’d forgotten, when I first came up with the idea of teaching the song in an American church, how “funky” West African rhythm(s) is (are). Well my ethnomusicologist friends at Christ the King taught me a new word as they learned and quickly analyzed the song: polyrhythm. I can’t even give you a definition for it, other than that this song and the multiple ways of keeping rhythm to it give you an example.

On a Sunday morning in West Africa, it would be typical for the song leader to clap out a beat with her hands, for the congregation to respond as they sway and clap along on different beats than her, and for there to be one to three djembes also in the background with one or several other accompanying beats being drummed out.

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Click here for a video I’ve posted before but that I’ll share again, giving of brief glimpse of how it’s done there. (Use the following password: tilene1).

As I reflected on this new word polyrhythm that captures what I’d seen, heard, lived, and breathed (without knowing what it was) for my 28 months in West Africa, I remembered back to the first several times I heard West African worship.

It sounded to me like joyful chaos.

I couldn’t figure out what to do, when. But I was happy to just be in it and taking it in.

So at first, I simply joined in the congregation’s spontaneous swaying together. The whole room seemed to move. Once I got used to it, I couldn’t help but sway along. It became unconscious. My body had to join in; it felt more uncomfortable and out of place to stand still.

I then began to notice the hand claps that the congregation would do. Some followed the swaying; so for example, there were songs that when we leaned to our right, our hands moved to the right and clapped twice. If I watched the others long and hard enough, not paying attention to the djembe beats and the song leader, I could follow them and clap along. I’d notice others clapping at different places and realized that’s part of the beauty of the joyful chaos: that there’s no wrong way to move or clap.

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And then eventually, I started learning the words to the songs. No lyric sheets in West Africa. No way to see the words. No complete break between songs. No way of knowing which language each song will be in. French, Wolof, Serer-sine, etc. That blend was a typical Sunday. One chorus simply flows into the next. You always follow the song leader. Even the djembes follow the song leader. And the song leader has the choice to lead however she wants to. But eventually, especially as I learned more Wolof, I was learning some of the song lyrics and able to start singing along. I couldn’t move and sing at the same time for a little while, so I’d do one or the other. But the more time I soaked in that joyful chaos and simply chose to feel it instead of try to understand it, I eventually caught on. I’d catch myself singing and moving at the same time and not trying to dwell on it too much so that I wouldn’t break the spell and mess myself up!

Well it wasn’t too much longer that I noticed the song leader’s hands were doing something completely different. It seemed to be a separate but complementary rhythm. And I was fascinated all over again. I wanted to learn to clap like she did. And so, I’d have to stop singing, clapping, and even swaying, and look at her hands and will my hands to mimic hers. And after many times of doing that, my brain and body learned it. I’d developed yet another way of joining in.

Just when I thought I’d learned all the different pieces of this chaos, I realized the song leader’s feet were also moving! And it was when I’d get swept up into a walking dance line that I’d realize I needed to learn to move my feet in step with all the rest of the chaos. And I would, eventually; though obviously I’ll never “feel” it as easily and naturally as West Africans do.

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As I learned layer upon layer, I was discovering that it was all part of a greater whole. It sounded like chaos at first to my North American ears and body, but it all fit beautifully together.

It was an absolute joy to bring just a small piece of that back here to Christ the King in Desoto, TX and lead other North Americans in joining the “joyful chaos.” We sang “My God is good” in five languages — English, French, Wolof, Serer-sine, and Pulaar. The last three are from the country where I work. As I explained to the Christ the King congregation, they often sing it in English there, even though most of them don’t speak any English. And so we could try to learn it in their languages. Singing along in Wolof and Pulaar in particular is moving, because there are few native speakers of those languages who are followers of Jesus and who would ever sing “My God is good” with the knowledge of Christ’s redeeming work. And so the song becomes a prayer that more speakers of those languages would come to know the goodness of God in Jesus.

I’ll include the lyrics below in case you want to sing along as you feel the rhythms!

photos courtesy of Dick Senzig

in English
Song leader:
My God is good
My God is good
My God is good            
Everyone else:
                                          He is good
[repeat]
My God is good
                                           He is good
My God is good
                                          He is good

in French
Song leader:
Mon Dieu est bon
Mon Dieu est bon
Mon Dieu est bon         Everyone else:
                                           Il est bon
[repeat]
Mon Dieu est bon
                                            Il est bon
Mon Dieu est bon
                                            Il est bon

 in Wolof
Song leader:
Yalla baax na
Yalla baax na
Yalla baax na              Everyone else:
                                         Yalla baax na
[repeat]
Yalla baax na
                                         Yalla baax na
Yalla baax na
                                         Yalla baax na

in Serer-sine
Song leader:
Roog a faxa
Roog a faxa
Roog a faxa                Everyone else:
                                       Roog a faxa
[repeat]
Roog a faxa
                                      Roog a faxa
Roog a faxa
                                      Roog a faxa

 in Pulaar
Song leader:
Alla moji
Alla moji
Alla moji                     Everyone else:
                                       Alla moji
[repeat]
Alla moji
                                      Alla moji
Alla moji
                                      Alla moji

Just like that, you rode off down the dirt path and out of sight.

We’d spent the last, intense 17 months together as teammates, and today most likely concluded our formal work together. We’d had one last meeting in which you’d evaluated my work performance over the past year. In typical West African fashion, it had become an all afternoon affair, as my host family served us lunch and as the afternoon stretched out with conversation, not all of it related to the task at hand. You took advantage of the opportunity to reflect on your past twenty years in the organization. And finally as the early evening sun hung low, you shook my hand one last time as we stood in front of the house, bid me farewell with that ever-present and weighed-down smile of yours, and then climbed on your scooter and rode away. Your future uncertain and my departure for a yearlong furlough fast approaching, we wouldn’t see each other again for a long time.

17 months of long work meetings where you and I and the rest of our team sought to understand each other, communicate with each other—when we were coming from different perspectives. 17 months of learning and adapting to each other’s styles of working and trying to accomplish the task given our team. 17 months including challenging times of misunderstanding, damaged trust, hurt feelings, unclear expectations, and conflict. 17 months and just like that, it was over.

And for what? What had we managed to accomplish? Everyone had warned us that the task before us wouldn’t be easy. We were the guinea pig project: a kind of work that had never been done before, and under a kind of leadership that had never been tried before. Both the assignment and the team composition made it seem doomed from the start. Indeed, more than once, it had seemed like we or the work would fall apart altogether.

And yet, just like that, we’d successfully concluded the most daunting and demanding phase. When push came to shove, our team had managed to work together and quite beautifully at that. We’d set aside our differences and chose to complement each other in our uniqueness rather than complain about it.

Our differences – where would we start if we were to try to list them? Language, for one; we worked in a tongue that was a second language for each of us. Culture. Upbringing. Country of origin. Personality. None of us on the team shared one point of commonality along these lines. What did we have in common? The organization we work in, and our belief that Jesus is the only hope of the world. In the end, that seemed to be enough – though at times, barely.

As I watched you disappear down the dirt path leading away from my host family’s house, I again wondered, For what? Our team was on its way to successfully accomplishing the task. But what had these past 17 months accomplished for you? You had spent 20 years laboring for the development of your mother-tongue and for the translation of the New Testament into it, only to be asked last year to head up a project in a different language – a project for which it seemed you had to set aside your ideals and your heart. And you did so willingly and gladly, trusting an organization that had invested in you and in which you’d invested — even if you didn’t always understand its decisions.

There had been times when our respect for each other and our trust in each other were shaken. There had been times when I doubted that we were the right people for the job, when I questioned decisions or the way certain situations had been handled. But in the end my doubts were laid to rest, and I felt complete confidence in you, to lead us to a successful finish, and in our team – in spite of our shortcomings. Besides that, as I watched you ride away, I’m not sure anyone else could have done it.

And as I thought about the people making up our team and the intense challenges we’d experienced, I again wondered, For what? We were on our way to accomplishing our task, against all odds. But had we only been working on a task? Weren’t we also trying to build a team that loved each other? Had the past 17 months brought us closer together, or simply served to accentuate our differences? Had we learned to work well together? Or had we simply benefited from knowing where the finish line was, knowing after a certain point in time we’d no longer be working together and so could put up with each other in the meantime?

As you disappeared from sight, I realized I may never know. All I knew is what I learned from working with you and our team and how I hope I’ve grown. Your patience and long-suffering – with a smile even – in the midst of discouragement. Your ability to place personal grudges aside and communicate and work with those who have hurt you. Your refusal to let go of your personal dignity even when others sought to minimize it. And the lesson in the necessity of walking that long, slow road of building trust with another person, for which there is no rushing or short cut. And the realization that when trust is damaged, there is no choice but to take the even slower road of rebuilding trust, step by step. And your voice breaking with emotion that would never leave my mind, causing me to realize that I could be as discriminating and blind to my privilege as anyone I’d judge for such sins. In the reflection of your eyes, I’d had to come face to face with my hurtful failure to believe in someone’s potential. How often had I chosen to believe my perception of someone’s past behavior over and against the faint signs pointing to some untapped potential?

Just like that, you had once called me something that no one ever had: “an artisan of peace.” I certainly had never called myself such a thing. I will never know what you had seen in me that would cause you to call me that. As a persistent avoider of conflict, I believed at first that you were quite simply mistaken. But your calling me that, just like that, had sparked an inner reflection in me that will continue. Could you have recognized something that God had placed in me that I’d never realized? Could you have called out something in me that had been dormant until then? And you’d later call upon me to use it to foster reconciliation and communication in our team. I’d tentatively stepped into that surprising role, if for no other reason than that we’d come up with few other ideas to salvage our team’s communication. I wonder if I succeeded – if we succeeded—, or if things had reached an impasse.

But your scooter was now out of sight, and the dust it kicked up was already settling back, leaving no more reason to linger in that spot and ponder the past 17 months. Whatever else we had succeeded or failed to do, our team had made it to this point and on more than mere speaking terms. We were celebrating each other and our team. We had weathered so much. We had seen each other at our worst probably. And we hadn’t given up. We had chosen to stick together and keep loving each other, keep fighting for each other. For that reason alone, wasn’t a little more of the Kingdom of God built in us and possibly through us? That was something.

Just like that, you rode out of sight, but I wouldn’t forget you.

Want to hear nine of the languages from the West African country where I work?

I have my SIL colleagues to thank for a clip that was recently made, highlighting the many months of work that have gone into the latest dubbing project of the Jesus film. Some of my colleagues have been collaborating on this project for nearly a year. And many more national translators and native speakers were recruited to translate and lend their voices for the dubbing of this film in their languages. Back in West Africa, work is still underway for this massive, multilingual project.

But for now, turn up your speakers and click here (use the following password: dubbing) to hear a snippet of these nine languages.