On January 28, Genesis and the New Testament translated into the Oniyan language were dedicated. An SIL colleague in the country where I work shared these photos of the event with me (thanks, Sharon!).

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Right, N* the head translator and left, J* a member of the translation team

The people group that speaks Oniyan – the Bëliyan – live in the southeast corner of the West African country where I work. I first learned about them while doing research for a project assigned in my pre-field Scripture Engagement course back in 2013. By then I knew I was headed to this West African country and so wanted to do the project on one of the languages/ people groups of that country. I interviewed the Bëliyan pastor who headed up the Oniyan Bible translation team, Pastor N*. I also interviewed several SIL workers who made trips there for literacy work and pastors’ training; one named Jim had lived among the Bëliyan with his family for a number of years and knew them well. For a while, it looked like I might be assigned to work in the Oniyan project. That changed once I arrived in the country for my first term. Still, I think of them with fondness since learning about them was essentially my introduction to this country and its languages.

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Jim and his wife, Petey, at the Oniyan dedication

The gospel was first preached among the Bëliyan 40 years ago by Catholic missionaries. There are some Bëliyan Christians but they’re a small minority; it’s taken years of those few Christians living out their faith in the villages for Bëliyan to even believe that one can be a Christian and not give up his or her Bëliyan identity.

Years ago, early on during Jim’s work among the Bëliyan, he and Pastor N* asked the Bëliyan about what they believe. It was a survey, a kind of worldview assessment. They had two target audiences: the old men who were in their 70s or 80s and the young men in their 20s and 30s. They were especially interested in seeing if there was a change in worldview between the elders whose beliefs were shaped before the arrival of the gospel among them, and the young generation of Bëliyan who would have grown up with some exposure to the gospel through the missionaries.  So they asked them all kinds of questions about God, if He is personal, the spirit world, who controls things here on earth.

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The answers of the old men were much what they expected. The Bëliyan in general are very animistic in their beliefs and religious practices. They live in a remote part of the country and have resisted the influence of Islam, maintaining instead their traditional spirit worship, sacrifices at the sacred places, and use of fetishes to discern the future. But the members of the younger generation also answered in much the same way as the old men, which suggested to Jim and Pastor N* that perhaps their view of the world has not been as influenced by their exposure to the gospel as one would hope. And if the gospel was only preached to them in French or maybe in the trade language but not in their language – their heart language – this wouldn’t be surprising. This finding was added motivation for the Oniyan translation team to work to make God’s Word available to the Bëliyan so that their hearts may be reached and their beliefs transformed by Scripture.

After they’d answered all the interview questions, the old men were sitting around and talking with Pastor N*, having just discussed all these questions about God and the world. One of them said something that Jim has never forgotten. The man was so old that he’d gone blind, and the man sitting next to him was half-blind. He said, “We are so blind about the ways of God; we understand so little. And if there’s a blind person walking towards a huge thorn bush or towards a cliff, you should stop him and keep him from going over the cliff.” And then he looked at the pastor and said, “Don’t forget about us.”

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God hasn’t forgotten the Bëliyan. May God’s Word spread among them, and through the Oniyan Scriptures, may they come to a deeper understanding of God, the world, and themselves.

*This country is a sensitive location. To protect the identities of national Christians, I don’t include their full names.

That’s the title of the GIAL course I started yesterday. After our first class session, I’m excited and grateful for another chance to learn and study. It’s an anthropology course. It will give me further training for living among the minority languages and cultures of the West African country where I work. I look forward to diving into these books!

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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)

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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.

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January: Weekend discovery of a nearly secluded beach with friends.

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February: Honored to be a witness at Lisa and Alioune’s civil marriage.

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March: My SIL Wolof Research Project teammate Eva and I at the annual meeting of workers among the Wolof people group, updating them on our work researching the Scripture needs of Wolof-speakers.

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April: The SIL branch during our annual gathering of everyone in country.

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May: Joining into the dance of the Presbyterian women at the national church’s Pentecost celebration.

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June: Back in the US and after my first report at a supporting church at City Reformed Presbyterian, having fun with visiting friends as we dress up their daughter in my West African garb.

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July: Celebrating our birthday with my twin brother!

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August: Back in the Dallas area for further training courses at the Graduate Institute of Applied Linguistics, enjoying the summer wildflowers.

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September: During Q&A after a report in supporting church Christ the King Presbyterian, listening to the experiences of a veteran SIL worker and other learned ways of “turning down marriage proposals”.

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October: With my Principles of Multilingual Education professor and classmates at the completion of this GIAL course, one of four I took during the fall semester.

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November: During a report at supporting church Evangelical Presbyterian, showing my family’s old prayer card from the years when the church supported my parents as missionaries in France.

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December: Taking visiting friend and SIL colleague Sue out to Tex-Mex as part of her introduction to the US.

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I was recently reminded by my MTW leadership that a church tradition has come out of Syria that traces its roots all the way back to Antioch in the New testament. What a powerful reminder for us, as we pray for peace in this war-torn country, that God has not left even the most “hopeless” places on earth without a witness, in some cases a heritage many centuries older than in our home countries.

Their liturgy is still said in Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke during his earthly ministry. This morning, a group of colleagues and I started our day with the following Syrian church’s morning prayer service as printed in their prayer book:

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Reading of Psalm 51

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Reading of Psalm 63

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Reading of Psalm 113

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What a blessing to be encouraged by the Syrian church through their liturgy.

Pray for the peace and mercy of God in Syria.

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!