Time for some honesty that doesn’t always make its way into the newsletters. It’s not necessarily that newsletters are dishonest; it’s just that they’re half- truths. They tend to give highlights. And highlights are never the whole picture.

The majority of my time here is spent doing fairly “highlight-unworthy” things. A prime example: what I’ve been working on for the past four weeks — the literature review for the SIL Wolof research. I spend most of my days right now in front of my laptop, re-reading articles, writing summaries, synthesizing what I’m reading into preliminary answers to our team’s research questions, sending my drafts to my supervisor, and making changes based on his feedback.

Glamorous and thrilling, isn’t it?

I know this part of the research is essential. I know the research is part of a much broader work to make God known in the languages of this country. I know I can bring God glory by doing a good job on this literature review. But there are days when that doesn’t inspire or motivate me as I do it. In fact, I’ve honestly felt downright bored lately.

There’s more to the unglamorous. Even as I interact with my Wolof host family and use my growing command of the Wolof language — the aspects of my life and work that I find more inspiring — there are days when I’m uninspired and lazy. Sometimes it seems pointless. Sometimes I run and hide from the local culture rather than engaging it.

And as I hear what is happening in other parts of the world, I can’t help but feel that I’m not doing enough. When I’m stuck on myself and the unglamorous, I can’t help but fixate on what appears to be my mundane, boring, day-to-day life here and think that I should be doing more. What am I doing with my life? I wonder.

I’ve been greeted by surprise from people back in the US when I’ve reacted this way. Maybe that’s because they experience these feelings themselves in their context but assume that one is free of them when one is overseas doing such “meaningful” work. Maybe that’s because they have the same sub-conscious perception that I undoubtedly came with — that answering a calling to work overseas would be exciting and fulfilling every day. The honest, non-highlight version is that at some point most weeks, I fight boredom, lack of motivation, lack of inspiration, and feelings of helplessness and guilt in the face of the world’s needs.

My intent in sharing these things is not to host some veiled pity party, nor to spout out complaints in order to gain affirmation. I simply hope to add some human, unglamorous color to the picture that I can otherwise portray of life and work here.

And maybe you can relate, in which case I simply hope to say that I get it. And then, the gap between our sojourns is narrowed just a bit.

Communication is much more than words. What lies behind the words, and what lies in the minds and worldviews of those with whom one communicates — these things will inevitably shape the words. When the words are in a different language and the communication is taking place in a different culture, it can get quite complicated.

As I began digging into the Wolof language, it didn’t take long to realize that this language expresses a very different worldview than I am used to as an American English speaker. I have known this for some time now.

However, in recent months as I’ve been able to participate in deeper, longer conversations with my Wolof teacher, and as he pushes me to the limits of my Wolof capabilities, I’m marveling anew at how challenging communication can be when visions of the world are so different.

The following phrases are ones that I, along with many American, English-speaking Christians, routinely use to talk about my religious faith. And yet in my experience, these phrases translated into Wolof usually only get blank stares from the West African Muslims with whom I interact:

  • “belonging to the family of God”
  • “God is love”
  • “My relative is in heaven.”
  • “God answered my prayer.”
  • “knowing God’s will”
  • “God told me/ wanted me to come to West Africa.”
  • “the character of God”

How would you talk about your faith if the above phrases wouldn’t get you anywhere?

When one learns to speak another language, even with everyday language, one gets used to the blank stare. And one gets used to negotiating meaning — talking around a word or phrase that you don’t know (or which you do know but doesn’t work to express one’s thought), trying different avenues of getting at what lies behind the words, and being creative in making oneself understood.

The blank stare forces you to pause and reflect on what it is you are really trying to say. Though frustrating, it’s actually a very fruitful exercise. Sometimes you realize that you don’t know what you’re trying to say, that you’ve never stopped to think about it because the “Christianese” has always worked before — or rather, you always thought the “Christianese” worked.

What are we as American, English-speaking Christians really trying to say when we use the above phrases? And how could it be effectively communicated to a Wolof speaker?

This past Saturday marked the first day of the Muslim calendar. On the eve, the holiday of Tamxarit was celebrated in this West African country. This was my second Tamxarit (though my first with the Mangane family). This year I was determined to pay close attention to the millet preparation, as it’s a routine process in this culture but a fairly involved one that I have yet to fully understand! Since a rich meal of millet is a central component of this particular holiday’s celebration, it was a good opportunity for me to watch the process from start to finish!

Day 1: The millet prep began on Wednesday, when my host mother took the millet she’d bought to the local millet-grinder (many people still do this step by hand, especially in rural areas where there aren’t machines). The nutritious staple grain is ground to a fine powder. (Millet is enjoyed in a great variety of forms here. The particular form that is prepared for Tamxarit is a fine-medium grain called cere.)


Day 2: The millet prep continued on Thursday afternoon with an extended sifting and mooñ-ing session. (I have no idea how one would translate mooñ into English but it’s basically the action of adding water to the millet powder and agitating it with your hand until it starts to clump.)

IMG_0190   IMG_0201   IMG_0193  IMG_0203

And of course, Yacine Ndiaye had to get in on the action — here I am trying my hand at mooñ-ing as my host mother looks on and laughs! I made sure to give the calabash back quickly to my oldest host sister Ndeye, before I’d ruin the Tamxarit millet!

IMG_0208 IMG_0209

After the mooñ-ing, the millet is re-sifted, using the sieve that goes with the cere grain size (the various forms of millet come in different sized-grain and each has its corresponding sieve).

IMG_0186(2) IMG_0207(2)

IMG_0220   IMG_0216   IMG_0218

The next step is pre-steaming the cere, above, done over a coal-burning stove. Once pre-steamed, the cere is broken up by hand to remove the large clumps (below).

image image

Three pairs of hands are always better than one in this part of the world!

Three pairs of hands are always better than one in this part of the world!


As night falls Thursday, a final round of sifting is done to the cere.

FullSizeRender   IMG_0223

Above, my host sister Mati takes her cere back to her house Thursday night, while our household’s batch is tucked in for the night.

Day 3: On Friday, the millet fun continues! This is where the laalo gets added. The cere is steamed again, and then the laalo, derived from the sap of the mbéb tree or from baobab leaves, is poured and stirred into it. This is done to give cere a fluffier, lighter texture.

IMG_0229  IMG_0231  IMG_0232(2)

Meanwhile, the sauce is prepared to accompany the cere for the Tamxarit dish cere bassi salete. Below far left, as tradition calls for, the sheep legs from Tabaski are prepared to go into the sauce. Chicken may also be cooked, along with a variety of vegetables; it all gets stewed together. Below far right is the separate sweet-savory, tomato-based sauce that makes the dish famous, this one with white beans, small meatballs, onions, and sugar, among other things.

IMG_0226 IMG_0236 IMG_0238 IMG_0240

Friday evening, three days after the preparation began… the Tamxarit meal is ready to serve! Kayleen nu reer! (“Come let’s eat dinner”) Again as tradition calls for, milk is often served with this meal to pour over the cere and eat with it.

IMG_0241  IMG_0245


Cura (with me above) made sure I was taking photos of all the steps and the finished product so I could show all my folks back home how Tamxarit is celebrated over here. And she said that when they ask me who the people are with me in these photos, I should tell them, “These are my West African family members.”

Happy New Year from all of us in the Mangane family!


The local church that I attend had many reasons to give thanks this past Sunday. Pastor M* explained to the congregation that it was not an ordinary day, listing several causes for holding a special service followed by a yendu (sharing the mid-day meal and spending the afternoon together) as a church family.

Reason #1: The baptism of M.D. (below far right), attendee of the church for the past several years.


Reason #2: The scholastic success of the church-run local primary school, where all final-year students passed the entry exam for middle school.
Reason #3: The abundant rain during this year’s rainy season and the growth of the crops thus far.
Reason #4: The resilience of the local church body and the commitment of its members in the midst of a significant challenge this past year.
Reason #5: The healthy relationship between missionaries and the national church as evidenced in recent years.

After listing the reasons for thanks, Pastor M went on to explain the sacrament that we were about to witness. It was the first baptism that I’ve witnessed in this West African country, and the first time I heard a West African explain what baptism means. I came away appreciating the sacrament all the more. As Pastor M put it, baptism is a commandment of Jesus; however baptism in itself is not what saves Christians. Pastor M likened baptism to the mark he used to watch his father, a herdsman by trade, put on the animals in his herd. After a new animal was brought into his possession, he would mark it with his initials. The mark set apart that animal as belonging to someone. However, the mark itself was not what made the animal the owner’s possession. The price he paid is what made the animal his. And yet, the herdsman also marked his possession every time so that everyone would see to whom the animal belonged.

IMG_0148 IMG_0150(2)

Above, M.D. prays and prepares for her baptism.

"Ci turu Baay bi..." (In the name of the Father...)

“Ci turu Baay bi…” (In the name of the Father…)


…ak Doom ji… (…and the Son…)


…ak Xel mu sell mi. (…and the Holy Spirit.)


The group applauds in thanks to God for M.D.’s baptism.

IMG_0157(2) IMG_0159(2)

Above, M.D. follows her baptism with a testimony of her coming to faith. She shared that she was “born and raised in the system of protective fetishes” characteristic of her ethnic group. Along the way, someone shared Jesus with her, and she grew more and more interested. She eventually left the world she’d been raised in and embraced faith in Jesus. She sought out the local church. How did M.D. feel about the day of her baptism? “Dama ko yaggoon bëgg.” (I’ve wanted this for a long time.)

That smile, along with the image of God’s people bought with a price and marked with the sign of grace, will linger in my mind for a long time.

Celebratory dancing and clapping continue after the close of the service.

Celebratory dancing and clapping continue after the close of the service.

image image

And as with any reason for celebration in this West African country, a colorful and delicious feast of ceebu yapp followed.

M.D. was happy for me to share her pictures, and she asked me to solicit the prayers of God’s people on her behalf. Would you pray for M.D.?

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

There’s a Wolof proverb that goes, Ku xeeb juddoom wàññi darajaam. (“He who disrespects his birth diminishes his person-hood”)

The place and people who gave us birth are essential parts making up our very selves, aren’t they? When we don’t properly recognize, honor, and respect them, we are failing to know who we are, at least in part.

Since arriving in West Africa, where people tend to place much more importance on whom and where they come from, I’ve learned a lot along these lines.

33 years ago today, the people who would later give me birth, Bill and Gale Johnson, made vows to one another and founded a family. Happy Anniversary, Mom and Papa!

mom and papa

My parents are the people from whom I come; who I am can be traced back to them — for better or worse! But in my case I can thank God that it’s for the better. I can thank God that I have parents who are worthy of recognition, honor, respect, and much pride.

After getting married and founding their family, my parents left their home country and founded a legacy of making God known in a language and culture not their own. They served in France for ten years as church-planters. They loved the French people and culture so well that it changed who they were. In a country where the majority don’t know Jesus, they learned and used the French language to share the gospel and equip the French church.

The year after I finished college, I had an opportunity to live in France for about ten months as an English teaching assistant. I had not returned since my family left when I was eight. It was quite an opportunity, as an adult, to rediscover the country where I was born and where my parents served while I was a child. Though I was assigned to a different region than where we’d lived, I had a couple chances to travel and visit the places and people on which my parents had left their mark. I will never forget those visits.

It is a precious gift for an adult child to have such beautiful, tangible glimpses of the marks her parents left when she was a child (and therefore couldn’t yet fully appreciate). I’d always known my parents had left behind a piece of themselves when God called them to leave France. But I was finally meeting for myself the piece that they’d left behind. Through the testimonies of French people who love and still miss my parents, I came back with a deeper knowledge of who my parents are, a deeper respect of their many gifts, and gratitude for how God has used them. (And consequently, per the Wolof proverb above, I came back with a better of sense of who I am.)

Now, 20 years after God called my parents to return to the US, He has called them to go back to France. They hope to continue loving the French people, serving the French church, and sharing the gospel in France.

Would you pray for my parents? Would you consider becoming a financial partner to enable them to return to France? They are worthy of the support. You may click here to learn more about their plans and how you can participate.

Here’s to you, Mom and Papa! And here’s to God’s work through you — in the past, present, and future.

It’s that time of year again. Time to get ready for Tabaski. Tabaski is the most important Muslim holiday in this West African country. Because of this, the hustle and bustle as people prepare reminds me of the Christmas/ New Years’ time of year in my own culture (the biggest holiday in the US). Tabaski is quickly coming up (later this week, the precise day depending on the lunar cycle).

Here are the ways it’s beginning to look a lot like Tabaski, everywhere I go…


  • large lots full of rams for sale
  • sidewalks filled with grills for sale
  • everyone is buying fabric and taking it to the tailor shops to be made into new outfits
  • tailors busy sewing new outfits (and so slower and sometimes a bit sloppier than usual)
  • extra traffic
  • extra busy market scene as people buy and sell in preparation for the holiday
  • higher vegetable prices and taxi fares as everyone is saving up money to pay for their family’s ram, their new outfits, the travel to hometowns, and the large Tabaski meal
  • more street sellers who are bringing out all their wares to make sales and make those few extra thousand francs CFA
  • higher theft alert (as some seek other ways of financing the festivities)

I’ve been living with the Manganes for five months now, and I’m thankful for God’s continued provision of a Wolof host family. I’ve not regretted living with a local family. I’m convinced that what I’m learning greatly exceeds what I’d learn otherwise. Although I have no reason to look for other housing, I’ve chosen not to commit to more than three months at a time at the Manganes’. I figure it’s better to keep options open, for both my and my host family’s sakes. When my first three months were drawing to a close, I asked to “extend the contract.” My host mother Awa Fall’s response: “Fii mooy sa kër yaay ak sa kër baay.” (“This is your mother and father’s house.”)

After a year and a half in this West African culture with its elastic conception of family and its open-armed acceptance of foreigners, the number is steadily growing of people who have called me daughter, older sister, younger sister, cousin, aunt. I hope I never stop wondering at that. I hope it continues to change who I am and the way I treat and accept others. Granted, there are varying degrees of “adoption” here. There’s a time and place for joking with the familial terms. Also, there are genuine people as well as cons, as in any culture. However, I think I’m starting to learn the signs of genuineness and how to recognize when people mean the familial terms they so readily use. I trust the Manganes are genuine. I know Awa Fall meant it when she told me that of course I still had a place in her home, that I should treat it as my mother and father’s house.

The wording she used touched me and caused me to marvel. I have seen in this country the difference between living in a house as a guest, extended relative, or tenant and living in a house as a child. Especially in cities, it’s common for young people to live with relatives or friends as they attend university or work to earn money for their families back in the village. I’ve visited friends in this situation and have noticed a subtle change when they’re living in a house that’s not their parents’. Even those who are most welcomed often seem like they can’t make themselves completely at home. And they almost always talk about how they miss their home and their family. No house can quite compare to your mother and father’s house. When your parents own the house (and you’re blessed to have good parents), you have responsibility of course, but it’s accompanied by freedom, privilege, and care. You can eat your fill. You can stretch out. I was moved that Awa Fall wanted me to view her home and my place in it in those terms. I expressed my gratitude as best as I could.

At the same time, I couldn’t help but continue processing her words as the American who will never be West African. The things – the little, unimportant things – that my host family does in order to make me feel at home, but that have the complete opposite effect on me, came to mind. Awa Fall’s words also caused me to think about and miss my parent’s house and my family. I too have experienced the tangible difference between staying as a guest and living as a child. How to make someone “feel at home” inevitably varies from culture to culture. If you expect to be shown hospitality in the way you’re used to, you will be disappointed. I’m learning to accept and even appreciate what I know is hospitality here in this West African culture, whether or not it always translates as hospitality to me.  Will I ever “feel at home” in this culture? Not if I expect “home” to “feel” the same as in the U.S.

Another phrase which I’ve been processing was one that came up in a recent Wolof lesson. My teacher and I somehow got on the topic of how Americans are sometimes viewed in this West African culture. My teacher said that he often hears his fellow countrymen say, “Waa amerik amuñu kóllëre.” The word kóllëre is translated as “relationship or alliance,” but its second meaning is “faithfulness.” Faithfulness is a high cultural value. What my Wolof teacher said could be translated as, “Americans don’t show faithfulness” or “They don’t value and maintain relationships well.” He said he has heard it especially in the context of Americans returning to the U.S. and their West African friends never hearing from them again.

I experienced a strange mixture of emotion when I heard those words. First, I felt deep sadness at how my culture can come across, and the ways that I know I’ve come across in the 18 months since my arrival. I know that we Americans often fall short of this culture’s relational standards because our ways of relating to one another and our ways of belonging to a community are so different. I’m still learning how to be a friend and a family member by West African standards. You visit one another often, you call one another even more often, you maintain close relationships with many people at once, and you don’t cease contact unless there’s a dispute or a death. I know a whole lot more now than when I arrived, which means there are some people that I’ve known since the start but am only now realizing how to treat them the way friends expect in this culture.

But along with my sadness on hearing my teacher’s words, I felt a twinge of indignation. As an American, I know that our seeming devaluing of relationships and inability to maintain them “well” comes from our society’s standards of relating to one another – which are considered perfectly normal for us. I’ve spoken with several other Americans on relationships in this West African culture who point out that the standards here can feel “high maintenance” to us. The culture that calls another “high maintenance” is seen by that culture as “ñàkk kóllëre” (“lacking faithfulness”). Neither the American nor the West African way of relating is better than the other, and both have the effects of sin running right through them. And each has something to learn from the other. Even so, I often feel that if my West African friends are holding me to their culture’s relational standards, I will inevitably disappoint them.

My Wolof teacher and I discussed at length the assessment made by some of his countrymen. I often enjoy talking with him on such matters because he is Wolof and lived as an adult in the U.S. for a time. He understands that his culture’s standards simply don’t “work” in American society, and vice versa.

The conversation about kóllëre left me feeling in a new way the weight of relational expectations in this culture and how it differs from mine. Have I gotten in over my head? I couldn’t help but wonder as I thought of the families with whom I’ve lived and the friendships that I’m developing – all to whom one could say I now have obligations. Am I called to strive towards their culture’s standard in an effort to love them, or is it impossible and unrealistic? Will I inevitably disappoint them as a friend, just as they inevitably disappoint me if I expect my culture’s hospitality?

In the midst of those worries, though, I have reason to hope because of somewhere else I’ve seen the word kóllëre. It’s the word that shows up in the Wolof translation of Hebrews 12:24, a verse that reminds me that there’s One whose faithfulness is never lacking for any of us in any culture. And the Faithful One’s blood doesn’t disappoint because it’s enough to build a new kóllëre, relationship, alliance, covenant between God and His created ones. And if He does that, then the Faithful One is the one who can give the basis for us created ones to be in relationship with one another, coming from such diverse cultures and each with our expectations.

Waaye yéen jege ngeen… Yeesu, Rammukat bi sàmm kóllëre gu bees gi; jege deretam, ji ñu wis.”

“But you have come… to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood.” (Hebrews 12:22, 24)

I still have much to learn about how belonging to Jesus helps me belong in cross-cultural community, and about what practical ways the kóllëre founded by Jesus can bring hope in my relationships here. But knowing there’s hope is already a lot.

And there’s eternal hope too as I continue learning while receiving the hospitality at the Manganes’ house, my kër yaay ak kër baay. The eternal hope comes from a passage in John where I recognized that same phrase in the Wolof translation.

Buleen jàq. Gëmleen Yàlla te gëm ma. Am na néeg yu bare ca sama kër Baay, bu dul woon noonu, ma wax leen ko, ndaxte maa ngi dem defaral leen fa ngeen di dëkk. Te su ma leen defaralee bérab booba ba noppi, dinaa délsi, yóbbaale leen, ba fu ma nekk, ngeen nekk fa, yéen itam.”

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.” (John 14:1-3)

The kër Baay (Father’s house) that Jesus is preparing has a place for each of His follower-pilgrims. His house is big enough for every culture to feel at home, because we’ll all finally know ultimate identity, purpose, and rest in Him. There are many rooms, though I don’t think each culture will be in a separate room showing its own kind of hospitality. I have a feeling something much more beautiful goes on there. I have trouble imagining it, but oh for the day when I’ll experience it!


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 189 other followers