Language acquisition and culture shock are funny things. In one sense, as the first increases, the second diminishes. But in another sense (or at least so I’ve been experiencing in recent months) as the first increases, so does the second. Although I continue to make progress in Wolof comprehension and speaking, I’ve felt a new wave of culture shock and feel further from understanding the West African culture in which I live. A year ago, when I still wasn’t understanding the majority of what was being said around me, I could write off confusing or surprising situations, thinking to myself, “I don’t understand what they were saying, and I couldn’t make myself understood. So that’s why I feel confused.” Before an outsider can understand much of a new language, it’s easy to assume that there exists an explanation for certain cultural differences, and that one just needs to be able to communicate in and decipher more of the language.

But surprise! Some things become even more confounding as I realize I’m understanding most everything in terms of the words being communicated, and yet I’m left scratching my head. Wondering how worlds can be so starkly different.

Or, I’m able to communicate my basic thoughts (more or less) with someone in their language, and close to their style, and yet they don’t understand me. In those moments, growing in my capability to communicate in the local language seems to only show me how very different my cultural background is. How different I am.

These experiences can be “shocking” in a positive or a negative way. But they’re always confounding. Let me share a few instances, slices of “normal life” from the past couple months.

I was riding on the highway with my colleague (a fellow expat) and our friend in her car. We were taking our friend back to her house, and my colleague had offered her a couple unused small water tanks, which were strapped to the roof of the car. We were enjoying the lack of traffic and flying down the auto-route. Suddenly we heard a noise behind us; we looked back to see one of the water tanks on the narrow shoulder, bouncing behind us from where it had fallen from the car roof. We looked at each other in dismay, asking each other what we should do now. The shoulder wasn’t wide enough to safely pull over right away and back up to where it was. There wasn’t an immediate exit, and getting off at the next one would then require us to somehow weave our way through the traffic in the opposite direction and figure out which ramp we needed to take to get back on the auto-route behind where the water tank had fallen. So my colleague continued driving, though much more slowly, as we sought a solution. Meanwhile, drivers passing by us honked, waved at us, and motioned behind. I thought to myself, feeling slightly perturbed, “Yes, thank you, we are aware of the fact that something flew off the roof. We’re trying to figure out what to do.” Eventually we decided to pull off as far as we safely could onto the shoulder to at least check that the other water tank wouldn’t also fly off. As my colleague and I checked, a taxi pulled up behind us, also stopping. The driver got out and began talking to our friend in Wolof. He explained that someone had stopped and gotten the water tank and was bringing it to us; he said he’d wanted to let us know so we’d stop and wait for it before going further. Before we’d even had time to be surprised at this news, sure enough, a man on his motorcycle, grinning from ear to ear and somehow wielding the fallen water tank, pulled off the road beside the taxi. Super-motorcycle-Man told us he’d seen it fly off and had been determined to catch up to us with it to return it. Needless to say, we tried to get over our shock enough to thank him profusely. We then were back on our way (with the water tanks more safely stowed). My colleague and I laughed and scratched our heads together, wondering if that would have ever happened on an American capital city’s highway.

Another day, I was taking a taxi in the capital, from the SIL office to my colleagues’ home for a meeting. I’d had to do quite a bit of haggling in Wolof with that particular driver to get the price down to normal fare. What he’d finally accepted was even slightly more than I’d paid before to go to the same place. But it was during Ramadan so I wasn’t surprised. For much of the trip, the driver pointed out to me that he was an old man, that I should have compassion towards him and pay him more. I in turn pointed out to him that I was a woman with no husband, that he should have compassion towards me and charge me less. Upon hearing that, Old Man Taxi Driver assured me that he’d pray for me to have a good husband with lots of money. I thanked him (one can’t do otherwise here!). And then he said that if he prayed for me, I should repay him monetarily for the favor. That whole exchange in Wolof would have been enough to leave me scratching my head about the kinds of taxi conversations one has in this culture. Little did I know when I got out at my destination that my encounter with Old Man Taxi Driver was far from over. Upon arrival at my colleagues’ house, I realized that my cell phone wasn’t where I usually keep it. I looked through both my bags in search for it, then had my colleague call it, then retraced my steps in their house — all to no avail. I’d lost my cell phone. This was the first time since my arrival in country. A wave of worry overtook me as I thought about all the contacts in my phone that I need on a daily basis that I don’t have stored anywhere else. How would I get them back? I was supposed to call several people in that hour even, to set up a rendezvous for a Christian women’s gathering, to visit a friend that evening. What would I do now? I remembered checking my phone during the taxi ride, so all I could think was that I’d left it in the taxi. My colleagues did their best to reassure me; they said they’d keep calling it in hopes that the taxi driver (or whoever had it) would answer and we could arrange something for getting it back. On what seemed like the tenth try, someone answered. My colleague passed the phone to me. “Tonton?” I asked (“uncle,” the respectful and familial way of referring to someone, and convenient when one doesn’t know the name). Sure enough, it was Old Man Taxi Driver. I expressed my relief and thanks to him for answering; I asked where he was. His answer was evasive, saying he was in the capital. I asked if he remembered where I’d gotten out and could bring the phone back there where I’d meet him. He said no problem, he was still in the capital. He said we’d just need to discuss gas money. Not surprising considering the topic of our conversation in the taxi. I asked how much he’d need. He said an amount that was more than three times what I’d paid him earlier, and easily twice the amount of what a taxi ride would cost for the furthest distance in the capital. I was slightly shocked. But we both knew I was in no place to negotiate. I agreed. At first, I couldn’t figure out why I was feeling shocked at paying that much. After all, I could afford it, especially for the sake of recuperating all my valuable contacts. Old Man Taxi Driver could have kept the phone or sold it for a profit. And it wasn’t the first time I was paying more than the actual gas used for a trip. Upon reflection, I realized maybe my “shock” stemmed from my cultural background where the line between a favor and a business transaction are rarely blurred. In general, if someone has already decided to help you out, they don’t require payment. But here in this culture and in this economy, a favor can become a potential business opportunity. An hour later, I was greatly relieved to have my phone back, and Old Man Taxi Driver was a little richer. I couldn’t help but wonder if his rate for the “rich-husband prayer” on my behalf was built into the “gas money.”

I had another taxi adventure, this time in the town where I live and on the day of the rainy season’s first (and greatly anticipated) rainfall. Some drivers won’t make runs in the rain or in the flooded aftermath. Therefore, one can expect to pay up to twice the normal fare. I knew this as I left my Wolof lesson and flagged down a taxi to get home. I warned him I didn’t have exact change, and he said we’d stop somewhere along the way for change. We hadn’t gone far down the road when he spotted a woman and a young boy also waiting for a taxi. One isn’t normally obligated to share a taxi, but a hard rain constitutes special circumstances. The driver pulled over, and they got in. There was no mention of taxi fare or where she needed to go (which is usually stated or negotiated when one gets in). The woman lost little time in starting to converse in Wolof with the driver, amicably scolding him every time he drove through pools of rainwater and causing it to splash, saying he and other taxi drivers take advantage of the rain to make extra money, not even driving carefully enough to avoid splashing pedestrians who are desperately trying to get to a dry place. She also amicably ordered him around, showing him where to stop at her first destination, where she needed to give someone something. She got back in, and we continued on. This was breaking taxi “etiquette,” as the first passenger *normally* gets taken to his or her destination first. Most drivers would also refuse to take a passenger to multiple destinations for a single fare. As I listened and observed from the back of the taxi, the driver didn’t seem perturbed and chuckled at her scolding. Madame Diva Passenger was likely not much older than the driver, but she was talking to him as if she were his mother. I thought to myself, “Maybe this is how a woman in this culture has to act in order to be respected by a man. A woman resorts to bossing around and even shaming a man a little to avoid being taken advantage of.” The woman chatted with me briefly, until we pulled into a gas station where the driver said he’d look for change to break my bill. He said something to the woman that I didn’t catch. Madame Diva Passenger told him, “It’s no problem, if you take me somewhere I pay you.” She then turned to me and said we’d have to part ways, that the driver was making her get out or she’d have to pay. I thought to myself that there was nothing unreasonable about that on the part of the driver. So she got out with the young boy and started walking away. The driver honked, then got out of the taxi and called out to Madame Diva Passenger, “Won’t you pay me?” The woman turned and walked towards him, starting to answer him while shaming him too. “Oh you expect me to pay you, do you? I have to go out after the rain and just want a little help. You refuse to help a woman out and then ask for payment?” A couple men had been observing the exchange from the gas station parking lot. At this point, one of them stepped in and even offered to pay the driver for the woman, telling the driver that it wasn’t worth making a scene over, that he should just put up with the woman and let it slide. To that, the driver responded with the Wolof equivalent to, “I’ve put up with her, but I’ve had it up to here with her orders.” I certainly sympathized. Madame Diva Passenger threw a bill at the driver through his open taxi window, along with a spat “Here, take your payment.” I noticed that it was the “non-rain” fare and not even what one would normally pay. As I rode the rest of the distance to where I live, I was feeling shocked and slightly indignant at what had just happened, though I wasn’t sure at first why. I felt no personal lack of fairness; I was in no hurry, and I’ve learned not to always expect transportation “etiquette” and “rules” to be followed. I saw injustice towards the taxi driver (and it’s rare that I feel bad for them), I think primarily because of my cultural background, where a worker getting the wages that he or she earned is a high value. In the situation that I’d just witnessed, all I could see was that the taxi driver was just working his job, trying to make an honest living. But when he asked for his due payment, not only did Madame Diva Passenger shame him publicly for doing so, an uninvolved observer also practically shamed him by saying he’d made a scene and by offering to appease him, nearly giving the woman the taxi ride for free. However, that was my American analysis, and I’m guessing that none of the other people (even the taxi driver) in the situation would agree that my analysis captured what had actually happened. Although in that moment, I wanted to criticize the culture and make sweeping generalizations about their sense of fairness and handicaps that I saw in their society, all I could do was shake my head in confusion and think, “I’m not in my own culture, and there’s a lot I may never understand.”

One final slice of life which left me in culture shock revolved around a topic of conversation which is probably the most common (and perhaps my least favorite) when I’m interacting with West African acquaintances: marriage. I’d just finished my Wolof lesson and was waiting for the bus. There’s a blacksmith shop next door to my Wolof teacher’s house; the workers always offer me a seat in the shade while I wait. We chat, giving me exactly the kind of Wolof practice I need. The men are pleasant, respectful, and accustomed to talking with Wolof-learners. The topic of marriage has come up multiple times. They’ve asked me why I’m not married, what I’m waiting for, if I want an American or West African husband — the usual questions. But today, Diedhiou (the boss as far as I can tell) was determined to get past the formalities and give me his two-cents’ worth (and more) of what he thought about my marital status. I don’t even remember how it came up because before I had time to think and respond in normal fashion, Diedhiou Boss Man was asking me, “What are you waiting for? You’re not married yet and you’re just getting old. You’re probably over 30 aren’t you?” His tone was amicable but serious. I quickly recovered from the initial surprise at this new angle on my marital status and assured him, “Hey, I’m not yet 30, I’m still practically a child.” Diedhiou Boss Man hardly skipped a beat in his rant, continuing with, “Ah you’re not a child anymore! You’re getting old and you haven’t started having kids yet, what about the kids you’re supposed to have? You shouldn’t keep waiting around to get married. If you’re too old when you start having kids you won’t have the energy to raise them right.” Rather than trying to tell him what I really think about the whole thing (which rarely gets me anywhere), I tried to reason with him in a way he’d understand. I said, “Before one starts having kids, isn’t it best to wait until one finds a good husband?” “But there are good husbands around, what are you possibly looking for?” In response to that, I used my standard deviation which usually works fine in this culture, with its tendency towards fatalism and leaving things to God (or to people who have a special connection to God), rather than trying so hard to make something happen that one is taking the place of God. “God only knows!” I said. “I’m waiting for God to show me whom He wants me to marry.” But for some reason, on that day Diedhiou Boss Man was not taking that for an answer. “That’s not how it works. You can’t just sit back, not doing anything, and expect to find the husband that God wants for you. The real reason you don’t want to get married and have kids is that you’re studying and working and you don’t have time. Well you should be pouring yourself into finding a husband like you pour yourself into your studies and your work!” No one had ever said it quite that way. Our conversation continued for a while, Diedhiou Boss Man trying to work every angle to convince me to finally take up my chief responsibility in life of getting married and birthing children, as I drew on all my limited knowledge of the culture to respond in ways he would respect and somehow convince him that I shouldn’t be in a hurry. I even pulled out the Wolof proverb, “Mar naan taxul ma naan putit” (Being thirsty to drink doesn’t mean I’ll drink dirty rinse water), to remind him that desperation would not push me to marry the first available male. That strategy, as it does every time, at least stopped Diedhiou Boss Man’s soapbox talk on marriage mid-sentence and gained a bit of respect and chuckles from him and the other men listening in. However, he was soon continuing on with his admonishment for me to get my priorities right and get married and start having kids. I used my meeting with a colleague as an excuse to take my leave and walk away, even though the conversation had not come to the conclusion that Diedhiou Boss Man was wanting to hear from me. As I walked to my colleague’s house, all I could do was shake my head and marvel at how different this culture is from the one I left to come here. How blaring the difference is when it comes to marriage and gender roles. I felt frustrated that, although I was saying everything in Wolof, there was so much about the way I view marriage and my personhood as a woman that I could not make my listeners understand. Was it even worth trying to explain in Wolof, even using Wolof proverbs, to Diedhiou Boss Man why I wouldn’t drop everything and get married tomorrow? Or are our perspectives on the matter so opposed that even if we understand perfectly the words that the other is saying, we’re not even really hearing each other when we discuss it?

These slices of life are just a few recent examples that have left me feeling like I’m still very much in culture shock — and may never quite fully recover.

Rain has come back to this part of West Africa! It had been almost 10 months since we saw it here (which is a normal dry season). So dark storm clouds, rolling thunder, and the pitter patter of rain does the soul good — as well as makes the farmers very happy! At this time last year, we had to wait another month for the first rain, later than normal. This year, thankfully, we have already had our third rain.

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And we'll even (mostly) happily put up with the occasional flooding...

And so we’ll even (mostly) happily put up with the occasional flooding…

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The new moon crescent was spotted, marking the end of the Islamic month of koor. That means the Ramadan fast has ended here in West Africa. This past Saturday was the national holiday of Korite, a Muslim celebration of the end of the month of fasting. I spent Korite with my Wolof family the Manganes (three of the younger members grinning above).

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The day started early for my host mother (above) as she prepared her ngallax, a millet-based dish enriched and sweetened with tigadege (peanut paste), buy (baobab fruit), raisins, and sugar. Households who can afford the ingredients make it (or lax, another millet-based dish) for the holiday, sending bowls of it to their neighbors. I partook (above) in mid-onion chopping.

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Tackling the mountain of onions for Korite lunch prep

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Mid-morning, the men of the household and any women past childbearing go to the mosque and pray. Most people have had a new outfit made for the holiday. Members of the Mangane family pose above, in their Korite finery, while the rest of the women look on from meal prep.

After praying at the mosque, neighbors will go to each other’s houses to greet one another. As neighbors came by to greet the Mangane household while I participated in lunch prep, I got to practice the Wolof greeting and blessing exchange used at Muslim holidays:

Déwénati! (“This time in a year”)           –Fekkeldiwen (“May it find you here”)
Baal ma àq. (“Forgive my offenses”)             –Baal naa la, nga baal ma. (“I forgive you, forgive me”)
Yal nanu Yàlla boole baal. (“May God forgive us together”)      –Amin! (“Amen”)

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Various stages of chicken cooking (stuffed with a spicy filling, marinated, boiled, fried, rubbed with more spicy stuff, then grilled)

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My host mother directing the show in the kitchen as the meal gets assembled in beautiful array on serving platters.

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7 hours later or so, enjoying a delicious Korite feast!

After the family has eaten, they’ll divide up the leftovers into serving platters to give to their neighbors.

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Later in the evening, we all got dressed up — the adults to go out and greet neighbors (if they had the energy!), the children to go out and ask for their déwénal (small change they have the right to ask for at Korite).

Happy Korite from the Manganes!

When you’re learning and living a new language, sometimes you discover beautiful words. I’m talking about a word for which the beauty lies in the concept it represents, a concept that’s not represented in your mother-tongue, causing it to strike you and grab your attention. And the beauty of these kinds of words grows as you live in the culture and experience these culture-specific concepts.

Take the following Wolof word: gunge. (or GOONG-gay in English quasi-phonetics)

This is one of several Wolof words that I find particularly beautiful. In fact I find it more beautiful now than when I first learned it. In English, the closest we get to this concept is perhaps in the word “accompany,” but gunge has a more specific usage. It means “to accompany a guest home.” When I first learned the word and its definition, I thought it was interesting as I’d heard about other African cultures in which the custom was common. When one receives a guest, it’s an honor; when the time comes for the guest to leave, a host will accompany him or her out to the door, down the road, and sometimes all the way to the guest’s destination — just to repay the honor. In Wolof, this action is gunge. I found it interesting, but nothing more. It hardly stuck out to me in the mountain of new vocabulary I was living and trying to put to memory.

Gunge became a beautiful word to me, though, as I began experiencing it. That word jumped off the abstract list of new vocabulary and began wearing the tangible clothes of my daily experience as a foreigner, a perpetual guest in West Africa. Gunge for me is now a word rich with feeling, meaning, memories, a word that lives and breathes reassurance to solitary me.

It’s not rare for me to be on my own here, as I go from one place to another, as I run errands, as I travel, as I visit people. This is nothing new for me. But being on your own where you’re a foreigner, where there’s no chance of blending in, where there’s no avoiding the curious gaze — is a different experience. Being solitary in that kind of environment, in my personal experience, can bring with it a certain weight, a sense of vulnerability and always being exposed, even fear at times. In West Africa I’ve learned to appreciate company like never before. Going anywhere with someone (even someone I’ve just met) is a completely different experience for me (and almost always preferred) than walking alone. And so when I’ve been spending time with someone and the time comes for me to leave, their company to gunge me, to see me out and on my way — putting off even by a few minutes the moment where we part ways and I’m once again solitary — simply means the world to me. Sometimes I almost feel like I’m being passed from hand to hand of kind hosts and friends who are looking out for me here. It’s a huge blessing to live in a culture where that is simply normal. I’ve tried adopting the custom and seeing visitors at least as far as the bus stop if they live some distance away. It just seems right to honor and enjoy the presence of a companion a little longer. That’s what gunge represents for me, and that’s why it’s a beautiful word.

Well this beautiful word popped up in a new place for me recently. I was going on a short trip and, as I often do, taking my leave.  The people seeing me off were Wolof, and this sort of occasion is one of many where the Wolof love of blessings is heard. I’m used to hearing the most common traveler’s blessing, which I love: Yàlla na la Yàlla teeg ci yoonu jamm. (“May God put you on the road of peace.”) But this time a different blessing was uttered, grabbing my ears and my heart: Yàlla na la Yàlla gunge (“May God gunge you.”)

The blessing sent my mind spinning and flooded me with a wave of reassurance and comfort as I imagined the presence of God Himself, accompanying me from one place to the next. Wherever I go, solitary or in human company, ultimately God is gunge-ing me. What a miracle! And His is a presence with which I don’t even need to part ways, a presence beside me that lasts. His company endures. In that moment, considering the Wolof blessing I’d just heard, I decided that from now on, whenever someone gunges me, instead of dreading the moment when the gunge will end and the weight of solitude will once again descend on me, I will try to see the human company as a symbol of the divine company that promises to not turn back.

Last year, a stranger gave me Brennan Manning’s Abba’s Child which I finally got around to reading. In it, I found Manning’s reminder — fitting and also beautiful:

The miracle of the gospel is Christ, risen and glorified, who this very moment tracks us, pursues us, abides in us, and offers Himself to us as companion for the journey!

Wherever you are coming from or headed to, Yàlla na la Yàlla gunge — may God gunge you too.

Earlier this month, my host brother got married, opening up a whole new window for me into Wolof culture and traditional wedding customs. He married a friend of mine, an expatriate, which obviously added another dynamic and set of traditions to their wedding ceremony and celebration. Was their wedding more West African or more western? Maybe I’ll let you decide…

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The Saturday morning ceremony was held at the church grounds in the bride’s “hometown” (that is, where she lives here and where her West African family is). Many of the groom’s family members (my Wolof family) traveled up to attend.

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The bride entered (with no escort since her father wasn’t able to attend), greeted by crowds of cell-phone- and camera-wielding attendees!

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Singing and praying in Wolof

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Sermon given in French, translated into Wolof

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The presiding pastor reminding the bride and groom that they as a couple have their eyes fixed on a point, vows exchanged in Wolof and in English, and the symbolism of the wedding band explained.

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The pastor declares them Mr. and Mrs. Mangane, and tells them to kiss — and has them do it again, two additional times, because the first time was too fast to capture on camera! Women from the bride’s church (her “family”) surround the couple, dancing, clapping, and singing their congratulations.

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The new couple kneels and receives prayer from all the pastors in attendance.

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The Saturday afternoon reception, complete with cake-cutting and family photos

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A day later, Sunday night, the bride, accompanied by a group of women from her church (the female members of her “family”), traveled to the groom’s hometown and to his parents’ home, i.e. his home (and where I currently live), for the traditional “entering of the husband’s house” ceremony. The bride was covered with a special cloth at the house entryway, showered with rice, then taken into her mother-in-law’s room where she sat on the bed. Lax (a traditional millet-based dish) was brought to the bride and groom, who served each other and ate.

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The next morning, Monday, began with the bride serving her mother-in-law breakfast — accompanied by energetic approval from the women of the household, in form of dancing, clapping, and singing!

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A day of festivities ensued, with the “family” and friends of the bride celebrating her entrance into her husband’s family’s home. Above top, the family griot (“praise singer”) sings of the bride’s “family” as they sit next to the mother-in-law. Above, a rich lunch was served to honor the bride’s “family.”

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The bride presented the women of the groom’s family with a suitcase-full of fabric, an expected gift for her new family and an expense that the griot announced and sang about as well.

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Me with the groom and bride, in all their Wolof finery!

It’s not often that a Christian Wolof wedding takes place. I found it fascinating to watch the preparations and participate in the various parts of the event. I was especially interested in what the national believers and church leaders encouraged the couple to observe in terms of traditional customs. I still have a lot to learn about what all the customs mean, particularly in the traditional “entering of the husband’s home” ceremony.

I showed these photos to a believing national friend of mine who doesn’t know the couple. She’s a single woman about my age whose parents converted to Christianity when she was young and raised her as a Christian. The pictures of the church ceremony and following reception seemed to be about what she expected. She told of church weddings she’d attended where she saw similar things. But when she saw the following photos, showing the bride entering the groom’s home, her reaction changed significantly. She was visibly surprised. “Oh, those are the traditional practices. Christians don’t do that.” I asked her if the practices had a religious or spiritual significance, but she couldn’t really answer. She said, “Well, they’re traditional practices. I’ve never seen them done in a Christian wedding.” I asked her if she could explain the meaning of the customs, but she simply said, “All I know is that’s what Muslims do.”

In a people group where so few are believers, it’s not surprising that so many of their traditional customs are automatically associated with the majority religion of Islam. I’m intrigued by the customs I saw and by my friend’s response. I may do some digging.

What does a Christian wedding look like in a Wolof context? How does one have a wedding celebration that is both fully Christian and authentically Wolof? Which traditional customs aren’t compatible with the Christian faith and should be left aside, and which can be embraced and celebrated — for the sake of both cultural authenticity and witness? There are no cut-and-dry answers, for insiders or outsiders. These are important questions for national believers to wrestle with as God’s Church and His Word take root in a particular cultural context. Ultimately, national believers are the ones who must answer them. During this Wolof family wedding, I was content to simply observe how the believers involved answered these complex questions. More than anything, I was grateful to witness and celebrate this beautiful picture of two becoming one in Christ.

How are the gospel and God’s Word made known in a culture where what is clear and understood is not necessarily heard as sacred? And vice versa, where what is considered sacred is not necessarily understood?

This is a question that my SIL teammates and I are starting to run into a lot with our Basic Wolof Phase 1 project. And personally, I’m confronting the extent to which fundamental, underlying concepts such as comprehension, spirituality, and personal understanding of Scripture, are entrenched in culture.

The need for research into the dialect of Wolof spoken in urban settings came to SIL’s attention years ago as some people expressed difficulty in using the New Testament currently available in Wolof. The words, expressions, and register found in it are described as Wolof bu xoot (“deep Wolof”). This is the way many village-dwelling Wolof people speak; it’s a register that is respected as “pure Wolof.”

Because it is the trade language in this West African country, Wolof is widely-spoken outside the Wolof ethnic group (hence the term “wolophone,” people who speak Wolof but aren’t ethnically Wolof). And therefore, it’s also the dominant language in the capital city, a melting pot of many ethnic groups. But the dialect of Wolof that is spoken by people who speak it as their second or third language, by people of other ethnicities, by people who live in cities rather than villages — is different. The vocabulary changes, the expressions vary, certain aspects of the grammar are dropped. And especially as younger generations grow up in the urban setting, where their ethnic language is sometimes left aside, this dialect of Wolof becomes their functional first language.

So the question facing our Basic Wolof team stems from this complex sociolinguistic situation. Does this group of Wolophones who don’t speak “deep Wolof” have access to Scripture in the language they understand best? And if not, would it be feasible to start another translation in a register of Wolof that could be called “basic Wolof”?

As we’ve begun to dig and ask questions, we’ve received some interesting (and at times, surprising) feedback. Some Wolophones who live in a village setting express difficulty understanding the deep Wolof New Testament. Some Wolophones who live in cities express satisfaction and appreciation for the deep Wolof New Testament, sharing that they use it regularly.

And then there’s the comment that we’ve heard several times now that goes something like this: “It’s not necessarily a bad thing that the New Testament be in a register difficult to understand at times.”

This is where I realize that my own culture’s way of viewing comprehension, spirituality, and personal understanding of Scripture may diverge.

The national believers who express this opinion go on to give various reasonings. There’s the cultural pride reasoning, which says those who don’t understand the Wolof vocabulary are pushed to learn things about their culture and their language that might otherwise be lost. There’s the group discussion reasoning, which says that people in this culture prefer to hear and talk about spiritual matters in a group setting anyway, so if they don’t understand phrases and expressions on their own, they can hear explanations from others in the group. And the most common, and perhaps most significant, reasoning is that of sacred value. Several national pastors have told us that expressing God’s Word in too simple of language would deform the message and not be revered in this culture as sacred text.

They explain that in this culture there is a love of the “hidden” when it comes to spirituality. When something is expressed in too clear or down-to-earth terms, it cannot be respected as spiritual. Vice versa, when something is communicated in a deep language that hides the meaning, the listener or reader is given cause to appreciate the sacredness of the message — whether or not they understand.

Granted, there are things in Scripture that are difficult to understand no matter the language, culture, or register in which they are communicated. Even people who have had access to the Bible for years in the language they understand best are confounded by many passages. If we believe that the ultimate author is God and that His Spirit is needed to understand it, then we should expect this.

However, here are a couple examples of the situation found in Wolof. A national pastor explains that to say “Jesus died” would be heard as very crass; expressing it this way would risk scandalizing Wolophones. It would be better to use a euphemism like wacc na liggéey (“left his job”) in the translation of Scripture. Another pastor explains his profound love for the way Psalm 23 is rendered in the deep Wolof translation of the book of Psalms. He thinks it’s beautiful, and it moves his soul. Yet, when he reads it to those among whom he ministers, in a region of the country where Wolophones aren’t ethnically Wolof, people give him blank stares. They tell him they don’t understand the words and expressions. This pastor explains that, over time, he has changed the way he talks when sharing Scripture to accommodate the level of understanding of his hearers, a way of talking that diverges from the New Testament translation. He gives another example of the word for “redeemer.” He shares that the word exists in Wolof (rammukat), which is the word found in the New Testament translation, but that his hearers don’t understand the term. So he started simply using an explanatory phrase in place of the term.

These examples highlight another dynamic — the fact that there is the Word, and then there are the feet/ hands/ mouths of those who take and share it. God didn’t give His Word in a vacuum but rather expects His people to help make it known, which can include explaining its meaning as His Spirit leads.

What are the implications of these things for Bible translation, the use of Scriptures by the national church here, and the spiritual growth of national believers in this country? The answers(s) won’t necessarily be easily obtained.

And what are the implications of this for me, coming from a culture where the direct and clear tends to be more highly valued than the hidden and obscure? Where personal comprehension tends to be of greater significance than communal negotiation of meaning? Where the down-to-earth tends to be more emphasized than the mystical?

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arrival in Enampor, the largest Bandial village, for the New Testament dedication Saturday May 16, 2015

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attendees (visitors and Bandial) and chorale, preparing for the start of the ceremony

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a Bandial leader speaking on the importance of the Bandial New Testament for Bandial culture and their language community

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traditional Bandial music and dancing

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Wolfgang and Karine, SIL members who have been involved in Bandial translation and literacy, addressing the attendees in Bandial

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the Bandial New Testament presented, accompanied by dancing and singing in Bandial about God’s Word

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…and the dancing and singing continues

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readings of New Testament passages in Bandial

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Pray for the Bandial as they engage with God’s Word in their language!

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