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

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

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

“Is it nice to be back in the US?”

“Yes. And no.”

I’ve been back from West Africa for just over a month now. Last weekend I attended MTW’s “Reconnect” conference for missionaries back on furlough. Over the three days in the mountains of North Carolina, we processed and shared together. We came from a wide variety of host countries and transition experiences and family situations. But we could relate to one another in the coming in and out of different cultures.

Don’t be afraid to feel the paradox. That’s one piece of wisdom that struck me during Reconnect.

“Do you like living in West Africa?”

“No. And Yes.”

One can feel seemingly conflicting things at the same time. And though that can be hard to reconcile in oneself, let alone in order to explain to others, that’s the reality.

I love being back in the US with my family and friends. I like being where things feel easier and more familiar and where I feel known and understood. I love holding and smiling with my nephew. I love being in places so green with growth I can smell it. I love driving myself around. I love not feeling like I’m always sticking out because of my skin color. I love catching up with the friends I’ve missed. And yet, I don’t love being back in a place where I can feel misunderstood in my experiences in some faraway place and where I feel unfamiliar — sometimes bewildered — with the way of life. I am comfortable here and feel happy, and I feel guilty and afraid of growing too comfortable here.

I love living in West Africa where I feel like I can spread my wings and be utilized to my full capacity. I love walking past strangers and being invited to share in their meal or attaya (their tea). I love the taste of a zesty handful of ceebu jën (rice and fish), or the refreshment of sweet, frozen krem in a bag (sort of like a West African freeze pop). I love switching in and out of three different languages every day and always learning bits of another new language. I love seeing someone’s face light up and making their day by saying just the right phrase in their language with just the right inflection and color. I love that my teammates are from different countries than me. And yet, life in West Africa has been demanding, lonely, discouraging, isolating, confusing. Life there is rich and rewarding and makes me feel happy, and life there is hard and exhausting.

Paradoxical reality is not unique to cross-cultural workers and expatriates. I’m guessing it’s just part of the human experience.

So as I continue reconnecting with many of you in the US, thank you from my heart for your patience with me as I feel the paradox.

 

 

Just like that, you turned and smiled as you waved goodbye.

You’d become my big sister and my friend, though I’m not sure when it happened or how. All I can remember are moments, points along the way to us being sisters and friends. Like the time you sent me one of those infamous texts: “Merci de me rappeler. Orangewuma.” Those automatic messages sent by someone who is out of calling credit and can’t (or refuses to) buy more, instead insisting that the other person spend their credit to call them. When I dutifully called you back, the first words out of your mouth were, “Yabbamu la, dama la miin rekk” (I’m not disrespecting you, I’m just comfortable with you). Indeed, as my older sister in this culture it was your prerogative to boss me around. And I laughed and remembered that phrase to use back with you in the future. And I would. And you’d laugh too. And the other time I asked about storing something in your fridge, and with your quick wit you responded with, “Sure I’ll rent it out to you.” And I didn’t pick up on your teasing and I said that was fine. And you scolded me saying, “No it’s not fine. You need to say, ‘No I’m a member of the family, I don’t pay.’” Those and other moments showed me that, in the unremarkable days and moments during nearly three years of knowing one another, somewhere along the way, despite the remarkable differences between me and you – just like that – we’d somehow fallen into sisterhood.

It was after your husband had left you and your children that you seemed to start confiding in me. You had no reason to; after all, surely you’d been disappointed and hurt and disillusioned by expatriates in the past. And surely you knew I’d do the same sooner or later. You’d tell me after he’d left you that you’d dreamt of a demon on top of a mountain, holding two hearts and cackling saying she’d managed to tear the two of you apart.

And some time after he came back and publicly repented, you’d tell me you had no idea how you went from a place where all you wanted was to divorce him to forgiving him and accepting to be a family again. And you said you had no guarantee that your husband wouldn’t leave you again but that God had touched your heart and you’d forgiven him. And I thought back to the day I’d watched you as everyone else from church urged you to forgive your husband and take him back. Your face had disclosed nothing, you would say nothing, and you seemed to feel nothing. But I thought you seemed tired and distant. And I wondered if that was what deep shame looked like.

And just like that, the day had come for us to say goodbye. We both knew it was coming, though we didn’t speak about it. We’d spent the most time together all at once that we ever had. I’d asked you to do me a huge favor by accompanying me as I went on a crazy, whirlwind tour of 10 villages in five days. The sort of thing that only an expat would do. That’s not any West African’s cup of tea – none that I’d met in any case. And certainly not a mother of four children who has a house to run. But just like that, you’d agreed to come. All I’d needed to say was that I’d be making these trips because I was preparing to return to the US for a time. Just like that, you’d said that of course we’d do the trips together, that of course you needed time with your little sister before she left.

Late the night of our first day, just like that, you’d started pouring out your heart. And I remember looking at you in the glaring light of your house’s fluorescent light, the nighttime deep around us and the air still and cool. I felt honored and terrified as you shared the times when your family had encountered – in flesh and blood – spiritual attacks, demons who’d lived in your home and tried to wreak havoc. The gleam in your eyes in the dark night showed nothing of fear. And you shared the times that your faith had been tested over the past year, the worst year of your life. And I felt helpless.

The next day, late at night and after a full day of visits, your three-year-old was unsettled and you were exhausted. “Am, Kyria,” (Here, Kyria) you’d say, just like that, as you handed the piece of cloth used to tie a child to one’s back. “Boot ko.” (Carry her on your back.) No instructions, no warnings, no mother’s tips. Just an exasperated mother asking her younger sister for help. You assumed after three years of watching women tie children on their backs that I could do this, so just like that, you entrusted your child to me. You didn’t even watch as I tied your daughter to my back to make sure I was doing it correctly. And as I felt her warmth and her weight on my back and walked about your courtyard, carrying a child on my back in the West African way for the first time, looking up at the dazzling stars, I felt a deep gratitude that I couldn’t express.

And just like that, after a whirlwind of a five days together, we were taking our last ride together. And I was compelled to try to thank you in words, even though no words seemed adequate. But I couldn’t let you go your separate way without verbally acknowledging all you’d done and that I’d miss you. While I hoped my words weren’t necessary for you to know, I knew I had to say them. And you thanked me. You’d been asking me the past several days about how we could keep in touch once I was back in the US. You’d said that if you’d hear from me even once a month that would be okay. I’d told you I’d be getting a new number, that I’d be looking for cheap ways to call West Africa, that I’d do my best.

And now again, as you prepared to get out of the car, you asked, “Dangay woote?” (You’ll call?) Yes, I replied. And then you lightened the mood and joked, “Damay dee, walla damay jooy?” (Do I die or do I cry?) You were referencing the joke one of the people in the villages we’d visited had made. When I’d told him I’d be gone for a year, he looked at me with mock shock and said with a glimmer in his eyes, “Benn at? Mbaa dunu dee?” (A year? I hope  we won’t die, will we?) They always seem to find ways to lighten the mood. And that’s what you did now, as you said to me, “Do I die or do I cry?” “Bul dee waay,” (Don’t die) I answered with a smile in an effort to hold back the tears.

And just like that you were getting out of the car and I was getting out to hold your hand for a few seconds longer before you turned and walked away. I got back in the car. Just like that, you were gone. As the driver drove past you walking, I looked over and you turned. Was that a tear on your cheek? And I waved one more time, and just like that, you smiled and waved goodbye.

Just like that, I’d walked out of your house.

For 15 months, I’d called you mother and you’d called me your caat (“youngest child”). After giving birth to and raising 11 of your own, biological children, you found space in your home and your heart for another. But this caat had not a single thing – neither language nor culture nor religion – in common with you. A devout Muslim knowing I was a Christian, you took me in. Just like that, you’d taken me in, knowing that I’d surely eventually leave and without knowing how long I’d be in your home. And after 15 months of living under your roof, just like that, the day had come for me to leave.

I’d paid you monthly rent – and relatively generously at that. But rather than simply extending to me the rights of a tenant, you’d given me the privileges of both a guest and your child. We’d have our daily morning chats on your bed. I’d come downstairs after waking up, to greet you. You’d tell me to sit down, and unless I was in a hurry to go somewhere, I would because I could tell you wanted me to. We would chat. Maybe there was some news being talked about on the Wolof radio for you to talk about with me, or a Muslim practice for me to ask you about (“The bread with the black markings on it is for …”), or a cultural cue for you to discreetly give me (“If you have time someday this week, you should go visit _____”). Occasionally I’d accompanied you to the market and you’d proudly introduce me as your caat to your friends there.

You’d had no reason to understand me or where I’d come from. Sometimes you obviously didn’t. Sometimes your lack of understanding had driven me to tears. But other times, you seemed to understand completely that I wouldn’t know something and would need you to tell me. When I’d told you what day the following week I’d have to move out, you’d caught me off guard by giving me a piece of cloth and set of jewelry. You’d bought them ahead of time without knowing exactly when I’d leave. As I looked at the gifts and marveled at how beautifully tasteful they were, and how I might have picked them out myself unlike many of the styles of your country, I’d had to fight back the tears. After 15 months of seeing your caat from a different country, you’d managed to figure something out about my taste. And maybe you could see my tears or hear them in my words of thanks, because you changed the subject and we talked about something else.

Your family and friends had been telling me that you’d especially miss me because there wouldn’t be anyone to chat with you and keep you company. Just like that, it was past 6AM and I needed to get on the road. I went downstairs to find your door closed; you hadn’t woken up yet. I felt torn; on one hand I wanted to wait for you to wake up so we could have one more morning chat. But I also wanted to slip out unnoticed while I had the chance, avoiding yet another goodbye. And so just like that, I continued past your room and to the door. I told the house help to tell you I’d gone, and just like that, your caat walked out of your house.

 

It’s interesting to consider the unexpected outcomes of the work one sets out to do.

Case in point: a bit less than a year ago, the Wolof Research Project team was sketching out a research plan. We were considering how we could best conduct a large number of sociolinguistic surveys in multiple locations throughout this West African country. One decision we made was to train locals to be our research assistants, rather than conducting the interviews ourselves. The next question became, who should we recruit as said research assistants? At the time our team was also sketching out the geographic and demographic scope of our research. Which Wolof-speakers needed to be interviewed? Since our research was to be intricately related with use of Scripture in the Wolof language, it was logical to make this country’s Protestant churches part of the target population. And since the Catholic Church here sometimes uses the Wolof language and Wolof Scriptures in their liturgy more than Protestant churches, in addition to running a translation committee for Scriptures in local languages, it made sense to make the Catholic Church part of the target population as well. And finally, with the Protestant and Catholic churches here being in a majority Muslim context, Muslims needed to be included in the target population as well, so their opinions regarding Wolof could also be understood.

For the research assistant recruitment, then, it made the most sense to look to the Protestant and Catholic churches. This would both help us to reach the target population, as well as hopefully ensure that the research assistants would not only see the field research as a means to make some money but as a service to their own churches that could have ongoing ramifications.

And so, in each of the four cities where the research was conducted, our surveyors were members of the local Protestant or Catholic churches. We hoped that this would increase the impact of the research; local Wolof-speakers would not just be the “subjects” but they would also be the “agents.” Rather than our simply informing them of the research findings, they would encounter the findings, the reality of their context – firsthand and in a new light.

Little did we know what outcomes and impact this decision would have. Little did we know what impact it would have on our own outlooks.

From the start in City #1 back in February we began to see it. We ended up not having any Protestant surveyors in that particular city. This required Catholics to interview Protestants. Some of those Catholic surveyors were learning for the first time that there was a Protestant presence in their town, and that not all Protestants were foreigners. This sparked much discussion among them, especially when occasionally interviewees would respond with suspicion, asking what theological background SIL represented. This resulted in a memorable word given to our City #1 surveyors by our team coordinator, Bagne. He passionately explained that SIL is not exclusively linked to any tradition or denomination but rather desires to support all churches who preach and promote God’s Word. Bagne is uniquely placed to share such thoughts; he was born and bred in this West African country, was raised in the Catholic Church, has worked as a long-time Protestant pastor and SIL member. I was left with much to consider regarding, among various things, the stereotypes – not always accurate – that church traditions can have of other church traditions.

The unexpected impact continued in City #2, where the team of surveyors was mixed. Protestant surveyors who were interviewing Catholics reported with pleasant surprise that they’d had rich times of sharing with brothers and sisters in Christ. Catholic and Protestant surveyors alike shared at the closing ceremony what a privilege it had been to meet and work with members of churches that they hadn’t previously known. They said that they’re all located in the same town and yet it’s rare that they have opportunities to come together. I was beginning to see that the Wolof Research Project was serving, in an “accidental” way, to bring churches together that perhaps otherwise wouldn’t. This is no small thing in a country where the Christian population is no more than 5%, and of that minority Protestants comprise less than 1%. Surely with such a small percentage, a lot hangs on strength in unity.

It all came to a climax in City #3. This city’s Protestant population is the smallest of the four target cities, and so our team of research assistants was also the smallest but still mixed, Protestant and Catholic. For the closing ceremony, we followed the practice of inviting the local church leaders who had been involved in the research preparations and surveyor recruiting. The local Lutheran pastor came, as did the pastors and an elder of three other local Protestant churches. Though no one from our Catholic invitees was able to attend, among the seven recruits receiving a diploma was one Catholic, the youngest of the research assistants. When he stood up to introduce himself as all the recruits did, he mentioned that something he appreciated in particular about the research project was the chance to work alongside Protestants and Catholics. He said he was coming away from the experience having personally found that there aren’t many differences. He encouraged us all attending to pray and work for the unity of the Church because Jesus desires us to be one as he and the Father are one. I couldn’t help but wonder at the gumption his words took, considering he was the only Catholic in attendance as well as the youngest in attendance.

The theme of unity was then taken up by several others at various parts of the City #3 ceremony. Bagne responded and shared from his experience where he had seen organizations encouraging Islamo-Catholic dialogue; he shared that he had always said this dialogue can only come after increased inter-Christian dialogue (Protestant-Catholic as well as inter-denominational). He urged all of us who claim to follow Christ to also pursue unity since this is Christ’s prayer. And finally, the elder of the city’s largest Protestant church got up to share a few words. He is of Catholic background, and I’d happened to hear him preach the previous Sunday when he’d given some fairly strong words regarding the fellowship of Christians with former Muslim or Catholic practices. When he stood up, he echoed the others’ push for more unity. He said we have to love each other as fellow followers of Christ. “Because who’s my brother?” he asked. “It’s not my relative or even my fellow Christian. It’s the Muslim. So if I’m called to love my Muslim brother and I can’t even love my Christian brother, how can I be obedient to Jesus?” I’m confident I wasn’t the only one who found the whole discussion, and his words in particular, moving and convicting.

In a country where Christians are such a small minority, it doesn’t make much sense to me, in my limited experience and understanding of course, for there to be unnecessary division, lack of dialogue, and misunderstanding among the different church traditions. Surely especially where the Church is a minority, it needs to rally together to have an impact. And yet Christ’s prayer for His Church to be one isn’t even primarily a prayer of pragmatism but rather one which naturally follows his relationship with the Father — God’s character as three Persons in One.

If I’ve learned anything from living cross-culturally, it’s that different people and groups and church traditions can’t always do everything together. Maybe this is true for similar reasons that individuals (even Christians) can’t live with or work with or marry any and every other person. But I’ve also learned that there’s a certain level of love – and demonstration of it through actively being and working together – that is a necessary part of following Jesus beyond the boundaries of one’s comfort zone, whether the boundaries be personal or cultural or ecclesiological.

In an article that I recently read by South African theologian Desmond Tutu, I came across the following thought-provoking quote by Maurice Wiles:

“Theology today is inductive and empirical in approach. It is the ever changing struggle to give expression to man’s response to God. It is always inadequate and provisional. Variety is to be welcomed because no one approach can ever do justice to the transcendent reality of God. Our partial expressions need to be complemented by the different apprehensions of those whose traditions are other than our own. … We ought therefore to be ready to tolerate a considerable measure even of what seems to us to be error, for we cannot be certain that it is we who are right. On this view a wide range of theological difference (even including what we regard as error) is not in itself a barrier to unity.”

This is certainly not a perspective I often hear – in any country in which I’ve lived. I’m not entirely sure what to make of it, nor of these unexpected outcomes of the Wolof sociolinguistic research that I’ve been pondering. Maybe we all tend to see the barriers which obstruct Church unity – rather than the drivers which push us towards it.

What if there were fewer barriers to Church unity than we thought? Or, what if the rewards for pursuing Church unity outnumbered the barriers, and were greater than we thought?

I aim to keep trying to understand, to keep looking for unexpected outcomes, and to keep praying – as Christ did – for His Church to be one, both in West Africa and around the world.

And so it is ending, though only for now.

As hard as it is to wrap my head around, my first term draws to a close in the next few days, and in less than a week I will be back on US soil after almost 28 months away from it. The last two weeks have been an emotional roller coaster ride as I say “see you later” to the places, people, and experiences which have been my life here. I’ve formally concluded my work with the SIL Wolof Research Project, moved out of the room I’d lived in for the past 15 months, taken my leave of my Wolof family the Manganes in the culturally appropriate ways, embarked on a five-day whirlwind trip into the heart of Serer-sine land to stop in ten towns and villages and take my leave of the Presbyterian pastors’ families and church members with whom I’ve worked, and now prepare to fly out of the capital.

Benn at? (‘One year’)” they say, with looks of surprise. “Yacine, benn at yagg na. Waaye dangay ñëwaat? (‘Kyria one year is a long time. You’ll be coming back, won’t you’)” And I reply that God only knows but that I hope to return after my year back in the US. I explain that it’s part of my work to return from time to time and report on what I’ve been doing here, and that I have further training to continue.

And we talk about memories from the past year, the events and Muslim holidays that I was here for. “Kon Yacine, korite du la fi fekk? (‘So Kyria, you won’t be here for the Korite holiday this year’)” That’s right, I tell them, but that won’t stop me from thinking of them.  And we talk about the visits I’d paid them and how they’ll miss me. “Maa leen di raw (‘I’ll miss you all more’),” I assure them. And we talk about how quickly time passes, that a year is at once a long amount time and a short amount of time.

And we talk about my family and friends back in the US, from whom I’ve been away for much longer than a year. With seemingly genuine understanding and an “Ndeysaan,” they say how hard it must be to go so long without seeing one’s people. We talk about my first nephew, now two months old, whom I can’t wait to meet and hold. They ask about my twin, whom I haven’t seen for over two years.

And I give them a small token of thanks for making a foreigner like me part of their lives – cloth, or something to buy a nice last meal together, or possessions which it would be pointless to leave in storage for a year. And they put in my hands gifts of cloth, jewelry, hibiscus for making the local staple bissap juice – “Yacine, foofu amul bissap?” (“Kyria, over there there’s no bissap?”) -, the seasoning cubes essential for making the national dish – “Yacine, mbaa dinga toogal say mbokk yi ceebu jën?” (“Kyria, you’ll cook ceebu jën for your friends and family, right?”) -, the pre-prepped and packaged millet for my ease of use, a sack of peanuts they harvested, a chicken they raised, two racks of fresh eggs they farmed. “Waaye lii bare na! (‘But this is too much’),” I try to protest. But they insist and say they’re embarrassed it’s not more. “Yal na leen Yalla fay (‘May God repay you’)” is all I can find to say. They tell me to greet my people in the US for them. “Dinañu ko degg (‘They will hear it’),” I assure them.

And then I give them my left hand for the traditional parting, left-handed handshake. “Yal na la Yalla fekk fa (‘May God find you there’),” they say to me as we part ways, to which I reply, “Amiin!” until we meet again.

Last Thursday, the SIL Wolof Research Team collected the data from the last of the four cities, and therefore successfully completed the data-collection phase! This was obviously worth celebrating by getting smart, matching outfits made by the local tailor.

Prior to Thursday, we spent four days of sending out our local surveyors, helping them conduct the required number of interviews, continuing to check over their questionnaire sheets for problems to correct, and beginning to enter the data (while continuing to enter the data from the other cities). The number of needed interviews was 450. The challenges were not lacking for our research assistants in finding that many available people in this bustling capital city.

Above, we hold a small ceremony as usual to give the trained research assistants their certificates. This ceremony was special however, since it marked the end of the whole data-collection phase, and since we held it at the SIL headquarters (located in City #4). We were pleased to have local church leaders and other SIL colleagues attending, along with our trained surveyors who stood and introduced themselves one by one.

Above left, a local church leader is given the floor to address the attendees. He praised the research project and the efforts of the surveyors. As he shared, though he is only half-Wolof ethnically, he sees much potential in using this language, spoken by the majority of the country’s population, in church life. He encouraged those in attendance to take advantage of the Wolof language, in sharing the good news of Christ who have yet to hear. He urged us to go out in courage and gentleness, using the words of Philippians 4:5, “Na seen lewet leer ñépp. Broom bi jege na.” (“Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near.”) Above right, SIL Director Pascal also  addresses the group, explaining SIL’s commitment to see the research project out to its conclusion but also beseeching the local church to engage and even take the lead in it. As he said, SIL is not here to do for the local church but to come alongside them once they take the initiative and invest in their languages. These are essential points in the Wolof Research Project.

In the next several months, our project coordinator, with the help of others, will be analyzing the data and making a recommendation to SIL leadership. SIL will then be deciding if and how to continue a Wolof language project.

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Our group of 23 City #4 surveyors who successfully completed the 450 needed interviews.

And so, though much work remains to be done and decisions remain to be made, we thanked God for enabling us to complete one phase.

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Bagne, Eva, and I also thanked God for enabling us to work together as a team over the past 17 months. Since Eva and I both will leave on furlough soon, our work as a three-person team has come to an end for now at least.

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Join the Wolof Research Team and our surveyors in four of this country’s cities in saying Jërëjëf! (“thank you”) to our God!

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