Five days from now, I’ll be somewhere in transit on my way from West Africa to the Solomon Islands. My fiancé Dean and I are beyond excited to be reunited after over six months of separation with limited communication. I admit, that is at the forefront of my mind!

But five days from today I will have also closed a 4-year chapter in West Africa, where I have worked as a single missionary since my arrival in February 2014. Dean and I are interested in coming back here as a married couple and continuing in missions work here. But only time will tell and only God knows if my departure on Sunday is a “goodbye” or “see you later.”

When I told Dean I’d marry him, many months (spanning multiple years) of spiritual discernment had preceded. I’d had to discern if God was calling me to marry Dean. I have never assumed I would, should, or could marry. I tend to believe that we should treat marriage more as a specific calling from God, rather than as a default status that most of us will eventually enter into. And so, whether or not I should ever marry, and then whether or not I should marry Dean, were causes for much wrestling with God.

Paradoxically, the fact that Dean is interested in working overseas made the decision harder for me. You see, if a man didn’t want to work overseas, the answer was easy for me – I wouldn’t marry him. And I’d carry on as a single missionary with only one person’s factors and uncontrollable circumstances (that is, my own). Barring things like my health forcing me to return to the US or getting kicked out of a country or God making it clear in some other unforeseen way that He was calling me back to the US, I’d carry on as an overseas missionary.

But a man like Dean who was open to work overseas brought a new dilemma. Being someone that I highly respect, had grown to love, and felt compatible with, Dean was someone I was very interested in marrying. And his interest in work overseas was not giving me the red light that would have otherwise kept the conversation from going further.

And yet I realized that marriage to him would inevitably open the door to new possibilities and additional sets of uncontrollable circumstances. It would open a new door to “the best and the worst.” Marrying him would obviously mean the end of my work as a single missionary, which would mean at least a temporary departure from West Africa. And after that, none of us have any guarantees. Even as Dean and I hope and plan to return overseas, possibly even to the country I’ve been working in, I knew that when I married him, I’d have to be at least willing to give that up if God chose to lead that way.

And after all, there have never been any guarantees all along. I’ve always needed to be willing to give that up if God would lead that way. I knew that the day might come even as a single missionary that God would ask me to give up overseas work as a missionary. I chose not to think about that much, and I often chose to mistakenly believe that I was more in control of staying in overseas missions since I was single and was dealing with only my own factors! But I knew deep down that God would always lead as He chose.

Thankfully, God has led in a way where I didn’t have to choose between overseas missions and marrying Dean. At least from this vantage point, God in His gracious kindness seems to have given me both. What an undeserved gift!

And so, I have sensed God’s calling to overseas work since I was a child. And now God is also calling me to marry Dean.

I’ve been spending my last couple weeks in this country in the capital city as I wrap things up – my literacy research, my relationships here, the belongings I’ve accumulated. One of the few perks of the noisy, crowded city is its location on the coast which affords long beach walks. I was recently enjoying one such walk with a dear friend and colleague. We were reflecting together on both our imminent departures. Hers comes after nearly 14 years here, living here in the capital city and mostly loving it and thriving here. Me, after 3 years (broken up) of living in the country and learning to love it because I knew God had brought me here.

She fell in love with this city and never thought she’d be leaving now. I had learned to thrive in this country, though had never fallen in love with it as she had, and I also never thought I’d be leaving now (nor certainly getting married!). And yet neither of us feels like we’re making that difficult of a move; the time is right, and we each feel in our respective situations that God has lined things up to show us that.

As we reflected together, we realized how often God graciously works that way in our lives. The change that you could only imagine with confusion and dread a few years ago, today seems normal, right, and a good next step. Sometimes what God is asking us to do today, we couldn’t have imagined accepting a few years ago. But in the interim, He has done the work in us and around us to lead and guide us and prepare us to follow. He does the necessary changing in us so that what we once would have fought and feared, we now accept when He asks us.

And we all have our unique sojourns. Sometimes what God is asking someone else to do, we can’t imagine accepting. Meanwhile, God is asking us to do something that the other person couldn’t imagine accepting.

It’s all a wondrous mystery really. Seasons change, even callings change, and God stays the same as He leads through it all.

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The first time Mark* saw a Bible in Crioulo was 20 years ago. He had to haltingly sound out every word, but he was determined to read God’s Word. As a child in the 1970s, he’d had to drop out of school earlier than he would have otherwise chosen; his parents both died and left him with no one to pay for school fees and supplies. He was determined to hang onto what he had learned—mainly the letters of the alphabet and what sounds each makes—in both the official language and Crioulo, which, back in those days, was also taught in schools.

Mark shared with me his experiences reading Crioulo back in November, during a literacy research interview I conducted in the town where he now lives. He and his family are part of one of the largest Protestant churches there.

Mark’s mother tongue is a different language called Balanta. However, like many others in his region of West Africa, Crioulo follows closely after his mother-tongue. Though Balanta was the first language he ever spoke, he’s also spoken Crioulo fluently since childhood. For many in that region, it’s the language of inter-ethnic group communication, of commerce. When I asked him what role the Crioulo language plays in his life, he answered, “It carries great value because it’s my lingua franca. It allows me to have conversations, to communicate with people. I work in the palm oil trade; I go to various villages; I buy palm oil from them; I come to town and sell it. So, Crioulo allows me to have exchanges and opens doors for me anywhere because everyone speaks it.”

It was over 15 years after he’d had to drop out of the school that he saw a Crioulo Bible for the first time. He shares, “I saw people reading, heard them reading in Crioulo at church. … Hearing them made me comfortable because I heard and understood what they read. No one pushed me to read. It was I, myself, that saw them reading and thought, ‘This thing happening here, I too must buy what they’re reading and read too. Because I’m ashamed that I’m sitting here, simply watching them read. I understand all that they’re reading, but I, myself, am not capable of doing what they’re doing. And I don’t have what they have. It’s here at church that I see them reading, and I want to be like them. I too must have this.’ That’s what pushed me to read Crioulo.”

Mark immediately found out where Crioulo Bibles were sold and bought his own copy. When I asked him what it was like to try to read the Crioulo Bible for the first time, he said, “It was not easy. I had to sound out every word, syllable by syllable. I was reading very poorly.”

Mark continued in this way with the Crioulo Bible for a year, when he began to have problems with his eyesight. He says, “Sometimes I read fluently, sometimes I read with great difficulty. It’s an eyesight problem. My eyes really bother me. … Sometimes when I read, I feel like I’ll go crazy. So I stop.”

I asked Mark what made him keep trying to read in Crioulo even when it was difficult.  He replied, “The desire to read. … It’s as you read that you grow, actually. When you read the Word of God for yourself, in my opinion, it’s then that you grow spiritually. You can read anytime for yourself; you discover things for yourself. … It was when I started reading the Crioulo Bible that my faith began to get strong. Because when I discover biblical truth myself, I realize what will help me make progress.”

To this day, the Crioulo Bible is the only thing Mark sees written in Crioulo on a day to day basis. He can’t think of any other book or resource in Crioulo that he’s ever seen, other than the syllabary he saw as a boy at school. In literacy for minority language communities, the lack of written material can be a barrier to people learning to read. To become functionally literate, people need lots of reading material with which to practice. And new written materials need to continue to be produced in order to give learners new and interesting things to read which will fuel their learning and desire. And yet, in the case of Crioulo, very little exists apart from the Bible. And for people like Mark, it is the Crioulo Bible which is their primary motivation to read in this language. In fact, reading seems to be a primarily spiritual exercise for Mark.

I then asked Mark about audio Scripture resources in Crioulo. And this is where the interview got even more interesting. This is where I got a glimpse of how seemingly mundane research can be a catalyst for significant personal reflection on the part of the interviewee. This is where God could use the interview questions I was posing to cause Mark to think about how he as a Christian engages with God’s transformative Word.

Mark shared that he owned a memory card with portions of recorded Crioulo Scriptures. I asked which he preferred between the printed Scriptures and the audio Scriptures. He answered, “Well, I prefer the memory card because when I’m out and about, my Bible is back at the house. But I have my memory card with me, and I listen. And also, the memory card explained for me the stories of Paul, Peter, all of that. So it’s what I prefer. I can easily take it on the go. I guess it’s more practical.”

As I’d been doing all throughout my interview with Mark, I was feverishly taking notes on the most important bits of what he was saying. It’s a juggling act as I take notes while also thinking about what my next question should be. The research I’m conducting is qualitative in which I employ a methodology which includes semi-structured individual interviews. This means I am to follow the unique conversational flow with each interviewee, covering the same topics with each person but not necessarily asking the same questions. This requires me to tune in and think on my feet, even as I’m writing down as many live observations as I can, which will be part of the data I analyze.

I then asked Mark if he experienced the same spiritual growth when he listens to Crioulo Scriptures as when he reads them, or if it’s different. His answer: “Yes it’s the same. In my opinion, it’s the same.”

Again, I was feverishly writing and thinking about what question I should pose him next. And then I heard him start to chuckle. He added, “Actually I’ve just now discovered that. I’ve just realized it in answering your questions.”

Mark had never stopped to think much about whether listening to Scripture could allow him to grow in his faith just as reading Scriptures could. Our interview created the space for him to reflect, and my questions were used as a catalyst for him to come to a new realization about how he engages with God’s Word.

Hopefully Mark’s reflection continues. Mine certainly will as I conduct additional interviews and as I begin analyzing all the data I’ve heard and collected.

And hopefully all of us who engage with God’s Word continue reflecting with the Holy Spirit’s help!

*Not his real name

jan
January: A West African dish, yassa ginaar, cooked for supporters in western PA

feb
February: With my friend Anita’s help, working on a sewing project with West African cloth as a break from GIAL coursework

mar
March: Volunteering in ESL for refugees in Dallas

apr
April: A discussion in one of my GIAL classes, Culture Change & Minority Cultures

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May: A Sunday presentation at supporting church Christ the King Presbyterian in DeSoto, TX, when several others joined me in African dress!

june

June: The road trip that turned into the engagement tour! A stop in Delaware to introduce my fiancé Dean to my grandmother

july

July: Back in West Africa and praying with the pastors’ wives of the national Presbyterian Church at an annual gathering

aug

August: Rainy season green! Enjoying my view from a horsecart while at research site #1

sep

September: All dressed up for Tabaski with my host family the Manganes

oct

October: A sunrise shrouded in mist while in the bush for research site #2

nov

November: My view from the boat as I traveled back north after research site #3

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December: Christmas lunch with my parents and friends of theirs from the church my dad pastors in St. Girons, France

What a full year it’s been!

While spending the holidays in Ariège, France with my parents, I saw a display of nativity scenes from around the world. I hope you’ll enjoy as much as I did this concrete reminder of the wonder of the incarnation, good news for all peoples!

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The “santons” from the Provence region of France

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The beautiful nativity typical of Germany

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A wooden nativity from Madagascar

Left: a nativity from Niger. Right: A note explaining, “This nativity was made by young Muslims, as a symbol of reconciliation after the burning of the Agadez church in 2015.”

“‘I will shake all nations, and what is desired by all nations will come, and I will fill this house with glory,’ says the Lord Almighty.” (Haggai 2:7)

For those interested, here are some more of my recent bird sightings (and attempts at identifying them)!

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Yellow-fronted canary (Serinus mozambicus)

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Black-crowned Night Heron
(Nycticorax nycticorax)

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Blue-bellied Roller (Coracias cyanogaster)

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Female House Sparrow (Passer domesticus)

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Male House Sparrow

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Cattle Egret (Bubulcus ibis)

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Wire-tailed Swallow (Hirundo smithii)

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African Sacred Ibis (Treskiornis aethiornis)

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Common Bulbul (Pycnonotus barbatus)

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Male Red-billed Firefinch
(Lagonosticta senegala)

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Female Red-billed Firefinch

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Female Variable Sunbird (Cinnyris venustus)

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Male Variable Sunbird

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Beautiful Sunbird (Cinnyris pulchella)

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Western Plantain-eater (Crinifer piscator)

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African Pygmy Kingfisher (Ispidina picta)

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Blue-spotted Wood Dove
(Turtur afer)

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Village Indigobird  (Vidua chalybeata)

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Western Reef Egret  (Egretta gularis)

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Pin-tailed Whydah (Vidua macroura)

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Broad-billed Roller (Eurystomus glaucurus)

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Bearded Barbet (Lybius dubius)

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Laughing Dove (Spilopelia senegalensis)

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Male (left) & Female (right) Black-necked Weaver
(Ploceus nigricollis)

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African Paradise Flycatcher (Terpsiphone viridis)

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Bronze Mannikin (Lonchura cucullata)

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Black-winged Stilt (Himantopus himantopus)

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Pied Kingfisher (Ceryle rudis)

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African wattled lapwing (Vanellus senegallus)

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Malachite Kingfisher (Corythornis cristata)

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Piapiac (Ptilostomus afer)

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Yellow-billed Stork (Mycteria ibis)

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White-breasted Cormorant (Phalacrocorax lucidus)

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Pink-backed Pelican (Pelecanus rufescens)

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Yellow-billed Kite (Milvus migrans parasitus)

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White-crowned Robin Chat
(Cossypha albicapilla)

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Blackcap Babbler (Turdoides reinwardtii)

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Black Crowned Crane (Balearica pavonina)

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Yellow-crowned Gonolek (Laniarius barbarus)

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Gull-billed Tern (Gelochelidon nilotica)

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Caspian Tern (Hydroprogne caspia)

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Royal Tern (Sterna maxima)

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Speckled Pigeon (Columba guinea)

When Ian* was a boy, two people in his life spoke of things yet to come for his and their mother tongue of Manjak. What they said made him dream, and he’d never forget their words.

The first was his father. He told Ian that one day, sooner or later, their language would be written. He didn’t know when it would happen, but he said that the day would bring the development of the Manjak language and people.

The second was a Catholic priest, also a Manjak, who taught in the school Ian attended. In the school day, there was an hour where he taught the Bible. He would read a passage in French, then translate it for the students into Manjak. He told them, “One day, what I’m reading in French and translating into Manjak, sooner or later it won’t be the French that will be read. Sooner or later, it will exist directly in Manjak. I don’t know when it will happen, if I’ll still be around or not. But sooner or later, it will happen.”

That day will hopefully come very soon. The translated Manjak New Testament is in its final stages, and the team responsible hopes to have it printed in the near future.

Today Ian attends church services, where the French language is mainly used. Occasionally a priest from a different ethnic group may lead in a different language, but it is usually French. Ian reads the Bible in French. He has heard that the Bible is being translated into his mother tongue Manjak. He can read in Manjak, thanks to participating in an adult literacy program years ago.

When I asked Ian during a literacy interview with him last month, which he’d prefer given the choice between someone reading from Scripture in French then giving a verbal translation in Manjak, or someone reading directly from Manjak Scriptures, he responded with, “Let me tell you a proverb.”

“The Manjak will say,” he continued, “that if you see a baby being given to someone other than the mother to nurse, that baby must have no mother. But a baby who is not orphaned and has a mother, whom does he or she reach for when it’s time to nurse? Of course it’s one’s own mother that one choses to nurse from. That’s obviously preferred over giving the baby to someone else to nurse.”

He then explained, “All that to say that on one hand, you have the Bible in French that someone reads and then translates for you. On the other hand, you have the Bible that someone takes and reads fluently from in Manjak. You who are listening, what will you choose? You’ll choose the Bible in Manjak that you can listen to without any problem. … I’d prefer to have the Bible in Manjak because I understand Manjak; I am Manjak. I would read and have no difficulty understanding what would be said in Manjak Scriptures. And that’s what I would really consider and take into account. Whereas the French Bible, I can read it, but there are difficult words, words that I can’t make out. I cannot understand the intended meaning. So it poses a problem for me. But if the Bible were in Manjak, there I would have no difficulty. I would take it into account in my heart.”

I then asked him if he’d prefer to listen to someone’s reading of Manjak Scriptures or read them himself. Since there is much that we are learning about cultures around the world—and even subcultures of American culture—that could be described as primarily oral (preferring to engage with information through non-print means), this is a question that’s becoming particularly interesting throughout my research. For people in such cultures—where reading may not be reinforced all throughout one’s life and everywhere in the community, where the infrastructure may be lacking for formal education to make a majority of the population competent readers, and where reading and writing may only be associated with work and learning rather than pleasure and enjoyment—the great effort it takes to read a Bible passage may actually take away from people’s engagement with the transformative, Spirit-inspired truth of the passage. Hence the orality movement and all the efforts of organizations like SIL to make Scriptures available not only in print form but also in audio and story-told forms.

So what would Ian prefer given the choice between listening to someone else or reading himself Manjak Scriptures?

His answer: “Here’s an example. If someone tells you a story that he himself didn’t witness, and on the other hand, you were present when the event he’s talking about happened. Between him and you, who will be better to listen to if you want to hear the story? I think witnessing an event firsthand is more valuable than hearing it from someone else second-hand. Because if you then want to tell the story to someone else, how will you if you did not witness the event? But when you witness the event yourself, in that case you’ll understand everything, you’ll be able give a full account of it because you saw it yourself. … I would prefer to read the Bible myself. I’ll understand and remember more than if I listened.”

It was fascinating for me to hear Ian compare reading Scripture to the immediacy of witnessing an event firsthand, and his comparing listening to Scripture to the second-hand nature of hearing about an event which he hadn’t witnessed. We in the West would probably describe it that way, but that’s to be expected since we are for the most part raised as readers in our cultures and are surrounded by the written in all domains of life. Here in West Africa, one finds a much different scenario, where many people don’t write things down to remember them; even for those who can write, it’s simply not a habit on which daily life depends. In communication too, the observer here notices a preference for the spoken and heard, rather than the written and read. For example, though texting is possible and sometimes used in phone communication, the overwhelming majority of communication here happens by calling and speaking-listening. Same with email and letters; though possible and occasionally used, one is much more likely to pick up the phone and talk to someone, if one can’t speak face to face. In my limited experience of the local church, one tends to find very little written – no song lyrics to read, no written liturgy, no signs, few printed Bibles. Of course, the reasons are complex; lack of infrastructure, lack of schooling, and lack of Bibles are factors that also contribute to the observed preference for spoken and heard.

And yet, in the context of what could be called an oral preference culture, Ian was expressing a personal preference for the written and read when it comes to engaging with Scripture.

Ian is only one case. His experience is of course not necessarily representative of the majority of this West African country’s population. Indeed, the fact that he attended school, became a reader, and had the opportunity later to learn to read in his mother-tongue already sets him apart from many in this country. Ian’s experience is simply one tiny “slice” of the picture here. It is certainly interesting to consider, though, from both local language literacy and Scripture Engagement standpoints.

I hope to share here in the future other “slices” from other interviews, that will show some additional sides of the picture.

*Not his real name

How do I get from place to place for my literacy research? With rivers and multiple regions to traverse in between? Well let’s just say that the last couple months, I may have taken most of the modes of public transportation that exist in this West African country!

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A horse cart

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A ship

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A motorbike: (Close your eyes, Mom, and know that I only use this when it’s the only option and that I wear a helmet if there is one.) Don’t worry, it may look like I’m scared, but that’s actually my excited face!

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A fishing boat acting as ferry (which the motorbike was put into before crossing the river so the driver and I could continue our journey on the other side!)

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A van-type bus (which, with the seats behind me not pictured here, can surprisingly carry 17+ passengers)

While not an exhaustive list of the means of transportation I’ve used the last few months, it’s at least a glimpse. Getting from place to place alone keeps life for me here interesting!