Today marks one year since I arrived in country for my first term here in West Africa. My reflections on the past 12 months resulted in the following two lists: nine lessons learned, and nine personal firsts.

Lessons learned:
• There are no hard and fast rules for life here (or, each person you ask has his/ her own set of rules).
• Fear & cynicism are things to be prayed against, every single day.
• Grass grows here.
• Everyone can teach you & help you in something; don’t let pride get in the way of learning. But no one can do for you the work of finding your way; don’t let fear hold you back.
• West Africans do hugs.
• There are days when everyone you meet is a friend. There are other days when everyone you meet is a jerk. It’s better to greet each day expecting that it will be the former.
• It gets cold here.
• Sometimes something as simple as successfully changing a light bulb – by oneself, in a foreign culture, using a foreign language – feels like moving a mountain. And that feeling can be enough to keep you going another month.
• Intangible comforts (like living with people with whom you feel at ease) are often more important than tangible ones (like hot water and a nice mattress).

Personal firsts:
1. discovered kora music
2. spent 18 hours on a boat
3. ate cashew apples (lots)
4. saw a piglet being born
5. ate honey fresh from the comb
6. went swimming in the mangrove forest
7. received compliments on a head scarf I’d tied myself
8. went a month without using toilet paper
9. turned down a “marriage proposal” in Wolof by telling the man that Jesus was already in my heart so there was no room for him

Chairs: check.
Djembe: check.
Christians coming together to celebrate Christ’s lordship: check.

A new cellule (“cell group”) of worshiping believers has been launched here in the outskirts of this West African nation’s capital city.

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A time of worship was held in typical local fashion, complete with hand-clapping, dancing, drumming, and singing in four different languages.

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A sermon was preached from John 8:34-41, reminding us of God’s power over Satan, spiritual evil, civil and religious authorities, traditional practitioners. The group of local Christians meeting in a pastor’s home had outgrown the room where they meet. So, one of the families that lives further out has decided to start a new weekly worship service in their home. Here, in a city where Christians are such a small minority, this is cause to remember that “if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36). For the first worship service in the new home, everyone gathered together to celebrate and support the family. The members of the host family were called up to the front for a time of laying-on of hands and prayer for protection.

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And then, since it wouldn’t be a celebration here without sugary, carbonated beverages, we concluded the inaugural service by drinking soda together.

All praise to Jesus who is building His church and who won’t allow the powers of hell to prevail against it!

I wasn’t sure at first that I’d caught her words correctly in Wolof. Could she have just said that? No prelude, no apology, no softening of the words or indirect maneuvering.

But I knew that fiery look in MA’s* eyes so, after replaying and double-checking the Wolof in my head and confirming she had in fact said it, I couldn’t really be that surprised. The setting was the Serer-Sine village where Pastor F*, MA’s husband, is from. His father passed away five months prior, and this was the day of the traditional ceremony to honor the dead. Pastor F had been back in the village that whole week. MA, with her one year old tied to her back, and a small group of us from the church that meets in her home, had made the several-hour trip inland today to attend in support.

Upon arrival, I’d followed MA and the other woman in our group. (As a woman, I’ve learned to stick with the women at these sorts of gatherings, even if I’m the only white one.) Passing through the compound and greeting some of the many attendees, we weaved our way out the back where the meal preparation was underway. The huge cast-iron pots were out in droves, and the women were organizing themselves to tackle the assignment of feeding this crowd.

The young man, lanky and well-dressed for the occasion, seemed quite out of place in the women’s cooking area. He came walking towards us wearing a wide smile and the tell-tale necklace that marks members of the Mouride brotherhood. That’s the name of the largest of this West African country’s Sufi Muslim brotherhoods. The young man and MA exchanged a jovial greeting. She presented him to me as a younger brother of Pastor F. And it wasn’t much further into their conversation that she glanced at his necklace, looked him square in the face with her eyes ablaze, and asked, “Won’t you take that off and follow Jesus?”

She went on to ask if he hadn’t yet met Jesus; his response, a laughing question of where this Jesus was. The tone wasn’t tense, or at least it didn’t feel like it to me; it felt playful even if everyone meant 100% what they were saying. (But then I can’t always accurately sense the tone in conversations here.) The young man then turned to me and involved me in the discussion, much to my unprepared horror. “Have you met him?”

This was no time to hide behind my inadequate Wolof and refuse to take part. “Waaw,” (Yes) I replied.

“Fan?” (Where)

“Bes bu nekk. Foo nekk, fooy dem Yesu angi fi. Mungi lay xar.” (Every day. Wherever you are, wherever you go Jesus is here. He’s waiting for you.)

Next to me, I felt MA and the other woman from our church group “cheering me on” all the way through my on-the-spot answer. MA came to my aid in completing the thought: “Te bëgg na la.” (And he loves you.)

Not missing a beat, the young man retorted, “Bëgguma ko.” (I don’t love him.)

MA laughed, sparking a comment from a woman listening in nearby. MA explained her reaction, saying, “I have to laugh. How else am I supposed to respond to something like that?”

I was relieved that no more was asked of me. But my admiration for MA by far outweighed anything else I felt the rest of that day. I suspect that our brief exchange with Pastor F’s younger brother was part of an ongoing conversation – between MA and the brother, and more broadly between Pastor F and his extended family. Pastor F and an older brother of his are the only believers in his family. MA, on the other hand, is a rarity in this country. She grew up as the daughter of a Christian pastor; she was raised in a covenant home. I can’t help but think that her life steeped in the gospel at least in part explains the fire in her eyes, the endless number of worship songs she knows by heart and leads the congregation in singing, the conviction with which she speaks her mind, her fearless sharing of the gospel in a gathering of unbelievers. To me, MA represents hope for her country where 95% don’t know Jesus. MA is the fruit of a life steeped from birth in the truth of Christ.

For Christian brothers like Pastor F, any traditional religious gathering – Muslim or animist or, most commonly, a blend of the two – among extended family is a cross to bear. Pressure to conform, receiving blame for the family’s ills, mockery, being misunderstood, feeling alone – I’ve heard all of it expressed by my brothers and sisters here who come from unbelieving families. Though our small group from church who were attending the ceremony did little more than sit together in a room, give a monetary contribution, and eat the mid-day meal, I have a feeling that our visible, bodily support was the main purpose for going.

Another pastor friend of mine, when he describes how a devout Muslim like him came to saving faith, lists two factors as paramount: studying God’s Word and having a family to take him in after his conversion. He explains that the missionary who introduced him to Christ understood the cultural context, the vital importance of community for West Africans, and the extreme challenges facing the first convert in a family. The missionary made sure a Christian family would take in my pastor friend, offering him the lifeline from which he was cut off when he decided to follow Jesus. Otherwise, he says, he would have never survived.

I recently made a new friend, a young woman I met at church. She’s a believer, and in our recent visits with one another I’ve felt humbly privileged to hear her share some of her struggles of being a Christian in this country. She lives on her own in the capital and says she used to have a lot of unbelieving friends, but it became too hard. She tells of hurtful conversations where friends would make fun of “her Jesus.” And so, she’s given up most of her friendships. She knows only a few Christians outside her family, so she spends a lot of time alone. But she also tells of a Muslim friend she’s held on to, one who is ouverte d’esprit (“open-minded”). Sometimes when they’re together, her Muslim friend reads her Bible and they talk about the interesting things she finds in its pages. Anytime she’s invited her to church, though, her friend laughs and says, “No, are you crazy?” She says that her family would not allow it.

These exchanges all add up to leave my head spinning some days. I have trouble knowing how to respond in the face of such cost and such courage. Where is my place in all this? I have been grafted into, as it were, the church here in this country. But I understand so little about the social needs and struggles of my brothers and sisters. I am one person, and a person who doesn’t fully fit into life and social networks here. I am only one person; I can’t be a new family to my Christian brothers and sisters.

But maybe I can learn to be part of the new family, and maybe I can learn to be a friend in this culture. It seems like nothing, but maybe it’s enough.

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

A week and a half ago, I arrived back in country. I’d left and come back for the second time, the first time being the April MTW retreat that I attended in Spain last year. That first reentry into West Africa, about two months after my arrival, was very bumpy. I saw how far I had yet to go in feeling adjusted and established here. This time, I’d gone to Kenya to spend Christmas and New Year’s with friends. And this second reentry, almost 11 months since I moved here, was different. It was a milestone of sorts; this time I saw how far I’ve come.

To be honest, as I boarded my plane in Nairobi to return, I wasn’t feeling excited. I’d had a refreshing two weeks with great people like me in age, background, and culture. I’d done some activities that I love but hadn’t been able to do since arriving in West Africa – like camping on a lake and drinking my fill of delicious coffee. Yet, even as I reflected on my great time away, I considered the past year and the new year ahead of me in West Africa. All I could think as I sat in the Nairobi airport was, “Where else would I go?” My place is not in Kenya; my place isn’t in the US (what would I do with myself there??). No, my place – for now – is in West Africa. And so, though I couldn’t say I was excited, I was ready.

Sometimes that’s all “calling” is. “Calling,” in my experience, doesn’t always elicit the response, Aha, this is the place where I most feel alive and in my element! Sometimes the response to “calling” is, Well God, this is where You want me, so where else would I go? The disciple Peter said, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” Lord where shall I go? You have the words of eternal life and You have led me to West Africa.

My flight itinerary took me through the bustling Dubai airport. I’d finally arrived at my terminal when a beautiful thing happened. As I sat and joined the others waiting to board the flight to the part of West Africa where I and they live, for the first time in a little over two weeks, I heard Wolof being spoken from two women sitting behind me. And I couldn’t help but smile. I know that language! After two weeks of not understanding any of the African languages being spoken around me, Wolof has never sounded so beautiful. In that moment, the sound of Wolof was the sound of belonging. I understand that language; I know what those women are saying!

Hours later, my plane landed back in the capital city where I’ve lived most of the past year. That’s when I realized that I was not the same person that landed here almost 11 months ago. I had no plan for getting from the airport to my new temporary housing. No one would be coming to pick me up, and I’d made no arrangements. For the first time, I was on my own getting myself and my luggage to where I needed to go. And I was not feeling anxious. By now, I’ve taken hundreds of taxi rides, I’ve learned enough of the trade language to feel in control of my foreign surroundings, and I’ve lived to tell of much more nerve-wracking transportation situations. Without my own transportation for almost a year now, I’ve learned to get where I need to in a city of over 2 million. And, maybe more importantly, I’ve learned to trust myself and what I’ve learned so that I’m not anxious about the next unknown.

As I sat in the back of a taxi and let the driver take me to my destination, I again took in this city. This city with its drab, beige-brown, unfinished buildings, seemingly collecting dust under the Harmattan haze which had descended sometime while I was away. This city with its unpaved roads and trash, for which no one seems to take responsibility or notice. This city that only looks dry and dirty to me. And a strange thought came into my head as I looked out the taxi window: This city is beautiful. Where did that come from? I wondered. What about this city is beautiful? And then I realized what: this city is familiar to me now. There’s something about familiarity that is synonymous with beauty.

And as I went about my first full day back, I had people to contact and tell that I’d returned and to whom to wish a happy new year. There were people who’d missed me.

Sometimes you have to leave and come back to a place for some perspective. And you have to give some places more time than others to grow on you. But mostly, you have to give yourself time.

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January: my CCMI mentor, Nancy, and I at the end of a full month of MTW cross-cultural training in Brussels, Belgium

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February: my bags and I, all ready to board in Pittsburgh for my one-way flight to West Africa

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March: finally meeting up with my dear friend Katie, whom I hadn’t seen since college graduation, in West Africa!

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April: getting formally introduced along with other newly arrived colleagues at SIL’s annual branch conference

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May: a typical Sunday afternoon in Sicap Mbao spent with my pastors’ family after the morning service: “helping” with lunch prep, writing down new Wolof words, and getting my hair styled by my young friend Jean-Michel

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June: taking part in a national church’s large annual Pentecost celebration in Djilas with colleagues and dear friends

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July: my first birthday celebration in West Africa! What a gift to celebrate in country with Katie, who was born the same day as me, by taking an awesome trip to Toubacouta

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August: Wolof learning begins in earnest! An afternoon spent with colleagues Clare and Eva at Malika, reading the Wolof New Testament and a book of praise songs and chatting with our friends there

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September: a glimpse of beauty in the city in the middle of hot season: one of several glorious sunrises that I enjoyed from the rooftop of the colleague’s apartment that I was apartment-sitting

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October: Me with teammates Kara and Donnie on a trip to visit friends in the village of Gobak

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November: Learning my way around a new town in the north of the country — a new landscape, culture, and routine — for the sake of Wolof immersion

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December: My Ndiayène host siblings and I (aka Yacine Ndiaye) on the evening of my tagatoo, when I thanked their family for a great six weeks as a member of their home

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And what better way to cap off 2014 than with the wild giraffes in Kenya? I was blessed to take a get-away trip and spend the holidays with friends while discovering a different part of Africa.

2014 has been filled with God’s faithfulness in the midst of much change! Here’s to the year ahead and more opportunities to follow where He leads.

 

The early morning air meets me abruptly. I never thought I’d feel cold in this country. “Well, the day that I’m cold here has arrived,” I think to myself, shivering in my sandals and light clothing, wishing for some socks and a blanket.

When was the last time I was up at 4am? “Mother, I’m tiring you,” I say to Ndey Ndiaye, my host mother. “It’s no trouble,” she replies. And I don’t insist, as bad as I feel for wrecking her sleep, because I’ve started learning to recognize how love is shown in this culture. I know she has a cold thanks to the Harmattan dust which has been swirling with a vengeance the last few days, that she went to sleep late last night after making dinner and cleaning up, that she starts work at 7am today. Part of me wants to beg her to go back to bed and sleep. But I know it’s no use. And the other part of me craves the love she is showing me and accepts it gladly. By waking before dawn, sitting outside in the cold, and waiting with me for my transportation, Ndey Ndiaye is honoring me as her guest and showing me love like she would her own child.

I turn my head to wipe the tears. What I really want to do is openly weep and show her the sadness that I feel in leaving her home, the sadness that is mixed with joy at receiving so much from her family in a mere six weeks. I want to cry and tell her all these things verbally, like I would in my home culture, and be sure that she understands.

The tears have been frequent as I think of leaving the Ndiaye family and the town where they live. And yet, I don’t feel that I can cry openly. I am living in a culture where sutura is a high value. Sutura can be translated as “discretion,” but it is so much more than what that word conjures up in English and in American culture. Sutura is the reason husbands and wives here don’t show affection publicly. Sutura is why I don’t hear my host parents verbally tell their children that they love them. One simply doesn’t hear emotions talked about or shown very often, though the emotions are very much coursing in subtle ways. So as I tell people that I’m leaving and try to control my own spilling out of sadness, I see in their faces that ever-present smile that covers a multitude of unexpressed sentiments, eyes downcast avoiding contact with my own, a Wolof blessing quick to be uttered.

What do I know of prolonged living with a national family, immersed in a language and culture not my own? My stay with the Ndiaye family has been short. “One and a half months with you was not enough,” I’d been telling them, completely sincere and hoping that they believed it. What do I know of the challenges that come in living with a family here for years? Maybe it has not been long enough to traverse an initial “honeymoon phase.” Maybe I’ve created in my mind a false closeness out of a desire for relationships here. Or maybe the Ndiayes were simply the answer to a prayer that has been in my heart since before I arrived in the country.

That’s what I told them, in my broken Wolof, a couple evenings before. I was able to find out from experienced missionaries living in the same town that a culturally appropriate way to say thanks before one leaves is to have a tagatoo (a party thrown by the one leaving), providing everything for a really nice meal. So that’s what we did. Aida, my host sister who’d become a sweet friend, accompanied me on a major shopping expedition (which included two live chickens and all kinds of other “splurge” items like fruit, pickles, olives, vermicelli pasta, cookies, and sodas). When Ndey Ndiaye saw all that I’d bought, she said, “Yacine, you’re tiring yourself with all these expenses! It’s too much.” I told her it was small next to all that they’d done for me, that it was worth all the expenses to say thank you. As we prepared the meal all afternoon and into the evening, I hoped that all of it was communicating to them my love and appreciation.

The time to eat came. Ndey Ndiaye had arranged a platter of food more beautiful than I’d ever seen here, and I managed to tell her so. I sat inside with her, Papa Ndiaye my host father, his friend Tonton Dieng, and Feluine Fall (a friend of Ndey Ndiaye’s and the local pastor’s wife who’d arranged this home-stay for me in the first place). I realized after sitting down that I was the only “non-adult” eating with them. My host siblings, even Jiby the eldest who is older than me, were all eating together outside. I panicked, wondering if I’d just committed some major cultural faux pas. But as the conversation evolved around the meal, I decided that even if I was culturally out of place, I wanted to be sitting with them. They talked about what a wonderful guest I’d been. I was thankful for Feluine’s presence as she responded, talking about what wonderful hosts I’d told her they’d been (and doing so in her native-speaker Wolof and cultural-insider grasp of the situation). I saw my opportunity to finally attempt expressing some of what was in my heart. So I told them that since I’d arrived in the country, I’d been praying for a family like them, that God had answered my prayer by bringing me to live with them. And I spoke a couple Wolof blessings, asking God to bless and repay them.

The week leading up to this cold, early morning has been filled with moments of soaking up the Ndiayes’ expression of love and trying to show them my love in the ways that will communicate to them. And so I linger a bit longer around the meal bowl, I don’t turn down any rounds of ataya, I stay up later than normal sitting with my host sisters on their bed watching random television programs. Unless I have something pressing to do in my free time, I prefer to sit with Ndey Ndiaye even if we’re not doing or saying anything. At meals, I push the crispy rice into the section of the bowl where my eight-year-old host sister Binta sits, knowing that’s her favorite part. I’m used to receiving the best fish or meat pieces from Ndey Ndiaye and Aida. But when Papa Ndiaye does this for me my last dinner, I hardly know whether to smile or cry. I’ve never seen him do that, it’s not his job as the father.  He tells me to call them when I’ve arrived safely the next day. “Dinaa ko def,” I respond (“I will do it”). And I wonder to myself if calling your folks when you’ve safely arrived is a cultural universal.

As my body shivers in the early morning breeze and as I dread the imminent parting, my heart is lightened a bit as I replay the countless happy moments over the past six weeks with Ndey Ndiaye, Papa Ndiaye, Jiby, Aida, Awa, and Binta. My mind jumps to the conversation with Feluine the previous day. She told me that her heart was cold with me, immediately catching my attention. I’d learned this Wolof phrase, the way one expresses pride or happiness in someone. It was the day after the tagatoo and the time to say goodbye to Feluine. She told me that her heart was cold with me, that I’d been a good witness among the Ndiayes and that I’d helped the ministry here. She was talking about the church that literally bumps up against the walls of this Muslim family’s house. The sound of Jesus being worshiped is heard in their courtyard. My host sisters sometimes sing the songs throughout the week. Several church members, like Feluine, have close relationships with the Ndiayes. Especially next to their tireless and endless ministry efforts, I don’t know how my short six weeks of improving my Wolof by living with the Ndiayes could make much difference. Feluine’s words humble me. I’m inspired all the more to keep praying for this family which has become so dear to me.

I’m jerked back to the cold present by my cell phone ringing. It’s the taxi driver, saying he is close but unfamiliar with the area. And now my host father is also out of bed in the pre-dawn and going out to the road to look for the taxi and guide the driver to the house. And again, I feel torn. Part of me is embarrassed that my elder is doing the work that I feel I should do since I’m the one taking the taxi. But the other part of me is moved to more tears at this display of love that has been rare during my six weeks of knowing Papa Ndiaye. A man of few words and a hard worker, Papa Ndiaye provides for his family and makes sure that they don’t lack anything that is in his power to earn. But he also perfectly fills the role of a male in this culture — he waits for his wife and daughters to do for him and would never do for his children what they are capable of doing themselves. Yet, because I am his guest, he has taken it upon himself to go out and find my taxi for me.

I take one last look in the room that has been my home for the past six weeks. One last check. Did I get everything? How many times have I performed this parting ritual in recent years? More times than I can count. Maybe that isn’t healthy, I wearily wonder. Or am I richer for the number of places and all the people to whom I’ve said hello and then goodbye? Somehow I thought I’d settle down once I got to the field. I’ll soon come up on a year here, and I still don’t know where my place is. As much as I’d love to stay here and as good of a place as it is for short-term Wolof learning, the nature of my organization’s work prevents me from living here long-term. Have my circumstances in recent years, and now here, kept me from settling down? Or has my rootlessness been a result of my own choices and preferences? These thoughts aren’t new; they return as they usually do as I glance at a now almost empty room. But today the thoughts don’t linger because it’s too early for such musings, and I don’t need any additional emotion triggers right now. And because the taxi driver is now outside the Ndiaye house.

All the bags are in. Now I just have to get in. Now I just have to say the final goodbye. My host mother and father stand next to each other facing me. I’ve never seen them, just the two of them together, this way, making the moment feel that much more significant for some reason. Ndey Ndiaye blesses me, saying, “May God put you on the path of peace.” All I can say is repeated thank yous. I hardly ever shake Papa Ndiaye’s hand; many practicing Muslim men here never shake women’s hands. But now he makes a tentative motion as if to shake my hand. So I put out my hand, and he takes it. I care less about whether or not this was culturally appropriate because, in this moment and in the absence of a hug, I just want to make my parting thanks physical in some way. I know I can shake Ndey Ndiaye’s hand, and after doing so, I do what I’ve seen done only twice before. “Indil sa benneen loxo bi,” I tell her (“Give me your other hand”). And so we shake left hands, breaking the taboo of only using one’s right hand to greet and give things to others. Papa Ndiaye energetically agrees, saying, “Waaw!” Ndey Ndiaye says, “Yes that’s what the Wolof say.” (“So that you won’t forget it,” was the explanation given to me the first time someone did that to me.) And then, with final thank yous I climb into the taxi and let the driver shut the door.

For the first time today, I’m thankful for the early departure hour. In the dark, I silently shed the tears I’ve been bottling up. One’s emotions are rarely explainable. I don’t understand the sadness I’m feeling at leaving the Ndiayes, nor the great pleasure it was for me to be part of their family. I was not with them that long. I only interacted with them in my third language, Wolof, which still feels so constrictive in what I can express and understand. What did I have in common with the Ndiayes that might explain the love that has grown in me for them? Certainly not language, religion, or culture. As I wonder at this, I can’t help but notice the stark contrast between the household I’ve just left, where I’m known and looked after, and the taxi I’m now sitting in, where I’m anonymous and only exchange brief greetings with the driver and passengers.

It’s the anonymity that becomes such a burdensome weight during one’s first year in a new country. At least that has been my experience. To be known here is a rare jewel. To be known by the people whose language I want to learn, the people whom I desperately need in order to understand this new culture, the people whom I long to know, is even rarer. The Ndiayes know me. They know I like vegetables and make sure I get those pieces in the ceebu jen. They know when I’m sick, not because I talk about it, but because they notice I’m more tired and that I’m sniffling. They know when I haven’t understood what was said in Wolof, and they know how to repeat it slowly or explain it until I have. It’s a kind of knowing that may not seem incredibly “deep” yet which makes a huge difference in my day-to-day life where all is unfamiliar. Having people who know me in this way is permitting me to find my feet and my way in this country. But here in the taxi, I’m anonymous. I’ll take it for now, for the sake of a culturally inappropriate, though needed, emotional release.

And as I gaze out the taxi window at the early morning signs of life here in a town I’ve grown fond of, as we make our way south back to the giant capital city and the familiar sense of stress and of being lost in the crowd — I realize that everything looks a little different. The Ndiayes have recolored this country for me. The women sitting with their produce and wares to sell in the market, waiting for public transportation, have become heroes in my eyes. Any one of them could be an Ndey Ndiaye, and now I’ve seen their world day in and day out, I know the care they reserve for their children and husbands despite tiring work. I know that each of those women, though total strangers to me, is the backbone of a family here. The apprentis and other young men I have to interact with in passing, who may be curt or even rude with me, have become slightly more tolerable. Any of them could be a Jiby Ndiaye, the oldest in his family who is trying to bring home his meager contribution, a big brother whose love for his younger siblings is even disguised in merciless teasing and bossing around. I now know better how to respond as a young woman from spending time with Aida Ndiaye and watching her admirable example — staying relaxed, laughing off as much as possible, being firm and demanding respect when necessary. Now, when I happen upon the occasional grumpy taxi driver, I don’t just see him. He could be a Papa Ndiaye. I see the family for whom he is working to provide in a dry economy, probably working beyond the retirement he’s rightfully earned simply out of necessity.

After my first few months here, as I was struggling to enjoy and find beauty in this new country, a wise colleague told me that the beauty in this country is in its people. Another wise friend told me that learning a language is a healing process. I couldn’t agree more with both, especially since my weeks in the Ndiaye home. Trying to live in a new place, unable to communicate at my desired level and with limited contact with the country’s beautiful people, had left me feeling broken. But a little more confidence in Wolof and the beauty of the Ndiayes began a healing process in me.

Though I can’t keep living with the Ndiayes, I know I’m better for the time I was with them. I’m also all the more motivated to live with a family like theirs when I get to a more permanent place. And after all, it’s comforting that I’ll be able to visit the Ndiayes, which I plan to do.

I’m proud to now go by Yacine Ndiaye. And I think I’m going to be okay here.

There are many rewards to be experienced when learning a new language. One that I’ve written about before is particularly motivating for me (as I struggle through the less enjoyable aspects of language learning) – it’s when I can understand God’s Word in a new way through the different words, expressions, and view of the world that the new language offers. I have finally gotten to the point with Wolof that I’m starting to glean such insights.

The church among the Wolof is small, but it is here. Over the past month, I’ve relished the opportunity to be part of one of the believing communities present among the Wolof specifically. Composed of nationals and expat missionaries, the group of Christians regularly gathers around God’s Word in Wolof. Wolof is one of several languages in this country in which the New Testament is translated. As I listen to them read God’s Word and discuss it, as I learn new words and compare them to what I find in the passages, my understanding of God is refreshed and deepened.

noflaay scriptures (2)

One example: I had seen a Wolof word that I didn’t know on a billboard advertisement. It was noflaay. I asked several people before getting an answer for what it means. My new friend Marième explained in Wolof, “You know, it’s when you have no work and nothing to think about; you’re at peace and at rest. That’s when you have noflaay.” Hmm, I like this word! I thought. But she went on to say, “Noflaay is bad. If you have work to do and you have noflaay, that’s not good because you’re not taking care of your responsibilities.”

Interesting. I figured that this concept just didn’t exist in a single English or French word. And then this intriguing noflaay popped up in a Scripture reading one Sunday morning. The passage was John 9, the account of Jesus’ healing a man born blind.

noflaay scriptures (3)

As we read together about Jesus’ making mud and putting it on the blind man’s eyes, the man seeing for the first time in his life, and the mixed reactions of the man’s neighbors and the Pharisees, we came to verse 14: “Ndekete Yeesu, bés bi mu tooyale ban, ubbi bëti gumba ga, bésub noflaay la woon.” (Now the day on which Jesus had made the mud and opened the man’s eyes was a Sabbath.)

noflaay scriptures (4)

As I followed along in Wolof (and compared with my French Bible for what I didn’t understand), the light bulb came on. Noflaay! So that’s how “Sabbath” is translated in Wolof – bésub noflaay, or the day of noflaay.

And as I remembered how Marième had explained this new Wolof word to me, suddenly I had a freshened and even deepened view of the Christian Sabbath. For one whole day per week, Christians can leave their various responsibilities in the hands of God and choose to be at peace and at rest in Him. It’s so radical that, on any other day and if God hadn’t commanded it, this behavior could be called lazy and irresponsible.

It’s striking to me that the word “Sabbath” is a bit of a foreign word in modern-day English. When else do we use it other than referring to the Christian observance of a day of rest?

Here, on the other hand, noflaay is a concept which seems current enough in Wolof that it shows up on a billboard and a young woman my age (who isn’t a believer) can quickly describe the concept. Since learning its meaning, I’ve noticed the word come up several times in everyday conversation. I wonder how an English-speaking unbeliever would hear a passage discussing the Sabbath, compared to a Wolof-speaking unbeliever hearing a passage discussing bésub nooflay.

And I wonder what English-speaking and Wolof-speaking Christians can learn from each other about the Sabbath/ bésu nooflay based on how each language captures it?

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