Learning the language and culture of another people changes you. Your mouth learns to contort itself in new ways, your brain learns to think through new pathways, your mind learns to see the world through a different lens, your spirit learns to experience and express your faith in God in fresh ways. As I learn Wolof language and culture, in each area of change, I have found joy and pain. In that domain of the spirit, some languages can be more painful than others because of the spiritual darkness in which the speakers of the language walk. A language can be a sort of spiritual desert, where one rarely, if ever, hears the hope in Christ being lived and expressed in words. However, in that language’s desert, the occasional oasis that crops up – where the hope in Christ takes audible, spoken form – is that much more joyous.

I had some music playing in the background as I worked recently, when I felt the spiritual joy and pain of Wolof in an acute and unexpected way. Playing was Bernard Cissa, a Christian wolophone artist who writes some of his songs in Wolof, the only Christian singer I’m aware of who does so and produces albums. I was absent-mindedly catching the Wolof words in his song “Hosanna” (click here to listen too) when, to my surprise, I felt my eyes well up with tears. Why was I crying? I wondered. I had heard this song several times before; it wasn’t new. However I’d never had this sort of reaction. As I thought about it, I realized that prior to this time, the Wolof words didn’t slip into my understanding as easily. Maybe I’ve reached the point in language-learning when overheard language that I take in passively can be comprehended and can touch my emotions. So before, I hadn’t understood the words nor had I concentrated on their meaning. But in that moment, the deep hope expressed in Wolof overcame me unexpectedly as Cissa sang the following words:

Sama dund bi Yow Yaa ko jiite Yeesu Yow rekka may taneel. Suma xalaatee fatteliku ni ma meloon nga soppi ma. Bu doon du Yow kan laay doon ci addina si man mi. Suma xalaatee fatteliku Yaa nu musal Yerusalem. Yeesu Yaa ko mena def (soppi sama dund), Yow Yeesu Yaa ko mena def. Osanna !

(“You are the one that governs my life, Jesus, You alone make me better. When I think, I remember what I looked like and how you changed me. If it hadn’t been for You, what would have become of me? When I think, I remember that You saved us at Jerusalem. Jesus, You are the one who can (change my life), You Jesus, You are the one who can. Hosanna!”)

Yeesu Yow rekk (“Jesus, You alone”). To hear someone in Wolof revel in the transformative power of Christ and the hope that He gives, especially through that moving medium of music, left me feeling like I’d stumbled upon an oasis in the desert. There are occasions when I hear the hope of Christ being talked or sung about in this language I’ve focused on learning since I arrived – occasionally at church and the times I’ve heard my Christian host brother pray in Wolof. But it is not often. Even so, I certainly have more occasions than many people in this country. And then, though Wolof is the language I live a lot in, it’s not my mother-tongue. Hearing Christ’s transforming power talked about in my language is something I’ve always taken for granted as a native English-speaker. I know nothing of the desert it must be for those few Wolof believers – and the joy they must feel when they hear people talking or singing about the hope of Christ in their language! Wolof people in general talk plenty about spiritual reality, God, and peace. But, unless they number among the few Christian converts, never are they using their language to talk about Jesus and the ways in which He changed their lives.

Cissa’s lyrics in that song, more than anything else, capture my prayer for the steadily growing number of Wolof people I know – people whom I never hear talking about Jesus and the lasting peace and hope He gives because they don’t know him, people whom it’s hard to even imagine hearing talk about Jesus because they seem so far from knowing Him. And the more Wolof people I meet and live among and spend time with, the more I find myself asking, “Why would they ever seek something other than what they have in this country’s majority religion? Why would they seek Jesus, someone that their families’ generations, going back further than historical records, never knew or had use for? Why would they seek His hope and peace when they think that the only societal structure which they’ve ever known works fine?” Add to these questions the New Year calendars I’ve recently been giving to my Wolof family and friends, a calendar decorated with Scripture references in Wolof, a gift they receive with a smile and genuine thanks but which they don’t display and don’t try to read once they realize what it is. And add a child who is forbidden to attend church with his Christian uncle out of fear of what he is hearing there. The questions that voice my doubt and the discouraging situations which feed it, over time and unbeknownst to me, can warp my perspective and rob me of hope. How much more, I wonder, for those Wolof Christians whose pain and desert I know nothing of. That’s why I was crying. As I listened to one wolofophone singing about how Christ had broken through to him and changed his life, I was moved to tears as I realized that I, myself needed to be reminded that there is hope for Wolof people and that Jesus’ power can change even them.

I’ve been reading A New Way of Living by Michael Harper, who writes about the faith and hope which should define the Christian’s life and the life of the Church. He writes,

There are twin dangers facing the Church today, the one is to put everything in the area of hope, often in the vaguest and most impractical terms, which is a convenient way of escaping the uncomfortable demands of a faith which believes in the power of God to change people and circumstances. The other danger is to see only a day at a time. We can only live this way, but we are intended to see further than the end of our noses. … Christians need bi-focal spectacle—a part to focus on near objects, so that we have faith to act in the day-to-day circumstances of life; and the other kind of lens, to deal with distant objects, so that we can see beyond the present, and be as sure of the distant scene as of that which is immediately present. (p. 56)

I’m learning that it takes this kind of bi-focal living – faith for today and hope for the distant horizon – to press on in a place where there seems to be no logical reason for people to want Jesus. And I’ve not even put in two years here yet. And I’m not even one of the few miraculous Wolof followers of Jesus. I’m sure they could teach me about faith and hope.

As I ponder hope, I remember the film I watched recently called The Water Diviner. The main character is an Australian man named Connor who sets off for the other side of the globe in pursuit of his lost sons. When someone along the way tells him that he is attempting the impossible, he explains that back home where the rains can stay away for three or four years at a time, he is a water diviner, a well-digger. Citing the many holes he has dug that turn out to be nothing more than holes, Connor says, “Hope’s a necessity where I come from.”

As Christians, shouldn’t we be characterized by the kind of hope that keeps us digging for water in the driest of places, wherever God has put us? Where we come from, isn’t hope a necessity? Because we know the good that is yet to come, and the disparity between it and the present in which we and the lost around us live.

In faith, I pray today for the Wolof people I live among, and in hope, I wait for the day when Jesus will change their lives as He changed mine. Yeesu Yow rekk.

On January 9, a building was inaugurated in a Serer-sine village where the national Presbyterian church has been for a number of years. I joined a group from the church in the capital making the trek for the celebration.

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The mood was festive during the several-hour bus ride (click here for the sights and sounds of that bus ride; you’ll need this password: building1). We eventually left paved roads and followed the tracks in the sandy terrain out into the sparsely-populated countryside of the Serer-sine heartland.

Shortly after our arrival in the village, the inauguration service began in the new building. Several national pastors took turns sharing words of welcome and thanks to God for His many blessings. In attendance were most of the villagers — Catholic, Muslim, Protestant — as well as guests from the surrounding villages and from several other countries.

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And of course included in the inauguration service were singing (click here for one of the choir’s songs; you’ll need this password: building2) and Serer-sine dancing!

Give thanks with us to God who began building His church here in West Africa a long time ago!

“Jesus has been found worthy of greater honor than Moses, just as the builder of a house has greater honor than the house itself. For every house is built by someone, but God is the builder of everything. Moses was faithful as a servant in all God’s house, testifying to what would be said in the future. But Christ is faithful as a son over God’s house. And we are his house, if we hold on to our courage and the hope of which we boast.” -Hebrews 3:3-6

jan

January: Joining some SIL colleagues for a training in participative methods geared to engage the involvement of local language communities.

feb

February: Visiting a local Presbyterian pastor and his wife in their village with my mom and getting a tour of their beautiful farm.

mar

March: My SIL teammate Eva and I on a Wolof research networking visit with three women who are part of a group seeking to share the gospel with those who would never step foot inside a church.

apr

April: An Easter weekend get-away to the sand dunes of the northern coast.

may

May: I stumbled upon long-lost French friend Thérèse from my English teaching assistant days in Normandy! She too was living here with her husband Yannick and son Jonas for a short-term farming initiative through YWAM.

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June: Enjoying a week of vacation in the northern city where I lived at the end of 2014 and what may still be my favorite of this country’s cities.

jul

July: Birthday get-away to a new place on the coast with my friend Lisa and her husband Alioune, my host brother.

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August: An unforgettably dazzling sunset over the capital city.

sep

September: Participating in the post-Tabaski dishwashing crew with my Mangane family members.

oct

October: Receiving  a visit from my friends from church and sharing lunch with them in the home where I live with the Manganes.

nov

November: A typical evening at the Mangane house with my buddy and host nephew Amet.

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December: Praising Emmanuel in Wolof song after narrating the Christmas story in Wolof while colleagues acted it out for the SIL Employee Christmas party.

Wow 2015 has been full, and I expect 2016 will be as well. I look forward to seeing what God has in store for the next leg of my sojourn!

While it’s a bit late, I’d invite you to turn up your speakers and check out this video (you’ll need this password: kasa) to hear a special Christmas carol, West African style, that some of my friends at the SIL Center sang recently. The song is in Kasa, a minority language spoken in the south of this country and in which the New Testament translation was made available in 2012. The translation of the lyrics into French is given in the video, but here they are in English as well:

Alleluia, a child is born to us
God sent us his son
A child is born to us in Bethlehem
There is peace and joy
God sent us his son to come save us
It’s Christmas!

Here are the Kasa words if you want to sing along:

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Merry Christmas from West Africa!

The cool season has come back to this part of West Africa, and I’m relishing it. I’ve now experienced the change from hot season to cool season twice, and I’m learning more and more to recognize the seasonal differences here in the Sahel. They are certainly not the same as the four seasons of a temperate climate, where I’ve lived in most of my life. I’ve learned that there are actually four seasons here as well, though I can still only distinguish between two — hot (and partly rainy) and cooler (and dry). The signs of winter, spring, summer, and fall are nowhere to be found here, but I’m learning to recognize the sights, smells, and feels of the changes within the Sahel-ian year. Here are some of the ways I’m learning to tell the seasons:

mangoes (May-September)
madd, a local fruit (May-July)
roasted peanuts and grilled corn (September-October)
watermelons (October-January)

wearing my hair down (November-May)
never wearing my hair down (June-October)
never going anywhere without a hand fan (June-October)
the constant sweat sheen (July-October)
wearing socks and long-sleeved shirts (December-March)

the smell of the neem blossom (March-May)
when cold showers don’t feel cold anymore (July-October)
the smell of curaay, the incense that fills local homes (November-April)

Harmattan wind and its red coating (December-March)
dryness and brown (December-July)
green (July-November)

mud (July-September)
mold (September-November)
dust and sand (November-June)

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

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

Glamorous and thrilling, isn’t it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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