I’ve been back from West Africa for over three months now, and that world is feeling further and further removed from my day to day life in the US. But there are things that I couldn’t get out of my system if I tried. One of those things is their beats and rhythms.

Last Sunday, my friends at Christ the King Presbyterian who lead worship agreed with my crazy idea to teach the congregation a West African song I know. This is a common song in the country where I work, the lyrics for which are simply, “My God is good.” Any of the country’s 30-some languages saying “My God is good” can be inserted and added as another verse in the song.

Well we sounded (and looked) pretty good doing it, if I do say so myself. Check us out here, and use the following password: desoto1. (Video courtesy of Lucy Griffiths.) A huge thank you to Paul, Cathy, Brad, Christy, Kevin, and Rachel who helped me pull it off.

I’d forgotten, when I first came up with the idea of teaching the song in an American church, how “funky” West African rhythm(s) is (are). Well my ethnomusicologist friends at Christ the King taught me a new word as they learned and quickly analyzed the song: polyrhythm. I can’t even give you a definition for it, other than that this song and the multiple ways of keeping rhythm to it give you an example.

On a Sunday morning in West Africa, it would be typical for the song leader to clap out a beat with her hands, for the congregation to respond as they sway and clap along on different beats than her, and for there to be one to three djembes also in the background with one or several other accompanying beats being drummed out.

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Click here for a video I’ve posted before but that I’ll share again, giving of brief glimpse of how it’s done there. (Use the following password: tilene1).

As I reflected on this new word polyrhythm that captures what I’d seen, heard, lived, and breathed (without knowing what it was) for my 28 months in West Africa, I remembered back to the first several times I heard West African worship.

It sounded to me like joyful chaos.

I couldn’t figure out what to do, when. But I was happy to just be in it and taking it in.

So at first, I simply joined in the congregation’s spontaneous swaying together. The whole room seemed to move. Once I got used to it, I couldn’t help but sway along. It became unconscious. My body had to join in; it felt more uncomfortable and out of place to stand still.

I then began to notice the hand claps that the congregation would do. Some followed the swaying; so for example, there were songs that when we leaned to our right, our hands moved to the right and clapped twice. If I watched the others long and hard enough, not paying attention to the djembe beats and the song leader, I could follow them and clap along. I’d notice others clapping at different places and realized that’s part of the beauty of the joyful chaos: that there’s no wrong way to move or clap.

drums

And then eventually, I started learning the words to the songs. No lyric sheets in West Africa. No way to see the words. No complete break between songs. No way of knowing which language each song will be in. French, Wolof, Serer-sine, etc. That blend was a typical Sunday. One chorus simply flows into the next. You always follow the song leader. Even the djembes follow the song leader. And the song leader has the choice to lead however she wants to. But eventually, especially as I learned more Wolof, I was learning some of the song lyrics and able to start singing along. I couldn’t move and sing at the same time for a little while, so I’d do one or the other. But the more time I soaked in that joyful chaos and simply chose to feel it instead of try to understand it, I eventually caught on. I’d catch myself singing and moving at the same time and not trying to dwell on it too much so that I wouldn’t break the spell and mess myself up!

Well it wasn’t too much longer that I noticed the song leader’s hands were doing something completely different. It seemed to be a separate but complementary rhythm. And I was fascinated all over again. I wanted to learn to clap like she did. And so, I’d have to stop singing, clapping, and even swaying, and look at her hands and will my hands to mimic hers. And after many times of doing that, my brain and body learned it. I’d developed yet another way of joining in.

Just when I thought I’d learned all the different pieces of this chaos, I realized the song leader’s feet were also moving! And it was when I’d get swept up into a walking dance line that I’d realize I needed to learn to move my feet in step with all the rest of the chaos. And I would, eventually; though obviously I’ll never “feel” it as easily and naturally as West Africans do.

dancing

As I learned layer upon layer, I was discovering that it was all part of a greater whole. It sounded like chaos at first to my North American ears and body, but it all fit beautifully together.

It was an absolute joy to bring just a small piece of that back here to Christ the King in Desoto, TX and lead other North Americans in joining the “joyful chaos.” We sang “My God is good” in five languages — English, French, Wolof, Serer-sine, and Pulaar. The last three are from the country where I work. As I explained to the Christ the King congregation, they often sing it in English there, even though most of them don’t speak any English. And so we could try to learn it in their languages. Singing along in Wolof and Pulaar in particular is moving, because there are few native speakers of those languages who are followers of Jesus and who would ever sing “My God is good” with the knowledge of Christ’s redeeming work. And so the song becomes a prayer that more speakers of those languages would come to know the goodness of God in Jesus.

I’ll include the lyrics below in case you want to sing along as you feel the rhythms!

photos courtesy of Dick Senzig

in English
Song leader:
My God is good
My God is good
My God is good            
Everyone else:
                                          He is good
[repeat]
My God is good
                                           He is good
My God is good
                                          He is good

in French
Song leader:
Mon Dieu est bon
Mon Dieu est bon
Mon Dieu est bon         Everyone else:
                                           Il est bon
[repeat]
Mon Dieu est bon
                                            Il est bon
Mon Dieu est bon
                                            Il est bon

 in Wolof
Song leader:
Yalla baax na
Yalla baax na
Yalla baax na              Everyone else:
                                         Yalla baax na
[repeat]
Yalla baax na
                                         Yalla baax na
Yalla baax na
                                         Yalla baax na

in Serer-sine
Song leader:
Roog a faxa
Roog a faxa
Roog a faxa                Everyone else:
                                       Roog a faxa
[repeat]
Roog a faxa
                                      Roog a faxa
Roog a faxa
                                      Roog a faxa

 in Pulaar
Song leader:
Alla moji
Alla moji
Alla moji                     Everyone else:
                                       Alla moji
[repeat]
Alla moji
                                      Alla moji
Alla moji
                                      Alla moji

Just like that, you rode off down the dirt path and out of sight.

We’d spent the last, intense 17 months together as teammates, and today most likely concluded our formal work together. We’d had one last meeting in which you’d evaluated my work performance over the past year. In typical West African fashion, it had become an all afternoon affair, as my host family served us lunch and as the afternoon stretched out with conversation, not all of it related to the task at hand. You took advantage of the opportunity to reflect on your past twenty years in the organization. And finally as the early evening sun hung low, you shook my hand one last time as we stood in front of the house, bid me farewell with that ever-present and weighed-down smile of yours, and then climbed on your scooter and rode away. Your future uncertain and my departure for a yearlong furlough fast approaching, we wouldn’t see each other again for a long time.

17 months of long work meetings where you and I and the rest of our team sought to understand each other, communicate with each other—when we were coming from different perspectives. 17 months of learning and adapting to each other’s styles of working and trying to accomplish the task given our team. 17 months including challenging times of misunderstanding, damaged trust, hurt feelings, unclear expectations, and conflict. 17 months and just like that, it was over.

And for what? What had we managed to accomplish? Everyone had warned us that the task before us wouldn’t be easy. We were the guinea pig project: a kind of work that had never been done before, and under a kind of leadership that had never been tried before. Both the assignment and the team composition made it seem doomed from the start. Indeed, more than once, it had seemed like we or the work would fall apart altogether.

And yet, just like that, we’d successfully concluded the most daunting and demanding phase. When push came to shove, our team had managed to work together and quite beautifully at that. We’d set aside our differences and chose to complement each other in our uniqueness rather than complain about it.

Our differences – where would we start if we were to try to list them? Language, for one; we worked in a tongue that was a second language for each of us. Culture. Upbringing. Country of origin. Personality. None of us on the team shared one point of commonality along these lines. What did we have in common? The organization we work in, and our belief that Jesus is the only hope of the world. In the end, that seemed to be enough – though at times, barely.

As I watched you disappear down the dirt path leading away from my host family’s house, I again wondered, For what? Our team was on its way to successfully accomplishing the task. But what had these past 17 months accomplished for you? You had spent 20 years laboring for the development of your mother-tongue and for the translation of the New Testament into it, only to be asked last year to head up a project in a different language – a project for which it seemed you had to set aside your ideals and your heart. And you did so willingly and gladly, trusting an organization that had invested in you and in which you’d invested — even if you didn’t always understand its decisions.

There had been times when our respect for each other and our trust in each other were shaken. There had been times when I doubted that we were the right people for the job, when I questioned decisions or the way certain situations had been handled. But in the end my doubts were laid to rest, and I felt complete confidence in you, to lead us to a successful finish, and in our team – in spite of our shortcomings. Besides that, as I watched you ride away, I’m not sure anyone else could have done it.

And as I thought about the people making up our team and the intense challenges we’d experienced, I again wondered, For what? We were on our way to accomplishing our task, against all odds. But had we only been working on a task? Weren’t we also trying to build a team that loved each other? Had the past 17 months brought us closer together, or simply served to accentuate our differences? Had we learned to work well together? Or had we simply benefited from knowing where the finish line was, knowing after a certain point in time we’d no longer be working together and so could put up with each other in the meantime?

As you disappeared from sight, I realized I may never know. All I knew is what I learned from working with you and our team and how I hope I’ve grown. Your patience and long-suffering – with a smile even – in the midst of discouragement. Your ability to place personal grudges aside and communicate and work with those who have hurt you. Your refusal to let go of your personal dignity even when others sought to minimize it. And the lesson in the necessity of walking that long, slow road of building trust with another person, for which there is no rushing or short cut. And the realization that when trust is damaged, there is no choice but to take the even slower road of rebuilding trust, step by step. And your voice breaking with emotion that would never leave my mind, causing me to realize that I could be as discriminating and blind to my privilege as anyone I’d judge for such sins. In the reflection of your eyes, I’d had to come face to face with my hurtful failure to believe in someone’s potential. How often had I chosen to believe my perception of someone’s past behavior over and against the faint signs pointing to some untapped potential?

Just like that, you had once called me something that no one ever had: “an artisan of peace.” I certainly had never called myself such a thing. I will never know what you had seen in me that would cause you to call me that. As a persistent avoider of conflict, I believed at first that you were quite simply mistaken. But your calling me that, just like that, had sparked an inner reflection in me that will continue. Could you have recognized something that God had placed in me that I’d never realized? Could you have called out something in me that had been dormant until then? And you’d later call upon me to use it to foster reconciliation and communication in our team. I’d tentatively stepped into that surprising role, if for no other reason than that we’d come up with few other ideas to salvage our team’s communication. I wonder if I succeeded – if we succeeded—, or if things had reached an impasse.

But your scooter was now out of sight, and the dust it kicked up was already settling back, leaving no more reason to linger in that spot and ponder the past 17 months. Whatever else we had succeeded or failed to do, our team had made it to this point and on more than mere speaking terms. We were celebrating each other and our team. We had weathered so much. We had seen each other at our worst probably. And we hadn’t given up. We had chosen to stick together and keep loving each other, keep fighting for each other. For that reason alone, wasn’t a little more of the Kingdom of God built in us and possibly through us? That was something.

Just like that, you rode out of sight, but I wouldn’t forget you.

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.