I’ve once again moved and taken up residence in a new home and a new town. A new Wolof host family – the Mangane family – has taken me in. This is important as I continue to learn language and culture. My new town is about an hour and a half’s commute from the capital, where I will need to report regularly for my work on SIL’s Basic Wolof team. I think it’s a good fit to live close enough to the capital to be there when needed, but outside the capital where there is more space, less stress, and more pronounced Wolof culture. Though I know better than to make concrete plans, I’m hoping that this living situation could become a long-term solution. I pray that God has led me here and that I can finally, sort of (despite the back-and-forth-ing to the capital) settle down.

sama neeg ci ker Mangane

The Mangane family is large in number and in heart. I’m getting to know them, and hopefully they’re getting to know me. It will be a process. Their house is comfortable, and my room in their home feels restful. My window looks out on some wonderful trees (anything green is a source of joy!), including a glorious neem tree that’s in bloom this time of year. Its branches reach towards my window, delicately tossing at me the delicious scent of its tiny white flowers, reminding me that beauty exists in this country (though sometimes in different and less pronounced forms than what I’m used to). The smell of the neem flower is the sort of gift that often moves me to tears here – rare and small yet tangible and so very precious.

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On my first day as a member of the Mangane household, I discovered a great irony in the meaning behind their family name and in my living among them. Mangane comes from the Wolof word màngaan, which means “nomadic herding to find pastures for the herd.” My time in West Africa since arriving last February has certainly felt nomadic! Who knows, maybe now that I’m living with a family named “nomadic,” I will stop moving around so much!

As I consider this new Wolof word, looking back at the moves I’ve made since arriving in this country and breathing in the smell of the neem flower outside my new room, I find myself considering green pastures. The nomadic herder moves himself and his herd in order to find them greener pastures. I admit that the moving around that I’ve done here has been tiring. In each case, though, I was brought to something that I needed, a “greener pasture” in my learning and adjustment and search for my place here. My room with the neem tree outside is the “greener pasture” to which I’ve most recently come.

But the fatigue has been palpable at times. I remember one night in particular at the Ndiaye home, where I so enjoyed living, when I realized I wouldn’t be able to stay and would have to keep looking for a long-term place to live. Dreading the thought as I lay there before drifting off to sleep, I sighed one of those deep-soul sighs to God, praying, “Lord, I know you’re preparing a place for me and that the place you promise me is in heaven, not here on earth. And I know you’re coming back for me, to take me to that place… but in the meantime, would a little corner here below be too much to ask for?”

“Just a place to lay my head, where I feel at home and can be myself,” I’ve sometimes thought. And yet, that thought always leads me to the well-known words of the Master, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” A couple months ago, I heard a devotional given on these words of Jesus by one of my Serer-Sine brothers. He challenged his fellow pastors to remember whom they follow. He said that we sometimes want security and financial guarantees before committing to ministry, and yet why should we expect these things when the Master whose path we follow did not have them? I was challenged by his words, especially considering their context here, where the role of pastor rarely brings with it a salary.

Jesus never promised His disciples that we’d feel at home here on earth, that we’d always have a physical place to call our own and lay our head. He never even promised that it would be financially easy, as my pastor friend reminded me. Any of these tangible or intangible discomforts that we experience as His disciples simply disappear when we consider His incomparable sacrifice on our behalf. And He calls us to follow.

His promise to me is that He will be my Shepherd. “I shall not be in want. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he restores my soul.” As I journey towards my yet unseen home, my Shepherd finds green pastures for me to lie down in, even where it feels like I have no place to lay my head. I may not always understand why He calls me out of one place to be led to another, but He knows me and the pasturelands better than I do. And He promises to restore my soul.

Since my arrival in this country last year, the Shepherd has led me, and I have not been in want. Instead of feeling the culminating fatigue of the moves I’ve made, I can look back at each “green pasture” to which He led me and the ways He restored my soul. And I know He has more green pastures in store, just as I know that my soul will continue to need restoration from the fatigue. May He give me the grace to continue following His voice and going where He leads.

As my new favorite singer Audrey Assad puts it so well in “Lead Me On”:

Your rod and Your staff are a strange mercy
In a world where I’m not yet home.

This past month, I’ve had the privilege to attend and participate in a couple different gatherings of Christian wolophones. “Wolophone” refers to people who speak the Wolof language as a main language of communication; this designation includes both people who are ethnically Wolof, as well as people of other ethnicities who speak Wolof. It is estimated that perhaps as much as 80% of this country’s population would fall into the category of “wolophone.”

The Basic Wolof Phase 1 team, my SIL team, is very interested in this group of people — not only the ethnic Wolof group but others who speak Wolof as their primary language. We are especially interested in wolophone Christians; we want to know what the church looks like among wolophones, when which language is used, which language most facilitates their spiritual growth, and if the current translation of Scriptures in Wolof is sufficient for their needs.

Our team will be in this phase of research for at least the next 12-18 months. For now, we are mainly observing and listening. I’m putting my cultural anthropology training to use; we are essentially conducting participant observation, listening, taking notes, and brainstorming about which research questions to ask in order to get the necessary information.

Consultation Wolof (March 18-20)

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For the 22nd year, Wolof believers and missionaries (both national and expatriate) who work among the Wolof all over the country came together to pray and exchange ideas. We from SIL were invited to present our desire to do research. What a great opportunity to meet people and listen!

Personal highlights: singing God’s praises in Wolof, hearing prayers in Wolof, hearing stories of believers who compose such a tiny minority of their respective ethnic groups.

I was especially intrigued by conversations revolving around the challenges facing the church as it tries to establish itself, both among the Wolof people group specifically and in this country generally (where many other people groups speak the Wolof language). Especially in the capital city, where churches are largely filled with African Christians from other countries, and where services are therefore more likely to be conducted in French, the church has a very foreign image. In this atmosphere are national believers, and especially Wolof believers, able to find a church home that feels culturally authentic? I was blown away by the statistics I heard from a church-planter among the Wolof: in a people group of 6 million 100 believers, 30% of whom are in a church body.

Another interesting conversation topic was the effects of urbanization on the church in this country. A missionary shared with me a trend that they’ve noticed in their denomination as young people all over the country move to the capital for studies or to look for work. According to him, 50% of village-born believers who go to the capital return to the village with no faith.

While I left feeling more inspired and encouraged, I also learned how much prayer is needed against the spiritual strongholds around the Wolof people group and the Wolof language.

Wolof Women’s Commission Prayer Weekend (March 27-29)

fellowship

Usually once a year, a small committee of Christian women (nationals and missionaries) organize a weekend retreat for national women who could especially use fellowship and teaching with other Christian women. The majority of the weekend takes place in Wolof. I was invited to attend to see the work of the committee and to help as I could. What a great opportunity for participant observation among wolophone believers gathering around God’s Word!

Highlights: seeing national women believers encourage one another, hearing some of the women’s challenges in how far apart and isolated they are, seeing the women get some much-needed Christian fellowship.

singing

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And of course it was great practice for my Wolof!

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And perhaps the best moment of the weekend for me was when I spontaneously started the “dance-then-toss-a-clothing-object-of-yours-at-someone-as-a-way-of-making-them-get-up-and-dance-before-they-can-toss-the-chosen-object-to-someone-else-and-so-on” ritual. I think my shawl got held by every woman in attendance as each took their turn dancing!

I had my first SIL annual review yesterday. I’d had these before with my “regular” job back in the US. My annual review with SIL was much the same – a chance for a check-up, to give feedback, to assess roles and achievements, to express what is needed to more successfully reach goals. This annual review was more comprehensive than just my work, though. We also touched on my physical, spiritual and emotional wellness, balance of “work” and “home life,” my relationships and support network.

I was so grateful to feel SIL’s support through this process, and to have encouraging people above and around me in the organization.

It struck me to go through a process with which I’d become familiar in a “regular” job setting in the current setting in which I find myself. In previous annual reviews, my job title drove the assessment. In previous jobs, what I did at work stemmed from this job title. However, the last year was a world with no job title, at least not in the sense that guided my day-to-day work. It’s a world where having a clearly-defined role is mostly a myth. I knew this coming into it. I expected nothing else. What I didn’t expect was how purposeless it would make me feel, how long it would last, and what I’d learn thanks to the lack of definition.

Oh, I did my best to create purpose and definition. I tried on plenty of roles that I saw others filling, plenty of visions for work here that others offered me. I looked for someone more experienced that I could shadow. I visited several places where the point to it all seemed obvious; “maybe I could just come here where something good is happening and a role would eventually find me,” I’d think to myself. But each of these ideas just turned out to be a false lead, a trail that would dead end. It would become clear that I didn’t belong there.

Our means of drawing self-worth and enjoyment are so often tied to our culture, our home country, and the people who create our support network. When these things are stripped away, we are that much more tempted to draw our self-worth from what we do. But when that is nothing but a big question mark – that is when one’s calling is truly refined, sifted. Looking back, I think the Lord was at each dead end, saying “No, not here. I don’t want you to latch on to this; I don’t want you to find your worth and calling here. I want you to find it in Me alone.”

In doing the annual review and looking back over my “job performance” of the past year, I can say that I’m grateful for a year with no clearly-defined role and a year of what felt like false leads. How can I be grateful for the purposelessness?

Because of what I can honestly say I found in the midst of it: joy and peace.

Since I had no job title and little idea of what I was doing here, I decided to throw myself into the only thing that I could confidently say would not be a waste of time: learning Wolof. My motivation was in large part pragmatic; Wolof has helped me get around this country confidently (something that arguably is a necessity if I hope to “accomplish” anything here!). I found peace in this growing confidence. But I also rediscovered the innate joy which I find in learning and speaking a new language. It is part of how God made me; it is part of the purposes He has for me. Feeling this as I’ve learned Wolof, in the midst of the larger purposelessness, has brought me joy.

Learning Wolof then led me to live with a local family. I wanted to be immersed. I wanted to live in an environment where I couldn’t resort to my French. Again, I was largely driven by pragmatics – living with a family in order to learn their language. In the process I experinced the joy of being part of a family with whom one has little in common yet where one feels comfortable. This added to my joy and peace in the purposelessness.

It was sometime during purposeless month #10 that I began making a realization: the joy and peace I was experiencing in learning Wolof and living with a local family gave me a sense of purpose. Yet, nothing had changed! I still had no job title or clearly-defined role. I was seeing that I could put up with less-than-ideal “work responsibilities” if I still had time to devote to progressing in Wolof and if I was going home to a local family that I enjoyed. By this time, I’d also seen many colleagues whose role or job title changed, evolved, sometimes disappeared altogether. I was learning what a trap it can be to draw one’s purpose from the role one fills.

And so, not long after, when SIL leadership asked me to join the “Basic Wolof Phase 1” team, admitting that they couldn’t tell me what my role or the team’s goals would be, I could honestly respond that it was okay (our first order of business as a new team is in fact to explore and negotiate what the team’s goals and individual team member’s roles should be… but this is a process). I accepted. Now, a couple months later, I can still say that it’s okay, despite the continuing lack of definition. I’ve learned that a clearly-defined role is a myth and that waiting for one is a trap.

Yet I feel a sense of purpose, I should say of God’s purposes here for me, as I continue to learn and use Wolof, as I search for another local family among whom I can be both myself and a member of their family. My work with the Basic Wolof Phase 1 team is not what gets me out of bed each morning, but I’m hopefully filling a need that my leadership has asked me to fill, doing it with joy and peace and purpose.

I’m grateful for “check-ups” like annual reviews; they give us cause to reflect and look back at what we’ve learned. And this annual review was more significant than ones I’ve done with past jobs, because it offered important perspective over the past year, often muddled and foggy for me. I would sometimes say to myself, “Just take one day at a time. And one day, maybe the fog will lift a bit and you’ll see the reason, the purpose.”

There are still plenty of foggy days, when my purpose for being here isn’t obvious. But I can say that the God who has purposes for me has drawn me closer to Himself, which is better than any job title achieved.

Samay waajur ñëwnañu! (“My parents came!”)

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What a joy to have my parents in country for a week! Sharing life and work here with them was a blessing to me (and hopefully to them!). I got to introduce them to many of my friends and colleagues, which was the highlight for me. Often, when I presented my mother to someone, saying, “Kii mooy sama yaay” (This is my mother), the response was a smiling, “Ah kii mooy sunu yaay!” (This is our mother). Family in this part of the world is elastic, and the most respectful way to refer to someone is often to use a close, family title like “mother” or “aunt.” I was more than thrilled to share my mother and father with my friends here!

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As my dad taught a Biblical studies course on the Psalms, a course he’d been preparing over the past 12+ months…

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…my mom and I traveled out to the villages to visit pastors’ wives, encourage them, and follow up on their use of audio Scripture materials in their mother-tongue. Along with being adopted as “mother” by several of the wives, my mom was also adopted as “grandmother” by several babies!

In Wolof, the term for one’s mother and father is waajur which literally means “birth people.” So as I announced that my parents had arrived, I was saying, “My birth people are here!” Having my “birth people” here was a huge encouragement. In a culture where networks are so important and where people relate to you based on who and where you come from, I can’t help but think that it was incredibly helpful for me to be seen with the people who birthed and raised me.

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My parents’ visit was also incredibly educational. Though I knew that respect for one’s elders was an extremely high value in West Africa, I discovered that an even higher place of respect is reserved for one’s “birth people.” I experienced this respect first-hand as we traveled around throughout the week. Even taxi drivers (not often known for their respect) who were complete strangers, upon hearing that these were my “birth people,” lit up, expressed their thanks to my mother and father simply for the honor of meeting them (again, calling them “Maman” and “Papa” out of respect), and then went on to talk passionately about the importance of revering and taking care of one’s parents.

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Coming from “birth people” who raised me to know and love Jesus, and who have been a model for me in work overseas, I agree with those taxi drivers! I have much reason to praise God and honor the parents with whom He blessed me.

The company of one’s “birth people” along life’s sojourn: what a priceless gift!

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.

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