I’ve always heard West Africa is good for bird watching.

But it wasn’t until I was without internet or television for over 3 weeks, in my first research site, that I finally had reason to look up long enough to start noticing particular birds. And once I did, I was sorry I hadn’t started a long time ago!

Here are a few I managed to capture with a camera and have attempted to identify:

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Long-tailed glossy starling (Lamprotornis caudatus)

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Northern red bishop (Euplectes franciscanus)

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Black-headed weaver (Ploceus melanocephalus)

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Abyssinian roller (Coracias abyssinicus)

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Red-cheeked Cordon-bleu (Uraeginthus bengalus)

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Woodland kingfisher (Halcyon senegalensis)

I’m new at bird watching, so if anyone out there with more knowledge wants to correct me, please do so!

Had I ever been without internet and television that long in my adult life? I don’t think so. It was an eye-opening experience: at first, to realize how addicted I am to these constant, go-to sources of entertainment, distraction, escape, communication with far-off friends and family. The first few days it was like I was in withdrawal; I wasn’t sure how to cope, what to do in my free time. And then, once I made peace with the fact that I wouldn’t have any internet for as long as I was there (I knew it wouldn’t be more than a month), I realized I was starting to take in the world around me differently. I had to be present in that place and in that moment because I couldn’t jump to another place and time with the touch of a finger. It made me realize how often I am not present in the place and time I’m in. And I’m not even living and working in the West! I don’t even use a smartphone!

I ended up spending a lot of my non-work time simply sitting and being with the local family I was living with. If they were busy with household tasks, I was simply sitting. There were times I thought I’d go crazy. But I started to watch and notice things that I hadn’t before, the most striking being the birds.

What beautiful treasures right under my nose, to which I’d been functionally unaware this whole time!

And so I find awfully ironic and completely sensible Jesus’ command in Matthew 6:

“Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?” Matthew 6:26-27

My internet-less weeks combined with those words of Jesus force me to think. It makes me wonder how much of the time I spend being entertained, being distracted, escaping, and communicating via the internet and television is actually disguised worry. Or feeding my worry.

Could an exercise like bird-watching, in some forms, be a sort of holistic remedy for worry and internet addiction (and could those two be more closely tied than we realize)? Could it even be considered a spiritual practice, hence why Jesus says to “look at the birds”?

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I’m in West Africa, and Dean is in the Solomon Islands.

Kilometers between us: 19,285
Miles between us: 11,984
Time zones between us: 11
Methods of communication available to us: emails (when there’s internet) and pen-and-paper letters (when there’s a post office)
Days since we were together: 92
Days until we hope to be both in the same place again: 118 (but who’s counting?)

Dean is doing a 6-month missions internship with the Society of Anglican Missionaries and Senders (SAMS). He is experiencing cross-cultural life overseas and all that it involves. He is being mentored by SAMS missionaries there. He is teaching at the school of theology and ministry there. He is also learning local language and culture and will have the opportunity to live with the locals.

If you want to read Dean’s last newsletter, sent from the Solomon Islands, click here.

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It’s an incredible opportunity for Dean, and I’m so proud of him. That’s the silver lining in this very long-distance engagement of ours!

And there’s divine comfort available to us too. Dean found the following prayer in the Melanesian English Prayer Book, which is beautifully fitting for friends and family who are far apart (and so, especially fitting for me and him):

Lord our God, you are in every place and no space of land or sea can ever separate us from you. We know that those who are far from each other are still with you, and we pray you to keep in your holy care those dear ones from whom we now are separated, that both they and we coming nearer to you, may come nearer to each other, held together by the unseen chain of your love, in the holy union of your Saints, so that whether or not, as seems best to you, king of heaven, we meet together again here on earth, we may surely meet again at the rising again of the just, and go in together to that house of many rooms which you have prepared for them that truly love you. Through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.

I find comfort in those words, as well as in the knowledge that God is using this long-distance engagement for His service.

I recently received the honor of having a baby girl named after me. She’s the daughter of A*, one of the national pastors’ wives I know here. This a significant thing in West African culture and therefore could easily be a source of pride for me (in my flesh!). However, the circumstances surrounding the baby’s birth clearly point to the big and many ways God is at work here, ways that stretch far beyond the tiny role He asks me and others to play. It’s all ultimately for His name’s sake.

It all started while I was in my first research site. I was staying with another pastor and his wife M*, with whom I was working to do the literacy research. Since I was relatively close to where A lives (about an hour’s drive), I arranged to go visit her one day when no one was available to interview. Hiring a driver and a vehicle was the quickest and safest transportation option, which meant there would be room for M to come along. She was happy to do so, since she’d never been to A’s village and didn’t know her very well. I’ve discovered this is the norm; though these pastors’ wives are part of the same denomination, living even an hour apart prevents them from seeing each other very often. Their very limited finances leave little for the non-urgent, such as travel to visit a fellow pastor’s wife. Their dependence on public transportation makes a visit even an hour away at least a whole day’s affair. Their everyday activities related to caring for the home and their children keep them busy. And their culture – which can negatively portray a woman who’s away from her home and out and about too much for non-essential matters – probably discourages it. So, M saw coming along with me to A’s village as a unique opportunity not to be missed. I’m guessing she also felt a bit obligated to accompany me since I was her guest, and she wouldn’t want me to travel by myself if it could be helped.

So, I called Pastor MD*, A’s husband, to make sure they were still in the same village. I’d visited them twice before, but it had been over a year since the last time. I hadn’t seen them either since then. I know a couple of the pastors and their wives better than others, but MD and A are among ones I know less. On the phone, Pastor MD said that yes, they were still in the same village. He also informed me that A was pregnant and asked me to pray for her. At her last appointment, the doctors had said that the baby wasn’t in the right position and they’d probably have to do a C-section. He was audibly worried about such a prospect. Though I as an American am used to hearing of births by C-section and would not have much reason to worry in the US with the health care to which I have access, the possibility of any surgery here is a scary thing and with reason. I’m guessing it’s also costlier.

Besides the slightly worrying news related to A’s pregnancy, MD also revealed to me that if the baby was a girl, they intended to name her after me! I was caught off guard by that, especially since I don’t feel like I even know them that well. I knew of the common practice here of naming one’s child after someone; in Wolof that person and the child named after him or her are called turondoos (“namesakes”). The role of adult turondoo is significant; that person can almost become a third parent figure. There are also certain obligations of helping to care for the child turondoo as one is able. As the child turondoo grows older, he or she would be expected to visit the adult namesake. In this way, the turondoo tradition can be a way of solidifying relationships.

I’ve since learned that the selection of a turondoo for one’s baby is made carefully. In Wolof there’s a saying that cautions parents that if they choose a turondoo with good character, their child will end up having seven times that good character. But if they choose a turondoo with bad character, their child will end up having seven times that bad character.

But this story is about so much more than turondoo practice here in West Africa. It’s about God’s delighting in answering His children’s prayers and seeing their faith in Him strengthened. And it’s about one of those rare times when God allows us to catch a glimpse of all that He’s doing, and when we are humbled to realize how short-sighted we are in the face of God’s great purposes.

After getting off the phone with Pastor MD, I filled in M and we made plans to go visit them. M said it was even more important now that we go so we could pray with A.

We went a few days later and found a very pregnant, weary-looking A and an almost equally weary-looking Pastor MD. After exchanging the normal greetings and small talk, M inquired after A’s condition. They’re all Serer-Sine and so were talking amongst themselves, occasionally switching into Wolof or translating for me so that I was following the gist. M went on to recount her own most recent pregnancy, when the doctors had told her the same thing – that she’d need a C-section. She shared that God in His power who controls everything, worked things out so that as she was at the clinic awaiting the surgery, there on the clinic bed, her baby was born naturally. “When God puts His hand on you, nothing can stop Him,” she told MD and A. “We will pray that the baby will come on its own without surgery, that God will do what’s best. We will leave it in His hands.”

Well, I’d had no idea that M could speak from personal experience to A’s situation. I had figured it would do A good to have not just me but M visit as well, since she would be able to speak to her and pray with her in their language (I don’t speak Serer-Sine). But it turned out that God had orchestrated not just for a fellow Serer-sine to go with me, but more specifically a woman who could encourage and pray for A from personal experience. I had figured that while I was in the area for research, that I’d “kill two birds with one stone” and visit MD and A. But it turned out that God had orchestrated the timing perfectly so that both M and I would visit A in her last couple weeks of a worrying pregnancy.

And the story gets even better.

As a Western-minded Christian, when push comes to shove, I’m ashamed to admit that I can put more faith in science and medicine than in the God who chooses to use those things – or not – to accomplish His purposes. Several years in West Africa haven’t changed that Western inclination yet! So, as I listened to M talk and pray about the baby coming naturally and not needing to have a C-section, in my mind I was thinking, “Well sure we can pray about it. But after all, C-sections are sometimes needed, and if that’s what the doctors are saying, can we really expect a different outcome?” Still I was more than happy to simply follow M’s lead, listen to her pray for A in Serer-sine, and otherwise observe, learn, and participate as I could.

A week after our visit, I called to see if there was any baby update. MD reported that there was no news, just that the doctors had written A prescriptions for post-C-section medications.

Then, a few days later, I saw several missed calls from MD and then a text message announcing the news of their baby’s birth. I immediately called him back and got the full scoop: he happily reported that God had answered our prayers, the baby had come naturally with no need for surgery! And it was a girl.

Well for the next hour after receiving the news, M and I sat and talked and smiled in a happy, surreal state. We marveled at God’s answered prayers once again. And that I have a turondoo! M filled me in on my obligations in this new role. It would start with buying some baby clothes and supplies and taking them to the parents whenever I could visit them again.

The following Sunday in church, M shared the story with the other local Christians as a testimony of God’s answer to prayer. As I listened to her say that this was part of why God had brought me there for the research, that it could have been different if I’d chosen to visit A by myself but that instead we’d chosen to go together; as I watched the other Christians listen and respond in praise and marvel at the story of answered prayer – in that moment, I felt like I was catching just a tiny glimpse of all that God is up to. It was only then that I realized the divine orchestration of timing and personnel. It was only then that I realized how the encouragement of this specific answer to prayer would continue and grow in a ripple effect as others heard about it. It’s all ultimately for His name’s sake. The praise could only go to God, and His children could only be strengthened in their faith.

And this child (yours truly) chief among them whose faith was strengthened!

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Introducing Kyria Adama Diouf, a.k.a. “Kyria bu ndaw” (Wolof for “Little Kyria”).

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

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Tabaski is the biggest Muslim holiday here in West Africa. It commemorates Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Ishmael, according to their narrative, and the provision of a sheep instead. The celebration involves each head of family purchasing a sheep and sacrificing it in commemoration. Because of this, some call it “the holiday of the sheep.”

The weeks leading up to Tabaski are filled with talk of sheep – the sheep market, the prices of sheep, the number of sheep on the market.

The morning of Tabaski, the talk in my host family’s home was around the number of sheep that would be slaughtered at their house that day. There would be five. (You can make out two in the above photo.) In this culture where the extended family often lives under the same roof, there will often be multiple heads of family living in the same house. Each will strive to purchase a sheep for his nuclear family. And so, multiple sheep may be bought and slaughtered. Wealthier families sometimes purchase an extra sheep in order to give away the meat to those less fortunate. Of course the sheep purchased represents blessing and fortune, because it is usually at considerable financial cost. The more sheep being slaughtered in a house, the more financial means and material blessing were in that house.

So Tabaski invariably involves the counting of sheep.

You may be able to imagine how struck I was, then, when on the morning of Tabaski here – September 2 – 1 Kings 8:3-5 was part of the Old Testament reading which followed in the Scripture reading schedule I use. At this point of Israelite history, King Solomon has just completed the construction of the temple at Jerusalem, fulfilling God’s promise to David that his son would build a dwelling place for the God of Israel. Solomon has sent for the ark of the covenant to be brought to the finished temple. In the last couple months, the preceding Old Testament readings throughout 1 and 2 Samuel recounted the incredible drama surrounding the ark of the covenant, this symbol of God’s terribly holy presence. People who touched or looked inside it died. It wreaked havoc when mishandled. At certain points, no one wanted it to be kept near them. It was shuffled around from town to town, leaving behind a trail of inhabitants either dead or quaking in fear. At other points, it brought joy and victory. David danced for joy when he finally was able to bring the ark out of hiding and to Jerusalem, where he’d pitched a tent for it. But his joyful dance was accompanied by many sacrifices as well.

And now that a suitable, permanent resting place has been built for God’s presence, Solomon sends for the ark of the covenant to be brought from its tent.

When all the elders of Israel had arrived, the priests took up the ark, and they brought up the ark of the Lord and the tent of meeting and all the sacred furnishings in it. The priests and Levites carried them up, and King Solomon and the entire assembly of Israel that had gathered about him were before the ark, sacrificing so many sheep and cattle that they could not be recorded or counted. (1 Kings 8:3-5)

After all the talk of counting Tabaski sheep, I was struck by that last phrase. I was struck by the idea of more sheep and cattle being sacrificed than could be counted.

I’m no exegete so I’m speculating here. I wonder if all the sheep and cattle being slaughtered at the moment when the ark was being moved was at least partly fueled by the terror of what had happened to others who had previously tried handling this tangible reminder of God’s holy presence. Solomon and the Israelites surely were aware of their pitiful state before God. They surely were aware of the need for much blood to be shed to prevent their deaths. They surely were aware of their need for God’s mercy. I wonder, and I imagine the king and the priests, though very happy, also trembling as they watched the ark and shouting, “Keep sacrificing! Don’t stop! Maybe God will have mercy and spare us.”

And considering how many times in the Old Testament an exact record is given of things or people being counted, even to very high numbers, it is striking here that the animals killed could not be numbered. Were people too overcome with a mixture of joy and fear to bother with counting? Was the number of sheep and cattle just that unbelievably high?

And to think that this account in 1 Kings 8 refers to the blood shed for only one single day of history, for only one group of people.

And to think that later, in one moment of history, a single man’s sacrifice of himself paid the price demanded by the law, for all eternity, for all who would look to him and be saved.

And that because of that God-man’s sacrifice, I can boldly step into the terribly holy presence of God — without fear and without further bloodshed.

What an amazing and undeserved grace to know the truth that brings such freedom. May this year’s Tabaski celebration, in God’s incomprehensible mercy, cause some to hunger after this freedom until they also know it.

I’ve started my new assignment for this second tour in West Africa. I’m conducting literacy research that will hopefully help local churches that want to work in the area of adult mother-tongue literacy in their communities.

My first research site was a small town surrounded by fields cultivated by subsistence farmers. I was there for most of the month of August, which is during this part of West Africa’s single rainy season. My interviews and visits took me out through fields of millet, beans, peanuts, and hibiscus. I discovered some other, new crops and fruits of the area, and saw familiar ones closer up. Some I got to harvest too. Others aren’t yet ripe and won’t be harvested until later.

Above is a fruit called neew in Wolof, and I hadn’t seen it before. I bought some in the local market, both fresh and dried. There’s a nut inside that can also be dried and eaten. The tree that produces the fruit was pointed out to me by a local.

Above left, this dried cake-like treat is made from the uul fruit, another new one for me. Right, the ñeebe were just starting to ripen when I left.

Click on each photo above to see several plants and crops I was familiar with but saw closer up and got to help harvest a bit of.

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Above: And of course the region’s staple crop of dugub (“millet”), which had grown taller than me by the time I left.

It was nice to enjoy the best of rainy season in a more rural setting!

Being engaged is providing further lessons in West African culture.

Case in point: I’m learning to refer to Dean as sunu jëkkër among some of my friends here. That’s Wolof for “our husband.”

The elasticity of family in this culture apparently extends to husbands and wives (though in a purely joking manner). There’s a group of Christian women I have gotten to know in the national Presbyterian Church here. Upon my introducing them to my mother when she visited in 2015 and saying, “This is my mother,” they responded with, “Oh, our mother!” When I shared the news of my engagement with those same women, presenting them with Dean’s photo and saying, “This is my husband” [because there’s no word in Wolof for “fiancé,” more on that below], they naturally responded with, “Our husband!”

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A couple of the women felt comfortable taking that cultural aspect a step further. Above, two of them are jokingly jockeying for position as Dean’s additional wives!

It was a joy to share with these women the news and celebrate my upcoming marriage. One of the women’s husband is a missionary with a culinary background whose work includes providing training in baking. They had prepared some baked goods for us to have together to mark the occasion!

Of course to begin with, I had to learn how to communicate “engagement” in Wolof when there’s no exact word for that. There’s no word for “fiancé,” either. Marriage and the steps that lead to marriage are such culturally-bound phenomena. It’s no surprise, then, that each culture would have its own steps and terms to communicate the significance of each step. When an English-speaker hears someone say, “I’m engaged,” that one word carries with it a big load of cultural meaning. An English-speaker immediately grasps the significance of it, but that grasp is dependent on knowledge of particular rituals and all kinds of other cultural background experience.

So how do I say in Wolof that I’m engaged? I say, “Am na lu ma la bëgga yeggal. Am naa ku may bëgganteel te dinanu def sunu ceet ci weer yii di ñëw. Sunuy waay jur nangu nañu. Jox nañu ma may gu jëkk ba noppi.” (“I have news to share with you. There’s someone that I love and who loves me, and we’re going to have our wedding in the coming months. Our parents have agreed to our union. They have given the dowry.”) Once those things have been done in Wolof culture, the man is referred to as jëkkër (“husband”) and the woman as jabar (“wife”). Even though for religious Wolof there’s an assumption that the couple won’t live together until the union is made religiously official (for most, in the mosque), the union is sure enough to use the terms husband and wife. And so there’s no intermediary term for fiancé.

Another phrase that I’m now hearing a lot, especially from my Wolof host family, is sunu goro (Wolof for “our in-law”). The term goro (“in-law”) is very important. It functions the same way as our English “in-law,” except that it seems to perhaps carry more weight than in my American culture. When anyone in one’s extended family gets married, that person’s spouse is called goro. Anyone in the spouse’s extended family is also called goro, and vice versa.  Marriage between two people in Wolof culture means the joining together of two entire extended family networks. Add to that the elasticity of family here, and the result is that Dean has a lot more in-laws than he knows! My Wolof family here refers to him as sunu goro (“our in-law”), and they would use the same phrase to refer to any of Dean’s family.

Cultural lessons are sometimes perplexing and difficult. In this case so far, though, I’m thoroughly enjoying learning how to announce my happy news and talk about the man I love in West African culture!

My days of sojourning solo are numbered.

It’s official and I’ve been able to share the news here in the culturally appropriate ways. So now it’s with joy that I can announce from this virtual rooftop my engagement to Dean Baldwin!

Dean’s and my friendship began almost 7 years ago now. We met one November morning in Aliquippa, PA at the Uncommon Grounds Café, a Christian non-profit. I had accidentally stumbled onto a volunteer training session there that Dean was helping to run. He was on staff there at the time. We got to know each other in the work at the café and have been friends since, though each of our paths has been quite meandering since leaving Aliquippa.

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Dean and I, circa 2012

About halfway through my first term, Dean started writing me letters every week. He also started praying that God would provide me with a husband – and, if he was to be that man, that God would make him into that man. Dean eventually came to West Africa to visit me. Thus began many months of talking, praying, seeking counsel, and trying to discern how God was leading us.

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In West Africa

It’s nice to finally be on the other side of that long discernment process! Dean and I are now convinced that God is in fact calling us to become one and to serve Him in mission together. When Dean asked me to marry him in June before I returned to West Africa, I was eager to accept his proposal. (I obviously didn’t need to use any of those culturally-appropriate Wolof refusals to marriage proposals that I’d spent my first term mastering!)

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All I can do is marvel as I look back on how God has worked and guided us towards Him and towards each other. We are in for a new adventure, a new chapter of this sojourn. The unknowns are not lacking, but I’m excited to see how God continues to guide us, together!