Ahmet was 11 months when I moved into his grandparents’ home. That made him my “host nephew.” I remember the first time I met Ahmet; his mother, who lives several houses away with her husband and children, had him on her lap as we chatted in the living room. She got up and left the room to go check on something, leaving Ahmet with one of her brothers, Ahmet’s uncle. Ahmet, who up until that moment, had been staring with wide, uncertain eyes at the strange white woman, burst into tears when he realized he was no longer in the safety of his mother’s lap. He was soon taken out of the room; he was apparently not having anything to do with that strange white woman.

I was so taken with Ahmet. He is adorable. But, for a while after I moved in with his relatives, Ahmet would still have nothing to do with me. We celebrated his first birthday soon after I started living there; that was also not that long after I’d been in his country for one year. I guess that made us about the same age in West African years. He wasn’t yet walking. He wasn’t yet talking; and I was learning to speak his language. I guess we were learning Wolof together.

If what I had told people before I left the US was true in response to their question, “What will you be doing?” – becoming a baby again, learning to walk and talk again but in a new world – then that made Ahmet and I peers and companions in the endeavor.

On a daily basis, Ahmet and his mother and siblings were in and out of the house where I was living. Ahmet would be left with his grandmother or one of his aunts or cousins while his mom went to the market. Ahmet became a part of my daily life. At some point along the way – though imperceptibly to me as I look back on it, for in the daily rhythm and monotony, how does one trace the shifting, the changing in the way people relate? – Ahmet warmed up to me. I don’t know exactly when I realized that he wasn’t crying or looking for an escape from me anymore. But six months after meeting him, he was giving me hugs.

As I’ve spent the past seven months in the US continuing to process and reflect on my first term in West Africa, I’ve thought of Ahmet as a representation of the West African people and culture I was coming to know and learning to love. I’ve gleaned insights on this knowing and loving from the writings of a dear friend Esther Meek, whose books I’ve quoted here before. In her 2014 work A Little Manual for Knowing, Meek writes, “For all of us, entering a knowing venture requires at some point that we trust: We must trust others who know what we do not yet know, about the world, even about ourselves.” (p. 23)

little-manual-for-knowing

In West Africa, I had to put my life into the hands of people I didn’t know, trusting that they knew this new world in which I was living, that they knew what I needed to know.

And I was surprised and touched on the occasions when that trust was reciprocated. Ahmet had begun letting me hold him. When he started walking, he’d look for me, wander over to my room. He would sit on my lap during meals around the bowl. When he started talking, he’d say my Wolof name with a cute little lisp – “Yashine” – that made my heart melt. The family and the neighborhood kids started joking that Ahmet thought I was his mom. They’d ask him, “Ahmet, kan mooy sa yaay?” (who is your mother?) And sometimes he’d reply, “Yashine.” And they’d all smile or laugh and say, “Ahmet, doomu Yacine Toubab” (Ahmet the child of Yacine the white person).

Meek writes, “All knowing is coming to know what we do not yet know entirely. What’s more, where reality and knowing are transformative, coming to know isn’t going to be linear or additive. …What it means is that the thing we do not yet know but pledge ourselves to know is not just a mere procedural step away. It’s going to take something like a miracle.” (p. 26) Ahmet’s acceptance and embrace of me, who had nothing in common with him, felt a little bit like a miracle in some ways.

Why? Well, I’d taken a risk by moving to a foreign country, by choosing to live with a local family.

What was the risk? Rejection. I’d risked rejection by people like Ahmet. I couldn’t follow a procedure to force the acceptance. I couldn’t demand their embrace of me. Even in living among them, I couldn’t presume that they would let me into their existence. I had to come to know them and learn to love them on their terms. I was welcomed as a guest, yet – as a guest in Ahmet’s family – I had to offer welcome to him as he chose, in his own time and in his own way, to invite me into his life.

I guess this was true of every interaction for me in West Africa. I was a guest trying to live in a posture of welcome.

As Meek writes, “Welcome can’t guarantee the very thing it looks to do. So it risks rejection. It is made to depend on the response of the other. It honors that response.” (p. 41) And again, “Any knowing venture…will be blessed with reality’s fertile disclosure only as it ensures a welcoming space, in which respect, humility, patience, and attentive listening are practiced.” (p. 45)

For every Christian worker in a foreign country, he or she must decide what this posture of welcome will look like for him or her. For me, it has meant living with a local family, learning a local language, often eating the local food, sometimes wearing the local style. I have wanted to do as much as I can to learn the culture, the mindset of the people among whom I live. Meek has given me words to express this, and one of them is indwelling. She writes, “Indwelling involves empathetically putting yourself inside the thing you want to know, and taking it inside you. Indwelling is a strategy to invite the real.” (p. 48)

Indwelling feels so fitting to me as a Christian. After all, we Christians are those who have been transformed by the miraculous reality of the incarnation, Jesus who indwelled our human existence to bring us salvation. As a follower of Jesus, my indwelling of West African reality will never in and of itself bring salvation. But my indwelling can help me better see how the Saving One is at work among them. My indwelling can help me better understand them and be understood by them so that I can then better point them to the One who saves.

I lived in their homes because I wanted to know a little better what it was like to do so. I wore their clothes because I wanted to know a little better how it felt to be in their clothes. I learned one of their languages because I wanted to see the world more the way they did. As I came to know this culture and learned to love the people, I was slowly transformed.

And yet there were limits to what I would do and how much I’d be changed. I was not indwelling in order to become West African. I was seeking to know and love West Africans, not become one of them. Trying to become one of them would be disrespectful towards them and dishonest towards myself. And so I related to Ahmet as an adopted aunt, but I wouldn’t try to play the part of his actual mother. And so I asked to have my own room in my host family’s house, even though in their culture it would have been more normal for me to share with others. And so I didn’t get my hair braided, largely because I just couldn’t get over the irony in the fact that they’d pay for wigs that looked like my hair and then ask me why I wasn’t getting my hair braided to look like their hair. Again, Meek captures this dynamic when she writes, “If knowing involves self, the self that knows must be there, at home, present. This involves being okay with not being some other, including the thing that is the not-yet-known. Presence grants otherness to others. This is essential to healthy knowing… Presence is being present to attend to the other without being threatened by it. It is being present to welcome hospitably the yet-to-be-known.” (p. 39)

As I walked this ambiguous line between indwelling West African reality and remaining myself, I had to patiently wait for the West Africans that I was living with, eating with, worshipping in church with, to invite me into their world. I could never predict what form the invitation would take or when it would come. It was on their terms, and all I could do was accept it. Sometimes it was literally getting pulled into the dance line or circle (symbolic on so many levels). Sometimes it was having the calabash of rice shoved into my arms while lunch was being prepared and being told to go get it ready for the meal with no instructions (and I had to trust my memory of what I’d seen done countless times but had never done myself). Sometimes it was getting called on to give condolences on behalf of my group on the occasion of a death (in my third language in which I did not feel confident). Sometimes it was being offered in marriage (entirely in jest) by my host family members, because this is a way to make conversation, joke, and solidify ties in their culture.

On each occasion, I had the choice to hold up my hand and say, “Wait, hold on. This is not who I am. You don’t understand me or the culture I come from. You can’t expect me to do this.” Or rather, to accept it as an invitation to be led one step further into their reality. And then humbly fumble my way through.

It could easily come across as romantic and rose-colored. Yes, it was rewarding and exhilarating. But it was also hard and uncomfortable and isolating. It felt useless and pointless much of the time. It wasn’t until I was preparing to leave for furlough that I started to put my finger on why. When the object of your knowing and learning to love is another person, ideally the trust, interest, and deeper understanding is mutual. However, when you are a guest in a foreign country, your efforts to understand are not reciprocated by everyone. How could you have learned to understand them except by leaving your culture and entering theirs? And so how could you be understood by people who have never entered your culture? We foreigners must make the larger effort, whether or not it is always reciprocated.

There were exceptions to this rule, though, which give me hope to continue. Meek compares it to a dance, writing, “The dynamic of knowing is overture and response. In our knowing ventures, we should notice that we take a step, make an overture, and then wait for response. In light of the response we take another step, and then look for further response. A waltz is liable to move a couple around the entire dance floor. So our journey, and our relationship in its overture and response, moves us together in surprising though recognizable directions. … Overture and response are asymmetric. First one partner acts while the other receives, then the other acts while the first receives. A dance requires asymmetry to move forward. Each move is a gesture of hope–in hope of gracious response. Each partner has to be okay being off balance for a time, and waiting for and trusting the upcoming move of the partner.” (p. 82)

I as a foreigner may need to accept being off balance more of the time than the West Africans in the dance. But again, it is on their terms. It’s on Ahmet’s terms.

My last day in Ahmet’s relatives’ house before leaving for furlough, his mom said they’d come over after the evening meal to say goodbye. After we’d finished eating, we sat in the common area where the television was on, as we did every evening. Ahmet’s mom came walking through the door from outside. I noticed Ahmet wasn’t with her. We chatted. And then she said to me, “Yacine, you know what’s funny? I told Ahmet we were coming over to say goodbye to Yacine and he said no, he wasn’t coming. He just went to bed.” She laughed and I smiled.

And so, Ahmet didn’t say goodbye to me. Who knows what his two-year-old brain understood of what was happening. But if these were his terms, all I could do was accept them.

GEDSC DIGITAL CAMERA

January: Weekend discovery of a nearly secluded beach with friends.

GEDSC DIGITAL CAMERA

February: Honored to be a witness at Lisa and Alioune’s civil marriage.

dsc07632

March: My SIL Wolof Research Project teammate Eva and I at the annual meeting of workers among the Wolof people group, updating them on our work researching the Scripture needs of Wolof-speakers.

2016branch-photo

April: The SIL branch during our annual gathering of everyone in country.

img_8311

May: Joining into the dance of the Presbyterian women at the national church’s Pentecost celebration.

img_1681

June: Back in the US and after my first report at a supporting church at City Reformed Presbyterian, having fun with visiting friends as we dress up their daughter in my West African garb.

img_1939

July: Celebrating our birthday with my twin brother!

img_2145

August: Back in the Dallas area for further training courses at the Graduate Institute of Applied Linguistics, enjoying the summer wildflowers.

img_2272

September: During Q&A after a report in supporting church Christ the King Presbyterian, listening to the experiences of a veteran SIL worker and other learned ways of “turning down marriage proposals”.

img_2317

October: With my Principles of Multilingual Education professor and classmates at the completion of this GIAL course, one of four I took during the fall semester.

img_2498

November: During a report at supporting church Evangelical Presbyterian, showing my family’s old prayer card from the years when the church supported my parents as missionaries in France.

img_20161208_125250

December: Taking visiting friend and SIL colleague Sue out to Tex-Mex as part of her introduction to the US.

img_2368

I was recently reminded by my MTW leadership that a church tradition has come out of Syria that traces its roots all the way back to Antioch in the New testament. What a powerful reminder for us, as we pray for peace in this war-torn country, that God has not left even the most “hopeless” places on earth without a witness, in some cases a heritage many centuries older than in our home countries.

Their liturgy is still said in Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke during his earthly ministry. This morning, a group of colleagues and I started our day with the following Syrian church’s morning prayer service as printed in their prayer book:

img_2380

Reading of Psalm 51

img_2382

Reading of Psalm 63

img_2381

Reading of Psalm 113

img_2383

img_2387

What a blessing to be encouraged by the Syrian church through their liturgy.

Pray for the peace and mercy of God in Syria.

Just like that, I watched as you walked into the night. I had been on a long journey this first term in West Africa, and you were one of a few that had been with me through all of it. I couldn’t believe that we had just shared our last evening of laughter for a long time.

This evening I had told you, just like that, what I’d known for some time – that you were God’s answer to my prayers for that one special friend, the one from my “host culture” who also knew enough of my own culture to help me as I learned to live in this new world. How did you understand so much of my culture having never visited the United States? How did you know the differences between my culture and yours to be able to guess what I might struggle with? How did you know just enough about my culture to know it was very different from yours and that it would take time for you to understand me and me to understand you? How did you know that, even before fully understanding each other, it was worth reaching out to me and looking out for me?

You knew from years and years of experience with foreign missionaries in your country, of teaching them two of your languages, of befriending them, of having them in your home, of going to their homes, of worshipping and studying God’s Word with them, of learning to love them, of watching them leave and saying goodbye to them. We are a complicated bunch, we foreigners. No one knows that better than you. And after all those years, you’ve refused to grow cynical or bitter. You have chosen to continue opening your heart and your home, just like that, to other foreigners, including this one, who you know will leave, just like that, sooner or later.

You were my first Wolof teacher. Well, everyone on the street in the country was my teacher, but you were my first formal teacher. Some days I couldn’t make heads or tails of this language you were trying to help me learn, but you sure made me and my fellow Wolof students laugh. Just like that, I knew I liked you. I knew I wanted to keep learning with you. And so after those first 30 hours of lessons in a group of other Wolof students, I arranged to keep meeting with you for one-on-one conversation.

When you’re learning a new language, you become a baby again, learning to talk from scratch. The only problem is, as an adult, you have the inhibitions of an adult. It is hard and humbling to try to string together sentences in this new language that just does not fit your mouth quite right. It can quickly give way to despair unless you find someone with whom you’re completely comfortable to practice making conversation.

Well, you were that person. We got together every day, and you’d patiently wait for me to finish my sentence. Or, if I obviously couldn’t finish it myself you’d try to finish it for me. And then you’d respond, speaking slowly and methodically, saying the same things over and over, until I internalized all your colloquialisms.

Just like that, you could make me laugh; I could make you laugh. When nothing else was accomplished during my Wolof lessons, we laughed a lot. That’s when I knew you were different. It wasn’t with a lot of your fellow countrymen that first year there that I could laugh freely and who could laugh freely with me.

Just like that, we became friends.

So over several months, you watched another little Wolof-speaking baby of yours grow up just like that and start to be able to talk. You were proud of me and told me so. Completely of your own initiative, you called my supervisor to let her know of my progress and how good it was for the organization of which I’m a member that I be doing well in my Wolof-learning. That’s when I really knew you were different – positive affirmation and verbal encouragement are not necessarily done in your culture; but it is in mine and you knew that and you knew I could use the encouragement. That was just one of many times that you set aside your culture, just like that, to meet me where I was.

You weren’t obligated to do that. I was the foreigner after all, the guest in your culture. I needed to learn. But you chose to help me learn by meeting me halfway. You chose even to offer help according to my foreign norms.

I moved away to embark on a host family experience, living with a local family in a new town where I’d be immersed in Wolof. Our Wolof lessons ended. But our friendship was just beginning. Again completely of your own initiative, you began to regularly communicate with me just to check on me. You’d call me on the phone, and you’d ask how I was doing. Initially it was just to practice talking on the phone in Wolof. I’d ask you cultural questions and language questions that were coming up as I made my way immersed in Wolof culture. What’s the blessing to say to a new mother when you visit her and the new baby? What does it mean when someone offers me a millet cookie in the street accompanied by a certain spoken word that I’d never heard before?

Was it because I’m a Christian and so are you and so you saw it as a ministry? Was it because of your honor-shame culture which would compel you to check on your former student out of a sense of duty? Whatever the reason that you went beyond the contractual teacher-student arrangement which was now over, I am so grateful you did. You prayed for me, you listened to me, you gave me the answers I needed for everyday life in your country, you made me laugh. Free of charge and simply because you knew I needed it and you knew you could give it. And so I began calling you on the phone because I enjoyed speaking to you in Wolof, not just as a language exercise. I could be honest with you, and I could be myself with you. What a rare gift in this new world where I was learning better and better how to play a part.

The very fact that we began to consider each other friends was another example of your setting aside your culture to meet me where I was. You are old enough to be my mother; in your culture, this age difference means we couldn’t be friends as age-peers would be. We could have a mother-daughter kind of relationship but not friendship between equals. I’d have to talk to you differently. But you didn’t care; or if you did, you set your culture aside once again to embrace me as a friend. Just like that.

We began to confide in each other. We could let our guards down with one another (if they had ever been up between us!). I’d ask you the cultural questions I couldn’t ask anyone else out of embarrassment. And the sensitive questions which were confidential. How do I know if a certain host family member is upset with me but not telling me, and how can I approach her about that? You’d ask me about my culture as you interacted with other complicated Americans. And the sensitive questions which were confidential. What a rare gift in this new world where suutura (in English, “discretion” or “privacy”) is worn as thick as a curtain over people’s faces and hearts, where heart-to-heart trust is not worn on one’s sleeve nor easily given nor quickly earned. Where we outsiders can spend years feeling like we don’t really know the people we see every day.

What a refreshing experience to feel like I’d gotten past some of that, just like that, with you. We would visit each other and laugh and laugh.

What a journey it had been. And what a companion you had become to me.

How could this be our last evening already? We would see each other again, we knew. But I would soon leave for the US for a year-long furlough. It felt as though we both knew we had to get in as much more laughing as we could this last evening, and yet neither of us could completely bury our sadness either. How often had you seen us foreigners come and go? How did you manage to not get tired of it, jaded? I know you will keep befriending and embracing others like me, just as you befriended and embraced many before me.

We are so grateful. I hope you know how inadequate those words are to express our indebtedness to you.

And so just like that, we exchanged one last handshake, one last smile – though more tinged with sadness than is our style. And then just like that, you walked into the night.

thumb_image3_1024

Imagine my surprise and delight when I found out a West African woman from the country where I work was attending the recent linguistics conference held at GIAL, my training school here in Dallas.

Vivianne speaks Wolof, among several other languages. (So for the first time since my US furlough began over four months ago, I got to have a live Wolof conversation!) She has lived in the US for a number of years now with her husband and children. They currently reside in Dallas; she’s pursuing a teaching degree through the University of Texas. She grew up in the West African capital city where I initially lived during my first term. There Vivianne attended university and caught the linguistics bug. Her father is Bainouk, a people group and language based in the south of the country. As a university student she began working to document this minority language which she grew up speaking, despite the heavy influences of the French and Wolof languages in the capital city. Vivianne still has the Bainouk dictionary which she began creating back in university and would love to continue language development work in Bainouk. One of my GIAL professors was able to tell her about dictionary software SIL has developed to be available to people like her involved in language development.

Vivianne assured me there are many others from her country in the Dallas area, so who knows what other West African connections are in store!

img_2305

The Northeast autumn. I have certainly missed it the past couple years. There is no autumn in West Africa’s Sahel.

img_2302

This year I got the treat of glimpsing the very beginnings of autumn. I traveled out to western Maryland last weekend, visiting with several supporters and friends along the way. The destination was Faith Presbyterian, a faithful supporting church of mine.

img_2298

Their missions conference in which I was invited to participate came at the perfect time to enjoy the start of this season I’ve been looking forward to since arriving back in the US.

img_2307

And what better place to enjoy it for the weekend than with my kind hosts Blair and Karen in their home that they built in the woods?

Driving back through Maryland to catch my return flight to Dallas, I soaked in the telltale signs of autumn, those single crimson and gold sparks flaring up across the rolling green hills that will be fanned into colorful flame in the coming weeks.

Version 2

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.

img_0377

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