I’ve been living with the Manganes for five months now, and I’m thankful for God’s continued provision of a Wolof host family. I’ve not regretted living with a local family. I’m convinced that what I’m learning greatly exceeds what I’d learn otherwise. Although I have no reason to look for other housing, I’ve chosen not to commit to more than three months at a time at the Manganes’. I figure it’s better to keep options open, for both my and my host family’s sakes. When my first three months were drawing to a close, I asked to “extend the contract.” My host mother Awa Fall’s response: “Fii mooy sa kër yaay ak sa kër baay.” (“This is your mother and father’s house.”)
After a year and a half in this West African culture with its elastic conception of family and its open-armed acceptance of foreigners, the number is steadily growing of people who have called me daughter, older sister, younger sister, cousin, aunt. I hope I never stop wondering at that. I hope it continues to change who I am and the way I treat and accept others. Granted, there are varying degrees of “adoption” here. There’s a time and place for joking with the familial terms. Also, there are genuine people as well as cons, as in any culture. However, I think I’m starting to learn the signs of genuineness and how to recognize when people mean the familial terms they so readily use. I trust the Manganes are genuine. I know Awa Fall meant it when she told me that of course I still had a place in her home, that I should treat it as my mother and father’s house.
The wording she used touched me and caused me to marvel. I have seen in this country the difference between living in a house as a guest, extended relative, or tenant and living in a house as a child. Especially in cities, it’s common for young people to live with relatives or friends as they attend university or work to earn money for their families back in the village. I’ve visited friends in this situation and have noticed a subtle change when they’re living in a house that’s not their parents’. Even those who are most welcomed often seem like they can’t make themselves completely at home. And they almost always talk about how they miss their home and their family. No house can quite compare to your mother and father’s house. When your parents own the house (and you’re blessed to have good parents), you have responsibility of course, but it’s accompanied by freedom, privilege, and care. You can eat your fill. You can stretch out. I was moved that Awa Fall wanted me to view her home and my place in it in those terms. I expressed my gratitude as best as I could.
At the same time, I couldn’t help but continue processing her words as the American who will never be West African. The things – the little, unimportant things – that my host family does in order to make me feel at home, but that have the complete opposite effect on me, came to mind. Awa Fall’s words also caused me to think about and miss my parent’s house and my family. I too have experienced the tangible difference between staying as a guest and living as a child. How to make someone “feel at home” inevitably varies from culture to culture. If you expect to be shown hospitality in the way you’re used to, you will be disappointed. I’m learning to accept and even appreciate what I know is hospitality here in this West African culture, whether or not it always translates as hospitality to me. Will I ever “feel at home” in this culture? Not if I expect “home” to “feel” the same as in the U.S.
Another phrase which I’ve been processing was one that came up in a recent Wolof lesson. My teacher and I somehow got on the topic of how Americans are sometimes viewed in this West African culture. My teacher said that he often hears his fellow countrymen say, “Waa amerik amuñu kóllëre.” The word kóllëre is translated as “relationship or alliance,” but its second meaning is “faithfulness.” Faithfulness is a high cultural value. What my Wolof teacher said could be translated as, “Americans don’t show faithfulness” or “They don’t value and maintain relationships well.” He said he has heard it especially in the context of Americans returning to the U.S. and their West African friends never hearing from them again.
I experienced a strange mixture of emotion when I heard those words. First, I felt deep sadness at how my culture can come across, and the ways that I know I’ve come across in the 18 months since my arrival. I know that we Americans often fall short of this culture’s relational standards because our ways of relating to one another and our ways of belonging to a community are so different. I’m still learning how to be a friend and a family member by West African standards. You visit one another often, you call one another even more often, you maintain close relationships with many people at once, and you don’t cease contact unless there’s a dispute or a death. I know a whole lot more now than when I arrived, which means there are some people that I’ve known since the start but am only now realizing how to treat them the way friends expect in this culture.
But along with my sadness on hearing my teacher’s words, I felt a twinge of indignation. As an American, I know that our seeming devaluing of relationships and inability to maintain them “well” comes from our society’s standards of relating to one another – which are considered perfectly normal for us. I’ve spoken with several other Americans on relationships in this West African culture who point out that the standards here can feel “high maintenance” to us. The culture that calls another “high maintenance” is seen by that culture as “ñàkk kóllëre” (“lacking faithfulness”). Neither the American nor the West African way of relating is better than the other, and both have the effects of sin running right through them. And each has something to learn from the other. Even so, I often feel that if my West African friends are holding me to their culture’s relational standards, I will inevitably disappoint them.
My Wolof teacher and I discussed at length the assessment made by some of his countrymen. I often enjoy talking with him on such matters because he is Wolof and lived as an adult in the U.S. for a time. He understands that his culture’s standards simply don’t “work” in American society, and vice versa.
The conversation about kóllëre left me feeling in a new way the weight of relational expectations in this culture and how it differs from mine. Have I gotten in over my head? I couldn’t help but wonder as I thought of the families with whom I’ve lived and the friendships that I’m developing – all to whom one could say I now have obligations. Am I called to strive towards their culture’s standard in an effort to love them, or is it impossible and unrealistic? Will I inevitably disappoint them as a friend, just as they inevitably disappoint me if I expect my culture’s hospitality?
In the midst of those worries, though, I have reason to hope because of somewhere else I’ve seen the word kóllëre. It’s the word that shows up in the Wolof translation of Hebrews 12:24, a verse that reminds me that there’s One whose faithfulness is never lacking for any of us in any culture. And the Faithful One’s blood doesn’t disappoint because it’s enough to build a new kóllëre, relationship, alliance, covenant between God and His created ones. And if He does that, then the Faithful One is the one who can give the basis for us created ones to be in relationship with one another, coming from such diverse cultures and each with our expectations.
“Waaye yéen jege ngeen… Yeesu, Rammukat bi sàmm kóllëre gu bees gi; jege deretam, ji ñu wis.”
“But you have come… to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood.” (Hebrews 12:22, 24)
I still have much to learn about how belonging to Jesus helps me belong in cross-cultural community, and about what practical ways the kóllëre founded by Jesus can bring hope in my relationships here. But knowing there’s hope is already a lot.
And there’s eternal hope too as I continue learning while receiving the hospitality at the Manganes’ house, my kër yaay ak kër baay. The eternal hope comes from a passage in John where I recognized that same phrase in the Wolof translation.
“Buleen jàq. Gëmleen Yàlla te gëm ma. Am na néeg yu bare ca sama kër Baay, bu dul woon noonu, ma wax leen ko, ndaxte maa ngi dem defaral leen fa ngeen di dëkk. Te su ma leen defaralee bérab booba ba noppi, dinaa délsi, yóbbaale leen, ba fu ma nekk, ngeen nekk fa, yéen itam.”
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.” (John 14:1-3)
The kër Baay (Father’s house) that Jesus is preparing has a place for each of His follower-pilgrims. His house is big enough for every culture to feel at home, because we’ll all finally know ultimate identity, purpose, and rest in Him. There are many rooms, though I don’t think each culture will be in a separate room showing its own kind of hospitality. I have a feeling something much more beautiful goes on there. I have trouble imagining it, but oh for the day when I’ll experience it!