Learning the language and culture of another people changes you. Your mouth learns to contort itself in new ways, your brain learns to think through new pathways, your mind learns to see the world through a different lens, your spirit learns to experience and express your faith in God in fresh ways. As I learn Wolof language and culture, in each area of change, I have found joy and pain. In that domain of the spirit, some languages can be more painful than others because of the spiritual darkness in which the speakers of the language walk. A language can be a sort of spiritual desert, where one rarely, if ever, hears the hope in Christ being lived and expressed in words. However, in that language’s desert, the occasional oasis that crops up – where the hope in Christ takes audible, spoken form – is that much more joyous.
I had some music playing in the background as I worked recently, when I felt the spiritual joy and pain of Wolof in an acute and unexpected way. Playing was Bernard Cissa, a Christian wolophone artist who writes some of his songs in Wolof, the only Christian singer I’m aware of who does so and produces albums. I was absent-mindedly catching the Wolof words in his song “Hosanna” (click here to listen too) when, to my surprise, I felt my eyes well up with tears. Why was I crying? I wondered. I had heard this song several times before; it wasn’t new. However I’d never had this sort of reaction. As I thought about it, I realized that prior to this time, the Wolof words didn’t slip into my understanding as easily. Maybe I’ve reached the point in language-learning when overheard language that I take in passively can be comprehended and can touch my emotions. So before, I hadn’t understood the words nor had I concentrated on their meaning. But in that moment, the deep hope expressed in Wolof overcame me unexpectedly as Cissa sang the following words:
Sama dund bi Yow Yaa ko jiite Yeesu Yow rekka may taneel. Suma xalaatee fatteliku ni ma meloon nga soppi ma. Bu doon du Yow kan laay doon ci addina si man mi. Suma xalaatee fatteliku Yaa nu musal Yerusalem. Yeesu Yaa ko mena def (soppi sama dund), Yow Yeesu Yaa ko mena def. Osanna !
(“You are the one that governs my life, Jesus, You alone make me better. When I think, I remember what I looked like and how you changed me. If it hadn’t been for You, what would have become of me? When I think, I remember that You saved us at Jerusalem. Jesus, You are the one who can (change my life), You Jesus, You are the one who can. Hosanna!”)
Yeesu Yow rekk (“Jesus, You alone”). To hear someone in Wolof revel in the transformative power of Christ and the hope that He gives, especially through that moving medium of music, left me feeling like I’d stumbled upon an oasis in the desert. There are occasions when I hear the hope of Christ being talked or sung about in this language I’ve focused on learning since I arrived – occasionally at church and the times I’ve heard my Christian host brother pray in Wolof. But it is not often. Even so, I certainly have more occasions than many people in this country. And then, though Wolof is the language I live a lot in, it’s not my mother-tongue. Hearing Christ’s transforming power talked about in my language is something I’ve always taken for granted as a native English-speaker. I know nothing of the desert it must be for those few Wolof believers – and the joy they must feel when they hear people talking or singing about the hope of Christ in their language! Wolof people in general talk plenty about spiritual reality, God, and peace. But, unless they number among the few Christian converts, never are they using their language to talk about Jesus and the ways in which He changed their lives.
Cissa’s lyrics in that song, more than anything else, capture my prayer for the steadily growing number of Wolof people I know – people whom I never hear talking about Jesus and the lasting peace and hope He gives because they don’t know him, people whom it’s hard to even imagine hearing talk about Jesus because they seem so far from knowing Him. And the more Wolof people I meet and live among and spend time with, the more I find myself asking, “Why would they ever seek something other than what they have in this country’s majority religion? Why would they seek Jesus, someone that their families’ generations, going back further than historical records, never knew or had use for? Why would they seek His hope and peace when they think that the only societal structure which they’ve ever known works fine?” Add to these questions the New Year calendars I’ve recently been giving to my Wolof family and friends, a calendar decorated with Scripture references in Wolof, a gift they receive with a smile and genuine thanks but which they don’t display and don’t try to read once they realize what it is. And add a child who is forbidden to attend church with his Christian uncle out of fear of what he is hearing there. The questions that voice my doubt and the discouraging situations which feed it, over time and unbeknownst to me, can warp my perspective and rob me of hope. How much more, I wonder, for those Wolof Christians whose pain and desert I know nothing of. That’s why I was crying. As I listened to one wolofophone singing about how Christ had broken through to him and changed his life, I was moved to tears as I realized that I, myself needed to be reminded that there is hope for Wolof people and that Jesus’ power can change even them.
I’ve been reading A New Way of Living by Michael Harper, who writes about the faith and hope which should define the Christian’s life and the life of the Church. He writes,
There are twin dangers facing the Church today, the one is to put everything in the area of hope, often in the vaguest and most impractical terms, which is a convenient way of escaping the uncomfortable demands of a faith which believes in the power of God to change people and circumstances. The other danger is to see only a day at a time. We can only live this way, but we are intended to see further than the end of our noses. … Christians need bi-focal spectacle—a part to focus on near objects, so that we have faith to act in the day-to-day circumstances of life; and the other kind of lens, to deal with distant objects, so that we can see beyond the present, and be as sure of the distant scene as of that which is immediately present. (p. 56)
I’m learning that it takes this kind of bi-focal living – faith for today and hope for the distant horizon – to press on in a place where there seems to be no logical reason for people to want Jesus. And I’ve not even put in two years here yet. And I’m not even one of the few miraculous Wolof followers of Jesus. I’m sure they could teach me about faith and hope.
As I ponder hope, I remember the film I watched recently called The Water Diviner. The main character is an Australian man named Connor who sets off for the other side of the globe in pursuit of his lost sons. When someone along the way tells him that he is attempting the impossible, he explains that back home where the rains can stay away for three or four years at a time, he is a water diviner, a well-digger. Citing the many holes he has dug that turn out to be nothing more than holes, Connor says, “Hope’s a necessity where I come from.”
As Christians, shouldn’t we be characterized by the kind of hope that keeps us digging for water in the driest of places, wherever God has put us? Where we come from, isn’t hope a necessity? Because we know the good that is yet to come, and the disparity between it and the present in which we and the lost around us live.
In faith, I pray today for the Wolof people I live among, and in hope, I wait for the day when Jesus will change their lives as He changed mine. Yeesu Yow rekk.