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.