Friday, October 19, 2007

Summer in Senegal

The heat of the day was still steaming in waves off the sand as the plane descended, touching down upon the Senegalese countryside. I was barely twenty, and was about to begin a year of internship at a mission school. By day I taught ESL and helped as I could around the school. Nights and weekends I studied French, explored the city, and became active at the mission church, Mission Uni Mondial (United World Mission).

The leadership of the small cement-block chapel had within the past few years transitioned from mission to national control. Pastor Jose and his wife Frans-Lise, along with the associate Pastor Timothy, had been asking God to send them someone who could play the electronic keyboard for worship services. It seemed that I was to be the answer to that prayer.

And in a funny way, they were the answer to mine as well. Six college students -- two women from Nigeria, plus four men from Chad, Cote d'Ivoire, Togo, and Camaroon -- made up the rest of the band, and together we traveled out in the bush from time to time for evangelistic concerts. (I couldn't say much, but managed to keep up with the driving percussion section.) The songs themselves were French translations of the hymns I knew by heart ... though they sounded nothing like the reverent vespers I sang as a child. A full percussion section drove the strings and bass, with vocalists swaying and carrying the tune with a high-pitched falsetto that initially grated on my ears ... and I'm sure would have assaulted the sensibilities of the original composers. But it was the sound of Africa, plain and simple.


That year was one of the most formative experiences of my life. Later, I majored in international studies and communications, and came to understand some of the sociological nuances of cross-cultural relations. I learned first-hand how deeply held convictions can be shaken to the core when confronted with those who do not share the same assumptions. Even more significant, I learned how cultural biases color religious sensibilities. While Jesus came to save the whole world, each culture tends to interpret that message through the lens of their collective experience.

For example, shortly after I made friends with these college students it came to my attention that each of them were able to attend the University of Dakar because their respective countries had fronted the money for their education with the understanding that they would return and work off their debt in service -- those who had received a medical degree would work for a government clinic, those who had studied foreign languages in the diplomatic corp, and so on. I also saw that, at least in Senegal, manual labor was considered demeaning, and so it was often the women who were forced to support their families through domestic service. This inequity bothered me. Weren't the men ashamed to force their wives to tie their children to their backs and scrub floors on hands and knees, while they lounged at home?

I was commenting on this to my new friends, who happened to be at my home one evening for dinner (I introduced them to the wonders of spaghetti). "Tell me, Rene," I said to the one who was usually most amiable and patient with my linguistic faux pas. "What is it that motivates you to study so hard and try to better your situation, when you will be forced to support a large number of idle relatives, many of whom are perfectly capable of working but refuse?"

He looked at me sharply, and hesitated. I could see he was trying to give me the benefit of the doubt ... but could not find the basis for it. Finally, he sputtered, "How can you call yourself a Christian and be unwilling to take care of your own family? I've never heard of such a thing!"

How I wished at that moment I could slurp my words back into my mouth as readily as those noodles. I was grateful when someone else turned the conversation, leaving me to ponder what I had just learned.

L'Estranger... Encore!

Fast forward a decade or so, and I found myself on the edge of bridging yet another cultural divide -- this one even more complex than what I had experienced in Senegal because it involved changing not just cultures but allegiances. Intellectually I was confident that I was making the right choice; emotionally, I was back on the plane, looking out the window at the unfamiliar landscape as I prepared to walk away from everything that was familiar and safe. It was the right thing to do ... still, I lingered at the edge of my seat, a lump in my throat. And in the stillness, I remembered the haunting little melody based on Psalm 23 that had become especially dear to me while tinkling the ivories out in the African bush.

L’Eternel est mon Berger ! De rien je ne manque;

L'Eternel est mon Berger, de rien je ne manquerai....

(The Eternal One is my Shepherd, there is nothing I need.

The Eternal One is my Shepherd, there is nothing more I want.)

And so, today when I came across this rendition of the "Our Father," sung by Father HoLung and the Missionaries of Charity, I understood that the images of the exuberant singing, and of the joyful procession all the way up to the altar would be disturbing to some.

But when I read of this priest's work among the poor and marginalized, I couldn't help it. I just had to sing along. (For those who are interested, here is more about the Missionaries to the Poor. Here is also a link from EWTN on a related story.)

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