Lessons Learned in West Africa

I remember our first days in West Africa.

We’d been using rental cars while we waited for our truck to arrive and the rental cars repeatedly broke down or needed something fixed or fell apart while we were driving them.

We were driving on a narrow, sandy path to get to our house and our bumper literally fell off in front of us. Jeremy hit the brakes and was getting out of the car when a man ran out from the little shop next to us and waved his hand as if to say, “Just wait! I’m coming!”

He proceeded to cross the road, dig into the trash on the side of the road, find a length of rope and walk back to where Jeremy was watching from the front of our car.

The man spoke with Jeremy and I watched as they worked together to get the bumper back on the car by tying the bumper in place with the rope. The man smiled, they shook hands and off we went.

I’m quite sure that Jeremy’s first thought was not to dig through the trash on the side of the road to see if he could find a car repair tool.

Yet, we learned something that day. And we continue to learn each day we’re here.

These are not easy, calm lessons to learn.

Oh, I can write and make them sound amazing with carefully woven words.

Yet, the actual learning of these lessons has been days of high tension, hard work, fear, fought out faith, brutal heat, pouring sweat, and for sure, many tears.

Words can’t quite do the job of sharing the dramatic days of learning on the ground in Africa.

But, as we transition out of West Africa to start a new journey in a new place, these lessons are beautiful things that I’ll carry with us as we go.

Lessons from West Africa

1} Ca Va – This is a phrase we use many, many times each day as we greet the people around us. Literally translated into English, this phrase means “it goes.” However it is going, it’s going. Life is going. It’s going to keep going. Good or bad, things are going and they will continue on.

2} C’est la vie – This is life. It truly is. Whatever is happening, it’s real, raw, unrelenting life. Not only is it going, the very process of going is life. Embrace it. All of it. Embrace the chaos, the struggle, and the challenges. It’s all part of this thing we call life! It means we are alive, we are working, we are moving through towards a much, much better place. Just keep going.

3} Bonjour! – Greetings are incredibly important. Always say hello to the person behind the desk, those waiting in the store with you or people you pass on the street. Shake hands, make eye contact, smile, and ask questions about family and work and life. Say hello. Offer a smile. Slow down enough to say bonjour to all.

4} Thumbs up – (This can have different cultural meanings depending on where you are in the world so this does not apply everywhere.) Here in our country, a thumbs up is a huge part of communication with those around you. If you pull out in front of someone or need to cut in line, give a thumbs up. It says, “I’m sorry. Please understand. Thank you.” all rolled up into one small gesture. You’ll see this a hundred times a day. A taxi driver sticks his hand out the window and gives you a thumbs up. You have to smile and let him cut in front of you. Somehow his thumbs up makes you slow down, not be angry and just keep going with your day. Whether you give the thumbs up or receive a thumbs up, a whole conversation can be had with one motion. Accept it, reciprocate it, understand it and keep going.

5} Speed bumps – Sometimes called “zebra crossing” or “dos-d’âne” which means “donkey’s back”, these annoying, frustrating speed bumps are everywhere. One stretch of road can have a hundred of them. They are well-placed to literally slow you down as soon as you get up to speed. They make a trip take entirely too long. They are not well-marked which makes them incredibly dangerous in the dark or at higher speeds. They can be out in the middle of a highway for no reason at all. Speed bumps are everywhere. They are a part of life here and you must always be on the lookout for the next one. The lesson? Keep your eyes open for speed bumps, stop hurrying and be okay with going slow. Life is bumpy. Sometimes a speed bump shows up out of nowhere just as you’re getting up to speed on the situation. Be ready. Slow down. Go over the bump. Watch for the next one because there will be another speed bump ahead. Don’t let that make you anxious or annoyed or frustrated. There are too many speed bumps to let one ruin your day. C’est la vie.

6} Pause  The hours of pause happen every day. Offices close, stores close, and people rest. This is a huge chunk of down time every afternoon that takes some getting used to when you are first learning to live in a French culture. Then, when you add in a slower paced West African culture, you have very few hours each day to actually get things done. Be okay with pauses. Be okay with not getting the job done. Be okay with resting. Be okay with long lunches. Be okay with things not happening at all like you planned. Pauses are built into each day, just like the speed bumps. Learn to work with them and don’t fight against them. You can’t. You’ll lose. Learning to hold, to wait, to breathe, to go with the flow, to let go of my schedule and embrace the slow.

7} Schedule – There is a schedule within the pauses and holidays and speed bumps. Slowly you learn that there is a quiet rhythm to the slowness. It’s a schedule very different from my own, but there is a schedule if you look for it. It means learning to do things differently, going about the day in a different way. Watch, listen and learn to find the schedule and adapt.

8} Everything to the fullest – Nothing gets thrown away or wasted here. Everything has purpose for as long as possible. Things are sewn, taped, tied, repurposed and reused over and over again. You don’t just go buy a new one. You fix and repair the one you have. You don’t just throw something away. You figure out a way to use it for something else. Bottles, jars, buckets, rope, clothing… we see the most creative, amazing re-purposing of things as we go about our day. Everything has a purpose. Everything can be remade. Everything is valuable.

9} Nothing lasts – In contrast to the above statement, nothing lasts. Nothing can hold up to the dust, the heat, the humidity, the intense environment of West Africa. We have to hold everything loosely knowing that it can be here today and gone tomorrow. Working today, broken tomorrow. Usable today, moldy and dry-rotted tomorrow. Stale, full of bugs, falling apart, crumbling and disappointing. It definitely helps you learn that Jesus is the only thing that matters. He is the only thing that lasts. He is all we have and all we need. At the end of the day, Jesus is still there. Still good. Always the Good News and our ever-lasting hope.

10} On va voir – We will see. Or, time will tell. Or, maybe. Learning to live this overseas life with open hands, open arms and an open heart. We don’t know what tomorrow will bring. We don’t need to worry or wonder. God knows.

10} Joy in the midst – West Africa is full of poverty, need, desperation, harsh realities and deep brokenness. But we also see laughter, music, dancing, thankfulness and playing. It’s there all around us. When it’s time to party, they know how to party! The smiles are genuine and the laughter is abundant. Always find joy in the midst.

These moments teach us meaningful, valuable, and beautiful life lessons when we need them most, on the hardest overseas days.

There are so many more lessons that I could share. Lessons learned through the daily practice of living, working and serving.

Every day is an opportunity to learn, to listen, and to grow.

Would you share your lessons with us?

What have you learned in your life overseas?

What lessons are you learning that are meaningful and valuable from the community around you?

What do you think?

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