For those of you who don’t know, I have been living in Côte d’Ivoire, West Africa for three months now. It’s honestly a surprise to say that – it has been three whole months already. There are still at least another 9 months left to go, but three months sure does seem like a lot of time to me, especially when it applies to living in Africa.
At the beginning of this past month, I left Bouaké – a large city in the country where I was doing culture and French training for two months – to live with a host family by myself in Kong. This is where I lived for nearly three weeks before returning to Bouaké for a short stay.
Living in Kong, an ancient town which had once been the capital of the Kingdom of Kong in West Africa (there have now been 31 “Kong Kings,” interestingly enough), has been a lot like living in an episode of National Geographic. Things are very different here than they are in America – everything from bugs and animals (praying mantises are as common as moths) to the culture and practices of the people who live here.
But an episode of National Geographic would probably be much easier to watch for an hour and then turn off the TV; instead I am actually living it. I’d be lying if I told you that this has been easy and fun all the time. In fact, if I’m being honest, I’d have to say that this is the hardest thing I have ever done in my life, and I still have at the very least another 9 months left here. I remember sitting on my bamboo chair from Burkina Faso underneath a mango tree, writing my thoughts out in English while my surrogate family gazed in awe at my chicken scratch, I thought about how I would rather go through 4 years of college again than finish out this year of living in Africa.
But that’s where God does His finest work, I believe. When we are at our weakest and in the middle of some of the worst times in our lives, He teaches us the most.
Yes these past three weeks have been difficult. I realized that this would be the case as soon as I arrived at my host family’s courtyard on the 6th of November only to find that they didn’t even have electricity. As I continued through the next few days I encountered insurmountable and immovable walls – four to be exact, on all sides, making me feel trapped in a prison of despair.
Wall 1 – The Language Barrier
Upon receiving word that I would be living in Kong, I knew that I had a difficult task ahead of me. I knew that Kong had a large Dioula (Jula) speaking population and that I would have to learn some Dioula words and phrases to build relationships in that town.
What I didn’t realize was that everyone speaks Dioula. Almost no one in the whole town speaks proper French. If they do speak French, it’s a “francais de la rue” or “street French.” Understanding this kind of French is like trying to understand Pidgin English when you don’t even know English.
Additionally, my church in Kong and by extension my family in Kong (since the church pastor is my host father), are not even original residents of Côte d’Ivoire. They are Lobi, for the most part, hailing from Burkina Faso to the north, and bringing with them a completely different language.
Wall 2 – The Spiritual Desert
With this language barrier has come a spiritual desert for me. I am unable to have a conversation with anyone about anything spiritually deep or understand any of the messages that my church speaks about every Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday. All I have is my Bible and my own prayers to God.
It’s very difficult to not have any fellowship. Instead I found myself seeking this fellowship from theology books and Biblical commentaries by people like C.S. Lewis, Philip Yancey, and Theodore H. Epp. But this just wasn’t enough for me to get by. I needed teaching and others’ thoughts to bounce my ideas off of. These things are nowhere to be found.
Wall 3 – The Race Card
Everyone in the whole village knows me because I am the only white guy. Everywhere I go, I am followed by several different pairs of eyes. Everyone then tries to talk to me in Dioula. And when I smile and try to respond in French to tell them I don’t speak Dioula yet, they laugh – sometimes at me. This in turn makes me feel pretty stupid; and I don’t like feeling stupid.
Additionally, some of the things I do are weird. For instance, I will go running for exercise every now and then. I also don’t eat nearly as much as everyone else does. And I go around wearing a shirt around my head like a long hat to keep the hot African sun from scorching me. I am convinced that everyone in town knows me as the stupid, crazy, white man.
Wall 4 – Solitary Confinement
My host family’s compound is a very open area. All time is spent outdoors. The only time anyone is indoors is when we are sleeping. This is because the houses are so very small. My apartment, which is a small walk away from the pastor’s courtyard, has four walls, one barred window, and one door – very similar to a prison cell. Needless to say, I spend no time in this apartment.
But regardless of all the time I spend outdoors, including 3 hour walks into the wilderness, I feel trapped in solitary confinement. Kong is 69 kilometers away from any sign of a paved road (save for the one paved road that runs through the center of town for about 1.5 kilometers before becoming a dirt road again). I am two and a half to three hours away by bus from anyone else on my team. Therefore if I walked, it would take me all day to reach civilization and if I road my bike, it would take me all day to reach a team member.
I am often reminded of Holes. When Stanley Yelnats first arrived in Camp Greenlake, Mister Sir told him that he could run off in any direction he would like. But there was no civilization within three days of the camp and he would die of thirst in the desert before anything else came about.
But Stanley Yelnats had something in Camp Greenlake that I don’t have in Kong – camaraderie. Being unable to speak any of the languages spoken in Kong, I am not only stranded in a desert with nowhere to run to, but there is no one to suffer through this with. I am alone.
Climbing The Walls
But just like with Job and many other people, when life seems hopeless and the walls seem to be falling down on top of us, that is when God does His greatest work.
In those first few days when I found myself encountering these insurmountable walls on all sides, I thought I would go insane. The only thing I did was sit and think – and a man can only do that for so long before going insane.
So I turned to the one thing I had always relied on when I was back home – my family and other loved ones. The problem is, when I was back home in the States, these people were close to me. But that is not the case here in Africa, so I found that in those first few days trying to rely on them for support only made things worse, because they could not be physically close.
With everything gone and my entire person stripped bare, I turned to the only person left – Jesus. And it was there that I finally found strength to stand before the walls. And when I was able to stand, I was able to start looking for ways to climb up over these walls.
I started by visiting town and talking in broken French and minimal Dioula with people. I made it a point to meet some of the only people in town who knew a little bit of English – the English teachers at the school there. I began studying French and Dioula on my own in an effort to get a better grasp of things, and slowly but surely I inched my way up the walls.
In my second week, I remember listening to a podcast from my church back home, Grace Church Frisco. The podcast was from September, but the message rang clear. In the message, my friend and pastor, Rob, spoke about Paul and Silas in Acts 16. They were continually trying to enter into Asia to preach the gospel there, but were prevented multiple times from doing so. So they wandered for about 100 miles in the direction that God had last pointed them, not knowing where God was taking them next, until they reached Troas. And there, God told them what to do next – preach the gospel in Europe.
In a place like Kong, where I felt like I had no direction, I needed to remember where God had last pointed me to and walk in that direction faithfully until He pointed me elsewhere. But I struggled to remember just where God had last pointed me.
The very next day, my host father got a phone call from another pastor in a village 30 kilometers away from Kong. Someone in the village had been bitten by a poisonous snake. The pastor and I prayed for this person, but three hours later, we learned they had passed away. They had no way of getting to the dispensary in Kong where they could have been treated. Even worse, they didn’t know Christ. It was at this moment that I remembered the direction in which God had last pointed me. It was something my friend Drew told me before He left to go to East Africa back in October: “It’s not about you.”
And he was right. I didn’t understand what he was telling me at the time, but now I do. This whole experience, while it is good for me and I can see myself growing in leaps and bounds that I never would have made in the States – it is not about me. It’s about the people I encounter. There are only around 50 Christians in Kong. That is it. 50 Christians and several thousand people who have never known Christ personally. How else are they going to know Him unless I show Him to them? And being white, I have a unique influence that no one else in the Kong church can claim.
I look back on my first three weeks in Kong and I see these walls that I had first seen as insurmountable are not so infinitely tall anymore. I realize that as I went along, climbing these walls, I would make progress up the walls a little at a time. And each time I slipped and fell, I found God had raised the floor just a little higher.
So first He gave me strength when I had none (and I am firmly convinced that this is due to all of your prayers back home – thank you so much). Then He showed me how I needed to be focused. And finally, He showed me where I needed to be focused and has given me the strength to slowly work in that direction.
It hasn’t been an easy task, and it won’t get easier quickly; but there is a Dioula proverb that says “Little by little, the little bird builds his nest.” Taking small steps forward, one after the other, leads us to the final goal. I am working toward that goal and will try to keep these things in mind when I return to Kong in the middle of next week. Please keep me in your prayers. It is not an easy task, but it is the one God has put me to here work on to the best of my ability. Please pray that I will do just that.
And I will pray that God will bless you with oases in your spiritual deserts.