A HNGR dispatch from Senegal
By Hannah Sanders
Last spring, I sat in Dr. Milliner’s office to discuss my paper topic for his “Mary, Mother of God” seminar. After sharing mixed emotions regarding my upcoming HNGR internship in Senegal and placement with a Muslim host family, he shared with me deep wisdom from Thomas Merton:
“It is my belief that we should not be too sure of having found Christ in ourselves until we have found himself also in a part of humanity that is most remote from our own.”
In recent months, this quote has become poignant as I have encountered, been welcomed into and slowly become part of a society different from the one that sent me. Linguère, the small town in rural Senegal where I live, is far removed from any other place I’ve experienced. Of course, there are ostensible differences which have brought excitement and wonder, pain and exhaustion. For the first three months, I was the only person with white skin living in my town. I am the only Christian in my host home and one of very few in the community. I do not speak any of their languages well and am clearly a foreigner, which the kids playing on the street remind me too often.
The more time I’ve spent in Linguère, the more I am surprised by subtle differences in our shared humanity. For example, the Senegalese are so committed to greetings that the strangers I pass on the street may be offended if I forget to say hello. Daily schedules are structured around the relentless heat and prayer times, rather than traffic and business hours. The cultural generosity has shocked me. Offering whatever they are eating to those passing by and saving food for those who are absent at mealtime is expected. People in Linguère are also capable of spending hours simply sitting, a concept far removed from the breakneck pace at Wheaton. Maybe they are chatting with others or boiling tea on charcoal, but they are unconcerned with our version of productivity.
Other little things remind me I’m not in America, like seeing a camel in the back of a Land Cruiser speed past, taking a horse cart rather than a car across town to visit the homes of the orphans we support or stepping around goat poop when trekking to the outhouse each morning before my host sister completes her cleaning routine. In trying and failing to accept these differences with humility, the vast richness of the incarnation of God has come alive for me. I underestimated Christ’s power when I thought finding Christ among the Muslim herders of Central Senegal would be challenging simply because their lives are so “remote from my own.” Little did I know how he has been working in my community and how he would work in my own heart. He is certainly making himself known throughout this sandy desert, usually in unexpected ways.
God has revealed himself to me through the life of my internship supervisor, Mariame who is a devout Muslim. For 32 years she has been working in Linguère and the surrounding villages to establish health centers, provide community health education and support people living with HIV/AIDS to access the care they need. She is an excellent neighbor who puts people before work. Because of this philosophy, she has won the respect of much of the town, which has no doubt added efficacy to the community health programs we carry out. On our way to the market to buy food for our upcoming village nutrition training, she told me we were going to visit a very old lady who was sick. At first, I thought we should wait until after the workday was over, but then I remembered caring for the sick is exactly what Jesus told us to do. It took a woman who does not believe Jesus is Lord to remind me that following his example requires putting people before “program efficiency.”
Mariame is also constantly advocating for the dignity of people living with HIV/ AIDS (PLWHA). In Senegalese culture, they are stigmatized and ostracized, much like the lepers in the Bible. People do not want to eat with them or touch them, so they carry a lot of shame and hide their status. Some of the people in our Association for PLWHA confess that if they had not received help and acceptance they would have committed suicide. Mariame told me the story of Aminata (name changed), a PLWHA in the association. Her sister-in-law discovered she had HIV by opening the envelope with the test results, then told the whole family. That night, they prepared a bowl of food for her to eat separately because they feared they would contract the disease if she ate at the large bowl with them. Aminata told Mariame about the isolation and discrimination from her family, and Mariame immediately took action. She went to Aminata’s home for dinner and insisted on eating from the same bowl as her. Against the family’s protests, Mariame also refused a spoon and ate with her hands, as is culturally normal. When Aminata didn’t finish her drink, Mariame took it and drank the rest. The family was amazed. Later, Aminata came back to the office to thank Mariame for eating from her bowl because ever since then, her family has accepted her. Listening to this story, I realized what Mariame did is exactly what Jesus would have done. He shared meals with people society rejected, and those ordinary acts brought about transformation. Though as a Muslim Fulani woman, Mariame is ostensibly very different from me and my American Christian community, her example of caring for the most vulnerable points me back to the way of Jesus.
God has also been working unexpectedly through the sudden death of a Christian Fulani doctor in the next town over. Dr. Soh was widely known for his excellent and compassionate work and commitment to bring the gospel to his unreached people through health care. As a Christian from an ethnicity extremely devout to Islam, his entire family abandoned him at his death. His funeral took place in a vacant lot near his house. Many of his neighbors, from young kids to old women, stood around to listen. His foreign partners and colleagues from Europe and the States flew in to pay respects, which testified to his renown. Before this diverse group, a Fulani pastor very clearly proclaimed the hope and freedom from sin that Dr. Soh had found in Christ. I was sitting near Mariame and other Muslim colleagues who knew him well and looking around at all the neighbors and street kids who came to stand in the back and observe. Although Dr. Soh’s death was an unexpected tragedy, his commitment and passion to serve the poor in his community brought the opportunity to share the hope of Christ with many who have likely never heard what Jesus did for them preached in their own language. Talk of Dr. Soh’s life and death has opened up conversations with my host family and office staff about how much he sacrificed for the sake of Christ. People shared how he chose not to leave Senegal to pursue a comfortable life as a doctor in Europe, but chose to stay among his people to ensure the most vulnerable had access to quality health care. He sacrificed privilege, riches, family and friends to follow Jesus.
Seeing glimpses of God’s work in rural Senegal has brought a different vibe to my recent rereading of the Gospels. I’ve been thinking a lot about how Jesus’ time on Earth looked far more like my life in Linguère than in America, though I still have more physical comfort here than he did. God did not live the embodied life of a middle class American: he lived the embodied life of a carpenter in a dusty land, the kind I greet walking to work every day. He was born in a stable like the one on my roof, complete with smells, filth and loud sheep. Shepherds, like the ones who ride into town on overloaded bush cars to sell their animals, were the first to know of his birth. He rode on donkeys like the ones who eat our trash, make weird nightly noises and still work as common and essential modes of transportation. He healed invalids like the woman I visited who has been lying on a cot in a leaky hut for 15 years. He hung out with the stigmatized sick like Mariame does.
As I’ve been reflecting on how Christianity differs from Islam, Jesus has been the answer. How amazing it is that our God is so big that he can humble himself to come to this Earth. He did not come to the rich 21st century American world, but he came to be poor and associate with the poor. This fresh understanding of the incarnation has brought me unexplainable peace. I care less what life looks like beyond Wheaton because now all I want to do is wake up every day so I can love Jesus and people. And I don’t need an amazing job or five-year plan to do that, so who cares if my ideal plan falls into place post-graduation? Pre-HNGR Hannah was so stressed she never would have said that, so my current attitude shows how meeting God in this unfamiliar, forgotten pocket of the world changes everything.
Now that I have seen glimpses of Christ “in humanity quite remote from my own,” I wonder how I will find Christ when I return to Wheaton. Jesus didn’t drive down paved streets or sip oatmilk lattes in the park. He didn’t sleep in air-conditioned rooms or have a million choices for lunch at Saga. Will Jesus still reveal himself to me when I’m back on a clean and tidy campus, worshiping with hundreds of people in English rather than under a shade shelter with eight other believers? How will I relate to Jesus when I once again live the lavish, privileged lifestyle he never lived? I am still asking many questions, and I want to continue searching for him at Wheaton. Though Jesus and the beauty of his ministry has come alive while living among the poor, I know that he is still big enough and kind enough to reintroduce himself to me through the familiar people and community I will encounter when I return home.