Feature

Your Feet Show Your Love

Hanging out means getting in

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I recently bought a package of dates from one of Niamey’s countless itinerant merchants. Affectionately referred to by the Westerners here as “Walking Wal-Mart,” these guys wander the streets of Niger’s capital balancing an assortment of goods on their heads or pushing them in wheelbarrows. The date man was of the wheelbarrow variety.

We spoke briefly in French, I handed him a few coins and he handed me a bag of dates. A friend of his walked by, and they greeted each other in Fulfulde (pronounced full-full-day), the language of the minority Fulani people. It is also the language that I spent two full years studying. So, much to their surprise, I switched to Fulfulde. That was likely the first time they’d heard a white person speaking their mother tongue.

The street vendor rummaged through his dates and handed me another bag, fresher and plumper than the originals, which he reclaimed. It was a small but satisfying reward for all those hours spent memorizing verbs and trying to sort out grammar rules.

Learning a new language is a humbling experience. In my former life, I could express myself readily, explaining abstract concepts and ideas and understanding when others expressed theirs. Suddenly I was at zero. After “hello,” I could say nothing. I returned people’s questions with a blank stare.

Early in my language study, I was talking to a man who had just gotten new eyeglasses. I learned the word for “glasses,” and then he said, “You know ‘eyes’ don’t you?” I responded by pointing to my eyes. “Good,” he said, nodding. “And where’s your nose?” Again I pointed. “Where’s your mouth?” he continued. “Where are your ears?”

I started to laugh, remembering the last time I’d had this conversation—I was questioning my two-year-old nephew while he pointed to his face in response. The tables had turned; I was in an African village being quizzed like a toddler. It felt as if any minute we might break into a spontaneous game of peekaboo!

Hard to Hang Out

Sometimes language study was simply tedious work, and I didn’t realize how much it was getting me into the lives and culture of the Fulani.

My goal in Niger is twofold: to introduce people to the Lord Jesus Christ and to help improve their physical lives. The possibilities for development are abundant here in the world’s poorest nation, which topped the UN’s list of “least livable countries.” In a few Fulani villages, I am helping to get projects off the ground that I hope will reduce some long-term problems faced by people caught in poverty. We have grain banks, where grain is sold at cost to help people make it through the lean season, and I’ve trained a few Fulani women to make clay cook stoves, which burn much less wood than the traditional open fires. Burning less wood not only saves women money but also helps to preserve this precious resource, which is growing scarce with the continual expansion of the Sahara Desert.

I also own a few cows and goats that are on loan to widows, following a wonderful Fulani practice of helping those in need. The recipients look after the livestock until the animals have young. When the offspring is weaned, the recipient keeps it and its mother is returned to the owner or, in my case, is passed on to another widow. The idea is to help the poor establish a herd as a means of improving their children’s diet (with milk) and giving the women an income (from the sale of milk and butter).

My desire is to follow the example of Jesus. He fed people, healed them, drove out demons and taught the ways of God. That’s what I want to do—meet the physical, emotional and spiritual needs of people. For this to happen, they need to trust me, something they won’t likely do through an interpreter.

And so I have spent long hours memorizing vocabulary I could hardly pronounce, sitting around cooking fires lost in a whirlwind of words and doing what I call “the ministry of hanging out.” It was not always fun—in fact, I was frequently bored. Being a product of a time-oriented, work-producing culture, I could enjoy only so much sitting around and discussing the happenings of the village. It was an act of sheer determination to concentrate on when to use which of the 17 Fulfulde words for “the.” For people who have such a simple lifestyle, they sure have a complicated language!

Feet on the Ground

I normally camp one night a week in the village where our development projects are getting started. My friends there see me sitting outside my tent in the mornings reading my Bible and praying. One woman told me, “We know you know the ways of God.” She and her husband invited me to tell Bible stories in front of their hut. About 20 people show up each Wednesday evening.

As I was packing my tent after a recent visit, the village imam stopped to chat. “Your feet show your love,” he said.

I understood all his words but wasn’t sure of the meaning, so I asked him to repeat himself. One of my friends jumped in to explain. “He means that your coming here shows that you love us.”

“Yes,” the imam agreed. “Where you don’t like, you don’t go. Your feet come here often. That shows us that you love us.”

Three cheers for hanging out! I have earned their friendship and trust. These two things will go far as we discuss the Scriptures and work together in development projects that we hope will bring lasting change to some dusty little villages in Niger.

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