Senegal, 1997

Sometimes salvation is a lumbering bus with a heavy diesel engine.

We are anxious and at a loss, staying in an empty and mosquito-infested YWAM residence in Dakar – a busy, confounding city that neither of us knows. My flight has just come in from Vancouver, via New York; she has taken all manner of public transportation (bush taxi, ferry, bus) from a rural town in The Gambia. It has been a year since our last in-person conversation and now we are thrown into complete dependence on each other, for which neither of us is prepared.

The phone call that saves us is to Christine, back in Sibanor. A generous soul if ever there was one, she is strong in compassion and full of wisdom. In this moment she offers a window of hope: “There are friends in the town of Richard Toll. Go north to find them.” Wasting no time, we throw on our backpacks and rush to the bus depot, hoping we aren’t too late for transportation. We aren’t.

Comfort food

Sometimes salvation is a lumbering bus with a heavy diesel engine. The bus rolls north with open windows through sun-burnt countryside. We trundle past seaside St. Louis and then veer north-east toward Richard Toll, a town that sits on the border with Mauritania. It’s a town that throws together North Africa with Sub-Saharan West Africa along the Senegal River – a colonial town producing sugar from its founding to today. Our arrival is late, but the arms of Jenny and Maria are as wide open as could be imagined. 

The next day, Becky and I set out early for the local tailor so I can shed my heavy jeans in favour of light cotton pants. We visit in his bare living room for a time, with no shared language between us, before turning to transactional business. There is a tape measure around my waist and down my leg, an agreement on a price, and then a length of fabric left for his scissors and sewing machine to perform their magic.

And as we leave, a gourd of warm millet with sour milk, sugar and ground nuts is placed in our hands. If there is a comfort food in northern Senegal, this is surely it. I may not experience that goodness again in my mouth and on my tongue, but memory carries the experience so vividly that it may be enough; more than enough.

Life abundant

On Sunday there is worship in the compound and home of Jenny and Maria – two single women serving Christ in all their particularity. One from Switzerland, the other from Australia. A young, Arabic-speaking man, recently baptized, leads us in a song he has prepared. We all laugh together in worship at the impossibility of our matching his sing-song style and sliding tones; they are the lyrical contortions of Arabic song that would take us a lifetime to learn. 

There is a walk along the river, a visit to the market. And there is laughter – so much laughter – with our hosts. They are the Abbot and Costello of missionary women, refusing the stereotypes of solemn or stern or unsmiling. Who knew that a beach pail overflowing with white sugar and molasses (on its way to becoming brown sugar) could later provide almost a lifetime of smiles?

Twenty-four years later, the memories still make my eyes well up. This is abundant life in the voice of a friend, in the welcome of strangers, in wordless conversation, in the tastes of another world, and in laughter that cures the soul. Abundant life that is nothing but surprise and gift.

  • Roland De Vries is Director of Pastoral Studies at The Presbyterian College, Montreal, and a Lecturer in the School of Religious Studies at McGill University. He teaches in a variety of areas including Missional Theology, Reformed Tradition, and Global Christianity. He also has a keen interest in explorations at the point of intersection between church and culture. Roland and his wife Rebecca live in Montreal with their three children.

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