This may be my third (and hopefully final) year of grad school, but my class yesterday began with the same question I’ve heard nearly every year since third grade: “What was the coolest thing you did last summer?” When my turn came, I simply said, “Traveling across West Africa.” Of course the professor exclaimed how she loved living vicariously through students, as we all do such fun and interesting things. Afterwards a classmate asked if I’d been backpacking – if it was just for fun. I told him that it went for language study, thesis research, and networking. I’ve said similar things in the past couple weeks since my return, making adjustments according to the audience and time allowed. Yet I’m not sure if it was “fun.” The word just doesn’t seem adequate. It sure was an adventure, but most of the time I was working harder than I can ever remember working, and sometimes nearly collapsing from exhaustion in the process. While it is a struggle to put into words what this summer did to me and for me, I am compelled to give it a go, as I know you don’t need to hear simply how exhausted I was all summer.
Many of you know how I lack pith, both in speech and in writing, and this summer included a whole lot of the latter two and not a whole lot of the first. Many of the upcoming posts were outlined while I was abroad. They are topical in nature and hopefully this will be more useful to you than a chronological run-down of events, as that would swamp both me and you. Nonetheless, the following maps should help you get started.
So now that you have a more specific idea of where I was, the next question is invariably “Why did I go?” The simplest answer was to complete my thesis field research on the economic impacts of migration to and from the Sudano-Sahelian Zone of West Africa and the Benelux Region of Western Europe. While I hope to share with you some of the findings I found – at least those I deem safe to share – this but scratches the surface.
I went to discover more fully the region of West Africa that I knew in the Peace Corps but never had a chance to travel. I went to increase my language capabilities in both Malinké and Bambara, thus facilitating my research and future work with people from parts of Guinea, Mali, Ivory Coast, and Burkina Faso. I have alluded to this “future work” before, but I know that many of you may not have any clue what I am referring to. In short, it is sharing the transformative power of the Word of God over all aspects of life, especially my vocation/calling. This, for me, is tied most specifically to the way in which the transformative power of ideas can transform the economies of West Africa in a way that minerals, ports, and crops could never do. It is a question fraught with conflict and controversy, as we will discover together, yet it is full of love and promise as well. This summer, however, this vast endeavor looked a whole lot like that most ambiguous of words: networking.
So then, if all I needed to do was to learn about the region and network, couldn’t I use the tools of modernity to research and communicate? Maybe, but I was convinced that after having a couple years of book-larnin’, I needed to go back with my own two feet. Despite eight months of steady planning and numerous connections that blossomed out of seeming nowhere, I left the US for Dakar on May 9th, 2013, into a world of unknowns in a manner for which Peace Corps had only partially prepared me. You see, this exhaustion was not merely about bucket baths, traveling by bush taxi, or bartering in markets – I’d dealt with that before. I was entering a time and place boiling over with spiritual warfare. Just as physical warfare has increased in the region since January 2011, I have become more aware of the forces competing for people’s hearts and minds in a way that “Shock and Awe” could never begin to comprehend. Here in the States, we live in a world of tangible things, in such a way that bullets and bombs actually seem to accomplish a whole lot of change. As the Americans found in Iraq, and the French may find in Mali, the investment of human resources makes just as much of a difference as more tangible ones. So as I confronted the reality of witch doctors, religiously-motivated killings, and the power of the family to make life and destroy it, I was left with no other way out but to dig deeper in.
I leaned on newly-found human resources as I traveled, a veritable chain of them, from virtual strangers to close friends. Many people let me down: not showing up for appointments, not answering calls, not providing information as promised. Sometimes out of ideas, other times out of tears, I found there was always someone else behind a seemingly closed door, even more perfectly suited to my needs of the moment. In my seven weeks in Guinea, I found I was really only able to rest and relax in the last two week. After a week on the road, leaving Mali for Burkina Faso, I called my parents, saying that I was running on adrenaline. It seems impossible that someone could operate on adrenaline for two weeks in Africa, and then an even crazier two weeks in Europe. But that’s exactly what happened. Of course, I couldn’t have done it on my own, and most of the people I met didn’t know the other pieces of the chain. So how did they link together? I’m not sure how, but I know I was leaning even more heavily on my Provider than on this chain of earthly vessels. Reading the other day, I realized that I was more anchored while moving that when sedentary here in Bloomington: “We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place behind the curtain” (Hebrews 6:19).
Why should I care?
After all this soul-searching, of a very personal nature, some of you may wonder why you should keep reading. In today’s day and age there is far too much to read online and not enough time to digest it. You can feel free to move on. I would encourage you to keep reading if you like stories, tying history to the present, West Africa, or if you just want to read someone who doesn’t have yet a new angle to throw on the polemics of Miley Cyrus, Chick-fil-A, or whatever else might be trending on Twitter tomorrow. With the exception of my time in Peace Corps, I’ve kept my distance from blogging, thinking I don’t have anything to add to the tangled cacophony of voices shouting back and forth across the web. I hope this represents more of still and quiet voice, just like the trees in its name, but you can feel free to comment back and let me know if there’s anything you’d like to hear about my travels. For those of you who are able to see me face-to-face, I’m always up for filling in the gaps of the written word with my more preferred medium: the spoken word.