“How can I possibly get this done in time?” I asked myself frantically. “How in the world am I supposed to have this lesson done by Thursday morning, let alone have it proofread ahead of time?” I had talked myself out of even trying; I convinced myself that any attempt to get the lesson written in English and then translated into Swahili would be futile.
In 1987, I finished three months of language school and soon after found myself being expected to teach a class in the language I had just studied: Swahili. I was only six months out of my studies and had been given a translator to assist me during my first few months post-language school. Those were good months! I had enough understanding to hear and understand the topics of conversation; having a translator kept me from forcing myself to become conversational on my own.
The smooth sailing was short-lived; the translator was needed for others who knew less of the language than I did; it was time to teach on my own in Swahili. I was assigned to teach a class on prayer. The class met on Thursday mornings for one and a half hours, which felt like an eternity of time to fill. I was barely conversational at that point; I had to carry a dictionary with me whenever I went anywhere. Going to the market was always an adventure: I would go (trusty dictionary in hand of course) with a list that I had translated into Swahili beforehand and meet the ladies who were there selling their produce. Always smiling, they helped me unlock the meaning to words and phrases I failed to find in my dictionary on my own.
When I finally summoned enough courage, I opened my lesson book and began with the title, which was simple enough, “Prayer.” On a corresponding sheet of paper, this was pre-laptop and printer days, I handwrote the title in Swahili, “Maombi.” I encouraged myself, “This is like translating the grocery list.” I worked over an entire day to write and translate the first page, I had several more to go before my first lesson was complete – and there were, if memory is serving me correctly, ten full lessons that I had to write, translate, and teach. When, after a week, my first lesson was complete (over ten carefully handwritten pages), I went to have it proofread by Shirley Hagemeier who was, with her husband Ralph, our senior missionary. By the time she was finished, my poor translation skills were on full display. Shirley, being the gentle lady that she is, encouraged me. She said, “Be patient, every week you will get a bit better.”
Week after week, I walked to Shirley’s house to have my paper checked for errors. Week after week, I watched my skills slowly improve. The time required for me to write and translate the class filled my days; I had difficulty keeping up with going to the market, cooking (that’s another blog for another day), and other necessary and unglamorous life-duties. By the end of my first term teaching in Swahili, however, I began to find myself not only reading my painstakingly written notes, but I was also able to answer some of the students’ questions without first having to go home and translate the question and then write out their answers.
After two years of speaking Swahili, we moved to another city away from Ralph and Shirley where we taught in one of their extension Bible schools. I was quite comfortable by that point with living in Africa, and moved around the city we had moved to easily without a dictionary. In time, I became acquainted with another missionary, Mrs. Grooms, who had served as a missionary for many years. She was fluent in Swahili as well as a couple of other languages spoken in the region and was an encouraging soul. One day, over a cup of coffee, she told me that while I was doing well with language study, that language study was not over. I would spend my first five years on the field studying language.
I left her house that day, my three-year-old in tow, thinking I was fluent enough in Swahili. Three more years of language study didn’t sound appealing to me at all – I bristled at the thought. Surely there were more important things to do than learn languages! However, in the back of my mind I knew that Mrs. Grooms was right. Swahili was a great language to know but there were great swaths of people who didn’t speak Swahili. If I learned French, a major language in Central/West Africa, I could communicate with even more people.
A year later I found myself in another classroom in France studying French and another year later (three years after Mrs. Groom’s comment) I was sitting down to study my 3rd language: Kirundi (the language spoken in Burundi where we had gone to plant our first church). Shirley Hagemeier’s words rang in the back of my mind as all the languages jumbled together in my mind: “Be patient.” It was apparent, by that time, that Africa was to play a major role in my life and I had learned to be patient with the process. As the years passed, I learned two more languages, translated more classes, books, and lessons than I can remember. Five years actually was a conservative period of time spent learning language – it may be more like seven or ten years of language study for the career missionary.
I no longer worry about how long a process will take; it will take as long as it takes. There’s always a reason God puts us through His processes – and we are not always going to be privy to His reasons. Those feelings I have of frustration at His process is an indicator of my weak faith and foolish pride. If I truly trust in Him, then I have no option but to submit and follow Him answering, “Yes, Lord.”
There were bonuses to my submitting to God’s process: not only did I learn how to communicate without translators, I learned patience, perseverance, and the cultural nuances that one learns only when digging into the language of the people of the land. I was also easier to live with when I gave up struggling with the process.
How long will it take to get it over and done with? It takes as long as it takes, but hidden in the time it takes will be the elements needed to take you on parts of your journey that are yet unknown to you, but not to your Father.
Psalm 9:10 TLB “All those who know your mercy, Lord, will count on you for help. For you have never yet forsaken those who trust in you.”