Nasrania = foreigner (in Hassaniya); originally comes from “Nazareth,” alludes to followers of Jesus.
Sahara = my desert home for 8 months, October – May
I’m living, teaching and advocating in the Saharawi refugee camps in southern Algeria. “Nasrania in the Sahara” is my attempt to regularly update you all on my life here, from the mundane, sand-covered everyday to all the ways I hope to see God work through this time.
If I’m being entirely honest here, lately I haven’t been looking forward to writing in this space. I don’t know what is is – whether it’s the frustration with the internet, my own laziness, or my desire to focus on other things – but sometimes I just find that it’s hard to organize my experiences into words and I often just don’t feel like doing that work. Yet every time, this struggle turns out to be a huge blessing. The process of reflecting and trying to make sense out of my experiences reveals a lot to me about how God has been at work throughout the last month and how I have learned and grown as a result. Once the hard work of putting words to it all has passed, I am relieved with a greater understanding of myself and my experiences.
Last night, when I knew I needed to start thinking about what I’d say in this post, a particular memory stood out to me. It was of a couple of days ago, while I was relaxing in my Sahrawi family’s house with my Hassaniya teacher (read: sister) Mahjuba and “our” mother. I was trying to explain something in Hassaniya – I don’t even remember what it was – but at the end of it Mahjuba said something about how much I have learned in Hassaniya and how I could communicate in it now. Now of course anyone would be pleased with such praise from their teacher, but this simple compliment meant a whole lot more than I could have imagined.
See, one thing that God has really been using to teach me humility here has been to shake the pride I have in my strengths and thrust me into areas of weakness so that I have to depend on Him. There’s so much to be said about all the ways He’s doing this, but I’m going to focus on language.
I’ve always had pride in my language-learning ability. In high school, I won the “world languages” award, and in college I completed a minor in Spanish and studied abroad. I’ve always been aware that I was by no means ‘the best’ at languages and that there are a whole lot of people who are a whole lot better than me. But, I felt like I was “above-average enough” that it was something I could offer to an overseas team like the one I’m on now.
When I first arrived this year, I went with my American friends to have tea with one of my students. We met her older sister, who is fluent in Spanish and conversed enthusiastically with Abby the entire time. I tried to add my input once, and this girl told me “your tongue is stuck” and I honestly felt like it was. Where had my Spanish ability gone? Why did I sound like such a fool when I tried to communicate with these people? I knew my ability wouldn’t be the same this many years after I had been in Ecuador, but I still felt stupid and my confidence was shaken.
Nevertheless, God told me to face that criticism and ask this same girl to be my Hassaniya teacher. I reluctantly did, even though I feared she wouldn’t want to teach someone who was as slow as I felt at that time. I still trusted that I was a pretty quick language-learner, but I know that this culture can be brutally honest about things like that and I faced constant comparison with my teammates who had been studying the language for a while.
Yet, God has shown me how rewarding it is to face these insecurities head-on, and how much better it feels to hear of my improvement from the same person who was my harshest critic! About a month ago she commented on how well I could now speak Spanish just from the necessity of using it all the time with her. And then the other day – which I described at the beginning of the post – was all the encouragement I needed to keep pushing on in this adventure. I realized that even while judgement might feel more harsh while I live in another culture, that just makes the progress feel all the more special when it shows.
So, getting back to how this is an update for all you that I miss and love back home, basically the last month has been full of opportunities to overcome hesitance and join into this new home I have. I have enjoyed sharing in their daily lives and tasks, as well as sharing some parts of my own culture with them. I have faced the usual “Nasrania, Nasrania!!” that makes me stick out as a foreigner, but I have also heard my friends yell back, “She’s not Nasrania, she’s Sahrawia!” It is comforting to experience the love of these people and the grace they show in letting me be a part of their community.
Their love – their allowing me into their lives – enables me to learn how I can be more “me” and more “Sahrawi” simultaneously as I begin to understand the smaller things about their culture. That understanding shows me how I can be myself in a way that fits here. I don’t want to just be a copy of what I find in the camps, but I want to be genuinely me within this culture. It’s a journey to figure that out, and one I am just embarking on as I finally feel pretty comfortable here. I’m sure it will continue to prove both challenging and fun, and I am excited for that.
I don’t have a lot of pictures this month – maybe that’s okay since I’ve started being more concerned with being present than with documenting what is going on – but here are a few I took on my phone!