Good Soil

“Lord, let my heart, Lord, let my heart, Lord, let my heart be good soil”. This familiar hymn dances around my head as I spread fresh compost around a young pepper plant. Good soil for farming is a scarce resource in central Senegal, and we’re lucky to have a new batch of compost for the growing peppers. To reap a bountiful harvest and sustain life, Senegal’s soil needs a lot of help to become “good”. The dirt is currently dry and dusty, as it only rains from June to October. Thankfully, local community members come to their farms every morning and afternoon to water every plant.

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Corn husks about to become compost

One aspect of my service work has been to help with sustainable agriculture and food security in rural Senegalese villages. My work in these community gardens has been incredibly rewarding. Not only do I get to watch the plants grow from small seeds into plants that will be served for lunch and dinner, but I also get to learn and develop into a competent farmer alongside my Senegalese neighbors. We plant and care for onions, peppers, lettuce, tomatoes, eggplant, mango trees, bissap (a type of hibiscus), and the list goes on and on. We till the sandy ground, we shovel heaps of compost, we form blisters and calluses, we carefully place seeds in the soil, and we draw buckets upon buckets of water from newly dug wells.

Christians and Muslims work and laugh, side by side, as they care for thousands of crops. Over the past six months, I’ve noticed that Senegal truly is “good soil” for the seeds of peace, harmony, and dialogue between faiths. The religious harmony stems from many different aspects of Senegalese society. For example, parents typically allow their children to choose their own faith, so it is common for there to be both Christians and Muslims in the same family. Muslims and Christians go to each other’s weddings and funerals. They Invite each other to celebrate holidays, whether it’s Christmas or Tabaski. In other words, Senegalese people care for each other during every step of life, no matter one’s faith.

From what I hear on the news, it’s clear that our soil in the United States could use maintenance and nourishment so that inter-faith harmony may grow and thrive into the future.

 

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Freshly tilled soil that has just been watered and fertilized. Peppers, tomatoes, and eggplant will soon be sprouting here!

On as Ash Wednesday, we remember that God creates beauty, love, and hope from the dust of the world. Lent is a time for re-commitment and reflection, a time for dirt and ash, and a time for repentance and renewal. As we begin this season of lent, I pray that we will continually till and nourish the soil within our communities. I pray that the water of empathy and the compost of love may be mixed with our dusty hearts so that all of hearts will be good soil during this season of lent.

 

Lord, let my heart be good soil,

open to the seed of your word.

Lord, let my heart be good soil,

where love can grow and peace is understood.

When my heart is hard, break the stone away.

When my heart is cold, warm it with the day.

When my heart is lost, lead me on your way.

Lord, let my heart, Lord, let my heart, Lord, let my heart be good soil.

 

Amen

 

Until next time,

Erik

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Rockin’ Around the Christmas Night

I slowly began to drift into the land of dreams. It had been a packed day of Christmas celebrations that was filled with joy, love, and delicious food. Nothing felt better than resting my tired head on a soft pillow, especially after I spent the previous week working on various development projects in villages around the town of Foundiougne.

“Jegaan, are you sleeping?” my host mother suddenly asked from outside my window.

“Not anymore,” I mumbled to myself as I wiped the sleep from my eyes. I looked at my watch, and the dim turquoise light displayed that it was about 12:45 am.

“Jegaan, are you sleeping? Come and dance!” my host mom excitedly continued in her familiar Seereer.

I had a split-second to decide on whether to respond and leave the comfort of my bed or to fall back asleep. Thankfully, I chose the former.

“I’m coming,” I called out of my window as I hurriedly put on my jeans and slipped into my flip flops.

When I walked outside, both of my host parents were patiently waiting for me. My host dad explained that there’s a Seereer folk music concert that started at midnight, only a couple of blocks down the road. My host siblings had called to make sure that I would come, since they were having so much fun during the first few songs.

The street lights flickered in the cool night air as we walked down the dusty road. It’s currently the dry season in Fatick, and we haven’t had rain since late September. Everything that was green and muddy when I arrived in Senegal has become brown and sandy.

As we approached the concert, the sounds of the drums boomed against my chest and the guitars twanged across the air.

After I paid the small entrance fee, we entered the concert venue where I was quickly engulfed by a throng of people who had also just arrived to the concert. Hundreds of my neighbors from all around Fatick had come to celebrate, to sing, and to dance the night away. (While Senegal’s population is about 95% Muslim, they still honor both Christian and Muslim holidays equally so the Monday was a national holiday… In other words, people could dance the entire night and sleep in on Monday). Through the crowd, I found the warm smiles of my host siblings greeting me as they scooched to make room for me on the bench.

From our bench, we eagerly watched the spectacle in front of us. The band enthusiastically played their instruments and groups of people and individuals would enter the middle of the dance area in order to show off their dance moves. The chairs and benches circled the dance ground, which was about the size of a baseball infield and just as sandy. Some groups would enter with coordinated and choreographed dances that perfectly synced with the music. Others would enter the with such energetic moves that they would produce miniature dust clouds which obscured their flying feet. Everyone on the sandy court would eventually combine, form a circle, and every individual would get a chance to dance in the center. After watching this progression take place for a few songs, I knew that it was time for me to join. I especially knew I had to join when my host sister dragged me off the bench and I was suddenly a member of the dance circle.

Back in Minnesota, the Olsons aren’t exactly known for our prowess on the dance floor. However, reservations about my own skills didn’t hold me back, and I jumped into the center of the circle. After a flurry of limbs and laughter from the crowd, I left the center so the next person could demonstrate their undoubtedly better dance moves.

We continued to dance until after 3 am, and I returned to the comfort of my bed with ringing ears and a new story to tell.

Two weeks later, I fondly look back on that Christmas night. It’s hard to believe that I’ve already been in Senegal for over four months. I’m constantly learning new lessons on vulnerability and how to become an authentic member of the Fatick community. I’ve become more and more comfortable with making mistakes, whether it’s with my Seereer and French or with my “original” dance moves.

I’ve also learned to have grace and forgiveness with myself for the times when I choose to rest, rather than participate in every new experience.

I am so thankful for everyone who has supported me so far on this year of service. I hope that you will continue to walk alongside me and the community of Fatick as we head into 2017. Further, Ihope that, wherever you are in the world, you will take advantage of the opportunities that present themselves and jump into the wild, crazy, joyous dance that we call life.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year,

Erik (Jegaan)

Young Men and the Sea

As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea – for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John who were in their boats mending their nets Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him (Mark 1:16-20).

During my short time in Senegal, I’ve been fortunate enough to see a part of the Gospel come to life before my eyes. I never thought that I would get to witness, let alone  learn how to fish with a net, but Fatick is full of surprises.

On a steamy Saturday afternoon, I was practicing my Seereer with my host siblings when my host father (the President of the Lutheran Church of Senegal) told me to get in the car and that we were going fishing. I eagerly grabbed my sunscreen and hopped into the car. We picked up three local fishermen in Fatick, and then we headed west, towards the coast. The rivers and marshes that run near and through Fatick are extremely salty since they originate from the Atlantic Ocean and flow east.

After a fifteen-minute drive, we reached the “secret” fishing spot. It’s such a secret that we accidentally miss it on our first drive past it. My host-father and the three hired fishermen energetically debate different strategies on how to catch the most fish. The intense planning reminded me a lot of huddling up before a game-winning drive at the beginning of the football season when the August beat down on our helmets. Once we get to the bank of the salty river, we unloaded all of the buckets and the giant net from the back of the car. The net is about 100 feet long and four feet tall. The net had floaters on top to trap the fish from swimming above the net. The game plan was basically to trap a large group of fish by silently wading around them with the net, and then dragging the net towards the shore once they formed a complete “U” around the fish. I mainly stayed on the shore and put the fish and crabs into a bucket, but I helped with the net when they needed it. After an hour and a half, we folded the net and placed the bucket of fish into the trunk of the car.

I think we’re on our way home, but we quickly turn in front of a sizable herd of cows and continue on to another fishing spot. We spend another hour and a half in the mud, the heat, and the salty water in order to catch our food for the coming days (a very different experience from a trip to a grocery store in suburban Minnesota). By the end of the fishing excursion, we had caught a couple hundred fish to split four ways and a handful of crabs to snack on when we returned home.

Throughout the tiring afternoon, I bonded with all of the fishermen and learned some valuable lessons about patience and teamwork, not to mention practical lessons on how to efficiently fish in Senegal (using your big toe as a “brake” is a very useful skill if you’re about to fall in the mud).

Looking back at the Gospel of Mark, the immediacy that the disciples dropped everything, including their expensive nets, in order to follow Jesus is extremely striking. After an afternoon in the river, I now have a better appreciation for the lifestyle that that disciples were living in, what their jobs entailed, and why Jesus might have called these young fishermen to be his disciples. Fishing with a net requires teamwork, patience, and the ability to overcome setbacks. All of which are useful tools for spreading the word of God in the Mediterranean and living a fruitful and successful life today. I’m already looking forward to my next opportunity to go fishing in the salt marshes.

Until next time,

Jegaan Diouf (Erik Olson)

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Our buckets of fish and crabs after one of our outings into the river.

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The river where we fished outside of Fatick

*As a new addition to my blog, I’ll end each blog with a riddle about my time in Senegal. Feel free to guess the answer in the comment section, or check out my next blog post for the answer and another Senegal-themed riddle. I’ll start with a relatively easy one:

I’m Red, and Black, and Green all over

You’ll find me as a common Senegalese desert or at any 4th of July picnic

My harvest season occurs during Senegal’s rainy season (right now)

What am I?

 

What’s in a Name?

“No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations” (Genesis 17: 5).

“And Jesus answered him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it’” (Matthew 16: 17-18).

Throughout the bible, names define one’s character, one’s mission, and can even embody a covenant with God. Along with Abraham and Peter, Saul transforms from a persecutor of early Christians into Paul the Apostle as he spreads the Gospel across the Mediterranean (Acts 13: 9). Similar to the Bible, names carry great power and significance in Senegal. First names have weight and meaning, and nearly every last name intertwines through Senegal’s social tapestry. After almost four weeks in Fatick, I’ve witnessed the power of names, and I’m experiencing the ripple effects of transforming my own name.

With a name like Erik Olson, it’s no surprise that I come from a pretty Scandinavian background. In fact, my mom pushed for me to be named Bergen, Bjorn, or Sven. Luckily, my Dad stepped in and they agreed on Erik. Looking back on it, my name solidly compromises between honoring my Scandinavian heritage and embracing the type of “normal” name that will help me navigate relationships at school, at work, and with friends.

I’ve also had a wide variety of nicknames throughout my life. Some of my nicknames have included Ole, Rick, Slick Rick, Slick, and Richard. While the origins (and quality) of the nicknames widely vary, they all helped me to connect with others and to build new and lasting relationships.

Now, how does this personal history surrounding my name relate to my service in Fatick? Our Country Coordinator, Pastor Kristin, told us in April that we would be given Senegalese names upon our arrival in our host communities. Not only would we be given a name, but people would compete over the opportunity to name us. In fact, while in Dakar, I consistently disappointed my Senegalese friends and neighbors by telling them that they couldn’t name me since I had to wait until I arrived in Fatick. We postponed receiving our names until we arrived at our site placements so that we could better connect with our new communities and host families.

When we were getting picked up by our host families on the last day of orientation, I learned that my youngest host-brother would give me my new Senegalese name. Pastor Kristin was a little worried by this prospect, since my host brother really likes French-dubbed cartoons. She thought that I might be named after one of Spongebob characters or even one of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Fortunately, my host brother decided upon the name, Jegaan Diouf.

Jegaan signifies that I’m rich and without wants in anything in life, whether its material wealth or love from family and friends. The name originates from the Seereer verb, “Jeg”, which means “to have”. Diouf is the family name of my host Father, and the Diouf’s have a rivalry with those of the last name Faye over who eats more food (it’s definitely the Faye family).

Joyful smiles race across people’s faces and laughs fill the air when I introduce myself with “Jegaan Na’eem”, “Diouf Si’meen”. My new name already makes me feel incredibly welcome and connected with the community. Looking back on my life, I have only experienced such happiness when I introduce myself at family gatherings and reunions in the United States. That’s one of the beauties of living in such a communal society, everyone is viewed as a family member. I hope that I can bring back some of this empathy and compassion for one’s neighbor with when I return to the United States.

As I steadily transition into my new community, I admit that the name Jegaan is still taking a while to get used to. At the end of a tiring day, it can sometimes take 2 or 3 calls of “Jegaan!” before I realize that a co-worker or a member of my host family is trying to get my attention.

Personal aspects beyond my name will certainly change throughout this year of service and accompaniment. Along with my faith, I hope that my abilities to be vulnerable in relationships, to persevere through challenges and difficulties, and in countless other ways that I cannot foresee will grow and develop throughout the year.

In Shakespeare’s immortal play, Juliet wistfully ponders, ”what’s in a name?”. In contrast to Shakespeare’s musings about the lack of meaning behind a name, Senegalese names contain countless different aspects which tie a community and country together. Senegalese names carry history, literal meanings, relationships, jokes, stories, and bright smiles.

Until next time,

Jegaan Diouf (Erik Olson)

Hospitality and Teranga

Salaam aleekum!

The past three weeks of in-country orientation have flown by, and it’s hard to believe that we are heading off to our respective site placements tomorrow after worship! Over the past three weeks, we have walked the bustling streets of Dakar and maneuvered through chaotic roads that flow with cars, buses, bikes, horses, motorcycles, and mopeds. During orientation, the 6  YAGM’s (Young Adults in Global Mission) serving in Senegal have begun the yearlong process of learning about Senegal through language and culture classes, by eating around the bowl for meals, by celebrating Tabaski with our Muslim brothers and sisters, and through everyday interactions and conversations with our Senegalese friends and neighbors.

One common theme that has popped up in conversation after conversation within our group over the past three weeks is the never-ending love and hospitality that the people of Senegal have given and shown us. From the moment we stepped off the plane, to our sending worship tomorrow morning, our Senegalese friends have been incredibly kind, helpful, and forgiving with all of our cultural and language mihaps as we adapt to our new home in Senegal. This extraordinarily warm reception mainly originates from the ethos of Teranga, which permeates Senegalese society. Teranga revolves around how one must treat the Other with hospitality, love, and tolerance. An excellent example of Teranga is that we were honored to be invited to our colleague Bathily’s house for Tabaski. Tabaski is the Muslim festival that celebrates that God gave a ram to be sacrificed instead of Abraham’s son Ishmael. The day was full of tasty food, inter-faith conversation, and laughter.

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Celeberating Tabaski at Bathily’s house! Back Row: Emily, Nate, Bathily, Erik Front Row: Jessica, Julie, Karen, Pastor Kristen

I’m excited to travel to Fatick tomorrow, where I’ll be serving for a year. Hopefully I can carry with me some of the love and kindness that the Senegalese people have already shown me as we walk together in this year of service and accompaniment.

Until next time,

Erik

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Last week a double rainbow covered Dakar, which brightened the sky above our country coordinator’s apartment after an afternoon rain.

Also, here’s an excellent video from Anthony Bourdain’s travel to Senegal, where he also experienced Teranga and he ate around the bowl:

The Beginning

During elementary school, my teachers taught us that most stories have a beginning, middle, and an end. Today marks the beginning of 85 Young Adults in Global Mission’s (YAGMs) year of service. Throughout the coming year, I will share experiences and stories from Senegal. The stories will revolve around my work with both the Lutheran Church’s Department of Education and Community Development in Fatick, but I’m sure other adventures and musings will be posted as well. I hope that this blog will act as a bridge between its readers and the people of Senegal.

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The Senegalese Team: Nate, Emily, Jessica, Karen, Julie, and Erik

I think Bilbo Baggins best summarizes my joy and excitement for our year ahead in Senegal. We’re going on an adventure of service and accompaniment, and I’d love for you to join me!

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