They call me “Tata.” That is what many francophone people call their aunts. I am not their aunt, however. They are Senegalese after all, and I am American. However, we would all say that race, nationality, language nor culture changes the fact that we are family.
I met Alyce when I moved to Senegal in the mid 80’s. She was my language instructor. We quickly moved beyond the teacher student relationship. First we became shopping buddies. Oh, how I loved scrounging around in the markets for new material to take to the tailor or haggling over a pair of earrings. We were so regular on Saturday mornings at the Sandaga market, the “jaaykats” (vendors) knew us by name. She became my culture broker; the person who understood me and understood her people well enough that she could help me navigate difficult situations and sensitive relationships. Then she became my friend. She was the one I could go to and talk about life, faith, and dreams. Never would I have thought that two people from different countries, faith backgrounds, race, culture, and language could become as close as we were. Our children played together. We celebrated holidays together, both Christian and Muslim. We worked side by side in ministry to women. We were family. I was Tata to her children and she was Tata to mine. Then the day came that I told her we were leaving Senegal. Her cries still ring in my ear.
We stayed in touch and Alyce eventually moved to the US upon her marriage to a Methodist minister. We were able to continue our relationship as she and her new husband would visit us in Brussels or we would meet them in Paris. I watched as this amazing woman obtained her GED and then her undergrad. Our relationship took a new turn as she would call with questions for school or ask for editing on a paper. We prayed together about our futures, our ministries, our children. Somewhere in here we quit calling each other by our names and simply said, “Sis.” And she is…Sis. And she is Tata.
These past few months, I have helped Sis with her daughter’s wedding. As people asked, I said that I was helping with my niece’s wedding. As I was introduced, I was introduced as Coumba’s aunt. I jumped into the planning and decorating just as any real sister would do for another. Really it was a family affair as our entire family pitched in to help with music, photography, the ceremony, chauffeur duties and the decorating. At the reception, we danced and celebrated. And I was filled with joy and pride as my niece said, “Tata, it surpassed all my dreams.” Upon leaving the next day after the big event, I laughed when my nephew gave TonTon (the word for uncle) some instructions for safety while driving in the rain!
I am going to another ceremony this next weekend. A beautiful young Iranian woman will be having her nekah, official betrothal to her fiancé. To this young woman and other students I am, “Mum Nell.” It is a different kind of relationship, but a family one nevertheless. I try to check up on them. I try to be sure they get out and away from their studies every once in awhile. They join us on our holidays, and we have joined them for some of theirs. I love on them. I laugh with them. I admit, I ‘mother’ them.
I am forever grateful that God has enriched my life with these “family” members. They are rich not just because of the love we share, but because of the diversity, the understanding, the stretching, the learning, and the vulnerability. Our global world has afforded all of us the opportunity to develop these relationships. I fear that because of the vulnerability that comes with opening up our world to the unknown, we more often than not tend to stay within our own mono-cultural comfort zone. We miss so much when we do. I love being a daughter, aunt, sister, and especially Mama. Being Sis, Tata, and Mum Nell makes family all the richer.
Being missional is not rocket science. Being missional is being relational. Sis taught me that.