In 1995, I arrived in Namibia. In 2012, I left Namibia.
As I try to understand the unsettledness within me, I realize it is rooted in a loss I grieve unconsciously, yet deeply. A loss of words.
Before 1995, I lived in a world where words were information to be devoured. Driven by a hunger for knowledge, I consumed words, usually through reading, though my verbal interaction with others was also driven by my unquenchable desire to learn. Words on paper were familiar and comforting to me. My life was filled with paper—books, articles and libraries. My academic world demanded that I consume millions of words, digest them and then carefully craft them into arguments and theories preserved on paper for the next person to consume. It was a world where squiggles on paper were the power of the word.
Then I left that world, and I stepped into the Himba world where words were spoken, not written. In this oral society, words created pictures and connected people. It was a world where paper was unknown, and my way of relating to words was suddenly irrelevant.
At first, I struggled to find myself. How could I fit in? I had to forge a new identity based on relationships with people—sometimes talking, sometimes silent, always listening. I had to learn to paint pictures with words; to use them artistically to convey feelings and emotions, to connect to others. I had to learn the power of the spoken word to take root and grow in the minds of hearers, though not preserved on paper. I had to learn that knowledge was rooted in connectedness to a community. That wisdom was the prize to be gained through personal experience and the shared experience of others. I had to learn that knowledge was not information, but wisdom—an intangible ability to understand the world around you and provide answers for life’s most pressing questions.
It took me years to make the transition, but slowly I unlearned my old relationship with words, spread my wings and began to find real satisfaction and joy in Himba oral society. Then my world came crashing down again.
Upon our departure from Namibia in 2012, I was thrust back into the Western world, but it wasn’t the same society I had left in 1995. Now it seemed almost post-literate and entirely mediated by technology. Words came in torrents—emailed and texted in shorthand, hurriedly uttered and measured against the ticking clock. No longer did words create connectedness and convey a wealth of meaning. The interludes of rich silence I had grown to love in Namibia were drowned out by media; manipulative, aggressive and demanding.
Again, I struggled to form a new identity and relationship with words. How could I find meaning in this society that was so information-based, yet so frivolous? How could I find community among people who were so interconnected, yet so impersonal?
My own struggle crossing between cultures and having to re-learn the very nature of words is a continual reminder to me how important and valuable AFM’s contextualized approach to outreach really is. It also reminds me how great was the sacrifice Christ made for our salvation when he chose to leave the perfect community of heaven, be born into our broken world, and live and love among us.