Herma is a Dutch missionary serving in Senegal, West Africa.
When my husband, Gerhard, and I stepped off the Marseille–Dakar ocean liner with children and Volkswagen van in tow, we expected to explore the whole of West Africa to see where God wanted us. Little did we know that we were already here. In the intervening years, Senegal has become our home. I can scarcely believe more than 40 years have passed since then.
Senegal gained independence in the 1960s and is a peaceful democratic country; one of the few on this continent that hasn’t suffered a coup d’état. Situated on the coast, Senegal is just below the Sahara and its capital, Dakar, lies on Africa’s westernmost point. It is about the size of England and Scotland. Although 96% of the population are Muslim, religious freedoms are tolerated and 3% are Catholic, with the remaining portion being evangelical. Of the 27 languages spoken, Wolof is the most prominent.
When we first arrived, we partnered with our colleagues, Dr Eric Church and his wife, Eithne, who were commended from an Irish assembly in 1962/63.1 Their life’s work was the translation of the New Testament into Wolof, the first edition of which was published in 1987. Since then, the New Testament has been revised and has gone through two additional printings. Today it is used in Wolof communities around the world. The Old Testament’s translation is close to being completed, so we will soon have the entire Bible in Wolof!
During our years in Dakar, while our children were young and attending grade school, Gerhard and I were mainly involved in church planting. When Eric and Eithne Church headed back to England in 1990, God provided a way for us to move to Malika, 15 miles up the coast where the Churches had their home and property, to continue ministry there. Today the Dakar assembly we worked with thrives in the hands of Senegalese believers.
Gerhard and I have four children: Dany, Becky, Naomi and Josh. Having grown up in Senegal since early childhood, our children learned the languages and still consider Senegal their home. In 1996, the Lord took Gerhard Home. Dany, who is talented like his dad, had a desire to start a vocational school for the guys he grew up with. Eighteen years ago, he and his wife, Nadine, started a workshop on our property in Malika, teaching trades through an apprentice system for Muslims and Christians alike. The school started with two departments: a drum-building shop and a welding atelier. It has since expanded to encompass mechanics and auto body work, furniture building, fine woodworking, textiles and the building of musical instruments. In addition to a trade, students learn basic reading and bookkeeping skills, all of which help them to support their families.
Jugena (Jikoona) grew up in an animistic household and, bored with school, left at an early age to roam with a gang in Dakar’s dump. Serving the 2 million inhabitants of Dakar, this enormous dump has an entire community living within its sprawl. One day the young Jugena showed up at my kids’ club. He attended sporadically at first, but eventually joined our Sunday morning meetings and was ultimately incorporated as an apprentice welder in the workshop.
Jugena loved the Lord but could not read. One day a missionary placed an order with him, wanting a Bible verse written out in metal on an iron plaque. Being illiterate, forming each piece of metal into a letter with the right shape and proportion was an enormous frustration. Countless times, Jugena thought he had the verse right, only to be sent back to the drawing board. Though humbling, that experience sparked in him the desire to learn to read the Scriptures for himself. Thus motivated, he began joining me at the kitchen table. By God’s grace, and with the New Testament in Wolof as our textbook, I taught him to read. Those times led to great conversations. Many times Jugena told me, ‘I would love to have a wife like you!’ Which was charming and funny and, believe it or not, God did indeed give him a wife, Joanna, a Dutch missionary from Holland! Today he continues his ministry in the welding business, having just left the nest of our school and thereby passed the baton of running our welding department on to his two apprentices.
Though humbling, that experience sparked in him the desire to learn to read the Scriptures for himself.
Jibby was born in a Wolof fishing village to a community who practise animism under a veneer of Islam. One of 18 children, Jibby first heard the good news from a group of healthcare volunteers doing a three-month outreach in his village. When he finished grade school, his father told him it was the end of his schooling, as there was no money for books. Armed with what education he had, Jibby started reading the Word in Wolof. He soon became a believer in the Lord Jesus and got rid of all his amulets, which the Senegalese wear for protection from evil spirits. Because of his faith, Jibby has been rejected by his family, but he continues to help them as much as he can.
Through a series of events, Jibby came to our shop to learn a trade. He started out building drums, then sewing. With Jibby at the helm, our textile department grew to incorporate a number of young men. One of these is Modu, whose skills have so improved over the years that he now fulfils orders from overseas. Another is Ernest, a history student, who also sews. The proceeds of his work go towards supporting his parents and continuing his studies. Jibby has progressed from sewing to helping me manage the property and our many visitors, which is a relentless job. He has become my extremely capable general manager and right-hand man.
Abdoulaye grew up in the parcel of land neighbouring our compound, so our families have a long-standing relationship. He is very musical and is currently the head of our school’s fine woodworking department. He plays and builds numerous instruments, showcasing his craftsmanship and attention to detail; including koras (African harps), the national instrument of Senegal. As there is so much musical talent here, we are building a music studio so that our Senegalese friends can record their own compositions. The original djembe (African drum) department has been passed along from Aziz to his apprentice, Gilbert, and it is still going strong. Aziz has gone on to run a successful surf camp in Dakar.
Labath is gifted with his hands and he is building a pirogue (a traditional Senegalese fishing boat) with Dany. When we took the boat on a test run up the coast, it was a very proud moment for Labath and all of the guys in the shop. Captivated by the idea of connecting the ancient with the modern, they partnered with MIT and Vanderbilt students to design a motor that runs on a biofuel engine and a traditional sail. Dany plans to reenact Abubakari’s transatlantic crossing in the 14th century2 and sail to Brazil in the boat Labath built.
The latest addition to our vocational school is an auto body and mechanic’s shop, which buzzes around the clock. Every Senegalese guy is interested in cars and fancies himself a mechanic so half the village passes through on any given day, providing opportunities for witness. Women are also a significant part of our ministry. I’ve had the chance to teach many women to read. I have a constant stream of volunteers and visitors from diverse backgrounds and parts of the world. My open home and dinner table are a great mission field.
This is why we are here: to build a community with our fellow Senegalese. On our property musicians, artisans, mechanics, carpenters, students, laypeople and visitors from overseas all work side by side. We build, eat and play together every day, and carve out a future full of hope. This is a triumph for the Lord Jesus! May our lives as Christians be a witness and an invitation to come to know the One who loves us so much and gave His life for each of us.