We’ll never forget our year of living in the village. Packing our belongings and our puppy on a truck while we took the 14-hour, overnight boat trip. The indescribable heat, the living with no running water, the hurricanes that blew over palm trees. The cultural ceremonies, being a fifteen-minute walk from the ocean, the bugs. Watching the sunsets from our roof. The bug that my neighbor removed from my toe using a needle. The long power cuts. The hoping we wouldn’t lose the hard-to-come-by meat in our freezer. Land mines. The lime green snakes. The large, extended families of cockroaches. The risk of driving at night because of the rebels. The fish and rice. So much rice. The dancing. The drums. The sand. The greetings. The heartache of missing family. The vivacious bougainvillea and the vibrant hibiscus flowers. The learning to belong. The melting pot of people and languages. The loneliness. The unexplainable struggle to get pregnant after years of trying. Being an outsider in a foreign culture. Not blending in. Making friends. Spending time with my namesake baby Jenn. Learning to live outside our comfort zone. Friends turning into family. Pigs. Goats. Chickens. Kids climbing palm trees. Kids climbing on our fence. Noisy roosters. Community. Yassine. Thomas. Nando. Safi. Mami. George. Martin. Noella.
We’ll never forget our year of living in the village. More than anything we’ll never forget the people. We were outsiders living in their world, learning to navigate a culture that was foreign to us. We were far from family and friends, and they welcomed us.
One person that we’ll never forget is Noella. From day one of meeting her I loved her name. She was 13 years old at the time. She was the little sister of one of the guys in the church where we were working. She was living with her brother, far from her parents. I know family dynamics are different for Africans, but I always felt bad that she lived so far from her parents at such a young age. She would come with her brother to church and she was often the only girl there. Her life, like many women in Africa, was hard. She was up early hauling water, cooking rice, going to the market, and often spending time out in the fields, working long hours in the hot sun. But she was always so sweet and so kind.
She stayed the night with us once while her brother was out of town. I loved being able to take care of her, to host her in our home, to watch Shawn interact with her, knowing he’d make a great dad if ever given the opportunity. I remember her curious questions as she looked around at our American gadgets (potato peeler, lime squeezer) and observed our “strange” in home customs.
The way things were going for us, and living hours from any medical help, let alone a fertility specialist, I doubted whether or not we’d ever have a child to name. But with bitter tears stinging my eyes, I quietly tucked the name Noella in my back pocket just in case we ever had the privilege of naming a daughter. Not only did I love the name, I loved Noella from Cap Skirring, Senegal. I loved her sweet spirit, and I loved how she went against the cultural norm for a young woman and came to church with a desire to learn. I loved the idea of a name that incorporated the memory of our time in Africa. In Africa namesakes are everything. You always name your child after someone.
Our Noella may never meet Noella of Cap Skirring here on earth. But she will one day. And in the meantime, she’ll hear about her, and that memorable year in the village that we’ll never forget. The year when we prayed that one day we’d have a daughter that we could name Noella.
And Pearl, her middle name, is a family name on both sides. And we also had the expression, “No grit, no pearl” in mind. Because the best things are always worth fighting for. Things like our baby girl. Things like pushing outside your comfort zone. Things like finding meaningful community in a world where you’re the foreigner. Things like love and hope.