Stephen & Laura Holt | Sierra Leone, West Africa

True Fire

Date of original journal entry: January 14, 2012

But his word was in mine heart as a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I was weary with forbearing, and I could not stay.  Jeremiah 20:9

Learning small nuances of our new culture can be very instructive not only for me as the transplant but also for the locals who help me learn their culture.  They’ve grown up in it and don’t see interesting applications, things which are obvious to me as an outsider.  I love it when that “Ah-ha” moment comes on both sides as it did in this story.

By nature, I’m very curious and probably ask too many questions; I think I overwhelm my cultural informants but I really want to understand things.  Repeatedly observing a small custom aroused my curiosity and I had plenty of questions for Joseph one day.

 

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Women commonly have two or even three cooking pots, each requiring a fire.

In the evening, when a woman begins to prepare her family’s meal, a child is sent to beg a coal from the fire which is already burning under her neighbor’s pot.  The smallest crumb of glowing ember will suffice to ignite the flame with which to cook their supper.

Just from observing, I saw this as the fire of true Christianity.  One small glowing ember shared with a neighbor, quietly and unceremoniously given.  Humble, no fanfare, no attention to self, just a simple service from the heart.  This fire nourishes, this fire is shared, this fire produces something for all who gather around it.

 

Wanting to know the Mende word for the burning ember, Joseph defined a distinction for me.  Teke is simply a coal; one with no fire in it.  But teke-cumbway is the burning coal; the one which is useful and life giving.

While continuing to discus this custom with Joseph, an interesting point emerged, revealing a another spiritual truth.  Unlike other African cultures I’ve read about, there is nothing in the Sierra Leonean cultural code of conduct which requires a woman to give the requested coal.  “The woman may grudge and not give it,” explained Joseph, “She forgets that one day she may need a coal; she forgets that someone else has given to her before.”  My little light bulb went off! I explained to Joseph that this was like Christians who will not tell others about Jesus Christ and he quickly understood the analogy; his face brightening with the new insight.

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“Turning down the heat” by pulling the burning wood out a bit. With skill and practice, they get the precise cooking temperature they want.

Later that same day, in the cool of the evening, I was at Joseph’s house to help him share the Gospel with some young ladies who live near him.  They had come to him asking questions; begging a coal if you will.  After they left he told me that as he was returning home that evening, he marveled as he quietly stood by in the background and watched a woman start three fires with a small ember, a teke-cumbway, which had just been given by her neighbor.  “Oh, Mummy Lolla, you help me to understand,” he gratefully said.  Something they do every day, held spiritual truths he had never seen before.

This simple lesson from their own culture had a great impact on Joseph.  It is also having an impact on me.  My prayer for the new year is that I will be teke-cumbway, a small, humble, but effective living coal passed on to someone who needs it.

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