Music: A Universal Language

January 13, 2020

Our first blog post from the YAGM Senegal 2019-2020 cohort comes from YAGM Sarah (or Daba Ndour, as she's known in Senegal).  Sarah has been living this year in Fatick, Senegal and serving with the Lutheran Church of Senegal.  She divides her time between the Office of Worship & Music Resources and the Finance and Accounting Office. In her blog post, you will get to read how music has become an integral part of Sarah's relationships and her formation here in Senegal.


I may be biased because I studied music in college, but music is pretty powerful. For example, how our brains remember music always astounds me. Think about when you listen to a song at one point in your life, then listen to that same song later in life. You can remember where you were and how you felt in the past time. Do you still remember the songs you sang in elementary school? “Fifty nifty United States…” (if you learned this song, you can probably still sing the whole thing!) In high school, I took a French class and our teacher taught us little songs to remember the conjugations. Now living in Senegal 6 years later, I still use those songs to help me remember French!


Music is all around us and in everything we do. And any subject you can think of – math, science, history, art, language, literature – is a part of music. Music is a big part of my life here in Senegal as well, working in the Christian Resources department with music and liturgy.  Part of my job is to go with my supervisor, Nicolas, to the different Lutheran parishes around Senegal to teach them new songs. So far, I have traveled to the Nioro du Rip and Mbour parishes.


Parish of Mbour musicians with Nicolas (pink shirt), Pastor Diouf (center left), Pastor Ndiaye (center right), and YAGM Sarah (second from right).


When we visit parishes, we focus our teaching on a book of children’s songs. Some of the songs in the book have familiar tunes to me, such as “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,” which makes singing them in a different language (Serer, Wolof, Pulaar, or French) much easier. However, most of the songs are not familiar to me. Trying to combine reading music and reading a language I do not know, on top of playing guitar/piano, can be very difficult.


The coolest thing about this experience, though, is the fact that I don't have to know all of the words or even what they mean in order to sing. The language of music is separate from any language with words, and it is used all over the world. The way that the music is taught here is by rote teaching (repeat-after-me-style). Because of this, you don't even need to be able to read the music on the page; you just have to hear the melody and remember it.


 Parish of Nioro du Rip musicians (left) with Nicolas (center with guitar), YAGM Sarah (second from right), and Pastor Moise (far right).


Communication has been one of the hardest things, especially learning Serer. But I know I can always make a connection through music. That has been one thing that has bonded me and my host siblings as well. They have taught me some songs in French and Serer, and I have also taught them the song “Fill My Cup” that I learned at camp. I hear them singing that song all the time, and although they may not know or remember the meaning, they are still singing and connecting with me!


There’s something about making music in a group that is so special – it’s a connection that transcends beyond conversation or language. To me, it feels like we’re all part of one body, functioning and moving together in harmony. Even though the language can be a struggle, it is also one of the coolest things! Now when I read the lyrics to the songs in French and Serer, I have a general understanding of what it is saying. Here is one of my favorite songs to sing, and the translation in English:


 Eglise Lutherienne du Senegal / Lutheran Church of Senegal; Livre des Cantiques Song 171s



When Jesus comes back, we will be prepared

Jesus is going to reign here


If you want, if you don’t want,

Jesus is going to reign

Jesus is going to reign here


Awaken, my friend, the time is here

Jesus is coming soon


When you are waiting for Jesus, wait for Him with a clean heart

There is no stain on a life that is on the straight path


Do not run from a good life

Knowledge and riches do not last long


I love how music here is a very important part of any event or gathering – weddings, baptisms, church events, worship, etc. It’s guaranteed that someone will break out into dance! The best part of this shared music experience is being able to exchange knowledge. In the parish visits, I have taught people some new chords on the guitar, strum patterns, and basic piano. And in return, I have learned rhythms on the drum and finger picking on the guitar. This connection has been so special to me, and I’m looking forward to learning even more about the music of Senegal in the next few months here!


-YAGM Sarah Daba Ndour

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Pastor Kristin Engstrom is the Country Coordinator for the Young Adults in Global Mission (YAGM) program in Senegal.  Each year, young adults from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America join her in Senegal, where they serve for one year with our partners in the Lutheran Church of Senegal and Senegalese Lutheran Development Services.  

You can support Pastor Kristin's work by giving through ELCA Global Church Sponsorship.

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