When we arrived at Suliagwatdabitdi in late afternoon under a heavy downpour, most of us had our minds set on a good night’s sleep in preparation for the following day’s work. We came for a Ngóbere language workshop; an attempt encourage each other in our commitment to able speak this unwritten language. Our group was made up of missionaries - religious and lay - ngóbe instructors and the sabios (wise ones) who would sit amongst us throughout the encounter, keeping our efforts grounded in the richness of Ngóbe culture.
But the good night’s rest was not to be for most in the group. The workshop took place at the shelter built by the Augustinian missionaries as a service to the ngóbe who travel down from the deep forest to acquire basic necessities. Many come ten or twelve hours by foot and need a place to rest before heading back into the mountains the following day with the heavy cargo they carry on their backs hanging from a kra strapped across their head.
As always, these caravans consist of whole families. And at about one in the morning a child started crying, or better said, screaming! He persisted for a long time. His mother had gone to the fagón (three stone stove) to light the fire and prepare the food they would need for the journey back home. The child awoke without his mother by his side and began crying out. The hunger so prevalent at this time of year surely played its part in the child´s difficult night, as we await the harvest in a few weeks.
The following morning, while several red-eyed missionaries spoke of the poor night’s sleep they had due to the child´s screaming, one of the sisters who began studying the language a few months ago said, “But I understood him! It was not just noise anymore; he was crying ‘meye! meye!’”. Meye is the ngóbe word for “mommy”.
The image of that child crying and the sister hearing words, not just noise, stayed with me throughout the days of study. I reflected on what we are trying to do, why we’ve decided that truly learning the language is a necessity, not an option.
We often profess our desire to “speak the language”, “preach the gospel”, communicate effectively what “we’ve come to know”. These are surely sincere reasons for our efforts. But the sister hearing this suffering child cry out from his heart in the language his heart speaks, presented to us the most fundamental reason for our efforts… hear the cry and joy, listen deeply to the voice, and ultimately feel the heartbeat of a people.
Little by little, as we are blessed to walk alongside the ngóbe, live in their villages and drink from the deep well of their culture that in so many ways places the good of others over oneself, we cannot help but be challenged, transformed and given new life.
We ask the God of Life (Ngöbö) to continue to bless our humble efforts in sharing the Good News of Christ… bless our efforts like the first fruits of the harvest, let them grow and take root in our hearts. And in the midst of joy and suffering allow us to hear the voice of God in the heartbeat of a people.