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Language Class

A letter from Martha Sommers in France and the U.S., prior to service in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

February 2016

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Bonjour Mes Amis,

I have just finished my language lessons at Centre de Linguistique Appliquée, and expressing my sentiments in French, C’etait magnifique! Thank you so much for your support, which made this language learning opportunity possible. How to give you a taste of this experience? Let me take you to classroom 211 last Tuesday morning. We are settling into our seats. Our tables are arranged in an open square, to facilitate communication between students. Jincheng, an economics student from China, who is very aware of fashion trends, enters, and takes a seat between Marco and myself. Marco, who is a Saint Frances de Sales priest from Chile and a philosophy professor, jokingly inquires why she is wearing jeans with so many tears in them. She laughingly tells him that this is how young people dress now, emphasizing the words for “young” and “now.” So, being the second oldest student at 53 years, I then jump in, telling Jincheng that this style was the same when I was a child. I recalled that we also used to get our new tennis shoes dirty on purpose, which frustrated my mother. Ammel, a mother of three from Algeria, adds that kids still rough up new shoes on purpose; her oldest son just did so. Like my mother, she finds this frustrating. As we chattered away in our newly acquired French, our professor, Denis Roy, takes note of our progress and our errors. As class formally begins, he asks for language clarifications. From me, he asks if I meant to use the word enfant, which means “child,” instead of “adolescent,” or jeune, which means “youth.” I agree that jeune would have been a better word choice, but add that I did start copying the styles of my older sisters when I was still a child.

Our class on my last day

Our class on my last day

From there we move into a discussion of siblings and family size. I share that I have 12 siblings. Djabar, a Chadean with 9 siblings, declares that is why I will be comfortable working in Africa. Jincheng shares that she is an only child, and all her friends are only children, as that was the law for 35 years in China. Questions are then asked about how one understands the concept of brother or sister, when no one in the society is experiencing the reality of siblings. This was an opportunity to share more serious emotions and ideas in our newly learned French.

From there we move to learning parts in a scene from Sans Famille by Roman de Hector Malot. The English title for this 1878 novel is “Nobody’s Boy.” We first listen to the lines read, and learn the new vocabulary and grammar. Next we read the lines, with Denis encouraging us to pay attention to syntax. From there we have to memorize our lines, and work in small groups to prepare to perform the scene. The two stars in the class for memorizing lines are Mohamed, who is an electrical technician from Libya, and Susan, who is an English Carmelite nun. Ammel and Marco have stage presence. We all get applause, especially when we misunderstand what our friends stage whisper to us when we forget a phrase.

From there we move to the computer lab, put our headphones on, and work at our own pace with language learning software. Then it is lunchtime, and as there is a morning market at Republic Square on Tuesdays, I rush over there. I buy my fresh fruits and vegetables from my favorite vendor, Sam. He is great for banter, often adds a surprise fruit to orders, and encourages his other customers to converse with me to help me practice my language while we wait in line.

Tuesday morning market, Besancon

Tuesday morning market, Besancon

You can understand how it is difficult to say goodbye to these new friends. The French have the wonderful phrase, “Bon courage.” It is so fitting to be able to wish each other good courage as we move into an unknown future.

My future is finally to reach Tshikaji, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where our PC(USA) partner, the Congo Presbyterian Community, has been waiting to welcome me to the Institut Médical Chrétien du Kasai (IMCK). My ministry stays on track and I can’t wait to get my feet on the ground. Some specifics have changed and I want to update you on them. When I last wrote we were working on a partnership between Presbyterian World Mission, IMCK, and Saint Louis University. Since then the university had some changes in leadership and direction, and they decided not to go forward with the program I was involved in. My colleagues at IMCK and Presbyterian World Mission assure me that my ministry as a medical education consultant is to continue, and I am grateful. My time will now be fully dedicated to assisting in their expansion of their family medicine program, strengthening their other training programs, and seeing patients. It does, however, mean that we are moving forward without the planned-on 50 percent funding of my sending and support from the university. So if you do not yet support me and my ministry with IMCK, please prayerfully consider joining at this time. And if you do support me already, consider increasing your support. Thank you for your prayers, emotional support, and financial support!

I now have my ticket to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. I leave Chicago on June 8, and arrive in Kinshasa on June 9. Our partner church, the Presbyterian Community of the Congo, is organizing an in-country orientation for me when I arrive, to help me understand and adjust to the culture of my new home. Fellow missionaries are sending lists of what I might want to buy in the U.S.A. or Kinshasa before traveling up country to Tshikaji. The lists include a coffee pot, even if I don’t drink coffee, and can openers.

Lots to do between now and then: visits to supporting churches I was not able to visit before language school, clinic shifts, and a weeklong continuing education course to stay current in my field, enjoying family and friends, and a little time for self care. Please pray for me as I try to remember to live in the moment.

Please also pray for my future home, Institut Medical Chretien du Kasai. You can learn more about IMCK at

I will be able to continue to communicate through these newsletters, Facebook, and email once I am there. As when I was in Malawi, there may be times when the Internet is not working, but I will still be able to update you all.

Thanks for joining me on the journey!


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