Ghana choir

Ghana choir

When you hear the phrase “church choir”  what comes to mind? Large? Traditional? Sings hymns? Wears robes?

What would it be like if:

  • Many church choirs wrote their own songs
  • Every church had 2-3 choirs and and large churches might have 10 or more
  • Choirs expected the congregation to learn their songs and sing along
  • Some choirs sang in a language which is the mother tongue of only a fraction of the congregation and some churches would have several of these
  • Choirs offered support to choir members and others during times of bereavement, illness, unemployment, etc.
  • A significant portion of choir meetings was spent in sharing and prayer
  • Choirs expected that at least some people in the pew would come to the front and dance for joy with choir members during rousing songs
  • In some rural churches, as many as 70% of choir members could not read or write, just like the rest of the congregation

I don’t have to imagine this. I live in it. This us what church choirs are in much of Africa.

Church in Abone, Congo

Church in Abone, Congo

Now, imagine that you are part of a team doing the first translation ever into a language and you are looking for more ways to get this new translation into hearts and minds. A local person suggests choirs, but you still think about choirs the way you did at home. So you reject that crazy idea.

It has happened just like that. Of course, others realized that if choirs compose and sing Scripture songs in the local language, Bible reading and memorization happen. It’s cheap, sustainable and fits the local system.

Being effective when working in another culture means making a conscious choice to call your understanding into question, even for things you know (or think you know) perfectly well, such as choirs.

What do these have in common?

What do all the items on this list have in common?

  • Wall hangings: God bless our home and other mottoes
  • Ping-pong paddles/balls
  • Body trimmer-slimmer
  • Bathroom scale
  • Tool kit
  • Padlocks with alarm
  • Plastic wares
  • Toilet paper
  • Neckties
  • Yams
  • Chocolate spread
  • Papaya slices
  • Flags
  • Scrabble
  • Monopoly
  • Chess
  • Steering wheel covers
  • Car seat covers
  • Political party banners
  • Sports balls: basket, soccer
  • Spark plugs
  • Paper towels
  • All-purpose cleaner
  • Scratch cards for prepaid phones
  • Apples
  • Belts
  • Bubble blowing toys
  • CDs
  • Cell phone covers – skins
  • Chocolate bars
  • Clothes hangers
  • Coffee mugs
  • Coffee tables
  • Donuts
  • Balafon
  • Hair brushes
  • Foaming tire and wheel cleaner
  • DVDs
  • Fire extinguishers
  • Flip flops
  • Floor mats for car
  • Handkerchiefs
  • Hard candy
  • Kids drawing tablet
  • Kleenex
  • Maps
  • Mints
  • Multiple LED light bulb
  • My body poster
  • Newspapers
  • Onions
  • Paint brushes for house painting
  • Paintings
  • Pen drives – flash drives
  • Phone chargers
  • Plantain chips
  • Polo shirts
  • Potato chips – Pringles type
  • Rags
  • Roasted peanuts
  • Sandwiches
  • Shoes
  • Socks
  • Sports shorts
  • Sunglasses
  • Table clothes
  • Toilet seats
  • T-shirts
  • TV antennas
  • Wall clocks
  • Wash cloths
  • Bottled water
  • Windshield wipers

Click here to see the answer

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How long

In the US, I am often asked how long it takes to translate the New Testament. Answering this question requires that we back up a bit. How long to do what, exactly?

Proposed alphabet for a language of the Congo

Proposed alphabet for a language of the Congo

Most languages without the Bible also have no alphabet. So the work of translation must start with some linguistics. After tackling the alphabet, then comes the grammar There are no books, so no dictionary, no description of the grammar. How is the past tense formed? The future tense? Many such questions must be answered.

No books means no theological books. So, what is the right name for God? The Holy Spirit? What are the best words to translate sin, holiness, spirit, synagogue, temple, adultery, and so on. There are many such questions. They must all be researched so that the translation will be accurate.

Then we need to take into account that the people may live in an area with poor roads or no electricity, which will make things take longer.

Congolese translators working together

Congolese translators working together

If you are very good and have the right circumstances, you can start from zero, go through all the steps, and complete the translation of the New Testament and a few Old Testament books in ten years. Most translations take longer. As a comparison, it took the translators of the King James Bible 7 years to translate the whole Bible, but they had some big advantages:

  • There were 47 active translators, many more than the 2-3 who work on most translations in Africa
  • English already had an alphabet, a grammar and theological works
  • English already had other translations. Scholars estimate that a full third of the King James Version was taken word for word from Tyndale’s translation and another 50% was taken from Tyndale with small changes.
Congolese translators working with a consultant

Congolese translators working with a consultant

Today we have methods which can speed things up without needing 47 translators. Translations in several languages can be done all at once by having translators from several languages work together. In one case in Ghana, translations of the New Testament were done simultaneously in seven years. That’s less than 2.5 years per language. Not all clusters are that successful, though.

Finding ways to accelerate translation is something we are building into the plan to have translations in all the languages of Ghana, all while maintaining high standards.

Backup and fools

It’s World Backup day. Seems fitting that it is one day before April Fools Day. I have a story about a fool and a missing backup, which I originally published in May 2012. Click on the title to read it all.

  • Crooks and Crow - In the early 1980′s, Liberia was in a civil war and we were living in Abidjan, surrounded by refugees. Liberians crossed the border into Côte d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast). The UN set up refugee camps but some refugees made their way to Abidjan. Among them was a class of crooks – confidence men who would tell […]

Strange morning

In March 1996, in the middle of Harmattan season, I was scheduled to make a trip to visit translation projects. I got up before dawn to the strong smell of dust. Then, instead of dawn, a sinister crimson radiance came through the windows, painting everything with the same tint. Outside, I felt like I was living in the aftermath of some nuclear disaster. I discovered that a gusty wind, saturated with particles of deep red laterite was the source of the strange morning colors. In short, it was a dust storm.

Banana tree covered in Harmattan dust

Banana tree covered in Harmattan dust

As I drove out of town, the headlights of other cars looked blue. The sky turned blood-red with the sun a mere disk of only slightly brighter red. At the checkpoint on the outskirts of town, the officials were troubled. They had never seen anything like it. Someone said that according to the radio news, the dust storm covered all of Burkina Faso, Mali and a large part of Algeria. One policeman, his eyebrows covered with a layer of the red dust, said: “Good, that way we won’t die alone.”

We traveled all morning and part of the afternoon to our destination, always in the grimy wind, marveling at the blue headlights of oncoming vehicles. Late in the morning, we went through a city; its streetlights still blazing as though they could dispel the gloom. It lasted 2 1/2 days. The grit got between our teeth, in our food and, well, everywhere. Ladies who like to keep a spotless house were propelled to the threshold of psychosis.

It was quite an experience. My only regret is that I did not take even one photo! The photos you see here were taken later under conditions which were not nearly as extreme.

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Culture determines Bible relevance

More and more people are consulting the Bible online. That has allowed researchers to gather new and better information about how people use the Bible. is by far the most used Bible site on the Internet with many Bible versions available in many languages. I use it almost daily because of the many versions it offers and its great search tools. Bible Gateway has published statistics about how people use their site including an infographic part of which is shown here.

missiographic-Global Bible Searches It shows that people from different countries had very marked differences in the attention they gave to different verses and books of the Bible, as you can see. In Indonesia, Ecclesiastes 3 gets a lot of hits. These results are not surprising; one research project in an African country found that almost 80% of sermon texts were drawn from the Old Testament.

While the relevance of the Bible is universal, the perceived relevance of different parts of the Bible varies according to one’s culture. World-renowned historian of Christianity, Professor Andrew Walls, notes that for most Western Christians some parts of the Bible might as well not exist. When was the last time you read Numbers? On the other hand, when the Bible was translated into some languages, the people found the genealogies to be significant, while another group was brought to faith by Acts 17:26-27 when it was first translated into their language.

I have heard preachers exhort their listeners to read all the Bible. While that it a good idea, so is paying more attention to the parts of it that speak most to your life and experience. Many peoples without the Bible in their language also live in places where they suffer severe economic, political and social oppression. Parts of the Old Testament speak directly to that. We should not be surprised or condemning when they read, study and get comfort from those parts more than an affluent American. During the civil rights movement in the United States, many African-Americans drew solace and strength from the parts of the Old Testament that address social and economic oppression. In fact, during the reformation, many Europeans developed their stance against the monarchy, for religious freedom and for the rule of the people from the Old Testament recently translated into their languages.

But there is a problem. It is often relatively affluent and safe Americans who decide what parts of the Bible are translated first for bibleless peoples. In effect, we give our money and our prayers to translate first what is meaningful to us. Be honest, if you had a choice between giving money to support the translation of the Gospel of John or Lamentations, which would you chose?

John Agama, who was a part of expanding Bible translation in Ghana, reading the whole Bible in his language.

John Agama, who was a part of expanding Bible translation in Ghana, reading the whole Bible in his language.

Professor Andrew Walls has also noted that it is only in the Old Testament that the Bible exposes the confrontation between belief in the one true God and the traditional gods of various peoples. He further notes that it is exactly that same confrontation which is happening daily in the lives of Africans today, including in the lives of those who profess Christianity and others who might be interested in hearing about Christian faith. My African Christian friends confirm this to me all the time. Walls implies that the translation of the Old Testament into more African languages is key to the final outcome of that confrontation – a church riddled with traditional practices or one standing faithfully with the one true and living God.

Ghanaians agree; so the plan of the churches in Ghana, on which I am consulting, will include translation of the whole Bible into many Ghanaian languages. It is my hope that Christians elsewhere will stand with them in this endeavor, rather than judging its usefulness only from their own perspective.

You can read more about BibleGateway’s research here.

Boarding process

When we were assigned to Côte d’Ivoire in the early 1980s, I used to occasionally fly with the national airline. The prices were reasonable and they covered much of the country and neighboring countries. One morning I checked in as usual. There were a row of Air Ivoire planes outside the terminal waiting to go to various destinations. Our flight was called. We were to walk to our plane. A staff member showed us which one.

Air Ivoire did not assigned seats. So there was always a bit of polite jostling to get a seat. When we were all seated, a flight attendant came on board to make announcements. But the announcement was different. We were told that we had boarded the wrong aircraft. So the polite jostling resumed as we retrieved our carry-on luggage, got off the plane and walked to the correct plane. We were pretty much on our own until the same attendant returned to inform us that she was so sorry. She had made a mistake. We had boarded the right plane the first time!

One wise passenger broke through the generalized chaos that ensued to ask the attendant if she could tell us on which airplane our luggage had been loaded.

We dutifully jostled our way back to the first plane, listened to some groveling by the same attendant, took off and reached our destination with our luggage and without further incidents.

Women and literacy

A woman teaching other women to read

A woman teaching other women to read – GILLBT photo

Today is International Women’s Day. Research into translation and literacy in the many languages of Ghana shows that women who become literate in their mother tongue:

  • Are more likely to express their opinions in their families and communities
  • Are much more likely to have all their children enrolled in school
  • Are more likely to undertake new initiatives, such as starting small businesses

Women who read the Bible in their mother tongue are:

  • More likely to share their faith
  • More likely to have a positive sense of self-worth
  • More likely to abandon traditional beliefs and practices which keep them in fear and poverty

Wider research shows that infant mortality is halved for women in Africa who learn to read, perhaps because they can then read the instructions on medicine containers.

Bible translation and the accompanying literacy efforts, it turns out, have very practical outcomes for marginalized, poor women.

Unique sales method

The road to the Siwu area

The road to the Siwu area

Shortly after I arrived in Ghana, I went to a celebration for the reprinting of the New Testament in the Siwu language. Siwu is a smaller language group by African standards – spoken by about 30,000 people. So when the translation was finished, only 1,000 were printed. But all 1,000 were sold out within weeks of the dedication. It was reprinted, and this event was to celebrate that there were now New Testaments for sale again.

Many of the elements were the same as other dedications I had attended: music, speeches, recognition of officials, prayers and a procession to bring in boxes of New Testaments with a symbolic opening of the first box followed by joyous shouts, dancing. Then, when the celebration died down, a prayer.



But next came something I had never seen. The very first New Testament out of the box was auctioned. The auctioneer worked the crowd until he got 600 Ghana cedis, the equivalent of $400 (at the time), for that one copy. The proceeds, I learned, would go toward continuing literacy and the translation of the Old Testament. The person with the winning bid was duly recognized for their contribution. Then the second New Testament came out of the box and it was auctioned as well.

Assistants auctioning NTs

Assistants auctioning NTs

It went for 500 Ghana cedis or $335. After individually auctioning a few copies, then assistants went through the audience with copies for 50 cedis ($34), then 20 cedis ($14). Cheapskate that I am, I bought one for just 10 cedis. The chief would sign auctioned copies, so I got mine signed. Beside the signature, he would put the amount the new owner paid for his copy, thus immortalizing my tightfistedness. After the auction, copies were sold for 3 cedis ($2). I later went to a part of Ghana where people are much poorer. There they did the same thing, but they started at 50 cedis instead of 600.

I am considering raising money for translation in Ghana by having a seal-bid auction for a signed copy of the Siwu New Testament. What would you pay for a copy of a New Testament in a language you do not know, but signed by the local chief, if the proceeds went toward translation work in Ghana?

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Place-based memory

Starbucks knock-off in our neighborhood in Accra

Starbucks knock-off in our neighborhood in Accra

When we were in the US, we were trying to remember the names of some places in Accra where we went all the time. Even though we had been home for only a few months, we could not remember them! We talked about it several times. We even tried to use memory helps like imagining we were there; no luck.

The day after arriving in Accra, still tired and suffering the effects of jet lag, I just blurted out the names of those places without trying.

I meet a lot of Africans when I travel. Then a few weeks or a month later I might meet one of them in a different place than where I met them. I know that I know the person, but I cannot think of their name, nor where I met them. Back in the place where I met the person, I might at least have a chance of remembering their name.

Apparently, my brain is divided into compartments. All the information for a specific place goes into that compartment and I can’t access it unless I am in that place. Although, even then there is no guarantee.