Three older two younger

I had just met a Burkinabé man named Samuel who was visiting friends in our home town. As we chatted, I asked him if he had brothers and sisters. His response:

Three older and two younger

Jan Swanson, Dayle and Samuel

Jan Swanson, Dayle and Samuel

Have you ever had anyone answer that question in that manner? When I ask that question of a fellow American, I expect to get a number, and possibly the number of brothers and the number of sisters. I have had people ask where I came in the birth order with my two brothers and two sisters, but that comes after the number of brothers and the number of sisters, not before.

There is a very good reason why Samuel answered the question the way he did. In his culture, the relative age (older or younger) of one’s siblings is very important. In fact, it is more important than whether they are brothers or sisters. There is a very clear pecking order due to the hierarchy that is a strong part of his culture.

We assume that certain realities, such as family, are universal. In the broadest sense, they are. But the differences in specifics can lead to misunderstanding. Ask many adult, married Africans about “their family” and they might tell you about their parents and their siblings, not their spouse and their children. So even the primary content of the word “family” changes from culture to culture.

When I hear American preachers on the radio on Africa expounding what the Bible says about the family, I have to wonder what is being miscommunicated. Jesus crossed a great gap to come and live with us, be one of us, speak the language of the people, live inside the culture of his day. So we need to do the same, including wrapping our heads around the answer:

Three older and two younger


There are two airstrips in Wamba, but in 2007 neither had been maintained. I had to meet with church leaders to get their input. That meant traveling the 66 miles by road, well, sort-of road. The forest and its rains had taken advantage of years of civil war and resultant neglect to almost reclaimed the space once occupied by the road. What had once been a pretty good improved dirt road was now a rutted, rocky, muddy and lumpy track.

One of the best parts of the road

One of the best parts of the road

We did not have a vehicle. A local development agency would rent us a solid Land Rover with driver. Scarcity had driven up fuel prices. So it was going to cost me over $500 to rent the vehicle for two days and 132 miles. It would have been cheaper and faster to fly.

As soon as we hit the outskirts of Isiro we ran into eroded slopes and muddy holes. We crawled along. Three hours into the trip we had not yet covered 20 miles.

Repairing vehicle on the road 02Fortunately the road got better and soon we were zipping along at 20 even 25 miles an hour, slowing for holes, ruts and large pools of water hiding under huge bamboo stands hanging over the road. I put a lot of physical and mental energy into steadying myself against the unpredictable movements of the vehicle. A noise from the engine brought us to a halt.

This is where the Congolese practice of hiring a mechanic as a driver proves its wisdom. He was able to get us going but there was still a noise. He would make full repairs in Wamba.

Church by road 01We stopped to visit a little church in a small hamlet. Probably a missionary had never preached here. Certainly one had never lived here. Like most churches in Africa, it had been started by African believers. It was a reminder that African believers have taken their faith to the most remote places where they worship the Highest One in very humble surroundings.

We spent six hours in roll, pitch and weave before we reached Wamba.

The plan was to meet with the church leaders for 4-5 hours the next morning then drive back to Isiro in the afternoon. But after the morning meeting, we found that our faithful driver-mechanic had the noise-producing parts of the motor taken apart. Better to wait and get it fixed. The driver got the vehicle back together at about 6 PM and after an hour of testing declared it repaired. I had to catch a MAF [] flight out Isiro at noon the next day, so we set off to make the journey at night.

Road at night 11The bad news? It is impossible to sleep in a vehicle that is being tossed and rolled in unpredictable ways. The good news? The road was so bad that we could go just as fast (meaning slow) at night as during the day.

Whenever I got in a small airplane with a missionary pilot in Congo, I remembered that road trip to Wamba and I thought about the days I would be spending, the back I would be wearing out, and the extra money I would be spending if this plane and pilot were not provided. In fact, translating the Bible would cost more and go slower without those planes. Thank you to all those who support the MAF, JAARS and other pilots and mechanics and those who give toward the purchase of the airplanes. I love the impact you have including the fact that I suffer a lot less impacts.

Words all have a meaning, right?

Words are interesting things. We take it for granted that each one has a meaning, but anyone can see that is not the case. Open a dictionary, and you will see that most words have multiple meanings. We use this fact to create humor, as in the following piece of advice: “Never trust an atom. They make up everything.” Or the boy in Sunday School listening to the story of Lot fleeing from Sodom and Gomorrah. Upon hearing that Lot’s wife looked back and turned into a pillar of salt, he said to the teacher: “That’s nothing. My mom looked back while driving the car and she turned into a telephone pole!”

When I first saw the following chart, I loved it. It shows that some English words have a crazy number of meanings.

Words with Multiple Meanings
In spite of how weird this seems, it is actually not weird at all. All languages do it. It is normal, in fact. But there’s a twist. There is no language in the world that has a word with the same 179 meanings as does the English word “run”, or the same 127 as “take”, and so on. That makes translation more of an art than a science. This crazy state of affairs does not seem to bother God who created all languages in all their weirdness – oops, I meant wonderfulness.

Of, by and for the people

President Lincoln stood at Gettyburg and delivered one of the most quoted speeches in history. We especially remember his phrase “government of the people, by the people, for the people”. But did you know that most of those who heard Lincoln’s speech would have recognized that this phrase came from someone else? Lincoln was quoting the prologue to John Wycliffe’s translation of the Bible into English – the very first such translation. The exact words were: “This Bible is for the government of the people, for the people and by the people.” They were penned almost 500 years before Lincoln delivered his timeless address at Gettysburg!

Friend and colleague Arthur Lightbody playing John Wycliffe

Friend and colleague Arthur Lightbody playing John Wycliffe

Wycliffe was an odd bird for his time. He believed in the centrality of the Bible when most theologians and people believed in the centrality of the organized church. He was considered a trouble-maker for teaching that ordinary people should read the scriptures and come to their own conclusions, rather than relying on priests and experts to interpret the Bible for them. Because the Bible was only available in Latin at the time, that teaching was pretty meaningless. So he organized the very first translation of the Bible into English. At the time, the translation of the Bible into the language of everyday speech was not just a religious activity. It was a profoundly political one. (One of many historical facts that undermines the very recent notion that religion is something people should live out privately.)

Wycliffe reading his translation

Wycliffe reading his translation

Wycliffe not only knew this, he promoted it. In his mind, having the Bible in the language of the people had profound implications for politics, religion, education and even business. At the time, most believed that affairs of the state were the domain of the King and everyone believed what he believed and did what he said. The same was true of religion. There was only one variety of church in your village, town or city, all teaching the same thing. Everyone was expected to follow that teaching. No thinking for yourself! Wycliffe proposed a revolution: first, people would make up their own mind about what to believe based on their own reading of the Bible. Second, that would flow over into government and politics where people would demand the same right. After all, if people were allowed to make up their minds about the most important truth – that about God – on what basis could they be denied their own opinion about lesser matters, including those of politics and government!?

The thing is, Wycliffe’s “crazy” idea proved right. In his book “Wide as the Waters The Story of the English Bible and the Revolution It Inspired”, Benson Bobrick traces the political revolution that accompanied the first translations of the Bible into English. He notes that:

The development of the vernacular marked the origin of a culture belonging to the masses, which increasingly reached toward popular and democratic institutions (pg 280)

Nawuri Chief: "We have now been counted among the people of God!"

Nawuri Chief: “We have now been counted among the people of God!”

Today, we see similar things happening in Ghana. In language areas where there is now a translation of the Bible, local people are starting to reconsider and overthrow traditional practices they find harmful. Research shows that the impact of the translations is not limited to spiritual and religious matters. Women have a greater voice in their families and communities, people are more willing to start new small businesses, more children are enrolled in school, people quote the Bible in political meetings to argue for peace instead of conflict.

Ghanaian woman learns to read and write her language

Ghanaian woman learns to read and write her language

One of the reasons we translate the Bible is to give people freedom – a situation where they take control of what they believe and what they follow, so that what happens in their nations, communities, families and churches is “of them, by them, and for them”.

PS: Sorry to those of you who recognized similar thoughts to those I wrote last year on a similar theme.

Sisaala Bible Dedication

The dedication of the Bible into the Sisaala language was quite an event. Hundreds attended. The Sisaala are only 10% Christian and only 1% Evangelical – both up from 0% not that long ago. Many still follow their traditional religion. So it was significant that many attended. It means that many are open to the message of the Gospel even if they have not made the decision to believe.

Only about 600 of the world’s 7000 languages have the Bible. So Sisaala joins a rather exclusive club. (Many more languages have the New Testament.)

In people groups like the Sisaala, it is likely that the Old Testament will have as much impact as the New Testament, or even more, because the culture of the Sisaala and that in the Old Testament are so similar. Also, they ask similar questions and have similar problems to the ancient Hebrews.

Enjoy the Photos. I’ll post more details later. Hover over a photo to enlarge it and see a description. Click on a photo to enlarge it and start a slide show.

Translation by asking around

Tembo boy reading Luke in his language

Tembo boy reading Luke in his language

Martin Luther, the German reformer who first translated the Bible into German, wrote that to translate well, the translator should go out into the streets and “look into the mouths of women and children”. He meant that the translator must find ways of saying things that are the usual way people speak – not a complicated or sophisticated way, or one full of theological jargon. This tradition is still at work. After the translators in Africa understand the Bible passage to be translated, they make a draft translation. That draft is then taken out into the community and read to people so see if they understand. Before that, translators flag things that are difficult to translate. What is the best way to say “mighty tempest” in Jonah 1:4, or that God is “gracious” in Jonah 4:2? In cases such as this, translators might find several alternative phrases or words and discuss them with people.  So, translators today are following Luther’s method of looking “into the mouths of women and children”.

Nawuri translation volunteer

Nawuri translation volunteer

Some people have a particular knack for this kind of thing. One was this man who volunteered many hours on the translation into the Nawuri language of Ghana. The translators told me that his suggestions were invaluable. Pray that every translation will have several such people among the translators and volunteers. In other cases, there is nothing like an object lesson. Here in Ghana, translators butchered a goat to get all the internal organs right when translating parts of the Old Testament that deal with sacrifice.

Remember, African translators are producing the first ever translations into their languages. There is no history of words to use for Bible concepts. Actually, sometimes its worse than that. People may have started using inaccurate words or phrases. When we were in Congo, we discovered that the word people were using for adultery only applied to women!

That kind of thing can only be discovered and corrected by a translation method that includes a heavy dose of asking around.

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Angry talking

This Congolese lady asked that I take a photo of her and her son

This Congolese lady asked that I take a photo of her and her son

An African friend of mine found himself at an airport in the US where he saw and heard a Nigerian man talking to a relative on his mobile phone in his mother tongue. He commented on Facebook:

Other passengers are happy that the people being “quarreled with” are not here or else it would be war. What they do not know is that this is not a quarrel. It is just a natural way of talking for these guys. It is fun being an African. Very few people in the world understand you.

I would have loved to be there and see the passengers freaked out by the loud and animated talking while the Nigerian talked on unaware of the emotional commotion he was creating. We encounter the same thing here in Ghana.

Ghanaian man at his phone store

Ghanaian man at his phone store

Accra, where we live, is in the middle of the Ga people. They speak so loudly and in such an animated way that even other Ghanaians think they are quarreling! The thing is, they are not angry. That’s just the way they talk. So when I hear a Ga person talking, I know in my head that the loud and animated speech is normal, but I get startled anyway. My fight or flight response kicks in and I want to get away. I have no choice. After thinking for a second, I realize there is no problem and try to treat the loud talking as normal. But that is not easy.

A while back, I stopped to ask some taxi drivers directions. They engaged in an exchange between them in their language that seemed heated to say the least. I just wanted to drive off.

Ladies worshiping in church

Ladies worshiping in church

When people talk about cross cultural issues they may focus on physical things like strange food. But the hardest cultural adaptations are those where the person in front of you is doing something that causes you to have a strong emotional reaction over which you have little control. You “know” that the person is not angry, but that does not stop the emotions. It is just plain difficult to wrap your head around the fact that the other person’s behavior is normal when it is making you uncomfortable.

The hard work of having empathy for people whose behavior makes you uncomfortable, or even afraid, is at the heart of cross-cultural mission. It feels sometimes like we have to abandon part of what makes us who we are. It mirrors what Jesus did when he left the comfort of heaven, came to this earth and fit himself into the culture of that day and place.

That is something we are still learning, even in our fourth decade in Africa.

Big payout coming

Kenneth Lee Pike

Kenneth Lee Pike

Today (June 9) in 1912, Kenneth Lee Pike was born. He wanted to be a missionary to China, was rejected, and ended up with William Cameron Townsend who would found Wycliffe Bible Translators. He did a translation of the New Testament for the Mixtec people of Mexico. While doing that, he became a renowned scholar at the University of Michigan. He wrote numerous books and articles, was a member of  the Linguistic Society of America (LSA), the Linguistic Association of Canada and the United States (LACUS), and the American Anthropological Association. He served as president of LSA and LACUS. He was named to the prestigious National Academy of Sciences, and nominated for the Nobel Prize many times. He won the Templeton Prize three times.

Tone Langauges bookBut those are not his greatest achievements, if you ask me. Those who went to Mexico with Townsend encountered languages which they found difficult, impossible really, to write. Linguists had not yet studied or described the systems of tone, for example, which are common there. Pike applied his brilliant mind to the issues, and found a way forward. Today, many Mexicans read the Bible in their languages without difficulty because of the work of Pike. The thing is, they probably never heard of him. They don’t know who gave them the gift of being able to accurately write and fluently read their languages.

And Pike’s work would never get a rousing or tearful response from a church, certainly not the way the result of a successful evangelistic effort might – with thousands saved. (Hundreds of thousands may have read the translations Pike assisted.) Pike’s contribution was crucial, and it came at the right time, but it is largely unknown outside Wycliffe and academic circles.

 “Watch out! Don’t do your good deeds publicly, to be admired by others, for you will lose the reward from your Father in heaven. When you give to someone in need, don’t do as the hypocrites do—blowing trumpets in the synagogues and streets to call attention to their acts of charity! I tell you the truth, they have received all the reward they will ever get. But when you give to someone in need, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. Give your gifts in private, and your Father, who sees everything, will reward you. (Matthew 6:1-5 NLT)

Mixtec mapPike has huge rewards waiting for him from the Right Person at The Big Event. Today, hundreds of African Christians translate into their languages and devote themselves to helping their fellow Christians learn how to read. They are mostly unknown except in their own small communities, often underpaid and sometimes work in dangerous places, like the Tembo team we worked with in Congo, or  like the two translators killed by extremists in Nigeria and the CAR, in recent weeks. There’s a lesson here for all of us, especially in this world of celebrity philanthropy and donations posted on Facebook . Who, I wonder, has already “received all the reward they will ever get”, and who still has a big payout coming? A lot of people we have never heard of. Pike is one. May you be one too.

Phonetics book

Slow motion Pentecost

define Pentecost - Google SearchThis coming Sunday is Pentecost Sunday. It commemorates something strange that happened at the Jewish festival of Pentecost two millennia ago. The Holy Spirit took control of everyone, and they began speaking whatever languages the Spirit led them to speak. Many people from every country in the world were living Jerusalem. When they heard this noise, a crowd gathered. But they were surprised, because they were hearing everything in their own languages. They were excited and amazed, and said:

“Don’t all these who are speaking come from Galilee? Then why do we hear them speaking our very own languages? Some of us are from Parthia, Media, and Elam. Others are from Mesopotamia, Judea, Cappadocia, Pontus, Asia, Phrygia, Pamphylia, Egypt, parts of Libya near Cyrene, Rome, Crete, and Arabia. Some of us were born Jews, and others of us have chosen to be Jews. Yet we all hear them using our own languages to tell the wonderful things God has done.” Act 2:4-11 CEV

Bus loaded with boxes of New Testaments destined for a remote area of Ghana

Bus loaded with boxes of New Testaments destined for a remote area of Ghana

This phenomenon, of people “hearing everything in their own languages”, has been accelerating. In 1900, The whole Bible or some part of it had been translated and published in 530 languages. By 2000, that had increased to 2,298. That is an increase of 1,768 languages – a rate of a new languages every three weeks for 100 years! Since the year 2000, the rate has increased further, jumping from 27 languages per year to over 70,” which amounts to a new language every 5 days!

That is not as dramatic as if it happened on the same day and at the same place, like it did at the festival of Pentecost. Instead, today we have a slower-motion Pentecost. But, unlike the event being commemorated this Sunday, it is spread over the world. What the new, slow-motion Pentecost lacks in immediacy, it gains in geographic spread.

Congolese ladies in Bible study in Kisangani

Congolese ladies in Bible study in Kisangani

But the real wonder is not the number of languages. It is the impact the translations are having. On the broadest level, we have the assessment of Ghanaian theologian Kwame Bediako:

African Christianity today is inconceivable apart from the existence of the Bible in African indigenous languages.

Then we have the assessment of leaders about what is happening in their areas where translation is being done:

“Some people are gradually shifting away from the evil aspects of the culture,” Lefa language of Cameroon

“Drunkenness is reduced and people cooperate together better. Now my job is easier.” Unbelieving community leader in Ghana

Pokomo man (Kenya) with 5 New Testaments

Pokomo man (Kenya) with 5 New Testaments

At the narrowest level, we have the statement of people.

 “I have read many times the book of Jonah, where God tells Jonah to get up and go to Nineveh. But when I read this in [my language] it is like God is standing right next to me and speaking to me! It makes me realize that God is close, and that he speaks directly to people.”
Tanzanian man

“I came to know the Lord four years ago, but I was still living with my idols. No one in the church had taught me that I needed to abandon them completely. My pastor preached many sermons but had never spoken of that. Listening to Scriptures, I heard Jesus say you cannot serve two masters. In Thessalonians, I heard how people left behind their idols to serve the living and true God. I called the pastor and explained my situation to him. He was very upset that he had not taught me about such things. That day I repented and handed over my idols. Since that time, I have had peace in my heart.”
Man from southeast Mali

“I used to lie, slander, and quarrel. That has changed.”
A young mother in Mali

At that festival of Pentecost many years ago, they were surprised, excited and amazed at “hearing everything in their own languages.” The slow-motion Pentecost of our day calls for that same response. It’s time to be surprised and amazed and to get excited.

If you liked this, you might also like The day tribal ended.

Singing the Bible

Recording a biblically sound song about AIDS in Congo

Recording a biblically sound song about AIDS in Congo

Recent research in India discovered that singing Scripture songs is a prominent way believers there spread the Bible. It is a natural, low-cost, and effective way to make the Bible known. Better, it attracts non believers.

New translations of the Bible happen predominantly in places with low literacy rates. Research done in such places showed that almost 25% of Christians who could read learned by signing out of a hymnbook or book of praise songs. Think about it. The person looks at the same words and sings them over and over, week in and week out.

Some learn to read by the sheer force of repeated exposure without being taught. I have written about this before.

Almost everywhere I have been in Africa, believers who see someone translating the Bible into their language ask that their hymns and Scripture songs also be translated and/or published. Unfortunately, this request is too often ignored. That is sad. Perhaps Western missionaries no longer value hymn books because they have largely disappeared from our churches. But we need to make our decisions based on what works in here, not what is useful at home.

GILLBT and church leader showing their agreement with the proposal

GILLBT and church leader showing their agreement with the proposal

Recently, I helped a church in northern Ghana design a program to spread the Gospel in the two largest, unreached people groups of Ghana, together representing almost 2 million people. One of the key elements was the creation and publication of church songbooks in those two languages, so that the church services could be entirely in those languages. Without that, people in those language groups think that Christianity is not for them, but only those who speak other languages.