Titles or names

Dayle at the Shalom University of Bunia

Dayle at the Shalom University of Bunia

In early 2009, Dayle and I were traveling into Congo. Our first stop was at the Shalom University of Bunia. When we arrived at the Bunia airport, we found that the university had sent a driver for us. Dayle introduced herself to the driver and asked him, “Who are you?”  He responded, “I’m the driver”.  But Dayle, of course wanted his name so she asked, “But what is your name”.  “Bahati”, he responded.  A few minutes later we were on the campus of the university conversing with some of the professors. We saw the Rector’s wife coming, who we know well and who is a close friend of the families of the professors we are taking with.  One of them says, the Rector’s wife is coming.  Dayle looks up and says, “Oh, its Feli!”.

Note that in this story Dayle prefers calling people by their names, but the Congolese prefer using titles like “driver” and “rector’s wife”. Congolese and many other Africans prefer titles over names. The wife of the most prominent MAF pilot in Bunia is known as “Mrs. Pilot”.  The staff of the University almost always call each other by a shortened form of their title.  So they are “Rector”, “The Academic” (for the academic dean), or “The Administrative” for the Administrative Secretary. When we lived in Burkina Faso, I was known up and down the street we lived on as “Matthieu baba” – “Matthew’s Father”. Everyone knew who Matthew’s father was, but few knew my name. Men there are often there are known as the father of their oldest son. Just the other day, a police officer in Ghana addressed me as Obroni – white man in Twi. He was not being smart or demeaning, just friendly.

To my American ears, titles sound formal, aloof or demeaning. Calling someone “White Man” even sounds bizarre. But to many Africans, titles are completely natural. Plus, the preference for titles gives them an edge in understanding some parts of the Bible.  “Jesus the Christ” makes a LOT of sense to them because Christ is a title, not a name. But many Americans understand Christ as a name.

Not a few missionaries in West Africa have been irritated by being called “White guy”. When we first arrived in Burkina Faso, we used to be irritated by the incessant cries of Toubabou (white man / white woman in Jula) or Nasara (same in Moore). I have even found blogs by Westerners living in Ghana telling their experiences with being called “White”. I just followed the case of two missionaries figuring out how to deal with always being addressed as “Whites”. At first they were irritated. But after getting advice from other missionaries and local people they trust, they got some degree of acceptance. Better, they started using titles more themselves. When in Rome, do as the Romans – or when in Ghana don’t do as an Obroni.

Parts of this blog post were taken from a post originally published in April 2009.

Incorrigible Grammar

Irregular verbs English_eI work with languages, but I hated most of my English classes in high school and beyond. The literature classes were Ok. The grammar classes on the other hand … It always seemed to me that the grammar of English was a lot more slippery and complicated than my English teachers let on. My linguistics studies confirmed me in that opinion.

One definition of grammar is: “A propriety of speech.” Someone suggested that grammar is not a property of speech but rather an impropriety of speech. It is so hard to get your hands on it. There are rules, but also so many exceptions.

A game with rules like English grammar might be considered fixed by the Gaming Commission! This is not just true of English, but of all living languages. Many African languages are not written, but they have complicated grammar all the same. Just ask the missionaries who learn them, or the translators who attempt to describe them. I asked one translator about the number of genders in the language he was working on. He said that he stopped counting at around 120.

One translator was reading a draft translation to people to see if it communicated clearly. They came to a part that said: “Don’t steal from widows”, and everybody laughed. It turned out that the way it was said implied that one should steal from other people than widows! It sounded like “Don’t steal from widows; steal from someone else instead!” To get the right meaning meant using a grammatical structure in that language called topic-comment. In topic-comment, the topic of the sentence is stated first (widows), then the thing one wants to say about the topic (don’t steal from them). In that structure, the verse read “Widows, don’t steal from them.” This communicated clearly and avoided the idea that it is okay to steal from other people.

All translators, even those translating into their own language, need an explicit knowledge of the grammar of their language, or they might not use features like topic-comment even where they are necessary to be faithful to the meaning. So even translators translating into their own language need training.


We laugh when things are funny. Right? Doesn’t everybody? Well, actually …

I was at a press conference in Ghana where one the speakers went far too long. The audience expressed its disapproval of the long speech with soft laughter when he opened a new chapter to his talk.

In another instance, a person was bringing greetings from one church to another, but it turned into a speech. A titter of laughter started running through the congregation showing disapproval with the amount of time the person was taking. The person bringing greetings even apologized when she heard the laughter.

I was in a vehicle belonging to an African and the air-conditioning was blowing on me in an uncomfortable way. I tried to change the direction of the vent, but we hit a bump and I ended up messing with the settings. The driver and owner of the vehicle thought that I had changed them on purpose and laughed lightly while looking at me disapprovingly and putting the settings back.

In Ghana and some other places in Africa, laughter sometimes means disapproval.


Photo: Marc Ewell

Photo: Marc Ewell

In 1910, a major world missions conference was held in Edinburgh. Those present held hope for evangelism among the followers of eastern religions. The well-developed philosophical positions of those religions appealed to Europeans and American academics. Not a few Westerners romanticized Hinduism as a new world religion. We all know the attraction of eastern gurus in some segments of US society.

In contrast to the appeal of eastern religions, the missions conference came to the conclusion that the “primitive” religions of Africa would prove difficult ground for Christian faith. Many Western Christians find the masks, face paints, and rituals of African religion scary, barbaric and primitive – something so different from Christian faith that it could not possibly be fertile ground for evangelism – a religion that held no redeeming qualities such as eastern religions seemed to have.

Africa’s traditional religions are called “primal” religions by theologians, and anthropologists. Those at the conference saw Africa’s primal religions as rocky ground where the seed of the Gospel would struggle to survive, while the Eastern would produce a bountiful crop. It has not turned out that way; not at all.

Chart evangelicals in AfricaIn 1910 when the missions conference was held, only 9% of Africans were Christian. Furthermore, almost all of those were in just four of the many countries in Africa: Ethiopia, South Africa, Egypt and Madagascar. Early missionary efforts had not borne fruit. But by 1970 almost 40% of Africans professed Christian faith. That number is for all kinds of “Christians”. What is more astounding is the growth of evangelical, Bible-believing faith in Africa, as you can see in the graph.

Meanwhile, evangelism among those following eastern religions has been very slow.

But this is not just an African phenomenon. In the last century Christianity has spread the fastest among peoples who follow what theologians and anthropologists call “primal” religions. This is true in Africa and around the world. It seems that people who follow the so-called “primal” religions are the best prepared by their traditional religion for Christian faith. In any case, the conclusions of that missions conference in 1910 were way off the mark.

God has a delicious way of turning the human wisdom into obvious folly. In this case, he has chosen those whose religious practices we considered primitive, vile, even barbaric, and poured out his Spirit on them. Paul wrote about things like this.

Instead, God chose things the world considers foolish in order to shame those who think they are wise. And he chose things that are powerless to shame those who are powerful. (I Cor 1:27)

Not only has Christianity flourished in Africa, churches in Africa are now sending out missionaries. Professor J. Kwabena Asamoah-Gyadu of Trinity Theological Seminary in Ghana has written:

“It is indeed a surprise that Africa, associated in Western minds with poverty, deprivation, squalor, political instability and barbarism, should emerge in God’s purposes as a leading player in Christian mission, including missions to the West.”

I believe that the confounding of the powerful and sophisticated is in full swing. But sometimes missionaries seem to miss it. I wonder if some mission activity in Africa goes on as though a major movement of God were not happening. The kind of growth in numbers, depth and capacity we see in the church in Africa must be matched by an equally significant shift in how we do translation here. Otherwise we effectively deny by our actions the marvelous thing God is doing. Let’s not make the blunder of painting our African brothers and sisters with the same mistaken brush used in 1910. Our methods and goals need to align with and celebrate the awe-inspiring movement of God’s Spirit among people who are coming out of primal religions.

Language Cloud

This is a language cloud of the names of the languages spoken in Ghana. The size of each name is relative to the number of people who speak the language as their heart language, or mother tongue. Click on the image to bring up an interactive version of the cloud. Click here to download or enlarge.

Languages of Ghana - HL Colors

Scare avoided

While teaching literacy in Dallas one summer in the 1980s, we attended Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship, the church of Dr. Tony Evans. We were among the few whites in the congregation. Our first Sunday there, we put our two boys, then 2 and 4, into Sunday school during the worship service. After the service we went to pick them up. A very helpful man was making sure that kids got with their parents. It was pretty obvious that the only two white kids were ours! As we took them, the man looked at me and said in a surprised voice, “Your boys fit right in!” I just said, “They’re used to it.” But I thought, “Boy, did we ever unwittingly give those Sunday School teachers a scare dropping off two white boys and then disappearing.”

One of the advantages of raising our children overseas is that they are very comfortable with many different kinds of people.

Matthew and Mark with playmates in Ouagadougou

Matthew and Mark with playmates in Ouagadougou

Long Service

Procession to the pond for the baptism

Procession to the pond for the baptism

Years ago in Burkina Faso, I wanted to travel to a certain area to meet with pastors about Bible translation. I learned that an Apostolic missionary was traveling to the area and got a ride with him. We set off at 6AM on a Sunday morning, arriving at the place at 9 AM. A church service had already started, so we joined it. After some enthusiastic worship, I listened to a sermon in Kassem, a language I do not understand. It was a longish sermon. Then the pastor introduced the 20 or so people to be baptized. The simple church had no baptismal. So the whole congregation set off on a 20 minute walk, well, more like a 20 minute worship procession, to a local pond which was full of cows. The pastor dispatched a child to drive them out of the water, and the baptisms began. People came out from the nearby village to watch. Then we formed a procession and worshiped our way back to the church. There we heard longish testimonies from all those baptized, more worship and another sermon. All of this took place in the Kassem language. The service lasted 6 ½ hours. Then we were then given a meal, met with the people we wanted to see, and set off for the three-hour drive back to Ouagadougou. (More photos below.)

A Women's choir with the new Moderator

A Women’s choir with the new Moderator

Then last month in the Ghanaian city of Ho, I attended a church service that ran 6 ½ hours with many choirs and several offerings. The offerings alone took almost an hour. It was so long that I heard a Ghanaian complain about it! It would have been longer, but the man presiding cut several items shorter than the congregation wanted. I had the impression that most would have been quite happy if the service had lasted 8 hours. To be fair, it was a special occasion – the induction of a new Moderator. Many stayed long afterwards for photos and to talk.

Of course, neither of these church services could rival the one where a Florida preacher preached for 53 hours and 18 minutes.

Long church services are typical in Africa. One of the issues I dealt with as a young director for Bible translation work in Burkina Faso was Western missionaries, especially families, who found it difficult to adapt to the long, sometimes boring and not infrequently irrelevant church services. I don’t mean that the services were irrelevant to the people, but they often were irrelevant to the missionary whose spiritual needs and issues can be quite different. Few missionaries, for example, derive much benefit from a sermon on the dangers of polygamy. I found myself ill-equipped to help my fellow missionaries find a way forward.

An unanticipated change of focus in my ministry was about to change things.

I had come to Africa to do Bible translation. Then I was assisting other missionaries to do translation. But God was pointing me toward helping Africans and their churches engage in translation. As I was becoming convinced that this was God’s direction, I found myself in one of those long and tedious church services. Sitting there hoping it would end soon, I looked around. The Africans in the service were paying close attention. None of them looked like they wanted the service to end. I had never heard one of them complain about the length of the service. A question popped into my head: “Could I engage effectively with African Christians about Bible translation (or anything else) while it is obvious that I don’t enjoy the way they express their faith in church?” I thought not.

I thought quite a bit about that question and its obvious answer. In the end I prayed. Well, it was more of a demand than a typical prayer. I told the Lord, “You are going to give me this! You are going to give me a deep love and appreciation for all things African and Christian!” It felt strange, making that demand . I did not intend it. It just came out that way. There was no great emotion, just a feeling that it was the right thing to want and the right way to say it.

I cannot claim to have an overwhelming preference for long African church services. I did find parts of that 6 ½-hour church service in Ho tedious and I looked at the time more than once. But, for the most part I enjoyed it. I would definitely do it again, and I almost certainly will.

Here are more photos of that long baptismal service in Burkina Faso.

The Moral Tongue

I have read several times that experiments show that people are more likely to use vulgar, profane, or insulting speech when they speak in a language other than the mother tongue. This finding does not surprise me in the least. I have always been shocked and dismayed by the ease with this educated Africans, including Christians, sprinkle their speech with vulgarities and oaths in English or French. It is obvious to me that such language does not have the emotional import for them that it has for me. I have long suspected that a good part of the reason for the absence of that emotional reaction is due to the fact that English (or French) is not their mother tongue. So the research confirmed years of personal observation.

Last year, the New York Times took this issue to a whole new level when it published a fascinating article entitled “Our Moral Tongue“. The article is about moral dilemma known as the trolley problem. The trolley problem works this way.

Trolley problemYou present a person with the following scenario and ask him or her what they would do. The person is standing on a footbridge over a trolley track. The trolley is rolling out of control and will pass underneath it in a few seconds. A short distance further on it will kill five innocent people. The only way to stop it is to push a large man onto the track. The person cannot jump onto the tracks himself as he is not big enough to stop the trolley. What would the person do?

There is an ongoing debate over which action is the most moral – kill the man to save the five, or let the trolley kill the five. The purpose of this blog post is not to solve that moral dilemma. Whatever choice you would make, everyone agrees on some things. For example, the choice people make should not be related to something ethically insignificant, such as the color of the large man’s shirt, the day of the week, the weather, what you ate for breakfast, or that language you speak. What if your choice was affected by one of those?

Researchers tweak the scenario in various ways to test peoples’ sense of right and wrong. One tweak got surprising results. Researchers presented the trolley problem to 1,000 people whose language was Spanish but who were studying English or whose mother tongue was English and they were studying Spanish. A random sample of half of each group was presented the trolley problem in their mother tongue and the other half go the problem in the language they were learning. The surprising result? In their mother tongue, only 18 percent said that they would push the large man, but when presented with the problem in the other language, 44 percent said that they would push him.

Researchers concluded that the emotional repugnance associated with pushing a man to his death was stronger when dealing with the issue in the mother tongue, while the learned language had less emotional connection to our sense of morality.

Ghanaian girls with Bibles in their languages

Ghanaian girls with Bibles in their languages

For me, the results are not surprising, but they are illuminating. Africans wonder why African countries with a high percentage of Christians also have high levels of corruption. But their people are educated in languages other than their mother tongues (English and French mostly), and they carry out their official functions in those languages which, according to the experiment, have less connection to a sense of morality than would their mother tongue. Leading Ghanaian linguist and churchman Rev Professor Gilbert Ansre, speaking about the advantages of education in a student’s mother tongue, said:

The sense of the true, the just, the the beautiful and the holy are best inculcated in the best language of the pupil

Lelemi people buying Bibles in their languages

Lelemi people buying Bibles in their languages

Wycliffe often states that Bible translations are needed in many more of the world’s languages because the people do not fully understand other languages in which there are translations. That is probably true for many people. But might there be a more important reason – we translate the Bible into the mother tongue because that is the moral tongue what connects God and his righteousness most fully to our conscience? Perhaps we translate not just for understanding, but also, and more importantly, for the connection to Jesus through the mother/moral tongue that really allows us to become more like Him.

For me, we translate the Bible into people’s mother/moral tongues because we want Christians whose faith connects to their emotional and ethical hearts, so that they can love the Lord with all their hearts, souls and minds. We translate not just because we want the Bible understood, but because we want people to connect to it in a way that produces moral, ethical and other transformation in their lives.

It seems that science may be “proving” that our first language, which some call our mother tongue and which we call the heart language, is an issue missionaries and churches cannot ignore if they want faith to go deep.


In Ghana and many other parts of West Africa, every child is given a name according to the day of the week on which they are born. Here are the seven boys’ and seven girls’ names corresponding to each day of the week.

Monday boy: Kwadwo, girl: Adwoa
Tuesday boy: Kwabena, girl: Abenaa
Wednesday boy: Kwaku, girl: Akua,Akuba
Thursday boy: Yaw, girl: Yaa
Friday boy: Kofi, girl: Afua
Saturday boy: Kwame, girl: Amma
Sunday boy: Kwasi, girl: Akosua

Until I went to Africa, I did not know that I am a Kwabena. I had to look that up on the calendar on my phone, in a hurry, during a church service.

Saturday bornsAmong the Akan people of Ghana, a child is given several names, in rare cases up to 10, but 4 is not unusual. One of those names is the day of the week on which they were born. Some people might not know their birth date, and in times past they might not even be sure of the year, but everyone knows the day of the week on which they were born. We have a friend in Nigeria whose name is Friday, in his language. One of my favorite Ghanaian Christian authors shares my day name – Kwabena Asamoah-Gyadu.

Churches use these groupings in various ways including raising funds for projects. I took this photo of a banner at a church in the city of Ho. It is announcing that all those born on Saturday (Saturday borns) in the church have undertaken a project to raise funds for a chapel for the church’s Sunday School. I have been in church services where the congregation was asked to sit in “day born” groups. So I went and sat with everyone else who had been born on a Tuesday.

Thurs and Fri offering basketsSpecial offerings can be the occasion for competition between “day borns”. It happened to me just a few weeks ago. The ushers set up offering baskets at the front of the church, each labeled with a day of the week. Everyone danced to the front in vibrant worship and put their offering in the basked corresponding to the day of the week on which they were born. The ushers then busied themselves counting the amount in each basket. Later in the service, the results were announced.

The Wednesday-borns, the Kwakus and Akuas, had given the most followed by the Friday-borns, then Saturday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday. The Monday-borns gave the least – about 1/5th of that the Wednesday-borns gave.

You can find the day of the week you were born on here: http://www.onlineconversion.com/dayborn.htm