CAR in Africa

CAR in Africa

The civil strife in the CAR (Central African Republic) has faded from the news, but it is not over. The international media describes the conflict as religious in nature, saying it pits the “mostly Muslim” Seleka Rebels against the “Christian” Anti-Balaka

My Christian friends from CAR and the countries around it are shocked and dismayed that the international media calls the Anti-Balaka “Christian”. They point to photos of Anti-Balaka militiamen draped with charms and talismans for protection, a practice denounced by the churches and one which has its roots in African traditional religion, not Christianity.

A federation of churches in the CAR issued a statement decrying the characterization of the crisis by the international media saying that the international media: “has given a religious connotation to a crisis that is in its core political and military”. My friends have noted that few of the Anti-Balaka are members of a church or attend one regularly. A friend from the CAR posted an update on Facebook which included the following paragraph:

“During our stay, we were encountered with two AntiBalaka who decided to turn to Jesus Christ and asked that their Amulettes could be burnt. … The event took place in public and had a big impact on the rest of the militia.

My Christian friends from CAR and neighboring countries continue to be dismayed that the international media puts them in the same religion with violent militiamen who openly use religious practices denounced by their churches – people they are evangelizing.

There is no grand conspiracy here, just a lack of understanding and intellectual laziness.

Elisee Zama (courtesy Wycliffe Global Alliance)

Elisee Zama (courtesy Wycliffe Global Alliance)

In the meantime, the CAR has over 70 languages, many of which do not have the Bible. At least one national translator, Elisee Zama, was killed in the conflict, in front of his wife and children who he was leading to safety. Many translation programs were disrupted and equipment was looted. Translation was never easy in the CAR. Now it is more difficult and in some places it is even dangerous. Danger is a growing feature of many places where Bible translation is still needed. Although we do not face that kind of danger in Ghana, the violent conflicts in Nigeria and Mali are not far away.

God, When Will You Speak in My Tongue?


The poem below was written by a man from Southern Sudan expressing his desire to have the Bible in his language. Sometimes, Bible translation is presented as something done where there are few believers. But in Africa, there are places where there has been a Gospel witness for decades and a growing church, but no Bible in the language of the people, their heart language. In such cases, believers long to have God’s word in a language they really understand. They know that the Bible is being translated into languages around them, and they wonder when it will be their turn. Put yourself in the place of those believers when you read this poem.


Lokuuda Kadanya

James Lokuuda Kadanya

Far and near
It is said that you, God, speak!
How do you do that?
Is it in their tongues?
If it is truly so,
God, when will you speak in my tongue?

East and west, north and south,
The Creator speaks, it is said!
Not in the language as of birds;
But in other human tongues I cannot understand!
God, when will you speak in my tongue?

Children and grown-ups of other lands,
With their different tongues,
Know your voice.
In their tongues you speak a special message to them!
If you speak messages in different tongues,
God, when will you speak in my tongue?

South Sudan in Africa mapIn the world around, we perceive you,
Yet your language is not clear.
We want to know you personally,
We want to hear you speak to us.
If you know all tongues,
God, when will you speak in my tongue?

We search you as a treasure.
Our eyes look on mountains, rivers,
Even in caves, forest and world around us.
Many voices are heard, confused we become,
If your voice is one, as of that of the Creator of all,
God, when will you speak in my tongue?

Oh! God, Creator of all people,
You who do not segregate,
Is it possible to hear you speak?
Can you speak in my tongue?
God, when will you speak in my tongue?

—James Lokuuda Kadanya

South Sudan Flag

South Sudan Flag

James speaks the Toposa language of South Sudan, which is spoken by more than a half million people. Today he is operating Salt and Light Outreach Ministries in South Sudan.
This post is re-blogged from The Seed Company Blog.


20130906_163620In September 2013, Dayle’s parents celebrated their 65th wedding anniversary. In preparation for the party, Dayle was making a cake. She called me over to see this and have me take a photo. She is mixing the cake for their 65th with a mixer they bought about 2 years after their wedding. When I posted the photo on Facebook, one of their grandchildren posted:

Durability. The mixer. The marriage.

Durability is one of the principles behind our work. We want what we do to leave a lasting and increasing impact. We don’t mind if it starts small. Jesus was looking for lasting and increasing impact when he said:

I tell you for certain that if you have faith in me, you will do the same things that I am doing. You will do even greater things, now that I am going back to the Father.
(John 14:12 CEV)

You did not choose me. I chose you and sent you out to produce fruit, the kind of fruit that will last.
(John 15:16 CEV)

We believe that durability of ministry means encouraging ministry in a language that touches more than the head,  investing in local people, and passing the vision for Bible translation to the new churches in Ghana. You will see durability reflected in our by-line.

Connecting at the deepest level for lasting impact

It is also reflected in our ministry goals.

Dayle's parents 65th

Dayle’s parents 65th

I am not against short term missions, on the contrary, But short term missions without an accompanying long term effort will only very rarely create lasting and increasing impact. I am not against ministry in English and other major languages, but there are many environments where only touching people using their heart language (mother tongue) creates lasting change. I am not against evangelistic campaigns, but unless they are linked to something else, many who confess Christ will slip back into their former lives.

Producing durability is often not flashy. In fact, it often can only be appreciated after some time, when it becomes more and more impressive, just like that mixer or a marriage of 65 years.

From 60 to who knows

Ed in Cameroon with Daniel Ngwanou

Ed in Cameroon with Daniel Ngwanou

In the late 1990s my responsibilities included finding ways to increase the number of translation projects in Africa lead by Africans that were linked to Wycliffe. At a time when hundreds were lead by Western missionaries, I found 60 lead by Africans. That was better than the dozen or so of only a few years earlier.

Recently, I came across a document I had written at that time. In it, I had written my personal goal of seeing that number go from 60 to 120 in four years.

Sylvester Nkrumah (Ghana) and Uche Aaron (Nigeria), part of the first wave of national translators in Wycliffe's work in Africa

Sylvester Nkrumah (Ghana) and Uche Aaron (Nigeria), part of the first wave of national translators in Wycliffe’s work in Africa

I am pretty sure that goal was met, although I don’t have data to prove it. The increase was probably only attributable to me in very small part. When I saw that old document, what struck me as more important is that the goal now looks silly. Today, it is the norm that programs to translate the Bible are lead by Africans. Programs started years ago by Western missionaries are winding down and a few new ones are starting here and there. They are the exceptions.

We thought that having more Africans doing Bible translation was something that needed to be promoted. In a way it did. But mostly so that our ways of working would accommodate it. Hindsight allows us to see that it was going to happen anyway. God was making it happen.

I used to be concerned with finding God’s will for me. I now understand that includes getting behind a trend in which I see God’s hand and running with it. At a minimum, I don’t not want to buck a trend only to find later that it was God’s doing. But what I really want is to set unnecessary goals because God is going to accomplish them anyway. By setting the goals, I’m not making them happen, I’m just showing my alignment with God’s actions.

What speeds up translation?

Translators correct translation on computerWhen I am in the US, people often ask how much technology is speeding up Bible translation. I don’t know of any formal assessment, but I have seen translations done before computers and now with them. My own personal estimate is that the computer shaves 1-2 years off a translation project. Furthermore, the time is saves was mostly spent doing tedious and uncreative tasks like checking spelling and consistency.

Bible translation for minority peoples is progressing at 2-3 times the pace it was two decades ago. What is producing that increased pace? Well, technology accounts for a small part of the increase. But the biggest increase is coming from elsewhere.

In an article entitled “The Vernacular Treasure” in The International Bulletin of Missionary Research, Dr. Harriet Hill of the American Bible Society says this about the increased speed.

Translation organizations are working more intentionally with partners, recruiting and training translators from all nations of the world, and working with clusters of related languages rather than with one language at a time.

So, she sees three changes that are increasing the pace of Bible translation.

  • working more intentionally with partners
  • recruiting and training translators from all nations of the world
  • working with clusters of related languages

Michael Serchie, Gilbert Ansre and EdI concur with her assessment that these are real causes for the increased pace. Technology is important. But it is the human connections (working intentionally with partners) and the building up of God’s people (training translators from all nations) that reflect God’s kingdom. We should not be surprised, therefore, that increases in the pace of translation come mostly from doing those things.

That is why our goals and activities, are built around partnering in a new way with the churches in Ghana and training their people to accelerate the translation of the Bible for all the peoples of Ghana and beyond.

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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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

The Party Line

Some time ago, I listened to someone in missions aviation tell the story of the introduction of the first helicopter. At the time, the party line was that helicopters were too expensive to operate, and so were unsuitable for missions aviation. He then told an amazing story of the need for an aircraft to go into a place where it was not possible to build an airstrip and God’s amazing provision of a helicopter well under market price. And so that particular party line about helicopters faded into history.

Ed with Congolese translators he was consulting

Ed with Congolese translators he was consulting

The party line is an interesting concept. People in organizations, especially political organizations, are expected to “toe the party line”– to say in public only things that follow the party line – the organizations policy or mission.

I have been there.

I was living in Burkina Faso doing Bible translation under the model where each person raises support for their ministry. The Wycliffe website says:

Wycliffe missionaries do not receive a guaranteed salary from our organization. Instead, they rely on God to provide through the gifts of interested individuals and churches

Because of this model, we had very little money for anything but the ministry of each missionary. At the same time, young people from Burkina Faso were coming to me saying that they felt God calling them to ministry. They wondered if their might be a place for them in Bible translation. They were mostly university students engaged in their churches and campus ministry. I told them the party line which went like this:

It is great that you want to serve our Lord. But we don’t have any way to involve you in what we are doing because of our financial structure.

It was more elaborate and polite than that, but you get the idea. I would also pray with them and send them on their way. I had come to Africa with a call to do Bible translation. My call, or rather my understanding of my call, did not include finding ways for Africans to be involved. No, I was going to do the translation myself.

Meanwhile, more and more young, educated Burkina Faso Christians kept coming to talk to me. Their stories became more and more compelling. Worse (or better!), the call of God on their lives was evident. One day, one came with an incredible story. You can listen to it here.

Samy Tioye and Ed

Samy Tioye and Ed

After hearing his story, I knew that I could not give him the party line. I could not say to someone with such a clear call of God for Bible translation on his life that I could not be involved with helping him move that forward. I came to the conclusion that party line had become out of step with what God was doing. Today that has changed, but changing it required some doing.

Having a party line for a ministry is actually a good idea. It gives direction and helps keep us focused. The thing is, we have to always pay attention to our circumstances because God might be using them to shift our party line, even one that is longstanding and justifiable. The Bible is full of stories of God changing the party line, including when he did that with the Apostle Peter. The trick is to be less thickheaded than I was. God had to put me in front of the same situation many times before I recognized it as His doing.

If you liked this, you might also like Why Nationals, Nessiel Nodjibogoto, or Undeserved.

The first Wycliffe translators from Madagascar in our home in Nairobi

The first Wycliffe translators from Madagascar in our home in Nairobi


Michael Serchie, Gilbert Ansre and Ed

Michael Serchie, Gilbert Ansre and Ed

One of my great joys in Ghana is working with Gilbert Ansre (pronounced like haunts-ray without the h). I had heard about him years ago when we worked in Burkina Faso. Now he is one of those people who are supposedly retired, but is always involved in something. And so we persuaded him to lend a hand in developing a plan to finish translations in all the languages of Ghana.

He is over-qualified. His past includes:

  • Setting up and heading the first department of linguistics at the University of Ghana
  • Being an ordained minister in the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Ghana, for more than 50 years
  • Working on the translation of the Bible into 13 languages in West Africa, including his own language, Ewe (pronounced eh-vay)

There are few people who can bring high level theological and linguistic expertise to the task of Bible translation. Ansre is one of those. Missionary translators often work in remote areas. Their sacrifices for marginalized peoples are laudable. But their focus on remote areas can also cause them to overlook nationals who might champion their work or even contribute to it, such as Gilbert Ansre.

In a way, there are two Africas:

  • A rural one which can be difficult to access because of poor roads, suffering from poor schools and other problems
  • An urban one where political power resides and where most educated people live.
Prof Ansre speaking

Prof Ansre speaking

An idea has emerged in planning to finish the translations in Ghana which I had not expected – join those two worlds together. It turns out that they have a lot to offer each other. The urban environment has expertise, such as Gilbert Ansre, that the rural one needs. But the rural people have important things to offer too. For example, when they read the Bible in their own languages, they develop truly African theologies. By that, I mean theologies that answer their most burning questions. For example, tribal conflict is a problem in some parts of Africa. But Western commentaries and theologies rarely deal with it and never at any length, even though the Old Testament is full of tribal conflict. It turns out that rural African Christians seek answers in the Bible that can enhance the teaching of theology in the urban seminaries. In fact, Gilbert Ansre teaches two such courses.

By linking the urban and the rural worlds, we can enrich both and provide a platform for sustaining the use and impact of Bible translation in African languages, all while driving theology where it needs to go – into answering the questions rural and urban Africans really have today.