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

Click on an image below to enlarge it and start a slideshow.

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.

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.

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.

The soul of Ghana

Sign - Talented paintersGhanaians put up the marvelous signs. Some quote the Bible, others have Christian motifs, or are based on traditional proverbs. Some relate to a personal experience of the owner. There is a book of them: Joe’s Hair that Talks. I even produced a few copies of my own book of Ghana signs. Many signs are in Ghanaian languages, which makes it hard to share them, but I love that they value their languages.
From my perspective, a lot of the signs on businesses are overblown:
  • Ultimate Strategic Information Systems – on small, cramped shop filled with obsolete computers
  • Talented Painters – the sign itself is badly hand-lettered
  • International – often the first word in the name of a church or business that obviously has no international reach
Oh Jehova. [How man struggles for] the little that he gets to eat (in Ga)

Oh Jehova. [How man struggles for] the little that he gets to eat (in Ga)

It would be easy to criticize these signs. They promise more than the business or church can deliver. But, it seems to me that they can best be understood as expressing aspirations. Ghanaians are not satisfied with the things as they are. They want their businesses, their communities, their churches and their country to be something more. They put those aspirations, perhaps unrealistic, on their signs.

These signs full of aspirations get juxtaposed with signs which express the struggles they have in life:

  • Oh, this world!
  • Oh Jehova, How Man struggles for the little he gets to eat
  • Life is calculations
Big aspirations and lots of struggles. Seems like a good combination to me. If I were to summarize the soul of Ghana, that’s what I would say – big aspirations with struggles. My prayer is that their aspirations for themselves align with God’s aspirations for them. I know in my life, that is a struggle all its own.

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Whose plans

I was living in Ouagadougou at the time. I had an appointment away from the office which I would attend with a Burkinabé man. He had come to the office and we would go together. But stuff kept happening. You know the situation: first a phone call, then a question, then someone stopping by. On it went.

I was a little frustrated and concerned about being late. Finally, we were on our way. I mentioned to the man accompanying me that we would be late because of all the interceptions. He replied:

Your plans are your plans,
but that was what God was doing.

I really did not have the time to digest that right there, but the words have stuck with me. Insights from people in other cultures enrich my understanding of life, God and godliness. He reminded me that a strong focus on my plans can keep me from seeing God’s hand in situations.

Missionaries destroy culture?

The claim that missionaries destroy culture has been around for a while. There are a lot of answers to the claim, not the least is the work of Yale Historian Lamin Sanneh and sociologist Robert Woodberry. But let me add another perspective.

Afaka script

Afaka script

Language and culture are intricately linked. A person’s language expresses their culture. It contains the concepts that pass the culture from generation to generation. So work which enhances the reach or use of that language necessarily protects and promotes the culture. Some languages have very complex scripts. Think of a script as an alphabet and the rules that govern its use. For example, in English we have an alphabet with two cases – upper case and lower case, or capital and ordinary letters. We have rules that govern when we use upper case and when we use lower case. iGnOrE tHoSe RuLeS aNd ReAdInG gEtS dIfFiCuLt, and writing too. Just try typing that! Some scripts have more than two cases. I have heard of four. And there are several other kinds of complexity used in writing systems around the world.

Devanagari script

Devanagari script

This kind of complexity poses issues for keyboarding the language on a computer. Here is a link to an interesting short slide show showing even more complex scripts. When you get to the page, click on the map to launch the slide show. You have to manually advance the slide show from one section to the next.

Tifinagh script

Tifinagh script

Some highly skilled people have put in a LOT of work so that all these scripts can be used on a computer; so that people who speak those languages can send email to each other, or post in their language on Facebook, or have web sites for their organizations, government offices, and businesses. They did this with little backing from computer companies. Who were they? Well, they were missionaries. They wanted to be able to keyboard these languages in order to translate the Bible, teach people to read and produce Christian literature. But their work can be used much more widely.

Tai Viet script

Tai Viet script

When they finished, what did they do? Did they archive the systems they created? Did they hide them? No, they spent even more time and money to make the technology available to everyone, using a widely accepted standard called Open Source, then they did more work to make it available on a website, free for anyone, none of which they needed to do for their own purposes. They did it so that the people who speak those languages, whether they are Christians or not, will benefit from the tools they developed.

A pretty strange way to disrespect and destroy cultures, I think.

Writing Systems of the World

Writing Systems of the World

Ulfilas day – according to me

Today, I commemorate a man you probably never heard of who did something unheard of. I wrote about it last year. Read, or re-read it here:

Doing translation?

This is the last installment in our series of asking the questions we were most asked last time we were in the US. This week, the question is:

Are you doing translation?
What do you actually do?

Goals, activities, resultsThe simple answer is that we do whatever needs to be done to meet our goals. I know, most of you will find that is not really an answer. Don’t worry, there is an answer in the following paragraphs. But first, let me say that missionaries who define their ministry by what they do and stick to it, sometimes do not accomplish their goals. In fact, they may not even realize that they are not meeting their goals.

Sometimes, an activity that has produced good results can become meaningless when things change. When the change is dramatic, such as when a tsunami swept away villages where one couple was doing a translation, we notice them and change. Where the changes are more subtile or are the result of long-term trends, we might miss them and continue with an activity that has lost its effectiveness. Dayle and I prefer to be persistent with regard to our goals, but not with regard to our activities. We evaluate our activities to see if they are meeting the goals, then change our activities as needed.

You can read our complete goals on our prayer page. Here is a summary:

  • The churches in Ghana will have a plan to do translation in all the languages of Ghana that need it
  • The churches in Ghana will start work in all the languages, where there is no work going on, by 2016
  • Most of the people and money needed for translation will come from within Ghana by 2018

The pace of Bible translation is accelerating, largely because many more people are being mobilized to help. In fact, that is having a bigger impact on the pace than technology. We believe that the Lord led us to these goals. We do a number of things together with others in order to see those goals accomplished:

  • Michael Serchie, Gilbert Ansre and EdDevelop personal relationships with key Christian leaders
  • Listen carefully to them, putting ourselves in the role of servants to their goals
  • Supply church leaders and Christians with information about the value, impact and process of Bible translation. Identify ways Bible translation can make their ministry more effective.
  • Identify which languages still need a translation, together with church leaders
  • Work directly with interested parties – churches, Christians, local leadership – to define a plan for starting and carrying out the translation, including questions like how the linguistic work will be done to write the language, how translators will be chosen and trained, where they will work, where the money will come from, etc.
  • Work with church leaders to find and address problems.
  • Assist in the development of presentations, publications, and internet information to help the churches in Ghana understand Bible translation and possibilities it offers them.

These activities involve travel to language areas, face-to-face meetings, writing reports of those meetings, research, processing the results of meetings with people who were not there, phone calls, writing and responding to email messages, hostessing individuals and groups at receptions, etc. Or we might add an activity we have never done before, if the Lord impresses on us that it will help us meet the goals.