As serpents

I recently developed a new understanding of a saying of Jesus that I’ve always found a bit odd:

“Look, I am sending you out as sheep among wolves. So be as shrewd as snakes and harmless as doves. (Matthew 10:16 ESV)

APN front page - colorizedI am serving as interim Director of translation and language development work in Côte d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast). A few weeks after arriving, I started getting small indications that there was something not quite right in our cooperation with churches in some of the languages where translations are in progress. I found that we have written agreements those churches. In some cases, we have written agreements with local associations that represent the churches. On a hunch, I started studying the articles of incorporation of those associations. My head was full of phrases about Annual General Meetings, Executive Committees, Internal Auditors, quorums and so on. I also got a copy of the standard articles of incorporation and by-laws recommended by the government for the sake of comparison.

The articles of incorporation for the association for the Nghlwa language (cover pictured above) are exemplary. But in a couple of cases, while the associations pretend to represent their members (churches and interested people), key parts of the standard documents had been changed so that the associations are effectively controlled by a small number of individuals and in one case by only one person. No wonder some churches and key people were starting to say that they were being frozen out.

Dedication of representative translation committees in three Ghana languages, 2014

We have known for a long time that involving local churches in decision-making is a key element in the success of a translation. Yet I found that we are working with associations purporting to represent churches but which in reality are controlled by a small number of people who are making all the decisions. If allowed to continue, this will limit the use and impact of the translations, perhaps severely. I guess that being “shrewd as snakes” includes checking to see if articles of incorporation have been carefully crafted to be something other than what they appear on the surface.

Now, I need a substantial shot of serpentine circumspection to set things straight.

Two Theologies

Theologie et vie chretienne en AfriqueA couple years ago, African theologians and church leaders got together at a conference. One of the realizations that came out of that conference was that there are two theologies developing among Christians in Africa. One is an official and academic theology. It is taught in Bible schools and theological seminaries. But it often doesn’t spread beyond those. The other is a people’s theology. It is found among ordinary Christians. The official and academic theology happens in the official language, but the people’s theology is created and discussed in local languages. So the two don’t interact. The people’s theology is created when people talk to each other about how to deal with issues coming out of their traditional beliefs such as spirits, sorcery, and their fears The official theology often fails to touch those issues or to take them seriously.

Unfortunately, few missionaries taught on such things other than to quickly issue a general condemnation. In that gap, people filled in their own theology. They sit in church and listen, and not hearing something that answers their questions, they may leave church and go to a practitioner of traditional religion where they do find answers, not good answers, but answers nevertheless.

Reading the Bible in a language of northern Ghana

Reading the Bible in a language of northern Ghana

My Congolese friend and theologian, Bungushabaku Katho, has been experimenting with what he calls “The Village Academy”. He gets ordinary people in Congolese villagers to read the Bible in their languages, then he and other theologians interact with them about what they read and what they think that it means for them. Of that experience he wrote:

“Very often we realized that the experience of villagers became much more enriching for our understanding of the Bible; well above the bookish methods of the seminary hall.”

The experiment of the “Village Academy” is teaching us that a theologian must keep his ear tuned to the community in which he lives.

KathoWhat kind of Christianity will we find in Africa in 25 years, or 50? Will it be split in two with a academic part stuck in theological seminaries and a people’s part in the pews and the streets but which is less and less recognizable as the Good News taught by Jesus and the Apostles? I hope not.

Feeding birds

Around Abidjan Center

A view of the area around the building where we work in Abidjan

A man living around the place where we work in Abidjan feeds the birds morning and evening. When one of our office staff asked him why, he said that it brings him good luck and increased income. In fact, he spends 2,000 CFA francs per day feeding the birds, which is about $3.50, or about $105 per month. Many Africans believe in mystic or magic causality. In this way of thinking, the causes of good and bad things in our life is solely related to what happens in the spirit realm. It is not dissimilar to ideas like karma.

These beliefs would be quaint, but they keep people from what really creates wealth as recommended in the Bible. The book of Proverbs teaches hard work, honesty, being wise in relationships, getting good advice, being generous and trusting in God.

Unfortunately, many churches in Africa are getting caught up in the Prosperity Gospel. Some forms of the Prosperity Gospel teach purely mystic causes of prosperity. In this teaching financial stability or success comes from tithing, blind faith, and direct divine intervention, but not from hard work or the other teachings of the book of Proverbs. In some cases prosperity teaching effectively erases the teachings of the book of Proverbs. It’s another reason to translate that book into more African languages.

I have a small collection of humor about the mystic prosperity gospel as one finds it on Facebook. Here’s one.

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Transcendent language

At Vatican II, the Catholic Church decided to start saying mass in local languages. Until then it had always been said in Latin. I was only 13 when Vatican II concluded, but a Burkina Faso friend of mine said that many of the more educated Catholic lay people in that country were unhappy with the change. They felt that hearing in everyday language removed the mystery, the transcendence, indeed the religiousness of the experience.

A woman leads a worship song in a local language during a gathering of believers from northern Ghana in a city in the south

A woman leads a worship song in a local language during a gathering of believers from northern Ghana in a city in the south

This feeling about language is widespread. Indeed, proponents of the King James Version cite the grandeur of its words. Many want their religious experiences to be infused with the feeling of transcendence so they like cathedrals, liturgy, clergy in special clothing, and stained glass windows. They may also want the Bible read from a translation that also seems transcendent. I identify. I love the poetic passages from the Psalms and from Isaiah. They send my spirit soaring. When they are sung in English that is out of date, as in The Messiah, they become all the more spiritual to me. Africans have more exuberant ways of experiencing transcendence.

Official_Languages_-_Africa_HL colorsI occasionally meet Africans who object to translating the Bible into their languages because they want to keep the mystery and the religious experience of reading and hearing in the official language (French, English or Portuguese depending on the country.) To them, the Bible in their language just seems way too simple and down-to-earth to be truly religious.

But what are we to make of this common human yearning for special religious language? After all, not all human religious yearnings are endorsed by the Bible. Is this yearning good or bad?

My favorite statement on this issue comes from C.S. Lewis. Writing about the objection to modern translations that their language is too “everyday”, he wrote:

A sacred truth seemed to them to have lost its sanctity when it was stripped of the polysyllabic Latin, long heard at Mass and at Hours, and put into ‘language such as men do use’—language steeped in all the commonplace associations of the nursery, the inn, the stable, and the street. The answer then was the same as the answer now. The only kind of sanctity which Scripture can lose (or, at least, New Testament scripture) by being modernized is an accidental kind which it never had for its writers or its earliest readers. The New Testament in the original Greek is not a work of literary art: it is not written in a solemn, ecclesiastical language, it is written in the sort of Greek which was spoken over the eastern Mediterranean after Greek had become an international language and therefore lost its real beauty and subtlety.

If God himself thought that it was okay to have the Apostles leave classical Greek aside and write the New Testament in the common language of the day, why would we think that we need something else? God’s big concerns appear focused on something other than provoking blissful awe through the use of religious-sounding language.

Pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father means caring for orphans and widows in their distress and refusing to let the world corrupt you. (James 1:27)

I still listen to The Messiah and it still transports me, but I don’t expect that it will do the same for everyone else, or consider them less if it does not. I certainly do not expect that such transports fulfill my obligation to practice true religion nor that they replace listening to God in the everyday words of my heart language.

Sustainable consulting

On June 23, I wrote about changes that came out of the conflict and civil way in Côte d’Ivoire. Those changes have sparked some interesting conversations in my temporary role as country director. Ivorians and other Africans are doing most of the translation checking. Translation checking is a quality control process where a person with high level training and lots of experience looks over a translation verse by verse to check that it is faithful to the original and that it is clear and natural.

One of the Africans doing that is doing it part-time. He has a very good job doing something else, but that job  allows him time to check translations and train translators. Someone expressed the opinion that this indicates that he is more interested in money than in translation. Historically, translation checking has been done by full-time Western missionaries or consultants with the Bible Societies. It is new that Africans are doing it part-time while making their living at other jobs. It is not the first time that a colleague has expressed to me a similar opinion.

Seeing part-time translation experts as less than ideal encounters some problems:

  • First, we are short of consultants and we don’t have the money to hire more. So part-time consultants actually fit better. In fact, there are other Ivorian who could be part-time consultants with a little more experience or training, but that hasn’t happened out of concern that it we trained them we wouldn’t have money to hire them. There is enough money to bring them into part-time positions.
  • Second, and more importantly, that is how Africa works including the church in Africa. I meet a good number of Africans who have good jobs or small businesses who also serve as pastors to local churches who cannot afford to hire a full-time pastor. In fact, one is on a committee giving me advice in my temporary role. A Bible College in the Congo found that the churches made most of its graduates headmasters at church schools because the schools receive a government subsidy for headmasters and teachers. The graduate then pastors a church on a part-time basis. Whether we think that this way of doing things it good or bad, it is the way things work.

Historically, the most of the first Bible translations done in European languages during the reformation were done by part-time translators. John Wycliffe, who did the first translation into English, did his translation while teaching at Oxford, lecturing and pastoring. Martin Luther did his translation into German while employed as a priest and university lecturer. Even the King James translators were not employed full-time on the translation. People serving part-time in translation is a long-standing practice in the church worldwide, even if it has been eclipsed by full-time translators in the last 200 years.

Dr. Sherwood Lingenfelter, an anthropologist and friend of Bible translation, came to Africa and taught on partnership. He told us that we ought to be doing “organisational exegesis” with our African partners. That is, we need to understand how African churches and other partners work – how they make decisions, how they pay staff, etc.  It seems to me that a serious look at the church in Africa reveals that having part-time staff is a regular part of how it operates. Because of that, it seems inevitable that as the church here exerts more decision-making in Bible translation, more part-time staff will become part of the picture.

We westerners who are used to the full-time-ministry model need to stop thinking of those who work part time as less than fully committed.

What is really needed

Two weeks ago, I wrote about an incident where a missionary raised money for something that was not needed. You can read it here: https://heartlanguage.org/2016/07/07/when-understanding-fails/.

It is extraordinarily difficult for an American to understand what people in the developing world really need. A church audience was easily convinced and their hearts moved so they opened their wallets. I love their hearts, but that doesn’t make their action effective. In his book Walking with the Poor, Bryant Myers wrote: “The poor deserve more than gifted amateurs with their hearts  in the right place”.

Ebola in Africa - MapLet me give you an example of something that has proven really useful, but probably doesn’t look that way to most Americans. That is the new rapid test for Ebola. During the recent Ebola outbreak in some countries of West Africa, researchers were looking for a rapid test for Ebola. Eventually one was discovered and put into use. It takes 15 minutes. You might imagine that it would be nice to know if you had Ebola or not in minutes rather than days. But it is even more important than you imagine. In fact, it was the game changer, in my opinion.

You may have heard that people resisted the efforts of the public health officials trying to combat Ebola. In fact, in local mobs in Guinea killed some. People attacked ambulance drivers and paramedics. They hid sick relatives from the authorities. Crazy you say? Well, you’d be wrong. Their actions were quite understandable, at least they were before the quick Ebola test.

Ghanaian newspaper

Ghanaian newspaper

Let’s say you have a child with symptoms that might be Ebola. At the outset, the symptoms of Ebola are like those of many common diseases. So you can’t know what the child has. Before the rapid test, if you took your child to a Ebola center for treatment, they would examine him or her, and if the symptoms could be Ebola, your child would have blood drawn to check for Ebola. But the test took several days. Because of the danger of contagion, they won’t let you take your child home. Instead he or she is held in an isolation ward with other sick people who are also waiting for their Ebola test results. That means that your child will be housed with sick people some of whom almost certainly have Ebola. If your child doesn’t have Ebola, he or she could well contract it at the Ebola center. That’s why people resisted sending their family members and friends to Ebola centers.

Let’s say that you live in an area where there is no Ebola center, but you do have a local hospital. People who are suspected of having Ebola are keep there while awaiting the results of their Ebola tests. Do you want to go to that hospital? Send your child there? One of the side effects of the Ebola outbreak was the people died of treatable diseases because they were afraid to go to clinics and hospitals.

Ebola poster I saw in GhanaBut the rapid test changed that. In 15 minutes Ebola could be diagnosed or excluded. People came, got tested and left or were admitted. Public health crews going door to door could administer the test on the spot, eliminating the need to take every sick person to the hospital.

The rapid test was not just a rapid test, it was a tool that changed the relationship between the public health officials and the public. It is possible, I think, that the changed dynamics between officials and the public was what eventually brought an end to Ebola outbreak. We use the phrase “game changer” too loosely, but the rapid test was a real game changer. Not only is it rapid, it also works without electricity so it can be deployed anywhere.

I see the same thing in Bible translation, the things that have profound impact (small literacy programs, printing orthography guides in local languages, courses for pastors to teach them how to read in their own languages…) don’t sound like much to many American ears. I have heard the representatives of US-based translation agencies say they don’t fund those things because American Christian donors aren’t interested.

Like I said, I think that it is extraordinarily difficult for people in one place to understand what will change life for people in another place. Be honest, if you had wanted to give to the fight against Ebola and you had been presented with three choices – contributing to the development of a rapid test, to a Christian doctor or nurse traveling to effected countries to help, or giving money to support an Ebola center – which would you have chosen?

Foreigner

Definition of foreignerI’m living and working in Côte d’Ivoire, a former French colony where the official language is French. Here, I am an “étranger”. That word is ambiguous because it has two meanings: a person one does not know or a person from another country. Asking Google to translate foreigner into French and then asking it to translate stranger into french both result in the same translation: étranger.

But the word in West African languages which is commonly translated foreigner means neither, although it is closest to foreigner. It means a person who is from another place (not necessarily another country) , who has come to take up residence. The community welcomes and harbors the person, lending him land for housing and farming or other economic activity. If the foreigner is a man, someone in the community may give him their daughter as a wife as a way of making him part of the community or even to exercise some control over him.

No matter how long the foreigner stays, he remains a foreigner. His children and grandchildren are still foreigners. However long they live on the land lent to them, it is still a temporary residence. The best translation of the term is “resident alien” (but not an alien of the science fiction type).

Only people from that place are not foreigners. They consider themselves the original inhabitants, even though that is often not the case in historic fact. In fact, if a person considered an original inhabitant moves far away, he is still considered an original inhabitant of his “home” area as are his children, grandchildren and so on. After all, where they now live they are resident aliens. Such people stay original inhabitants even through they may have never been “home”. They are not foreigners if they come “back”. I have asked Africans in big cities where they are from, and I sometimes find out in the conversation that they have never been to that place.

I think that some Americans are adopting some of the same way of thinking. Don’t some of us consider some people”foreigners” if they are culturally different from us even if they have citizenship?

When understanding fails

An African friend told me about a trip he made to the USA. In the course of the trip he was the guest of a missionary who works in his country and the missionary took him to a church meeting where the missionary was speaking. The missionary made quite a point of the bad relationships between different ethnic groups. He cited instances where he saw and heard people from different ethnic groups insulting each other. The missionary explained that he planned to help with reconciliation through the Gospel. The church audience was very moved and gave a large offering.

My African friend was shocked. He didn’t say anything during the meeting, afterwards he spoke to the missionary. He told him about a common cultural practice in West Africa known as “joking relationships“.

Chief in the Ghana's Volta enters a multi-ethnic event

Chief in the Ghana’s Volta enters a multi-ethnic event

I ran into joking relationships early in my missionary career. We had traveled from our village to a nearby town to buy supplies. We went into a little restaurant for lunch. At one point, a man came in and started insulting two of the patrons. They began insulting him back. It looked serious. I thought that a fight was about to break out, so I was gathering my things to leave when they all started laughing and the man who had just came in sat down with them – all friendly like nothing had happened.

When I told an African friend about the event, he explained that there is a joking relationship between some ethnic groups in which they insult each other, each trying to find the wittiest insult. The insults are given and taken in fun. It reminded me of how relationships between men can work in the US. The right way to give a complement to a manly man in some circles is backhanded – in the form of a disparaging remark such as “I’ve seen worse” or “Who would have thought you could do good work like that?”

It turns out that the joking relationship in Africa can be the foundation for overcoming conflict and producing reconciliation.

So, that missionary didn’t understand the joking relationship, thought that the insults were for real and raised money to solve a problem that didn’t exist.

I am reminded again that as an outsider, I need to take time to understand and consult local people before coming up with my own ideas about what needs to be done. In recent weeks, I made at least one mistake because I didn’t do that.

My dear friends, you should be quick to listen and slow to speak or to get angry.
(James 1:19 CEV)

Mediation

A few weeks back I had a very interesting experience. I was sitting in a meeting with Africans and Westerns discussing ways to reconcile a conflict. We were all Christians, but the differences in the approaches of the Westerners and the Africans was stark.

I went away thinking about the conversation and trying to understand the different points of view. I did a little research on the web and found a very pertinent article by Mark Davidheiser: Special Affinities and Conflict Resolution: West African Social Institutions and Mediation. It turns out that he teaches both cultural anthropology and conflict resolution. In part of the article, he tells of research he did among the Mandinka people who are found in Ivory Coast and Guinea. He writes:

The Mandinka generally view mediation as a matter of persuading disputants to end their conflict and reconcile, rather than as a structured process of facilitated problem solving and negotiation.

There was the answer! We Westerners were engaged in problem solving. We went straight to trying to find a common way forward through the issues that separated the two parties. In hindsight, it seems obvious to me that we did that without even thinking about what we were doing. The Africans just wanted to produce reconciliation and they did not need to deal with the underlying issue. I don’t think that we or them could have described our different approaches, much less understand how the other’s was different.

I’m not yet sure if or how this insight will help me, but it sure explains a lot.

Forced changes

I am filling in temporarily as the director for translation work in Côte d’Ivoire (also known as Ivory Coast). If things go according to plan, we’ll be back in Ghana in a few months.

Abandonned armoured vehicle in Ivory Coast. Photo courtesy of a colleague.

Abandonned armoured vehicle in Ivory Coast. Photo courtesy of a colleague.

Ivory Coast is coming out of prolonged period of conflict and civil war. During a good part of that time, many missionaries and almost all Westerners doing Bible translation left the country. That left the Ivorian translators on their own. Instead of stopping, most of them kept translating. Coming out of the conflict, we have a very different situation than we had going in. There are still outsiders involved, but like Dayle and I, most of them play limited roles.  Ivorians are the translators, they lead the translation programs, provide expert guidance, do the training and provide quality control.

But the change is more profound than than just changing the faces around the translation table. Churches here are picking up the will to do translation. They sponsor translation programs, choose translators and take care of some of the administrative details. Some have been quite active in doing adult literacy among their members. I am working with a group of Ivorian Christians who want to reformulate how Bible translation is done so that it fits their way of doing things. They think that will give the translations even more impact. I agree.

A number of years ago, the head of a successful African mission told me:

David could not use Saul’s armor. The church in Africa will not do Bible translation the way you do.

David was successful precisely because he abandoned the standard way, the “right way”, the king’s way, the way all the experts advised. King Saul told David:

 “Don’t be ridiculous!” Saul replied. “There’s no way you can fight this Philistine and possibly win! You’re only a boy, and he’s been a man of war since his youth.” (I Samuel 17:33)

Africa is considered inconsequential by many, just as Saul thought David inconsequential. Might Jesus’ church in inconsequential Africa devise a way to translate the Bible into its 1,800 languages that no translation expert would ever recommend and yet succeed by doing it their way? I believe that is exactly what will happen. The conflict in Ivory Coast forced some changes in Bible translation. Those changes are opening the door to more profound changes. I say: Be on the lookout for falling giants.

The meeting room at the translation center in Abidjan. Bullets came through this roof doing the conflict.

The meeting room at the translation center in Abidjan. Bullets came through this roof doing the conflict.