No electric meters

In January 2003, I spend a week in the Congolese town of Ariwara helping at an event to help Christians better use the Bibles in their languages. The town had electricity in the evenings but few houses had electric meters. So billing was based on the number of light bulbs in the house – the equivalent in local currency of $2.25 per bulb per month. I was reminded of that because many Ghanaians call electricity “light”, as in “there is no light”, probably because for many people of modest means, light is the principle use of electricity.

Here are some photos of the event in Ariwara, which unexpectedly garnered almost 700 participants.

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.

An outstanding example for Bible translators

Cornelius Van Dyck_2On this day (August 13) in 1818, Cornelius Van Dyck was born in Kinderhook, NY. As a young man, he dreamt of being a medical missionary; a dream he realized after his studies at Jefferson Medical College. He went to Syria under the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions.

While he was a doctor, what distinguished his service as a missionary was not his excellence as a doctor, but rather his love for the people of Syria. That love lead him to become an expert in their language and culture. He took time to undertake studies of Syrian language and culture from renowned Syrian experts. He put this knowledge to use in many ways, including doing a translation of the Bible in Arabic based on a translation started by Eli Smith. It is still one of the most popular translations in Syria today.

His love for Syria and its people lead him to write medical textbooks in Arabic in internal medicine, physical diagnosis. But his work went well beyond that. He also wrote textbooks in subjects as diverse as geography, navigation, and mathematics. They were used in Syrian schools for many years. All this time, he kept up his medical work and studied theology. From the start, he had started new churches and done mission work. These activities eventually came to take most of his time and efforts. He even founded a school for training ministers of the Gospel.

His accomplishments are such that he appears prominently in a publication about graduates of the Jefferson Medical College who have had an impact around the world.

But Van Dyck was not just an academic. He really loved people. So much so, that 50 years after his arrival in Syria, people threw a big party to commemorate his coming. People from many religious persuasions came from all over Syria to attend the event.

His obituary in the New York Times reads:

News has been received in this city of the sudden death in Beyrout, Syria, of the Rev. Dr. Cornelius Van Allen Van Dyke, who was known throughout the civilized world as the translator of the Bible into Arabic. His death was due to old age and an organic trouble with which he had suffered for many years

The way Van Dyck combined love for, and desire to understand, those to whom he was ministering is a good reminder, especially in these days when some promote a confrontational approach to mission work and other religions. Just consider the years of hard work he put into medical school and then the in-depth study of Arabic and Syrian culture. His love was played out in a life of putting hard work into understanding them. His academic accomplishments were not done for personal academic reward, but in order to pour himself into peoples’ lives. He is an excellent model for Bible translators and missionaries even today, even for those of us who are far from matching his intellect.

A Tsetse Proverb

Africans tend to see proverbs as part of their cultural heritage. They use them every day, although the use of proverbs is going down among urban young people. Even those who don’t know a lot of proverbs, perhaps because they moved out of their language area when they were young, enjoy learning them. I have a book of the proverbs of the Bafut people of Cameroon. Some are interesting and some are very obscure. Because I don’t know the culture I don’t get them, even with an explanation.

Tsetse fly

Tsetse fly

Proverbs are often based on the characteristics or behavior of common things. The English proverb, “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree”, is an example of a proverb based on a common thing. The tsetse fly is the large, biting fly found in many parts of Africa including Ghana. Because it is common, it is a good candidate for a proverb. The tsetse flyreminds me of the horsefly. But it is dangerous because it carries the parasite that causes sleeping sickness which is fatal if not treated. The Nkonya people of Ghana have a proverb about the tsetse fly.

Obugya tamakpa wʋlʋ nwuntɔ
Translation: Blood does not leave the head of the Tsetse fly (Or there will always be blood in the head of a tsetse fly)

The logic behind this proverb goes like this:

  • The tsetse fly bites and sucks blood from its victim (animal or human)
  • So, it will always have some amount of blood in its head
  • So, an evil person will always have some evil in them, no matter how reformed they look

People use this proverb to buttress their position that a person is still bad even though they appear to be cleaning up their act. The equivalent proverb in English is:

A leopard cannot change its spots

Of course, by God’s power we can change and we see cases where people do indeed change.

I find it interesting that the Apostle Paul knew the proverbs of his day and quoted them. When writing about people who came to the Lord, then turned their backs on him, he quoted a common proverbs of his day:

“Even after they knew what was right, they turned their backs on the holy commandments that they were given.
What happened to them is just like the true saying,
A dog will come back
to lick up its own vomit.
A pig that has been washed
will roll in the mud.”
(II Peter 2:22 CEV)

Translating the Bible into a language for the first time is not just a matter of words. It involves understanding key ideas, including proverbs, so that the translation benefits from insights into all the concepts that the culture and language offer.

Thanks to Wes Peacock for the Nkonya proverb and its interpretation.