Things have changed

i-zAt the end of my time as Director for Côte d’Ivoire, I was moving from files for the incoming Director. That meant labeling a file drawer. The drawer was previously labeled “Members “I-Z”. That meant that when that label was made, it took two file drawers to contain the personnel files for the members (meaning missionaries from the West) who worked in Ivory Coast and this drawer contained those whose last name started with a letter from I to Z.

I was amused. It took me back to the time when Bible translation was lead and motivated by missionaries coming from the United States, Great Britain, Switzerland and other western countries. In fact, that situation lasted for the first 20 years I was in Africa. This simple file drawer label took me back to that time.

Handing over to the new Director

Handing over to the new Director

Dayle and I were in Ivory Coast temporarily and I had just handed over to an Ivorian Director. There was one another American couple here and they were temporary too. Besides the four of us, there were no western missionaries residing in the country doing Bible translation. It only took a few hanging folders occupying a small part of one file drawer to contain all their paperwork. But there are translations ongoing in 19 languages and those files are voluminous.

One of the big changes in Bible translation in Africa over the last two decades is the ascendancy of national translators and related personnel and the steep decline in the number of western missionaries working directly or indirectly in translation. This change was foreseeable from the early 1990s. It began happening in the mid 1990s and accelerated after the year 2000.

change-is-bad-goodI have met a number of missionaries working in Bible translation who found these changes troubling. They ask what we are doing wrong, or what the church back home is doing wrong. Once, when I described the changes, a fellow missionary told me “You do nothing but discourage me.” This was in spite of the fact that we had a number of highly trained Africans ready to fill the gap; some with more training and experience than some missionaries.

The Bible has some interesting stories about people living in what they considered very bad situations but God said that the situations were good. One of my favorites is in Jeremiah 24 which starts like this:

The Lord spoke to me in a vision after King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylonia had come to Judah and taken King Jehoiachin, his officials, and all the skilled workers back to Babylonia. In this vision I saw two baskets of figs in front of the Lord’s temple. One basket was full of very good figs that ripened early, and the other was full of rotten figs that were not fit to eat.
“Jeremiah,” the Lord asked, “what do you see?”
“Figs,” I said. “Some are very good, but the others are too rotten to eat.” (Jeremiah 24:1-3 CEV)

Dried figs: Photo courtesy of Mburnat via Wikipedia commons

Dried figs. Photo courtesy of Mburnat via Wikipedia commons

You will agree with me that those who had been forcibly removed form their homes and taken to a foreign country were unfortunate while those who were left in their county were fortunate. But God goes on to say the opposite – that those who were taken away from the country and their homes by force are the fortunate ones; but those who remained in their country and their homes are unfortunate; the bad figs are really the good figs and vice versa. God has a radically different interpretation of the events and his interpretation was confirmed over coming decades.

When we experience disappointment or other negatives, we need to ask God to give us his view of the events.

One of the challenges in missions is for missionaries to seek God’s view of the trends that are happening rather than relying on our gut instinct. I have come to the conclusion that shrinking missionary workforce and the increased number of nationals is not someone’s mistake. It is God’s doing. If we try to fix it we are actually working against God.

Now this does not mean that there is no room in Bible translation for Western missionaries. Quite the contrary. God calls who he calls without regard to nationality, race, gender or anything else. The question is not whether there is a place in Bible translation for Westerners, but rather whether God has called you and whether as a missionary you will work to promote the directions God is taking Bible translation or work against them.

A workshop where translators from five languages perfected their translation of the book of Romans.

A workshop where translators from five languages perfected their translation of the book of Romans.

That’s for others

Langauge Map of GhanaThere are some large, unreached people groups in the north of Ghana. They have been resistant to various attempts by missionaries and churches to reach them with the Gospel. In recent years however, small congregations have started springing up here and there. These people groups have low education and literacy rates coupled with high poverty, which is quite a contrast to the southern parts of Ghana.

A number of Ghanaian churches have outreach in the north. They have have had modest success in evangelism and church planting. As Bibles were translated into the languages, some of them began literacy programs for members of their churches so that the Bibles could be used.

They funneled money from their churches in the south for to support the literacy effort. Literacy has had effects no one really expected, and those effects have been so big that two of the churches have changed their strategy for growing their churches in the north.

Keep in mind that most of the rural Christians were poor, subsistence farmers with little or no education. Prior to learning to read, their only participation in church was to sit and listen. Neither they nor church leaders thought that they had any role to play. When church leaders organized literacy classes, their hope was that these believers would be able to grow in faith through reading their Bibles. That happened, but much, much more.

Christians in the Northern Outreach Program read the Bible in their languages

Lay preachers from northern Ghana reading their Bibles at a church conference

Some of the Christians who attended literacy classes started seriously reading the Bibles in their languages. I’m not talking about reading a few verses a day. One man told me how he read the New Testament clear through 5 or 6 times in the month following the dedication. Where the whole Bible has been translated, some of those previously uneducated and illiterate peasant farmers used their newly acquired literacy skills to read their Bibles through multiple times in short order and then to continue reading it through every few months. They became known in their communities as Bible experts.

Literacy took them way beyond being able to grow in their personal faith – they became a faith resource for others. People came to them asking questions about the Bible and about Christianity. They started teaching Bible and Sunday school classes in their language. Some became lay preachers in their churches. A few have weekly FM radio broadcasts in which they explain the Bible or have a call-in segment where listeners can ask questions. In some cases, clerics from other religions come and ask them questions.

Learning to read

Learning to read

Not that long ago, these local Bible experts were simple pew sitters. Churches have realized that they need to recognize these lay preachers and include them in their pastoral staff, both because that seemed reasonable and because they are more effective than the more educated pastors sent to the north from other parts of Ghana who have to learn the languages. But these newly-literate lay preachers have provoked yet another change that goes way beyond the church to affect their whole community. Before, many people from northern Ghana considered that Christianity was not a religion them.

They thought that Christianity was the religion for the more educated peoples of the south of Ghana. But now the local lay preacher is from a family that has lived in the community since before anyone can remember, is widely respected, and preaches and teaches in the language of the community. Faced with that, people change their mind about his religion being only for people from somewhere else.

Bible translation and literacy for believers is radically altering the perceptions about Christianity, they are changing it from being generally considered a foreign import to something that is becoming an accepted part of the community – an understandable and acceptable choice. This hasn’t happened everywhere yet. There are still communities where the churches have not organized literacy classes. There, Christianity remains a religion for others.

You might be me if …

People ask me what it is like to live overseas and return to the US from time to time. So I thought I would write about that in the form of “You might be me if…”

  • You might be me if … when you get an airplane ticket, your first thought is to register your trip with the US embassy.
  • Two-sim phone

    Nokia phone with back off showing places for two SIM chips

    You might be me if … if you know that all mobile phone networks in Africa are GSM. So you also know that you have a GSM phone, and which mobile phone networks in the US are GSM so that you can put your Africa phone on their network when you’re back in the US.

  • … You know about phones that can be on two mobile networks at the same time.
  • … friends asking you out to eat ask what kind of food you would like. You tell them. But there’s not that kind of restaurant in town, or in the next town, or in the town after that for that matter. In fact, you have trouble finding one in your state.
  • … when you arrive back to the US after being gone a while, you sit in the car for a while waiting for the attendant the first time you stop for gas.
  • … when you arrive back in the US, you discover that you have some foreign currency in your wallet, so you call your bank and ask if they exchange foreign currency. Yes, they do. But when you arrive, the teller looks at the bills funny. You explain that you called. “Oh, we thought you meant Canadian”, the teller says.
  • … you don’t feel at all intimidated by the customs and immigration at international arrivals. In fact, it’s all rather boring.
  • you might be me if… your first days back in the US, you sleep in too late because there is no rooster or guinea fowl to wake you.
  • … back in the US after some time away, you drive straight to the DMV without a problem. You’re feeling pretty good until you realize that it isn’t there anymore. In one instant, you go from feeling at home to feeling like a clueless outsider.
  • … everywhere feels like home and feels foreign all at the same time. You feel like you belong and don’t belong all at the same time.
  • … you’re careful to take change at the checkout counter at Wal-Mart with your right hand even when your left is closer causing the clerk to look at you funny. (The left hand is considered unclean in many parts of the world.)
  • … your wife says that you have something “at home”, and you’re not sure which place she means.
  • … shortly after returning to the US, you call your wife using her overseas phone number and wonder why she isn’t picking up. You only figure it out after three attempts.
  • … you always pack electric plug adapters when you travel and you can tell you by looking at a plug which countries it is for.
  • … you look at the notice on the bottom of electrical devices to see if they accept both 110 and 220 volts and both 50 and 60 hertz. You won’t buy them unless they do.
  • … your American friends say things you don’t understand like “Where’s the beef.” and “going postal”.
  • … you use your passport for ID in the US. People look at it funny.
  • … your favorite news App on your phone is BBC and it’s not the BBC USA App. You can’t buy your favorite newspaper in the US.
  • … a public restroom sign that says “Do not stand on the toilets” seems perfectly normal to you. In fact, you make a note to suggest it to the guest house manger.
  • … just after arriving in the US, you open your wallet to pay cash at a store and find that you only have foreign currency – two different foreign currencies actually.
  • … you know how to change the SIM chip in your GSM phone, and you have a stash of SIM chips for various countries in your carry-on so that you can put in the right one just before landing.
  • … you have some contacts in your phone that have several different phone numbers, each for a different country – because some of your friends swap SIM chips too.
  • … people ask you what you think of the presidential election campaign and you wonder which one.
  • … after coming back to the US, it takes a while for you to remember that you don’t have to carry a lot of cash or plan where to buy gas on a trip.
  • … after arriving back in the US or back in Africa, you have to ask how many numbers to dial for a local phone call.
  • … you check prices at Wal-Mart by comparing to what the item would cost in Ghana.
  • … after arriving in another country you start talking to someone and they look at you really funny. Then you realize that you’re speaking the wrong language.
  • … when people say “football” you have to think for a second to figure out which kind they are talking about.
  • … you see something you want in a store and you stock up because you think that it might not be available next time.
  • … you find yourself puzzled for a second why your computer has marked “organise” as a misspelling. When it dawns on you, you set the document to UK English to fix it. You are fully conversant with the language feature of your software and Apps.
  • … you know which website will let you download fonts and a keyboard for the languages Wolof, Lingala or Cherokee.
  • … when in the US, you stand frozen in indecision in front of so many kinds of shampoo.
  • … when you’re invited to a BBQ, you assume that they’ll be serving goat.
  • … it takes you a while to decide how much to spend on a wedding gift because you have to remember what’s appropriate for the country you’re in at the moment.
  • … back in the US, you make the mistake of telling the waitress that you want tea when what I really want is hot tea, so you end up with iced tea. But you know that when you’re in Chad, you have to order “Lipton” because “tea” there is something different yet.
  • … you hesitate when people ask you where you’re from
  • … posts from your friends on Facebook are in 5 different languages, only two of which Google will translate.
  • … you go to see the doctor in the US only to find out that everything has become hugely expensive and complicated. You find yourself thinking that medical care in Africa has some advantages.
  • … just after arriving in the US, you go to a store in the US and buy one thing. You’re surprised by the cost at checkout and say there’s an error, then you remember about sales tax.
  • … your wife thinks that her hospital stay in the US was like a stay at a 4 star resort.
  • … in the US, you say the name of a place overseas and no one understands. You’re perplexed. Then you remember to say it the American way.
  • … you have a bookmark in your browser for a site with reliable foreign exchange rates. It includes all currencies, not just the big ones. You know the names of the currencies for countries your friends have never heard of.
  • … you order the spiciest thing on the menu at a restaurant in the US. The nice waitress asks you four times if you’re sure. Then she keeps watching you and shaking her head while you eat it. On the other hand, when an Ivorian friend tells you that the dish in front of you on the table is spicy, it scares the socks off you. And sure enough, it’s five alarm, atomic fireball surprise. You nibble at it while your nose runs madly down your sweaty face, convinced that the Scoville heat index has just been exceeded.
  • … for you, pepper means hot pepper. You can distinguish several kinds of hot peppers and know which are the hottest, which have the flavor you prefer and how to cook them to vary the hotness.
  • … when you’re in the US, you’re always dressed warmer than everyone else. “Aren’t you hot in that long-sleeved shirt?”, they ask.
  • … when you first arrive in a country, you develop a quick way to mentally calculate what something costs in dollars, or perhaps in the currency of the last country you were in as that might be easier.
  • … you know how to use the time zone feature in your calendar App, and you won’t have calendar App without that feature. You also know the advantages and disadvantages of the different ways calendar apps and scheduling Apps implement time zones.
  • … you now have a whole different definition of “traffic jam”. If Dante were alive today, he would write an epic poem about one you had the misfortune to encounter. You feel that your previous understanding was but a pale shadow.
  • … one of your children comes home from college for Christmas. To do that, he has to use his passport and travel for more than 24 hours. Or maybe he left home to come and visit you. You just don’t know any more.
  • … you convert miles to kilometers to understand how far it really is
  • … you can hardly believe that anyone likes pineapple from a can
  • … you’re concerned that your friends and family will consider it a scam if you ever need to send them an e-mail saying you’re stranded abroad and need money. This is because you have actually been stranded in a foreign country without money.
  • … when you’re in the US it is hard to buy gifts because there’s no Art Market nearby with great local crafts.
  • … half the documents on your computer are formatted for A4 size paper. But you know how to configure your printer so that it will automatically scale letter or A4-sized documents and so print them without complaining.
  • … you always wonder if it’s safe to drink the tap water
  • … your first night back in the US, you wake up at 4 AM because of jet lag, and wonder briefly if the electricity is out because there’s no call to prayer.
  • … you know all about DVD regions and how to defeat them. You only buy region-free DVD players.
  • … when you put someone’s phone number in your phone, you always put the country code – because you might have to call them from another country someday.
  • … When a friend asks you via text message or Facebook where you are, you send back “225”, because it’s a lot quicker to type the phone country code than to type Côte d’Ivoire. When some of your friends are traveling, they put things on Facebook like, “Off to 245.” You know that all the country phone codes in the 200s are in Africa or Greenland.
  • country-code-map… you’re never sure who the word “foreigners” refers to. Sometimes you are one and sometimes not. When a Canadian friend in Ghana says “foreigners”, you wonder who on earth they are talking about! You prefer the word expatriate.
  • … you have received quite a few live animals as gifts and you always wonder if you’ll have to butcher them yourself. You hope that you won’t get confused about the purpose of such gifts on the day someone in the US gives you a pet.
  • … you expect to pass through Ebola screening at the airport.

The beatitudes of language

On one of my trips into Congo, I found myself in the city of Kisangani over a weekend. One of the church leaders I was working with suggested that I attend the French language worship service at his church. (French is the official language of Congo, spoken by under 15% of the people. Everyone speaks one of the 220 African languages native to the country.) It is quite common for churches in Africa to have multiple services on Sunday in different languages with one of them being in the official languages of the country (French, English or Portuguese).

Choir and the French language service

Choir and the French language service

I was disappointed. Instead of finding a vibrant congregation of government officials and others with good education, the congregation was composed of 20 or 30 high school and university students. They were not in a French language service because French was their preferred language for prayer and worship. Instead, they were in a French language church service because French is prestigious and they wanted to display that they were part of the educated elite. The thing is, they didn’t master French that well, so they had the opposite effect on me, although they were certainly impressing themselves.

It is easy to think that language is about communication and so in every circumstance where there is a choice between languages, people will choose the language most likely to communicate. Sociolinguists will tell you that this is not so. Living in a places where many languages are spoken has made me acutely aware that language choice is often not about communication. The young students in Kisangani that Sunday did not choose French because it communicated best, or because it helped them express their thoughts and emotions best. No, they choose French because of its prestige. Communication, if it was a consideration, came a distant second.

Preacher at the French-language service

Preacher at the French-language service

I have seen young pastors returning from Bible School or seminary preach to people in their own village in the official language even though they know that few understand it. Why? Because preaching in the official language shows that they are well-educated.

People choose one language over another to help them accomplish their goals. If their goal is to communicate, they will choose the language that communicates best. If their goal is to lift up, encourage and empower others, they will choose the language that does that.

But, if their goal is to sound educated, enhance their prestige or establish their authority, they will choose the language that does that. Where I have lived in Africa, language choice is a great humility gauge and a very accurate detector of the intentions of the heart. Part of doing Bible translation in Africa is helping churches and pastors rethink some of their attitudes toward language. The Beatitudes give guidance for language choice in multilingual environments:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.

In many contexts English (or whichever language is the official language) is the power choice, not the meek choice. It is the choice lacking compassion for the listeners, not the merciful choice. It is the choice of those wealthy in spirit.


Back to Ghana

Tomorrow, our temporary assignment in Côte d’Ivoire comes to an end. Those who follow our ministry will remember that it came up suddenly back in March and Ed actually started as Director in April. We were given two goals – keep things running and work with a local committee to choose a new director. Time will judge how well or poorly we kept things running, but we are very sure that the new Director is the person God has chosen and that she will do a great job.

Ed handing over to Pierrette

Ed handing over to Pierrette

She has a Master Degree in Bible translation and has been responsible for the Bible translation department of her church for the last few years. She has also been a member of the board of the national Bible Society of Côte d’Ivoire and a member of the translation committee for her language, Abure. God’s call in her life to Bible translation is clear. During the orientation period I was repeatedly impressed that God has given her the amazing wisdom and the ability to judge situations.

We have a one-hour flights to Accra tomorrow. Back in Ghana, we plan to take at least a week off. Being responsible for the translation work for a whole country is a lot of responsibility. Added to that was the fact that Ed had to start cold and catch up with all that was going on and deal with some pressing issues which were emotionally draining. Thank you for your prayers during the last few months. Through the first two weeks of November, pray that the Lord will recharge us to 100%.

This is the great staff at the translation center in Abidjan. They do a great job.

This is the great staff at the translation center in Abidjan. They do a great job.