Africa loves to read and hear the Bible

A while back, a friend pointed me to an article about translating the Bible in Africa by one of Africa’s most well-known theologians – John Mbiti. Before launching into the main point of the article, Mbiti briefly assesses the impact of translations of the Bible in African languages. He writes that:

Reading the Bible in their language

Africa loves to read and hear the Bible read.

Thus, through its translation… the Bible is very present in Africa. In some ways, we find our traditional life reflected in it… It is wielding a tremendous impact on the Church and beyond… It is generating Biblical Christianity and invigorating Oral African Theology.

The Bible has found a home in Africa, and Africa has become a Biblical continent. Statistically the Bible has become very much an African book. Many African readers and hearers of the Bible spontaneously identify themselves with the Bible through its content of (ancient) Jewish culture, family traditions, farming, history, pastoral (livestock) life, persecutions, suffering, death rituals, and religiosity…

Paul Hema reads the Bible in front of his humble dwelling in Burkina Faso

Our neighbor reading the Bible in Bambara

At a deeper level, the translation from Biblical languages into local languages encourages creativity and the proliferation of oral theology. This has already been happening (in the field) spontaneously among the Christians, the laity and clergy, young and old, women and men, through their composition and use of local hymns, songs, and music, instead of, or in addition to imported Western hymns translated in Kiikamba. They sing everywhere with or mainly without instruments – in the fields, in buses, walking, fetching water, herding, at school, in Churches and market places. They say or give spontaneous prayers (at home and Church services), sermons or meditations, religious education (in schools, Sunday School and their homes), all produced in one’s mother tongue.

It is easy to visit churches in the big African cities, and even a number of the smaller ones, and conclude that Christianity in Africa is doing quite well using English or another European language. But the reality is different. Christianity in Africa has its roots in the Bible in African languages even if a number of Christians are now educated and practice much of their public worship in English or another European language. The goal of getting the Bible into all the languages of Africa is still relevant even as English spreads.

No new understanding

After the dedication of the Jamaican New Testament in Jamaica, a ceremony was organized in London to introduce it to the sizable Jamaican community there. The organizers didn’t know what kind of reaction they would get. After all, those attending would have an excellent command of English. In addition, some have been critical of doing a translation in the Jamaican language also called Patwa. Critics contend that the language is too crude and undeveloped for a translation.

As part of the ceremony in London, they read some short passages from the translation. The Jamaicans present shouted with joy. They all stood. They waved their arms and jumped some with eyes full of tears of joy.

This reaction is a bit surprising. After all, they were hearing passages they had heard in English many times. There was nothing new. They were not getting a first, new or better understanding because the passages are so well-known in English. The passages nevertheless had a dramatic, fresh effect when packaged in the heart language – their mother tongue.

That is interesting and moving, but is it important? I think so. After all, Jesus said we are to love God with all our heart, all our soul, and all our mind, implying that the soul and heart are as important as our understanding. Words that activate our emotions – that touch our hearts – are more likely to change our behavior and our thinking – to align our hearts with God’s. Without those effects, understanding isn’t worth much.

The Bible in the mother tongue goes so much deeper than mere understanding – just imagine those Jamaicans in London waving their arms and dancing around with eyes full of tears.

Too literate

Literacy class (photo: GILLBT, Rodney Ballard)

Those of you who follow this blog know that I write frequently about the impact of adult literacy in northern Ghana. Ever since I arrived in Ghana in 2010, I have heard all sorts of Ghanaians (farmers, doctors, pastors, clerks, doctors, and more) extoll the positive impact of adult literacy in northern Ghana. It is credited with effects as diverse as the spread of the Gospel, better opportunies for women, better education outcomes for schoolchildren, less conflict, and increased income. Many people who live in places where it has had great effects have pleaded for a resumption of the widespread literacy programs which were run in the 1990s.

It was way back in the early 1800s that widespread reading revolutionized the United States. For example, by 1822, more Americans read newspapers than anyone else. There were hundreds of newspapers with the largest having a circulation of about 4,000 readers. And the number of readers kept growing. From 1832 to 1836, the circulation of daily papers in New York City exploded from 18,000 to about 60,000. At that time the city’s population was less than 300,000, so one paper was sold for every five people – probably about one per family. Americans became the most literate people not just in the world but also in history.

Young woman in literacy class in Burkina Faso

We have been so literate for so long that we have forgotten what it is like to live in a pre-literate society; where key information is only available to you by word of mouth from someone who got it the same way, where you can’t track down the original source to verify the information, where you can’t read the Bible for yourself, where there are only a few people who can tell you what the Bible says and you might not know any of them, and where you can’t jot down a piece of information you will need later. I could go on and on.

Wycliffe and other translation agencies say that it is difficult to raise money for adult literacy. That’s probably the case, at least in part, because we are so literate that we can’t imagine the lives of those who can’t read and therefore we can’t imagine the benefits.

Efficiency’s limits

Efficiency is a mark of good missions and good charities. They use their money well. In biblical terms, they are good stewards of their resources. They take pains to measure their efficiency. A homeless shelter will count the number of people who use it. A mission doing Bible translation will count the number of languages into which it translates the Bible. A single translation program will track how many verses and books have been translated.

While efficiency is good, it is not nearly enough. For example, an addiction treatment center needs to track how many of its patients recover, not just how many go through the program. It is no good for it to say that it’s program is less expensive if few of its patients stay clean. That’s a waste of money too. Efficiency is no good without effectiveness.

It is good that we translate the Bible into more and more languages. I have always tried to make translation go faster and cost less. But more translations done faster and for less money must take second place to doing things so that those translated Bibles transform the communities for whom they were done.

The biggest factor determining whether a translation will be read and have impact is also the most difficult to influence – the attitudes of the people and their leaders toward the language. One study found that if church and mission leaders support the translation effort it will have wide impact, but if not people probably won’t ever even read it. The reasons why leaders and people might not favor a translation are so many and varied that can’t list them all, so here’s one example.

People might think that the language is defective or not unholy, as some Jamaicans believe about the Jamaican language, also known as Patois. This is not as uncommon as you might think. In the 14th and 15th centuries some people believed that English was not worthy of a translation.

In any case, there is no sense doing a translation into a language people think defective unless you are willing to put time and money into an effort to change those attitudes. We have a less serious version of this issue in Ghana where some church leaders and pastors think that translation into Ghanaian languages is quaint and useless, even though people at the grassroots support it. So the Ghanaian organization I work for focuses communication showing the benefits on the leaders. It’s working.

Writing the language in a way that is easier to read makes impact more likely

In other cases, efficiency and effectiveness align. Doing a translation faster, for example, generally results in people looking on the translations with favor. I have seen translation programs advance so slowly that people started making fun of them.

In general, the Ghanaians I work with are more concerned about effectiveness than are Westerners like me. While Westerners are more focused on efficiency. This sometimes results in tensions between the Ghanaians I work with and Westerners who fund translation. The side with the money has the advantage, causing efficiency to sometimes get more attention than effectiveness.

Getting to know the “other”

One of the most commonly proposed solutions for prejudice and bigotry is getting to know “the other”. This solution presupposes that we are suspicious of those we don’t know, or that false ideas about others will be dispelled by getting to know them. There is no doubt that this works for individuals. I have heard people say that their fear or concern about people of a different race or religion was dispelled when they got to know someone personally.

As well as this seems to work in individual cases, it fails with whole populations. There are many examples. The genocide in Rwanda was perpetrated by Hutus on Tutsis. But the Hutus and Tutsis live side by side. They speak the same language and are mostly indistinguishable. In many cases, Hutus killed their Tutsi neighbors they had known well for decades.

Furthermore, this is not an anomaly nor is in confined to Africa. In most of the cases of violent conflict between groups of people in Africa with which I am aware, are characterized by close contact and mutual knowledge. The book Anatomy of a Genocide: The Life and Death of a Town Called Buczacz by Omer Bartov documents a case in Europe. Bartov is a professor of history at Brown University. He notes that the close relations between two groups can actually be part of the problem.

“You can take a society in which people had lived together for centuries, and that very proximity, that very relationship between neighbors can have a dynamic of violence and self-justification,”

Knowing the other is sometimes the problem. Just ask couples going through an acrimonious divorce. So getting to know the other is a naive bromide, perhaps even snake oil.

But there is something that works, at least in Ghana. In the southern parts of Ghana, the north has a somewhat deserved reputation as a place of conflict between its many peoples, of which there are about 30. In some cases those conflicts have turned deadly. In recent years, some of those peoples have received the first ever Bible in their languages. Dr Solomon Sule-Saa has done research into the effects of those translations. He found that people who read the Bible in their language are much more likely to promote non-violent solutions to conflicts over land or other resources. The result is less conflict. Where close contact generates conflict, the Bible is helping to calm it.

By the way, there is a widespread belief in Africa that if everyone spoke the same language there would be less conflict. That belief is also contradicted by the facts.

Ghana statement

The Ghanaian organization I work with recently issued the following statement:

We believe mother tongue literacy and the word of God in our mother tongue is the most effective way to build vibrant churches and transform our societies.

Because I work with organization, I thought it would be good to unpack it. After all, my work (like that of all the staff) is predicated on this belief and contributes toward accomplishing the things it implies.

The statement is important because some Ghanaians think that their languages are of little importance or use. Some even think that their languages only serve to promote the backward practices of the past. Those with that opinion mostly live in the cities and haven’t seen the impact of translation and literacy in the rest of the country. It is a sad thing, but a number of Africans believe that their languages and traditions have nothing to contribute to the Gospel or the good of their continent. They believe this to their detriment. This is especially sad when pastors insist on preaching and teaching in a language not adequately mastered by their congregations. So there is a need to help them understand things differently. I used to be a lot more involved in communicating this message but it is now in capable Ghanaian hands.

Note also that the statement includes both spiritual (vibrant churches) and temporal (transform our societies) elements. I believe that these are stated as two elements because in English there aren’t words to combine them. The Ghanaians I work with see both as one inseparable process. If the church is vibrant, society is being transformed. They both grow from the same root. The light of a vibrant church cannot be hidden. But the light of a church using a language people don’t master is usually dim, not vibrant.

You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.
Matthew 5:14-16

Note also that the statement sees two things as fundamental to transformation:

  • The Bible in the mother tongue
  • Literacy in the mother tongue

My Ghanaian colleagues like to say that literacy is the key that unlocks the Bible. Without it, translations have limited impact. Fortunately, running adult literacy classes in the mother tongue is relatively easy and cost-effective.

Finally, note the idea of transformation. All Africans I have met want their continent to change. They are dissatisfied with how it is, all while most are proud to be African. My Ghanaian colleagues see this happening as transformation (build on what is good, carefully replace what is not), not as revolution (throwing out the old and replacing it with entirely new things).

It’s like one of my favorite jokes.

A man was lost driving in New England. He stopped at a small store to get directions. When he said where he was going, there was a pause and then the proprietor said: “Well, if I were going there, I wouldn’t start here.”

Just like you have to start a trip somewhere, so a community can only move toward Christ from the place it finds itself. When that move starts with something fundamental to the community (their mother tongue), and enabled by helpful imports (literacy and the Bible) good things happen.

Ghanaian mustard tree

In Matthew chapter 13, Jesus gives a series of parables about his Kingdom. We might consider them an window into God’s action in this world. Here are two of them.
Then Jesus said, “What is the Kingdom of God like? How can I illustrate it? It is like a tiny mustard seed that a man planted in a garden; it grows and becomes a tree, and the birds make nests in its branches.” He also asked, “What else is the Kingdom of God like? It is like the yeast a woman used in making bread. Even though she put only a little yeast in three measures of flour, it permeated every part of the dough.” – Luke 13:18-21

These parables present God’s action in the world as something that starts small and grows big, and as something that starts small and then permeates everything. This contrasts to the idea that God’s action in this world consists of big spectacular events. Big spectacular events are like tsunamis; they create lots of change. But even more change is created by the slow ebb and flow of water that causes erosion, digs riverbeds, carves gullies and canyons, and builds deltas. The tsunami seems more powerful only because it happens fast. .

Religious map of Ghana: Green is most Christian, red is least

Missionaries first came to Ghana in the early 19th century. They struggled. Not many Ghanaians were receptive to their message. But the missionaries learned the languages, translated the Bible, and trained the few that responded. They published the Bible in the Ga language in 1866, followed by the Twi Bible in 1874, and the Ewe Bible in 1914. By that time they had been in Ghana for about 80 years and still few had responded to the Gospel. Things begin to change in the early 20th century. And change they did. From 1900 to 1960 Ghana went from 5% to 60% Christian. The percentage is much higher still in the areas where the Bible had been translated.

The process looked nothing like a tsunami. The day-to-day changes were almost imperceptible. Certainly the hour-to-hour changes were. Nevertheless, the mustard seed has grown into a very large tree and the yeast has permeated the whole loaf, just as Jesus explained.

Barrier to bridge

For many people, most perhaps, the fact that there are 7,000 languages spoken in the world today is a problem. Wouldn’t everything be a lot easier if everyone spoke the same Language?

Missionaries and churches have sometimes taken the approach that languages are a barrier, refusing to use them for worship or evangelism. Instead they use a regional, dominant, or official language. Dr. Harriet Hill and Dr. Lamin Sanneh have pointed out that this often leads to stagnation of the Christian faith.

It has become more and more common for missionaries to see languages as a bridge rather than as a barrier. In fact, seeing languages as a bridge has become so common that we can speak of a paradigm shift in missions. One very large international mission agency even shifted all of its work away from dominant languages to local languages when the saw the success of the latter approach.

Langauge Map of Ghana

Langauge Map of Ghana

Unfortunately churches lag behind missions in this paradigm shift. Their members may have a vested political economic, educational, tribal, or other interest in maintaining the dominant language. Also they are generally not aware of the successes of ministry based on the idea that every language is a bridge between the people and the Gospel.

In Ghanaian churches we sometimes encounter skepticism of the value of translating the Bible into the lesser known languages of the country. If the problem is that they lack information, they quickly change their minds once they are informed. On the other hand, things are more difficult if they have a vested interest in maintaining the dominant language. Language is often highly political.

So, our goal of mobilizing the churches in Ghana for translation addresses both the need for information and the need to moderate some political positions.

Naaman and healing in Africa

In July 2018, I attended a conference on the topic of the Old Testament in Africa. One speaker, Professor Kpobi, gave examples of how the Old Testament brings helpful corrections to some problems and excesses that are arising in Christianity in Africa. Among the examples he gave was the story of the healing of Naaman.

In African traditional culture, the person wanting healing would have to go through an ordeal. The purpose of the ordeal is to show that they are serious. So the healer might ask the person to bring the tongue of lion, or some other very difficult thing. The ordeal might also involve the person drinking something dangerous. But the story of Naaman shows that the prophet demands no ordeal at all. Dipping in the Jordan river is not an ordeal. In fact, it is so much the anti-ordeal that Naaman balks. African Christian healers who demand ordeals may not realize it, but they are borrowing from their African traditional religion and not from the Scriptures.

Professor David Kpobi of Trinity Seminary, Accra, giving his presentation

In South Africa, some people became very ill after a Christian healer told them that they must drink gasoline. The Old Testament stories of healing bring correction to such practices.

Bibles in church

In 2017, the Ghanaian organization I work with (GILLBT) received a letter from a pastor of a congregation composed of believers from the Buli language. Here’s the gist of that letter:

This is to inform you that last Sunday during the Bible study period, we noticed an unusual thing that about half of the adults had their Buli Bible and each was eager to read whenever a reference was made. It was so good and pleasant to see that. I wish to say thank you GILLBT for this wonderful thing you have done. Long live GILLBT.

This is amazing for three reasons.

First, far fewer than half of Buli adults can read. In fact it’s probably less than one in five. It is likely that many of the people in church got there through a literacy class.

Second, the church in question is in Accra, a long distance from the area where the Buli language is spoken. Historically, people moving out of their area to a city learn the language of the city in order to find work and interact with their neighbors. Quite a few people, including pastors planting churches, think that local languages are therefore irrelevant to church planting in cities. It turns out that the opposite is often true – that local languages are very effective in evangelism of people newly-arrived from rural areas.

Third, because these believers can read, they have much better job opportunities. The effects are obvious. Christians do better economically than other recent, uneducated rural people moving to cities.

Lastly, these Christians will not be swayed by false teaching because they check everything the preacher says from their Bibles. By the way, the Buli Bible was dedicated two years ago this week.