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.

The fire

Old Presbyterian church in Ghana

For over a week, every time I looked at the news I saw something about the fire at the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris. Presidents and newspapers made pronouncements about the significance of the cathedral and therefore the depth of the tragedy. With a few notable exceptions, the pronouncements spoke almost exclusively of Notre Dame’s artistic, cultural and historical significance. It’s spiritual or religious significance were downplayed or even completely overlooked, especially by the mainstream media.

And yet I don’t blame the media. They are reflecting the secularization of the media and of Europe (even though they are out of step with continuing religiosity in the US and most of the world). European tourists entering Notre Dame very rarely do so to think about God or faith. They are primarily interested in Notre Dame’s history and architecture.

This points to a simple fact – Churches don’t perpetuate our faith. There’s nothing wrong with church buildings. But there is something wrong with us if we expect from them what they cannot or should not offer.

Open-air church meeting

When addressing the religious and intellectual leaders of Athens, Paul said of God:

Since he is Lord of heaven and earth, he doesn’t live in man-made temples, and human hands can’t serve his needs—for he has no needs. Acts 17:23-24

Buildings will eventually crumble. Seminaries and Bible schools will close. The languages in which they teach might even die, rendering the books in their libraries antiquities of interest only to scholars who consult them in tightly controlled academic libraries. All that we construct, whether churches or organizations, will eventually disappear. Only two things in this world are eternal: people and God’s Word. Those two things carry faith to the next generation. They should be our primary ministry focus because the rest is just going to burn up.

Since everything around us is going to be destroyed like this, what holy and godly lives you should live, looking forward to the day of God and hurrying it along. On that day, he will set the heavens on fire, and the elements will melt away in the flames. But we are looking forward to the new heavens and new earth he has promised, a world filled with God’s righteousness. – 2 Peter 3:11-13

Literacy and social mobility

Korle-Bu teaching hospital and medical school, Ghana

Some time ago, I had an interesting conversation with a Ghanaian Christian doctor. He told me about a young doctor he met. When he learned that the young doctor was from the Upper West Region, he asked him if his parents were literate. He asked because Upper West Region has significant poverty rates and low education levels. A young person from that Region only becomes a doctor or other professional is he or she comes from educated parents.

The young doctor said that his parents were not literate. This was was surprising, so he pressed the young Doctor further. He learned that although the young man’s parents had never been to school they did read the Bible in their language. They had attended an adult literacy class run by the Ghanaian organisation I work for.

What this shows, my acquaintance told me, is social mobility through the Gospel. Uneducated parents who have learned to read in their own languages send their children to school and can help them succeed. I know other cases like this. So we are now seeing young professionals in unprecedented numbers from the most disadvantaged parts of Ghana and, unexpectedly, from families where the parents themselves never received an education.

Photo: GILLBT, Rodney Ballard

My acquaintance and the young doctor are both faithful Christians. For the young doctor, this is due on no small part to his parents becoming Christians through reading the Bible in their own language. For my acquaintance, this shows the power of the Gospel at work. He believes that the development of his country does not come through building things, but rather through creating faithful, servant-hearted citizens through the power of the Gospel. That’s why he volunteers his time to help translate the Bible into all Ghana’s langauges.

“If you follow my decrees and are careful to obey my commands, I will send you the seasonal rains. The land will then yield its crops, and the trees of the field will produce their fruit. Your threshing season will overlap with the grape harvest, and your grape harvest will overlap with the season of planting grain. You will eat your fill and live securely in your own land. – Leviticus 26:3-5

As good as translation

Alphabet chart in a previously unwritten language – the Lika language of the Congo

Sometime ago we asked people in various parts of Ghana what they liked about the Bible translation program going on in their language. As you can imagine, many responded that they like having the Bible in their language. One person called it an “eye opener”.

Surprisingly, many people felt that something else was as important as the translation. That is being able to read and write their language. Here are the top three answers to the question of what they liked about the translation work being done in their languages, they gave:
#1 Having an alphabet
#2 Having the Bible in my language
#3 Literacy

They love it that their language has an alphabet. They feel that brings their language into the modern era and gives it respect. They see the many benefits that being able to read and write their language brings them in daily life.

Man readying the Bible in his language. Photo GILLBT, Rodney Ballard

We tend to see the development of a writing system for a language as a hurdle to overcome before getting to translation. For us the writing of the language is a kind of beneficial side effect. But the communities where we work see it as a very good thing all by itself. Having grown up with writing all around us, I think we have forgotten how magical it is; whereas they are experiencing it for the very first time.

It’s kind of nice – producing something people love and need as a by-product.

Long tail phenomenon

The long tail phenomenon was first described by Chris Anderson who has written a book about it. It’s gets its name from the shape of the graph that is created when you chart certain kinds of data. Mr. Anderson uses it to describe and predict how products sell online. But it turns out that lots of things have long tails, including the languages of the world. If we chart languages by the number of people who speak them, we get a long tail.

This is because there are a very few languages which are the mother tongue of lots of people. They form the spike on the left of the chart. Then there are lots of smaller languages. With just 10 languages, you can reach over 75 percent of internet users. The remaining 25 percent use the Internet in thousands of languages.

There are 7,097 languages spoken in the world. Just 23 of them are the heart language (mother tongue) of half the world’s population! They form the spike on the left. The other half of the population speak 7,074 languages. At the end of the tail are 467 languages spoken by a total of 12,758 people. That’s 27 people per language on average. These are mostly dying languages spoken only by a few older people. In fact, the tail gets so thin that I had to exaggerate its thickness in the graph to get it to show at all.

It’s the languages in the middle that come into focus for Bible translation. The biggest languages already have a translation and dying languages don’t need one. But about 1 billion people speak languages that are not dying and which do not have the Bible. The average size of their languages is 220, 000. A very few are large but many are smaller precisely because of the long tail phenomenon.

Several passages in the Bible, including the parable of the lost sheep, tell us that God cares for those in the long tail.

The Lord did not set his heart on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other nations, for you were the smallest of all nations! (Deuteronomy 7:7 NLT)

What did I learn?

I recently traveled to Ghana for three weeks. Before I left, several people asked me what I would do there. It’s a great question. My top priority question is a bit different – what will I learn? That might be something new, or it might be something old that is confirmed or given a new twist.

So what did I learn during my trip?

Committee members and translator meeting with a regional coordinator

I learned that the initiative we set up to make language committees more effective is progressing slowly and we don’t know all the reasons why. These committees of volunteers are key to the success and impact of the Bible translations in their communities. We thought that some encouragement and clarification would make them more active, but that’s only happening for some. We don’t understand why. I think that we need to dialog with them to figure out what needs to be done. (link to more about committees)

I learned that it’s difficult to predict and plan. We restarted a number of stalled Old Testament translation programs. We knew that they each had draft translations of a few Old Testament books they had done in their spare time over the years. So we planned to take those drafts quickly through the remaining quality controls and distribute them. But the translators said that the translations needed to be reviewed first. They felt that the quality and accuracy of the translations had suffered from the slow and haphazard translation process. It will be interesting to see if they are right. We’ll know if they make significant changes. If they are right, we may have found a weaknesses with translation done by part-time volunteers. Then the question will then be cost effectiveness – does it take so much time to review the translations that one might as well start over, or will the review go quickly making the part-time translations cost and time effective?

I learned that it is worthwhile to occasionally and politely make a point in which I firmly believe. I have been making one such point once or twice a year since I came to Ghana in 2011. There was little interest. But now I find changes happening that match my suggestion. That might not have happened if I had given up or started denouncing the leadership publicly or behind the scenes. Besides, I can see that now is actually an excellent time to implement the idea, better than when I proposed it.

I learned that there is a phrase for common sense in the Akan language. I saw it on the back of a tro-tro (a van used as public transport). The words literally mean “home wisdom” (efie nyansa). A Ghanaian colleague explained to me the that it refers to a kind of wisdom one doesn’t get from school and which highly educated people sometimes lack. Sounds like common sense to me. People from very different races, cultures and nationalities share certain ideas, like common sense, something postmodern race theory appears to overlook or greatly minimize.

Easter dancing at church

I was reminded again of the frustration felt by Africans when programs which have enormous positive impact in their communities loose their funding from foreign sources. At the same time, I understand the rational of the foreign sources for moving on to something else. It appears that some frustrations don’t have answers, at least none anyone has discovered yet.

I was also reminded that part of the Easter celebration is dancing before the Lord (and the whole congregation) after church, even at a Baptist church.

Lastly, I was reminded that many Ghanaians are like some of my American friends – they complain about the poor quality of government work, like roads, all while wanting the government to do more.

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.

Liturgy and translation

I grew up in a non-liturgical church. I was an adult before I attended in service in a liturgical church. When I got to Africa I found that there are quite a few liturgical churches here.

Presbyterian church in southern Ghana

For any of you haven’t experienced a liturgical church, one of their features is that they read a lot of Scripture during the service. In fact, many liturgical churches have a fixed set of readings that take them through much of the bible every couple years. Every Sunday, they read several different types of scriptures. For example, they might read a passage each from the Old Testament , Psalms , an Epistle , and the Gospels. Not long ago, I attended a liturgical church in rural Ghana. In the course of the service, five longish passages were read, first in a regional language, then in the language of the congregation. In another church service, the reading went on for 20 minutes.

This kind of worship is very well adapted to places where many of those attending church do not know how to read. For them, the liturgy is the only time during the week that they hear the Scriptures. In contrast, those attending a non liturgical church may hear only a few verses each Sunday, and they may get no overview of Scripture in spite of attending church for years.

In places where the Bible has not yet been translated, liturgical churches read the Bible in another language which sometimes is not well understood by the congregation. These churches are often the most ardent supporters the translation effort

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