Language and Ideas

A couple years back I attended a public lecture in Accra. It was given by a Ghanaian academic. The thing is, he is also a village chief. One of the things that is different about Ghana is the fact that a number of chiefs are highly educated. They might be academics as this man, or high level civil servants, or business people. Apparently, some villages in Ghana want their chief to be able to interface with the outside world.

At one point, the lecturer talked about language. He said that some of his subjects come to him speaking English and say things like “Your Highness”. He responds by asking them to say that phrase in their language, but they can’t. He said that if one of this subjects cannot translate things they say in English into their language, this is a good sign that they really don’t understand the thing that they are saying.

I have actually seen this first hand. I was helping a young man study for an exam he had to pass to get a diploma. As is the case for many Africans, he was studying and learning in the official language which was not his mother tongue and he was learning that language as he learned the other subjects. He would read and study in the official language, then come to me with things he didn’t understand. One day he came to me with a question in a sample exam. He knew the answer, but there was still a problem. He said that he knew that the answer was “The earth turns on it’s axis every 24 hours.” The thing is, he said that he had no idea what that meant. He knew that he could go to the exam an get questions like that right, but he also knew that he really wouldn’t understand what he was writing. As I started explaining, I found that I had to back all the way up to the fact that the earth is a sphere. I think, or at least hope, that he went away knowing what his answers meant.

Because many people go to school and learn in the official language which they don’t speak at home or in their community, and they are learning that language as they learn other subjects, then can learn to say something that they don’t understand, misunderstand or only partially understand. So it is possible to carry on an intelligible, coherent conversation with someone and find out later that they didn’t understand it, or understood it differently than you did. People can learn religious jargon without understanding it or without understanding it well. If you ask then to say the same thing in their language, they can’t. If someone doesn’t know how to say “Jesus is Lord” or “human rights” in their language, that’s a sign that they might not really understand the phrase when they say it in the official language.

Mind you, there is a layer of educated people who understand perfectly what they say in the official language. But that layer can be very thin in some places.

The lecturer-chief is on to something. He saw clearly the limitations of the official language. The lecture was in the official language, so obviously he thinks that it has it uses. But he is not naive enough to think that “Everyone speaks English”, because he knows that some who appear to speak English and who think they do, really don’t. We can’t build solid Christians and churches on a language people only seem to master.

Unprecedented

That’s my new unfavored word. Today, I saw it misused again in a publication that should know better. It should mean something that’s never happened before. In these narcissistic times, it seems to mean something we have never experienced, or perhaps even something the person saying it has not personally experienced.

We don’t need to go back very far in time to find plagues that clearly eclipse even the worst case scenarios for Covid-19. We only need to go back a few years and to a place that is a direct flight from DC and NY (West Africa) to find a much deadlier plague – the Ebola outbreak in Liberia and Guinea. Ebola kills between 40 and 90 percent of its victims including the healthy young.

I personally lived through AIDS spreading in Africa before there was treatment. An acquaintance came to see me. He showed me the thrush in his mouth and told me about his weight loss and constant diarrhea; a constellation of symptoms that presume AIDS according to experts. I could help him a bit, but do nothing to stop the illness. About a week later, he was gone. We knew a couple both diagnosed with AIDS. They had two children who ended up orphans. Colleagues took charge of them.

I lived through a meningitis epidemic that killed multiple thousands all around us. The hospital grounds were strewn with patients laying on the ground, their IVs hung from trees. We had no fear because we were vaccinated. We had helped some friends get vaccinated, but one nevertheless lost a baby too young for vaccination.

I don’t think that I am callous. Instead, I have had a unpleasant truth about life and the world shoved into my view; a truth from which many Americans have been shielded, most thankfully. That shield allows them to believe that events are unprecedented when they were in fact common to human experience throughout history, and they are still part of life in some places even today. Some bibleless peoples experience these “unprecedented” events on a regular basis. Plagues are not events lost in ancient and Bible history.

Does it matter? So what if we think things unprecedented when they aren’t? In a way, it doesn’t matter. But you should reconsider your assessment if it scares you that a situation seems unprecedented. Be assured that God has taken those he loves through problems as bad and worse. In fact, he does so regularly. He’ll be there this time too.

Let me suggest: https://www.christianpost.com/news/jd-greear-god-is-using-coronavirus-to-wake-us-up-to-fragility-of-the-world.html

The ideal body in Ghana

Typically, African painting is highly stylized. (Image courtesy of MaxPixel)

I was stopped at a stoplight in Accra where hawkers were selling things to the motorists. Two men were carrying poster-sized, framed paintings of African women, one woman in each painting. They were in a style I would call boudoir; that is they sexualized the female form without nudity. The ladies had on dresses that covered them in terms of what was covered, but not how it was covered. The fabric was clingy and thin. They were obviously intended to be alluring. But the ladies were quite different from those in such paintings or photos found in the US. First the women were decidedly plus sizes. Firm muscle was not in evidence, nor were six-packs. The ladies’ hips and thighs were especially ample and took a prominent place in the paintings.

The paintings depicted the ideal feminine form according to most Ghanaians.

When I saw those paintings, my thoughts went to an article I had just read stating that most young ladies in the US feel bad about their bodies. I wondered if those young ladies know that the the perfect body is not an absolute, but is defined by fickle culture. If they lived in a different place or time they would measure their own physique against a very different standard. It’s actually sad to put oneself into voluntary slavery to any societal standard without question.

Romans 12:1-2 calls us to transform our thinking. Part of that is seeing this world’s standards and judgments as fancies and fads that change from place to place and from time to time.

Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect.

Romans 12:2

Process and results

Tunesia (courtesy NASA)

Bible translators are very concerned about method and process, and rightfully so. Long experience tells us that following a rigorous process yields a good translation most of the time. Whereas ignoring process almost always results in a poor translation. One of the quickest ways to improve an under-performing translation effort is to examine the translators’ process and make changes to bring it in line with best practice.

Because a healthy obsession with process works so well, translators can be tempted to try the same process approach in other areas. One of those is the use and impact of the finished translation. This is fueled by research into what causes some translations to be widely used while others to pile up in storerooms. While that research is helpful, it’s easy to turn that research into a process and then believe that rigidly following it will guarantee that the translation will be enthusiastically received by slavish adherence to the right process and then bring spiritual revival.

But the research tells us that what creates impact and transformation varies. It also seems to tell us what is necessary to promote acceptance and use, but not what will guarantee those desired results. If I don’t put gas in my car, it will stop. But if I do put gas in it, it will stop anyway if something breaks. Gas is necessary but not sufficient.

Jesus said:

The wind blows wherever it wants. Just as you can hear the wind but can’t tell where it comes from or where it is going, so you can’t explain how people are born of the Spirit.” – John 3:8

In my understanding, this verse means that there will never be a sure-fire process for results in missions. There are no magic bullets. We shouldn’t say “If we do this, then we will see results” like a some kind of strange combination of social science and Harry Potter incantation.

Chile / South America (courtesy NASA)

There’s a great illustration of this where deserts meet the ocean. One would think that it would be impossible to have a desert next to a large body of water, but it happens with some frequency in places as diverse as Chile, Mauretania, Namibia and the Arabian Peninsula. Likewise, We can bring the water of our well-studied ministry process next to people and still end up with a fruitless desert.

Effective ministry requires listening for the Spirit speaking into, even sometimes breaking into and disrupting, our well-engineered processes. On occasion, I have sometimes seen amazing results when the experts’ processes were intentionally dropped in favor of a process proposed by people who had no experience at all in translation but who knew their context.

Arabian Peninsula (courtesy NASA)

Personal loan

I have written before that culture is not just the outward stuff – food and clothing. Nor is it just the art – dance, music, carving, etc. Culture governs human relationships. Anyone working in a culture not their own is wise to learn and continue learning about that culture.

euro-427533_640

Let’s imagine a situation where I give someone a small personal loan. But that person never comes to me to repay it. After a long while, I get frustrated and confront the person that the loan is long overdue. my debtor is offended and our relationship is now strained. If this imaginary scenario took place in some places I have worked, I as the creditor would be responsible for the bad outcome. The reason for this is one small but crucial difference between my culture and the local culture when it comes to personal loans.

In some places where I have worked, the person who receives the loan is not expected to spontaneously repay it. Instead, it is expected that the person who gave the loan will go to the other person and ask for repayment. In fact, if the person giving the loan does not ask take the initiative to ask for repayment, the person who got the loan will probably assume that the loan has been forgiven.

So in the story above, my debtor probably assumed that the loan had been long forgiven, and was then shocked to learn that I considered it long overdue. He feels badly treated. He feels that if I were polite and respectful, I would have come and asked for repayment when I expected or needed it instead of waiting till I felt it was overdue. For him, my behavior is unpredictable, and lacking ordinary human courtesy.

I now have strained or broken a relationship because I gave out a personal loan without taking the time to understand how personal loans work in the culture. This is just one of the ways that studying culture helps a missionary be a good person as defined locally.

Titles and emotions

The street in front of our home in Ouagadouogu

The street in front of our home in Ouagadouogu

In Ouagadougou on the street where we lived, I was known as “Matthew baba” – Matthew’s father. A few people knew my name, but everyone knew Matthew baba.

In his book “The Human Condition: Christian Perspectives Through African Eyes“, Joe Kapolyo writes about how Africa’s feel about this practice:

We feel very dignified when upon the birth of our first child all our relatives and acquaintances cease to address us by the use of our name and instead use the term ‘father or mother of …’ In later years, the names of grandchildren add even greater dignity.

Antoine Yegbe who became known as

Antoine Yegbe who became known as “Our consultant” during this workshop on translating Romans

I have seen this over and over. It is part of a general preference in many places in Africa for titles over names. During a workshop on translation, the workshop leader might come to be referred to as “our consultant”. If there is a way to call a person by a title instead of a name, my African friends will find it. And the titles don’t have to be official. They’ll invent one, like “our consultant” for the occasion.

Culture determines the emotional content of behavior. As Kapolyo writes “We feel very dignified …” It is my experience that titles often add elements of affection, belonging, and/or dignity.

The leader of a workshop isn’t just “consultant” but “our consultant”. The titles “father of” or “mother of” are very personal titles, unlike “president” or “major”.

the-human-conditionWe Americans experience titles as stuffy and formal. While Africans can and do use titles to show formal respect, they also use them in informal and family settings to show a combination of personal attachment and loving consideration that is hard to replicate in my own culture. I see newly arrived Americans (and unfortunately some who have been around for long enough that they should know better) react to African use of titles as if they carried the same formality as titles do in American culture.

In one case that became infamous in the place where it happened, an American woman reacted severely to being called “our mother” by retorting “I’m NOT your mother!”. But there, as in many places in Africa, mother, father, aunt and uncle are widely used as terms of loving inclusion and respect far beyond their strict biological meanings.

Understanding culture and living harmoniously in it is not just about understanding it in our heads. It’s about getting into the emotional content of its practices. And that sometimes mean rewiring our emotions to experience a cultural practice the way the people do, or at least making an effort to do so.

Emmanuel

Christmas is about God being with us.

“Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us). – Matthew 1:23

Then the New Year is about going into the unknown, which seems an odd thing to celebrate, when you think about it. But with Immanuel, it all works.

And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year:

“Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”

And he replied:

“Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God.

That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.”

So I went forth, and finding the Hand of God, trod gladly into the night. (Excerpt of “God Knows” by Minnie Louise Haskins)

When we first went to live in rural Africa, some thought that was imprudent. We have always believed that going where God leads with him is safer than than going somewhere that seems safer without him.

Loyalty

For a few years I served on the board of an international non-profit incorporated in North Carolina. The board chair had an attorney come can tell the board members what North Carolina law says about the duty of board members. He said that the primary duty of a board member is loyalty and that all other duties flow from that duty.

By loyalty, the law means that board members have to do what’s best for the organization. They can’t be loyal to themselves and use the organization for personal gain. Nor can they be loyal to anything else to the detriment of the organization on whose board they sit. If they find themselves in such a conflict of interest, they have to declare it and if necessary recuse themselves.

As board members we had to put the interests of the organization first in all our deliberations.

I have been writing in the paragraphs above about the duty of loyalty to the organization, but the attorney said that the board’s loyalty was not to the organization, but rather to the mission of the organization. All non-profits exist for a purpose – they have a mission. If that mission can best be accomplished by dissolving the non-profit organization, for example, then the board members must make that decision. They cannot be loyal to the organization itself above its purpose or mission.

That made sense to me. In fact, it caused me to realize, belatedly, that putting my loyalty to purpose/mission ahead of organization had caused me problems in the past, especially when I assumed that others automatically see the difference. A person loyal to the mission can be perceived as disloyal to the organization.

It’s easy for a missionary to become loyal to certain people, to a place, or to their organization, even when one of those loyalties starts to undermine the mission’s very purpose and spiritual life. Some people even become loyal to a methodology whereas loyalty to the purpose/mission of the organization demands that outdated and less effective methods be replaced. I have seen all of these loyalties and some of them recently again. I have seen them all compromise the purpose, the effectiveness and sometimes even the existence of Christian organizations, and occasionally even a person’s loyalty to our Lord. Missionaries are as susceptible to misplaced loyalty as anyone.

I used to think that loyalty was hard, but it’s easy. In fact, it’s natural. What’s hard is knowing when to put aside lesser loyalties, and most importantly being loyal to the right thing and especially the Right Person.

If you want to be my disciple, you must, by comparison, hate everyone else—your father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even your own life. Otherwise, you cannot be my disciple (Luke 14:26 NLT)

Who wears what?

Overflow seating at Korle Bu

I attended the 50th anniversary of the Korle Bu Community church in Accra. This church that has contributed to many different Christian ministries and churches in Ghana. At one time, all of the key evangelical ministries in Ghana had ties to this church including the organization Dayle and I work for, GILLBT. The church has consistently supported Bible translation through the years. It continues to support all kinds of missions and to run effective outreach into the community.

Man in tunic who prayed. You can see the preacher in his blue and white grand boubou behind on the platform to the left and others on the platform in suits and ties

At the event, which was a Sunday worship service, I saw something I have seen many times in Ghana, everybody was all dressed up, but each in his or her own way. The dress of the men was especially varied. The Master of Ceremonies was in a suit and tie. The Reverend who gave the main sermon was dressed in a grand boubou which is sometimes associated with Ghana’s other main religion. His boubou was made from the church anniversary cloth and decorated with the traditional embroidery. At least one other man in the congregation was also wearing a grand boubou. A prayer was offered by a main in a tunic, a style of dress also frequently worn by people following Ghana’s other main religion.

Other men in the congregation were sporting suits, slacks and dress shirts and a smattering of the traditional Ghanaian smock. So much for certain garments meaning that one belongs to a certain religion.

For the Kingdom of God is not a matter of what we eat or drink (or wear), but of living a life of goodness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. (Romans 14:17 NLT, parenthesis mine)

Ed in his Ghana smock

Mamadou Tanja, then President of Niger, dressed in a grand boubou visiting the White House in June 2005

First Heart Transplant

It probably seems strange to feature a heart transplant on this blog about Bible translation in Africa. Unlikely as it may seem, there are two links between the two; the first being Africa the second being an African language.

Groote Schuur Hospital

Those of you old enough to remember the first heart transplant may have forgotten that it took place in Africa, South Africa to be precise. It was performed by Dr. Christiaan Neethling Barnard at the Groote Schuur Hospital in Cape Town in December 1967.

The second link is language; in this case Afrikaans. That language was created with the influx of a large number of Dutch settlers beginning in 1652. They spoke Dutch, of course. Because they were influential, people around them started learning and speaking Dutch, albeit imprefectly. Plus, the settlers encountered plants and animals for which there was no Dutch name, so their names were borrowed from native languages. These forces eventually simplified and changed the Dutch spoken by the settlers creating a new language, Afrikaans, which is now spoken about 10 million people and is one of the official languages of South Africa.

Dr. Barnard grew up speaking Afrikaans at home and school. In fact, he did all his primary and secondary schooling in Africaans, only learning English once he got to university. So the first heart transplant was done in Africa by a man whose mother tongue was a language of Africa and who did much of his schooling in that language.

In light of this, it is rather silly to think that Africans would be better off to abandon their languages and speak English. Instead, I predict that they will do like Dr. Barnard and speak both – one for matters of family, community and the heart, and the other for work and their professional life. In fact, I know many Africans who do exactly that. And like Dr. Barnard and my African friends, that won’t hurt their professional achievements, not even one little bit.

So Bible translations in African languages will be continue to be widely used including by those who master English perfectly in their professional lives. In other words, they won’t undergo a language transplant.