Tired of the Bible

One day back when we lived and worked in Burkina Faso, I found myself traveling through a town where the Bible was being translated into the local language. The translation was being done by another organization, but I knew the translators – a  great team of local men. So I stopped to see them and perhaps encourage them. I found them busy in their translation office. It was great to spend a few minutes with them finding out how they were and how the translation was going.

imageWhen I asked what book they were translating, the said Job. When I asked how that was going, they looked completely fatigued, their shoulders drooped, they hung their heads and one of them mumbled in the feeble voice of an old man. “We are so tired of the philosophy of Job’s friends.”

I get it. When reading Job I’m tempted to read the first two chapters then skip the next 39 to finish with chapter 42. If reading chapters 3 through 41 can be tiresome, can you imagine translating sentences like this day after day?

For with sons of the field is thy covenant (Job 5:23 YLT)

The by-word of American culture these days appears to be “exciting”. Everything is supposed to be exciting. Exciting is good. Boring is bad. Tiring is, well, tiring. But, I think that those Bible translators from Burkina Faso were on to something. Maybe fatigue is an appropriate response to the unbroken flow of mistaken opinions from Job’s friends. After all, they made God angry:

The Lord said to Eliphaz: What my servant Job has said about me is true, but I am angry at you and your two friends for not telling the truth. (Job 42:7 CEV)

God has emotions. When God speaks to us through his Word, that can cause an emotional response. Let’s not think that only certain emotions are allowed – that we have to have only “holy” emotions. I find it instructive that those translators found the opinions of Job’s friends to be tiring. God wants our honest reactions to his Word.

Comfortable in ambiguity

Village in Burkina Faso near Banfora

Village in Burkina Faso near the town of Banfora

Not long after arriving in Africa, I was visiting people in the rural area where I was living. I came across a group of men eating. They invited me to eat with them. I hesitated. Should I accept. I wasn’t hungry. I made a quick decision. After more experience I realized that my decision was probably not the right one.

At first, living and working in a culture not one’s own is an exercise in making decisions without enough information. It is living in uncertainty.

In all cultures people give off clues about what behavior they expect or don’t expect. If you aren’t from the culture and so you don’t know the clues… People say things to be polite that they don’t expect you to act on. Or they say things to which an outsider does not know the correct response. I remember several times understanding every word someone said to me and not having the foggiest idea what to say or do in response. (To be fair, I’m like that in my own culture sometimes too.)

The thing is, missionaries love people. We want to understand them. We don’t want to offend them. So walking around in uncertainty in a culture we don’t know can leave us in fear of making a big cultural blooper. That fear can hang over our heads threatening to jump in and ruin our relationships and our ministry. While it is good to be aware and to learn, we give that fear more power than it really has. I’ve seen missionaries completely stressed out over it. That’s a real source of culture stress.

Ed learning language, 1978

Ed learning language, 1978

People on short term missions trips might not be savvy enough to have the fear, or they might not stay long enough to encounter it. Tourists don’t usually have this fear because they don’t care or aren’t as invested in the outcome because shortly they’ll be gone.

A top coping skill for a cross-cultural missionary is being comfortable with ambiguous situations, not stressing about missing information, and being willing to go through the hard, ambiguous phase until they get a better handle on things, even if that handle is never really perfect.

Deep and wide

Ed addressing the workshop

Ed addressing a regional workshop

A few months back, I attended a few sessions of a training event for African church leaders. The topic was the use of African languages in the ministry of the church. That includes translations of the Bible in African languages, of course. The focus of the training was on getting faith deep into hearts and minds so that influences all of life. Some have remarked that Christianity in Africa is a mile wide and an inch deep. It is common for Christians and churches to split along ethnic lines during ethnic conflicts.

mandela-his-languageI know of cases where Christians have tried to harm, even kill, other members of their own church who were from the “enemy” ethnic group. Corruption is rampant in parts of African where there are many Christians. Serious Christians and church leaders are asking what is wrong and how to fix it. What is lacking in the preaching of the Gospel? What are churches not doing or doing wrong? How does faith get to the level of changing a person’s values, actions and allegiances? I have heard African Christians and their church leaders ask discuss these questions. The leaders of the workshop, themselves Africans, were proposing that deep faith that changes a person often involves the person’s mother tongue, even if it involves other languages as well.

At the end of the workshop, one of the participants, the leader of a large church in the country, told the group that he realized during the workshop that:

We win lots of souls, but we don’t give them what they need to grow in their new faith.

After the event, he asked for help planning a literacy effort for the Christians in his churches so that they could read the Bible in their own languages. We sent him a literacy specialist to help him get started. In Great Commission it is obvious that Jesus was giving instructions to do much more than “win lots of souls”. Jesus said to teach people “to observe all that I have commanded”. So we commend the church leader who wants to see the people in his churches grow in their faith.

We are doing Bible translation so that Christianity in Africa will be as deep as it is wide.

Ideophones and prayer

Some time ago, I was at a training event where an African was praying in her language. In the middle of the prayer came a rapid, staccato “dedede” (pronounced day day day). The person was using very common kind of word in African languages – an ideophone. When linguists first encountered these words in African languages they said that the words were “painting with sound”. And that’s how they came to be called idea-sounds, which is what ideophones means. (Not to be confused with idiophones which is a class of musical instruments. If you remember onomatopoeia from your English classes in school, you may wonder if ideophones are just onomatopoeia. Actually, ideophone is a broader term. Onomatopoeia are a kind of ideophone.)

Information about this ideophone from "The Structure of Ideophones in African and Asian Languages: The Case of Dagaare and Cantonese", Adams Bodomo, The University of Hong Kong

Information about this ideophone from “The Structure of Ideophones in African and Asian Languages: The Case of Dagaare and Cantonese”, Adams Bodomo, The University of Hong Kong

Cock-a-doodle-doo is an ideophone. While English has ideophones, there are not nearly as many as there are in African languages, nor are they used as frequently. In English, they are limited mostly to sounds made by animals and machines. In African languages ideophones are used for many other things such as the way something moves, its shape, or its position. One of my favorites means “gigantic, unwieldy blob of a thing”

In African languages, ideophones have the same sounds (consonants and vowels) as other words in the language, but they put them together in ways other words do not. They are also different because they don’t take prefixes or suffixes.

We can say that the rooster was cock-a-doodle-dooing, or that he cock-a-doodle-dooed, but African ideophones can’t add things like “ing” and “ed” the way we do in English. These features make ideophones a separate class of words in African languages.

But the most important thing about ideophones is that they paint mental images that stir up feelings, visual memories, or sensations. Their use in a prayer is a sign that the the person praying is saying something straight from their heart. In fact, the person is saying something that would require a whole phrase or sentence to say without the ideophone. An ideophone is a like a very compact, and therefore powerful, dose of images.

Praying 1

Prayer in a church in Congo

But ideophones are somewhat in danger. Many educated Africans don’t say them often. Perhaps they have been influenced by the official language, English or French, they learned in school. Or, they may mistakenly consider them primitive. So when an educated African Christian uses an ideophone in prayer in front of other educated people, that person is showing an attachment to and respect for their language that goes beyond the ordinary. It also shows that they are conveying to God thoughts and emotions that come straight from their heart.

We work in Bible translation, but our concern is wider than that. Through translation, we want people to know that they can use all of their language to connect to God, so that they will connect to him from the deepest part of their being. The person praying was doing just that. – Woo woo woo woo woo!!!

Dominion

Some time ago, I had a meal with a man from Ivory Coast who told quite an unusual story about his salvation. When he started his professional life as a professor of law at a university, he was not a believer. One of his students kept bugging him to attend her church. He really was not interested so he kept putting her off, but she persisted. One day, she invited him to a church convention. He thought: “I am not going to get rid of this girl until I go to her church, so I’ll go and get it over with.” And he went.

He was intrigued by the message, especially about an all-powerful God. Then the preacher said that after God created man, he gave him dominion, citing Genesis 1:26-28:

Then God said, “Let us make human beings in our image, to be like us. They will reign over the fish in the sea, the birds in the sky, the livestock, all the wild animals on the earth, and the small animals that scurry along the ground.” So God created human beings in his own image. In the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. Then God blessed them and said, “Be fruitful and multiply. Fill the earth and govern it. Reign over the fish in the sea, the birds in the sky, and all the animals that scurry along the ground.”

dominionWhen the preacher said that God gave human beings dominion, the man was amazed. He thought: “This means that God took some of his authority and confided it in us!” This idea of dominion kept going around in his head. It caused him to think of a traditional practice he and his wife followed in their family. It was the practice of a totem or taboo.

crocodile-tabooTotems or taboos are part of the traditional practices of many African peoples. They often take the form of a prohibition to eat certain foods because they are associated with a person’s clan or family. So members of the crocodile clan can’t eat crocodile meat, for example. Depending on how these taboos or totems are distributed, there can be members of the same family who have different taboos or totems – some not eating crocodile, others not eating monkey, and so on. It is believed that if a person eats a taboo food, the spirit of the totem will harm, even kill, them.

One of this man’s daughters had a taboo against a certain food. But this dominion idea got him thinking: “If God gave me dominion over things, how could it be that a taboo spirit could have dominion over me?” He fasted and prayed for three days, and then had his wife cook the taboo food and they all ate it with no ill effects. He gave his life to Christ and has been a stalwart in the church ever since. He gives legal advice to those of us doing Bible translation and to other organizations.

scrollIt struck me as the man was telling this story that all of the concepts and Bible texts that lead him to salvation are from the Old Testament. The idea that God is all powerful is present in the New Testament, but it is in the Old Testament that it is fully present and developed. The story of creation and God giving human beings dominion over creation is obviously an Old Testament story.

I have never heard a salvation message in the US on Genesis chapter one. I doubt that it would be effective. But it was powerfully effective for this man. Plus, the preacher was using that text, so he must have thought that it was relevant and appropriate for his audience. Here have a highly educated African man coming to Christ through Genesis chapter one.

Why do I think that we need to translate the Old Testament into more African languages? Because, among other good reasons, it’s teaching resonates in ways that change peoples lives and bring them to salvation.

What is a taxi, a mechanic or a Christian?

Ranault 4

Photo of a Renault model 4 by Xalax, via Wikipedia commons

For a time when our boys were young and we lived in Ouagadougou, we did not have a car. I had a scooter and when we went out as a family, we went by taxi. At the time, most taxis in Ouagadougou were the Renault model R4 and they were in terrible condition. I got in one that filled with blue exhaust when the motor started. I jumped out and got into the next R4 in the taxi line. When that one started off, it rattled, banged and shook side-to-side. The driver, having seen what happened to me in the first R4 said: “That guy’s taxi is rotten!”. My jaw dropped. I asked him: “And yours?”. “Oh, it’s rotten too!”, he said, “They’re all rotten”.

Some time later, we were planning a vacation in neighboring Côte d’Ivoire. We were to fly to Abidjan and spend one night there. Before leaving, Matthew asked me how we were going to get from the airport to where we were staying. I told him that we would take a taxi. After arriving in Abidjan, we got a taxi and started smoothly off. Matthew said: “Dad, you said that we were going to take a taxi!”. I responded that we were in a taxi. Matthew retorted, “No, a taxi goes …” and he made all sorts of clanking and grinding noises while wiggling his body violently.

Roadside mechanics in Tamale, Ghana

Roadside mechanics in Tamale, Ghana

A friend from West Africa told me a story of her first trip to South Africa. She was traveling around by car and it broke down. Going to a place people told her was a mechanic she found a nice, clean shop and a man in a relatively clean uniform approached her. She said that she was looking for a mechanic. The man told her that he was a mechanic. “No! You’re way too clean to be a mechanic!, she retorted” In West Africa, many mechanics work in the open by the road, do not wear uniforms and are generally covered with grease and grime. For her, this man in a recently laundered uniform in a well-kept shop did not fit the picture.

When we lived and worked in Burkina Faso there were some parts of the country where there were very few Christians. Burkina Faso is a former French colony, so the only kind of Christianity some people had seen was the Catholic variety. Many of the educated and civil servants were marginal Catholics. It was considered the religion of the educated. This resulted in a situation where the only supposed Christians some people had ever known were civil servants who were corrupt, drank and womanized. They also attended mass occasionally and claimed to be Christians. One young man told me that when he told his family he had become a Christian, his father, a practitioner of another religion, cried saying that he would know become a drunk, corrupt womanizer. In such contexts, I avoided calling myself a Christian.

Matthew understood taxis according to his experience of them. My West African friend understood mechanics by her experience of them. Some in Burkina Faso understand “Christian” by their experience of the only people they know who call themselves Christians.

When I avoided calling myself a Christian, I was not appeasing someone. I just wanted people to know Who and what I really stand for. I am quite suspicious of the accusations I see in Christian publications and websites that some Christians are “appeasing” others when they don’t use certain words. In some cases, I know that those accusations are false. The accused are just trying to be clear in places where those words have other meanings.

Troubled places

A while back, I was talking to another American working in Bible translation in Africa. They had put a lot of effort into getting something going and then turning it over to Africans. But it was not continuing as well as they had hoped. It dawned on me that there were places where someone had put effort into the same thing and it was continuing very well with Africans in charge. The difference? In the places where there were lots of difficulties and economic hardship it is doing well. In the easy places, it’s struggling.

trouble-signIn fact, this is general true wherever people are translating the Bible for the very first time in Africa. There is more interest in the translations in the difficult places, and less in the easy places. I can think of dozens of contrasting examples. Dayle and I were recently serving temporarily in Côte d’Ivoire. The southern parts of the country are more prosperous, have better schools, roads and health care. The northern parts are behind on all those counts. But it is in the northern parts that new translations are more widely read. In the north, local people volunteer to teach others to read and they are enthusiastic to help the translation effort by volunteering their time in other ways In the south, that doesn’t work so well and more people expect money to do those same things. I listened to several Ivorians from the south lament the lack of volunteering to help in translation or literacy in their communities.

One of the best parts of the road

One of the best parts of a long road I once traveled

There are exemptions, but in general translations done in more challenging environments are more widely used, benefit from more local support and have greater transformative impact.

The places in Africa to which a person can easily go on mission – those within a short drive on a good road from an international airport – are generally less likely to produce big impact and less likely to sustain the impact for a long time. But go to a place for which the US government regularly issues travel warnings, or where getting there takes some doing, or where there is some other difficulty, and your mission is more likely to have significant, lasting impact.

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.

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.

multilingualism