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

A civil wedding

Dayle waiting outside with guests to various weddings

Dayle waiting outside with guests to various weddings

On Saturday, we attended the civil wedding of a colleague. Following the practice of many European countries (often started by reformers like Luther and Calvin), Côte d’Ivoire requires that weddings be performed by duly authorized civil servants. So the wedding took place at the local city hall. In fact, the town has constructed a hall just for weddings. I could see why, they were running them through one after the other. I was told that there would be 22 weddings that day.

A lady with traditional kaolin body paint. Photo courtesy of Jacquitoz

A lady with traditional kaolin body paint. Photo courtesy of Jacquitoz

We waited outside with other guests for the wedding of our colleague to be called. Brides and grooms waited in a separate room. In addition to wedding guests, there were ladies dressed in traditional garb with traditional white clay (kaolin) body painting. Giving something to beggars is considered to be a blessing on newlyweds, and these ladies were taking advantage of that belief. One had a bell she ran to attract attention.

Our colleague’s wedding was called a few minutes past the announced time. We were ushered into a large room from the back as the guests from the previous wedding were going out the side. We were urged to take our places quickly. In front was a colorful mural and a large table. The two witnesses were seated at the table, there were two empty chairs on our side of the table and one on the opposite side. A clerk, giving instructions, was standing at a small podium to the side.

The mother of the bride was ushered in to applause. Then the groom stood at the front awaiting the bride who came in from the back escorted by her father who gave her to the groom. He escorted her to one of the empty chairs and sat in the other. The mother of the bride went up to them with a few other family members and then sat to one side of the platform. The clerk announced the major’s representative and asked us to stand. He came in from the side wearing a suite and the mayoral sash around his middle. He asked us to sit.

The Major's rep instructs the couple

The Major’s rep instructs the couple

The major welcomed everyone, and then explained the legal status of marriage, including reading verbatim from the marriage two articles establishing the mutual responsibilities of spouses to each other. He gave a very short explanation and then asked the bride and groom to confirm that they accepted those responsibilities. They then had to each say if they Asked them to say whether they were opting for community property or separate property. He then gave them more legal information about marriage including who decides where the couple lives – they decide together – and what happens if they can’t agree – a judge decides.

He also gave them general advice based on the law. Then he pronounced them man and wife, congratulated them and the ceremony was over. It lasted maybe 20 minutes.

We were hurried outside to a special spot made for taking photos. The photographer quickly got the right people in various photos because we only had about 20 minutes until the next wedding party arrived. We left before the bride and groom went off to a family reception.

By the way, couples can opt to have a religious ceremony after the civil wedding and many do, but it has no legal standing. (Click on a photo to start a slide show. Click here to see the photos if you are not seeing them well in email.)

Making the right decision

decisionAs I have written several times on this blog, we tend to think about culture as the things we see – the different clothes, houses, food, etc. But culture goes deep. In recent years I have been particularly interested in two aspects of culture. One is how different cultures view the causes of things. I’ll reserve that one for another blog. This week, I will describe my thoughts and experiences about how different cultures know what is right – specifically, how they decided if a decision is the right one or not.

Many years ago when I worked in Burkina Faso, I was with a colleague from Burkina Faso and we were working with church leaders concerning the translation of the Bible into their language. At one point, one of them asked why something in the language (his language) was written the way it was. Linguistic nerd that I am, I gave him and explanation of the linguistic reasons why the translators were writing it that way. I tried to take out the technical jargon and I gave a couple of examples. I hoped that I had explained clearly. In any case, the man who had asked the question did not look satisfied.

After I finished, my Burkina Faso colleague took on the question from a totally different perspective. He mentioned the linguist who did the research into the sounds of the language, his qualifications and the amount of time he spent. He then moved on to the translation committee including that it represented  all the churches. Then he said that it was the translation committee which made the decision on such and such a date after reviewing the recommendations of the linguist and studying options.

authorizedThe explanation given by my African colleague clearly satisfied the man asking the question whereas mine had fallen flat. The explanation that the people who made the decision were qualified and duly authorized to do so was much more powerful than my explanation of the linguistic basis.

In other words, in that culture a decision is right when the right people make it.

Dedication of translation committees for three languages in Ghana

Dedication of translation committees for three languages in Ghana. These are the right people to make decisions about the translations.

In my Western culture, it is important that I check the evidence myself and make up my own mind. So I found this idea that a decision is right if the right people made it very strange, even disconcerting. It didn’t take much thinking to realize that we often do the same in the West, just not to the same degree.

I work in a cultures were people give more credence to decisions made by “the right people”. Conversely, they distrust decisions made by “the wrong people”. The “wrong people” include those not authorized to make the decision by virtue of their position. It may also include those who don’t have expertise.

Creating something sustainable, therefore, necessarily includes getting “the right people” in on the decisions – from how to write the language to what word to use for “salvation”. This was driven home to me once when a translation of the New Testament fell quickly into disuse because key decisions about the translation were not made by “the right people”. Because of that, people distrusted it. But that’s a story for another time.

Dis-honorable

I was at a meeting where an African was giving a meditation on the story in Luke 13:10-17 where Jesus saw a woman who had been crippled for 18 years. She was completely bent over and could not straighten up. The person giving the meditation repeatedly asked his African listeners about this woman’s condition:

Is that an honorable position?
Is that an honorable position?
Is that an honorable position?
Is that an honorable position?

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The workshop

Everyone was in agreement that it was not honorable. I agreed too. But if I had been giving the devotional on that passage I would not have focused on the honor or dishonor associated with the woman’s condition. I would have talked about the woman’s condition being painful or limiting. I think that most of my American friends would do the same. We would feel pity for the limitations or pain that such a condition would cause. If we prayed for someone with that condition, it would be to relieve the suffering and limitations that come with it.

Not many of us would pray for relief from the dishonor. Think about the word we use to use about such conditions. We called them disabilities. The focus in that word is on the (supposed) lack of some ability. It is a dis-ABILITY. But my African friend focused on the dis-HONOR. Honor is so important to cultures here that, in a discussion of what makes for good teamwork, one of my Ivorian friends said that is it important to good teamwork that no members of the team bring it dishonor. If they behave in wrong ways, he explained, others will think that the whole team is bad and thereby lacking in honor.

Different cultures bring different perspectives to the same text. My focus on the pain and limitations is not wrong or right nor was my African’s friend’s focus on dishonor wrong or right. Rather, we each bring a perspective that can enrich and expand the perspective of others.

Voices of the PoorIn this case, the perspective of honor and dishonor is very helpful. First of all, it is almost certain that the woman and the people around her in her day had the same focus as my African friend – considering the lack of honor as important as the lack of ability or the experience of pain. So his perspective helps me to understand the incident more like Jesus and the others who were present at the actual event. Second, at the turn of the millennium, the World Bank asked 60,000 experts on poverty from 60 countries to give their perspective on poverty. These experts were the poor themselves. The results can be found in a book entitled Voices of the Poor. Here’s a quote from one of the experts:

Poverty is pain; it feels like a disease. It attacks a person not only materially but also morally. It eats away one’s dignity and drives one into total despair- a poor woman, Moldova.

Voices of the Poor reveals that the poor experience poverty not just as lack of finances. They a feel the lack of respect, the dishonor. When I treat poverty as only a lack of finances, I miss an important way I can fight the effects of poverty – by giving respect to the poor. The same is true for people with dis-abilities, we can counter one of the effects by giving respect.

Jesus brought honor to the woman by healing her. We can’t always heal, but we can follow Jesus’ example by treating with respect those others may disrespect. The person bringing the meditation noted that many of the peoples without the Scriptures are bent into an dishonorable position by poverty, by disdain, or through being marginalized by others. Not infrequently, they see the translation of the Bible into their languages as something that disperses some of their dishonor.