What’s Africa like?

When we arrived in Burkina Faso (then Upper Volta) in 1978, gas stations were just gas stations. They had gas pumps and a small office. You stopped there to get gas, nothing more. There might be a sign but the price was not posted. The price was pretty much the same everywhere, so posting it served no purpose.

In 1999 we moved to Kenya where, at the time, gas stations were also mostly just gas stations. Although some had vehicle services like tire repair. But mostly you just went there for gas. They had signs and the price was usually posted.

A few years later I found myself making trips to the northeast corner of the Congo. There gas stations were … well, they kind of weren’t. If you drove a motorcycle, you stopped for gas at crude wooden tables by the roadside on top of which sat old liquor bottles filled with gasoline. Most drivers bought a fifth at a time. Once in a hefty 4X4, we pulled up to a mud hut from which the attendant rolled out a 55 gallon drum of fuel which he poured into a 20-liter container for measurement and from there it went into the vehicle – at more than $10 per gallon if I remember correctly. In the NE of Congo, I only saw one functioning gas station.

We are now in Ghana were gas stations post the price on their electronic sign. In a first in my experience, the gas pumps sometimes talk to me. In a first for me in Africa, the pumps sometimes have a slot for a credit or debit card. The stations mostly have nice, air-conditioned convenience stores with cold drinks, snacks, sometimes a hot food deli or even an adjoining restaurant/snack bar. Dayle has a favorite ice cream bar she sometimes gets when we stop for gas in Accra. Along major roads you will find full-service stops with sit-down dining, quick take away, restrooms, and fuel.

Sometimes people in the US ask me what Africa is like. Well it’s like its gas stations – there’s a lot of variation. Is the US like Arizona or Florida? Miami, Seattle, Las Vegas or Salt Lake City?

By the way, Ghana is definitely like Oregon because in both places an attendant pumps the gas for you.

Size of Africa

Each country show by its flag

Literacy is simple

You might imagine that literacy is complicated, that it costs a lot of money, or that adults learning to read spend years in classes. After all, not all children in US schools become fluent readers by the end of first grade and it is in second grade that most become fluent readers. Even then, it is not sure that many could read the Bible and understand it. So you might think that it takes years for an adult in Africa to learn to read well enough to read the Bible fluently. But Bible translators run literacy classes that might surprise you in many ways. I have seen adults become fluent readers, including reading Bible passages, after spending 12 weeks in intensive literacy, although it usually takes longer. They have a very big advantage over US grade school students. Because of the work of missionary-linguists, their language sounds like it spells and spells like it sounds. They don’t have to deal with the inconsistent, confusing maze that is English spelling.

Also, the literacy program is adapted to the local context. Classes are held in whatever facilities are available, even if that is under a tree. Whatever the church or community has, that’s what we’ll use.

In addition, the literacy teachers are volunteers. Few have any formal training as teachers. Some just became literate themselves and they are often among the best teachers! They do get a week or two of training. This is possible because the primer is made so the every lesson has exactly the same steps. The teacher doesn’t need to know why or how the steps work. They just learn to follow the same process with each lesson. (This wouldn’t work with English because the spelling is so complicated.) So literacy classes can be run by almost anybody. A church that wants its members to learn to read the Bible does not need to find a trained teacher. Any literate member of the congregation can do it. Even if no literate person wants to, the church can send a few of its illiterate members to a literacy class and then have the one of them who does the best become the teacher for others. When I was in Burkina Faso, one big literacy program run by another organization required a high school diploma to be a teacher. Not many were found and they wanted salaries, of course. Then the wanted proper classrooms, and they did not want to be assigned to literacy classes is remote areas. A literacy program that uses motivated members of the community does not encounter these issues.

 So, these simple literacy methods work because of motivation. The teachers, for example, are often very highly motivated. Some have been volunteer teachers for years, peddling their personal bicycle to a class several times a week, then the next year doing the same for a different class in a different location. They do this year after year. One even continued after being hit by a car while peddling his bike to class and spending some time in a hospital. They believe that they are changing lives and transforming their community, which they are. The learners are also motivated. Many want to read the Bible. Some want to use text messaging on their phone. Others want to write letters to distant relatives. They put up with the inadequacies and spend hours in class because they really want to read. If they fail, they enroll in the next class and try again. Chiefs want literacy classes in their areas so they give what they can and tell people to enroll. Nothing can replace motivation when it comes to literacy.

But the biggest reason why these literacy classes work is that they are in a language people know – their own language, their heart language. Time after time, I have seen adult literacy programs in English or French (in countries where French is the official language) get low results.

A few years ago, I met a young lady in northern Ghana who told me that her father would not let her go to school, but her uncle interceded with her father so that she could go to a literacy class in her language offered by the Ghanaian organization I work for. She did so well and her father was so impressed that he let her start school for the first time as a teenager. She advanced quickly. In the process she became a Christian and married a fine Christian man. When I spoke to her she was a few weeks from graduating from university. There are tens of thousands of similar cases in Ghana.  Combine literacy in the heart language with the Bible also in the heart language, and amazing things happen. Simple literacy yields results that are anything but simple. 

Photos: Rodney Ballard, courtesy of Wycliffe Global Alliance

Jumping ship

In 2010, I worked for an organization that was like a well-run ship. The crew was well-trained and beyond competent. The equipment might not have been the latest, but it was fully functional and well-maintained. Relations between crew members were cordial. All the safety equipment was in place. But there was a problem. The captain said we were headed to New York but it looked to me like we were going to miss New York by a very long ways.

Paul Opoku-Mensah

It was in this quandary that Paul Opoku-Mensah, the director of the Ghana Institute of Linguistics, Literacy and Bible Translation (GILLBT), asked me to come to Ghana twice to do some training of his staff. During my trips to Ghana, I had the opportunity to talk for hours on end with Paul, including twice on 14-hour drives between the north and the south of Ghana. Paul’s organization was nothing like mine. It had recently been rescued from nearly sinking and it was still leaking and listing. The crew suffered from factions and discord, even threatening to mutiny against the captain. But Paul had a plan for getting to New York I found compelling. His plan was similar in some ways to what I was thinking, but involved a number of things I had never heard of. When Paul asked Dayle and I to join the crew of his ship, we were faced with a stark choice – we could stay on our sleek ship going the wrong direction or join the fractious crew of a troubled derelict taking an uncharted course. We prayed and jumped ship.

Our “New York” destination involved engaging the church in Africa in translating the Bible into African Languages, and sustaining the use of the Bibles being translated.

A few days ago, Paul, the man who has been our captain for the last 7 years,  moved on to something new. So I am looking back and evaluating the progress the ship has made. First, it didn’t sink! And while it hasn’t yet arrived at its destination, it is a LOT closer. Churches in Ghana have been engaged. They are giving money. It’s not enough yet, but it is growing substantially every year. Because churches understand and support ministry in Ghana languages, sustained use of translations in those languages is much more likely. 

In addition to being fruitful, the journey has been intellectually stimulating. Paul taught me a lot about the theory and the practice of sustainability and engaging the church in Africa,

In 2011, God put before us a very uncertain path. That was not at all a bad thing. 

Recipe for transformation

I don’t put much stock in the idea that there is some recipe for doing missions that will make it successful everywhere and always. Doing mission means caring about the people to whom one is ministering. If I care, then I seek to understand the specifics of their situation. But a recipe is meant to work everywhere the same. The danger is that it can remove the need to understand people and their circumstances and by that eventually remove the need to care and then caring itself. On the other hand, we ignore successful mission endeavors at our peril because they point us to ways the Holy Spirit might be working.

In 2014, OneBook, a Canadian organization that sponsors Bible translation, did an evaluation of the translation programs they sponsor in nine different countries. The evaluation focuses on whether the translation programs were effective at producing transformation in the communities they served.

The answer to that question was an unqualified yes, but there was more. Some translation programs had more impact than others. Furthermore, the ones that had more impact had some things in common. They were:

  • Local decision making
  • Adult literacy
  • Immediate distribution of the translation
  • National leadership

These findings match my own personal observations of dozens of translation programs in Africa.

The translation programs with the most impact all had a great deal of local decision-making. Churches, for example, had control over who was chosen to be a translator and other key program decisions. Assurance of the accuracy of the translation stayed in the hands of the translation organization, but many other decisions were turned over to the churches (for translation) and chiefs (for literacy). I have seen other evaluations that came to the same conclusion.

Translation programs which produce significant transformation in the language community also were those conducting small-scale, inexpensive adult literacy programs. These literacy programs often started in churches and were attended by church members wanting to read the new translation. But they then spread to the community at large and then eventually into primary schools. Literacy programs mean that people can read the new translation, an obvious key to the translation having impact. But they have many, many more benefits.  Literacy classes were the main sources of health teachings for the economically poor and those attending had more knowledge and exhibited the best health care practices, Furthermore, 76% of those attending reported having benefited economically, almost as high as the 79.8% who reported spiritual benefits.

Another key was immediate distribution of the translation. This is a relatively new idea for many translation programs where the translation was not distributed until a whole book was translated and even then some books were not printed and distributed until the whole New Testament or Bible was distributed. It was not unusual for whole books of the Bible, translated and ready for people to read, sat on the translators’ desk for years before being distributed so that people could read them. Immediate distribution does the opposite. As soon as a passage is translated, it is distributed. So the parable of the lost sheep might be distributed as soon as it is translated; before the rest of the chapter in which it appears is even translated. It might be distributed by printing off a few copies and giving them to pastors or read in church, or to literacy classes to read in the class.  Or a translator might quickly record it on their phone and share it with others on their phones via Bluetooth or NFC. In turn, they share it with others causing it to spread rapidly. A constant flow of new passages into the community can have a powerful effect.

Having the program be lead by a national rather than by a missionary from another country did not create greater or lesser impact, but it did reduce the cost significantly.

So, here’s one recipe for real gospel transformation of communities. It is the basis for the translation programs in Ghana we are helping to implement. I believe that anyone doing translation in Africa should try it out. It might work other places too, but I can’t speak to that.

Boils

This is a page from our son Matthew’s baby health book from Burkina Faso. There are a number of cases of boils in over a period of six months. Because the official language of Burkina Faso is French, the baby book is in French. So you see mention of “furoncles” – boils in French. Notice the s on the end of the word. Matthew did not have a boil each time, but multiple boils. Each time he had antibiotics, and that cleared up the boils, but not for long. In one sequence, he was given antibiotics for 10 days on September 7 (7.9.85 on the health card). They cleared up, The course of antibiotics ended on the 16th, and on the 19th the boils came back worse than ever. If I remember correctly, he woke up with 8 or 10 boils on the 19th.

The doctors had no answer other than to give repeated and frequent courses of antibiotics. One doctor told us that the staff germ that caused the boils was found in the soil and in the dust. In short, it was everywhere. The boils were painful and Matthew began to dread going to the doctor. Then we told a missionary couple with another organization. They said that we should treat him aggressively for prickly heat including bathing him with certain soap we could find at the pharmacy and applying a specific lotion for prickly heat after his bath. They also said that we should give him children’s vitamins with zinc. The prickly heat rash causes small breaks in the skin through which the infection can enter, they said. There were no children’s vitamins with zinc in Ouagadougou, so we got family to buy Flintstones Vitamins with zinc in the USA and send them to us. While waiting for them to arrive, we began washing him with the soap and treating him with the lotion for prickly heat. It was not a complete cure, but the cases of boils immediately became less frequent. After the vitamins came, they stopped altogether. When Mark came along, we gave him the vitamins and washed him with the special soap and he never had boils.

We were shocked that none of the doctors we consulted suggested any of the steps that solved the problem. Apparently, they did not know that it could be solved with vitamins containing zinc or by treating prickly heat aggressively. But God knew that we would not find the answer where we were looking, so he sent that missionary couple our way. We ran into them without planning to, and we just happened to tell them about the boils. God set up that meeting. Many times we have found comfort and solutions beyond what science could provide in the people God put around us.

Missionaries are made to leave

Missionaries are made to come and go, or at least they should be. Jesus had about three years of ministry and then he left. The Apostle Paul went from town to town. There’s a bifurcation in modern Western missions between missions lasting two weeks and those lasting 20 years or longer. I worked with situations where a Western missionary has worked in the same language for 20, 30 or even 40 years. Sometimes my American friends express admiration for missionaries who spend many decades in the same place, but I’m pretty sure that is not always a good thing.

A missionary’s role should change as he or she trains local people with whom they are in ministry and they take on more responsibility. We see this in the ministry of the Apostle Paul. After announcing the Good News and seeing some converts, he named and mentored leaders for the new Christians before going on to the next place. He then kept in contact, prayed for those he left and visited them when that was possible. Leaving did not break his relationships. Another aspect of Paul leaving well was that he incorporated some of the new believers from the place he was leaving in his mission to the next place. He also brought all of them into praying for it.

We shouldn’t follow Paul’s example slavishly, but we ignore it at our peril. Depending on the type of ministry (translation develops slowly), a missionary might stay in one place for a long time. But even a long stay should be preparing for a good departure. Bible translation not infrequently takes place where there are low levels of education, making it difficult to train local people in all the complexities of translation. But difficult does not always mean impossible, especially when the time frame is 20, 30 or even 40 years.

A while back, a missionary told me that another missionary should be allowed to stay where they were because that had become home. Being in a place that feels like home is a good thing, but it is not a valid missionary goal. In fact, it sounds like a way to justify staying long after one’s missionary goals have been accomplished. Missionaries who stay in one place for a long time may do so because they like it, they are comfortable, or because they get respect. Recent research found that 96% of missionaries reported that they were functioning well in the society where they are conducting missionary work. Moving would disrupt that. A few times in my career, missionaries faced with a potential change of location have said to me that they want to stay put because “God has called me here”. In every case,  that “here” was a situation that they found personally fulfilling.

Dayle and I with Abidjan staff a few days before our departure. They gave us traditional Yacouba outfits.

I recently took an interim assignment in Côte d’Ivoire. I was given a very specific six-month mandate – take care of current matters and work with a national committee to recruit an Ivorian director. When those things were done, Dayle and I returned to our assignments in Ghana. We had an advantage. Our assignment specifically demanded a transition. We had no choice. Perhaps all missionary assignments should be like that.

Where’s home

Sometimes when I’m in the USA, people ask where I am at home, or more at home. Am I at home in the US where I grew up? Or have I become at home in Africa?

I have definitely kept my American identity. Whenever I leave US to go back to Africa, leaving doesn’t feel good. And when I arrive back in Africa, it feels right and good. When I leave Africa to go back to the US, leaving doesn’t feel good. When I then arrive back in the US, it feels right and good. It’s not like one place feels right or good and the other wrong or bad or uncomfortable. No, they both feel equally good, right, and comfortable when arriving and the reverse when leaving.

I dislike leaving both places and like going back to both. So where is home for me? Well, it’s complicated.

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.