After all these years in Africa, I still struggle to give directions Africans understand, and I don’t understand very well when they give me directions. I am still unsure about the meaning of hand motions, pointing and some body language. When I see police along the road here in Ghana, I get apprehensive that I will misunderstand their hand motions and give them cause to give me a ticket, or worse offend them. In fact, that has already happened to me.

In addition to pointing, there is another behavior of police and parking attendants that I find difficult. They will stand right in front of the car where they want you to drive. They expect you to drive right at them, slowly of course, and then they move out of the way as you approach. It took me a while to figure that out. I would never drive right at a policeman in the US! A policeman standing beside the road motioned me to pull over, but he was standing in the only spot where I could. I stopped for a second, remembered what to do, and drove right at him, slowly. He moved out of the way, but looked puzzled that I had stopped. One parking lot I entered had a barrier across the exit to keep inconsiderate motorists from blocking it. As I was leaving, the helpful parking attendant moved the barrier but then stood right in the middle of the exit. It took me a second, but I realized that I had to just drive straight at him. As I did, he got out of the way.

To help reduce crime, there are sometimes police checkpoints on the city streets at night. The drill is simple: roll down your window, turn off the radio or music, turn on your dome light and greet the policeman who is carrying a flashlight. He will wag the flashlight up and down in minute movements to indicate that you should stop, then wag it left and right, also in minute movements, for you to move along. The movements are to small that the flashlight appears to flicker.

Not long ago I was parking at a very busy place. Helpfully, the business I was patronizing had placed a parking attendant in the street to assist customers with parking and getting back onto the busy street. Nice. Except that when I headed for an empty parking spot, that person pointed at it and wagged his index finger “No” quite vigorously. I stopped. He looked puzzled so I pulled into the parking space and he was happy. In that way, I learned that wagging one’s index finger does not indicate “No”, but rather “Go”. I think it was the equivalent of wagging a flashlight back and forth.

Maybe I’ll finally understand it all if I stay another 40 years. Or maybe not. The Mossi people of Burkina Faso have a proverb:

The foreigner has big eyes, but he doesn’t see anything.

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.

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.

Oranges and Orange

In Ouagadougou, there are oranges for sale by the roadside. They are piled on small tables and the seller is there with a knife. The knife is to cut a hole in the one end of the orange which is consumed as juice by squeezing while putting your mouth over the hole. This is because the membranes in the oranges are tough like those in a grapefruit. They can’t be chewed. On a really hot day, it is refreshing to buy an orange and drink the relatively tart juice.

But the tough membrane is not the only difference between oranges in the US and those grown in Burkina Faso. When our boys were young, we came back to the US from Burkina Faso and enrolled them in school. Before too long, we were contacted by Matthew’s teacher who thought that we should have him checked for color blindness because he said that oranges were green. We laughed. You see, all the oranges in those piles beside the streets in Ouagadougou are green. They’re ripe, but their color is green. Matthew was not color blind, he just had very different experiences. In fact, green is the natural color of oranges. It is when they are exposed to cold that they turn orange, so in Africa and other warm places oranges stay green.

Now, imagine Matthew’s situation in reverse. Say some well-meaning American sends color charts to a grade school in Burkina Faso. On the charts, each color is represented by an object that color. The color orange is represented by an orange. Oops.

Oranges in Ghana. Photo: Paul D Lee

Oranges in Ghana. Photo: Paul D Lee

The color chart needs to be contextualized – in order to be accurate, it needs to be changed to fit the context. Some people react to the idea of contextualization of the Gospel by thinking that it weakens or changes the Gospel. In reality, it is not contextualizing that changes the Gospel. Changing the object on the color chart that represents the color orange keeps the truth about the color orange.


Seminar participants

Seminar participants

Recently, I attended the closing ceremony of a training event held near Abidjan. I found my lowly self in a meeting with a number of august people. One of the teachers at the training event was an American friend of ours married to an Ivorian. She has been involved in Bible translation all her life and is now officially retired, but still active. When it was her turn to speak, the African moderator introduced her as:

Our old mother


Seminar session

Having spent her life in Africa, she knew that this was an expression of both honor and affection. She is greatly respected for her contributions to Bible translation and for her expertise. She is also loved for her friendship and care. So in Ivorian terms, “our old mother” was the perfect thing to call her in an introduction to an august assembly as that phrase reflects both her exceptional professional accomplishments and her personal care and friendship.

She understood that. However, she did tease the moderator that such an introduction would not be well received in the USA.

Respect for others is a universal in human cultures. It is held as a value even by people who could do much better at putting it into practice. However, the words and expressions people use to show respect are anything but universal. I doubt that any Western women reading this would consider “our old mother” an accolade, but here it most definitely is.

Shaking hands all around

A traditional cheif and GILLBT Director

A traditional chief and GILLBT Director

In Burkina Faso where we worked for many years, it is customary to shake hands all around when coming into a room full of people, unless it is a big room with lots of people, of course.

We had just returned to the US from Burkina Faso. On our first Sunday home we were late for Church, Sunday school actually. I walked into a class which had already started. These were about a dozen people in chairs in a circle. My automated Burkina Faso reaction kicked in. I started going around the circle shaking everyone’s hand and softly saying hi. About 1/3rd of the way around the circle, it dawned on me that the class had stopped and everyone was giving a very perplexed look. I wondered, do I keep going, stop, or something else?

Oops, I thought, cross culture adjustment got me again.

Why new translations

There are good reasons to update Bible translations and produce new ones in a language. One of the reasons to do that is that language changes. Words change meaning. When they do, the old translation ceases to communicate. Sometimes, old words can even make people laugh. Here are two examples from an English translation first printed in 1984:

‘Samson answered her, “If anyone ties me with seven fresh thongs that have not been dried, I’ll become as weak as any other man’ (Judges 16:7)

‘They destroyed all the villages around Gerar, for the terror of the LORD had fallen upon them. They plundered all these villages, since there was much booty there’ (2 Chronicles 14:14)


Thong for sale at Nordstroms

The meaning of the words “booty” and “thong” have changed since 1984! Actually, dictionaries still list the following definition of thong:

a narrow strip of leather or other material, used especially as a fastening or as the lash of a whip

But the first definition that comes into the heads of most Americans is quite different.

So, the old translation causes giggles, which was not the intent God had when he inspired these passages. It is good to care that new translations not distort or corrupt God’s Word. We need to also be concerned that older translations don’t distort or make the Bible the subject of giggles because words have changed meanings.

A number of older translations in African languages have been revised because the language has changed. Others are in need of revision. In Ghana, we revise the translation of the New Testament just before printing it with the newly translated Old Testament.

By the way, the King James Translation has this translation of Judges 16:7:

If they bind me with seven green withs that were never dried

While the English Standard Version has:

If they bind me with seven fresh bowstrings that have not been dried

PS: These changes in the translations of Judges 16:7 and 2 Chronicles 14:14 were first pointed out by the translators in October 2015.


When I’m home in the US, people sometimes ask me what I see changed. This time, it’s birthdays that have changed. Not birthdays themselves, but how they are used.

At the doctor’s clinic, the receptionist sometimes wants my birthday before my name. The lab tech asks my birthday before taking my blood. When I get a phone call from the doctor’s office about Dayle, they will accept my answer to their question if I can supply Dayle’s birthday. I have to give my birthday to pick up a prescription, and on it goes.

A birthday is no longer just a celebration; it’s also a verification mechanism in medical care.



We laugh when things are funny. Right? Doesn’t everybody? Well, actually …

I was at a press conference in Ghana where one the speakers went far too long. The audience expressed its disapproval of the long speech with soft laughter when he opened a new chapter to his talk.

In another instance, a person was bringing greetings from one church to another, but it turned into a speech. A titter of laughter started running through the congregation showing disapproval with the amount of time the person was taking. The person bringing greetings even apologized when she heard the laughter.

I was in a vehicle belonging to an African and the air-conditioning was blowing on me in an uncomfortable way. I tried to change the direction of the vent, but we hit a bump and I ended up messing with the settings. The driver and owner of the vehicle thought that I had changed them on purpose and laughed lightly while looking at me disapprovingly and putting the settings back.

In Ghana and some other places in Africa, laughter sometimes means disapproval.


When he was about 4 or 5, our son Matthew was at our neighbors house in Ouagadougou – a wonderful Burkina Faso family who befriended us. They had an outhouse and indoor plumbing. He needed to use the bathroom, and he chose the outhouse. But he opened the door to find the man of the house inside. He quickly closed the door and went back to play and wait.

When the man came out, he scolded Matthew for opening the door without knocking. Matthew followed our careful instructions about what to do when an adult talks to him –stand there, look the adult in the face and listen. The man was furious with his behavior and complained.

In Burkina Faso, we had often seen children running from parents reprimanding them. We had taught our children “better”. And that was the problem.

When the lady of the house brought Matthew’s behavior to our attention, we learned something – that when a child runs from an adult, that child is showing respect; but when a child stands there, looks the adult in face and takes it, that child is defying the adult. Matthew’s behavior, which we had carefully taught him, was perceived as defiant and disrespectful.

Matthew with Morelle and Susanne, the lady mentioned in the story

Matthew with Morelle and Susanne, the lady mentioned in the story

As I have noted before, we tend to think of culture as the stuff you can see – the food, the houses. But culture defines behavior. The same action that is respectful in one culture can be disrespectful in another. Respect and disrespect are universal – every culture has them. But what actions and words show them is anything but universal. The greatest commandments – that we love the Lord our God and our neighbor – are universal, the things we do to show that love are culturally determined. Being a Christian in another culture means loving and respecting people on their terms, not on mine.

PS: We managed to smooth the waters with our neighbors, in fact, we are great friends to this day.