The primary transformation

Traditional cultures enforce unity through social sanctions like shunning, withdrawal of social support, ostracism or even threats and violence. People who break the group’s norms pay a price. This encourages those who support the norms and tends to keep those who would break them in line. The result is a unity that is enforced by the whole of the group, not just its leaders.

The first Christians in the group may be seen as threats to group unity, bringing them under intense pressure to abandon their newfound faith. I met the son of one of the first Christians in a people of northern Ghana. He was in his 50s when I met him. But he told of remembering a childhood of persistent social pressure from neighbors consisting of condemnation, blame, threats, and ostracism. Nevertheless, his family stood fast and after many years the social pressure was much reduced.

However bad this sounds, changing a whole society belongs to those who break norms that need breaking, form solidarity with others doing the same, continue to politely but firmly speak and act against the norm, and persist through the resulting social pressures. In fact, these are the very actions the Bible recommends to us.

The movement to abolish slavery in the United States went through exactly these steps and was the target of the same social pressures described above. It’s meetings were stormed and broken up. Its leaders were targeted, not by government but by pro-slavery citizens. They were denounced, shunned, threatened and ridiculed. But slowly the tide turned. The obolitionists even convinced some slave holders to give up their slaves. Most of the early abolitionists who persisted through the worst public reaction were Christians coming out of the Second Great Awakening – a revival.

It is understandable that some Africans feel that they cannot change inherited cultural norms and practices they find abhorrent or just counterproductive. But they can and do when they have confidence. Research into the effects of translating the Bible into local languages in Ghana and some other places has shown an increase in confidence; including a willingness undertake new things, and to stand against wrong practices. I am coming to the conclusion that this might be the primary transformation because it is a manifestation of faith and because confidence helps generate all other transformations.

Challenging identity

A couple years ago, I worked with a church in Ghana on a program to reach out to the Gonja and Dagomba peoples of northern Ghana. They constitute the two largest unevangelized people groups in Ghana, comprising 1.2 million speakers. 100 years of outreach to these people groups has so far had minimal impact.

Identity is s good part of the reason. The Dagomba and Gonja have wolven identities for themselves that exclude them from Christian faith. Almost all of them follow another world religion and they believe that religion is part of their identity. Their ethnic identity and their religion are rolled onto one package. There are several facts that sustain this belief.

  • Their rival people groups in southern Ghana are largely Christian while the Gonja and Dagomba are not. Before Christianity and other world religions came to Ghana, each group had its own variety of African traditional religion as most African peoples do. So it makes sense to them that each group has its own religion.
  • The rival, largely Christian people groups of southern Ghana have started churches in the Dagomba and Gonja areas. But those churches were built for Christians from southern Ghana who have moved to the north for work. Those attending them are often civil servants posted to the north. The churches are lead by pastors from the Christian peoples of the South and they hold their services in the languages of the southern transplants, not in Gonja or Dagomba. So it appears that the churches are only for the southerners, and in fact, they are. The logical conclusion is that Christianity is also only for southerners.
  • Furthermore, the churches in question sometimes don’t attempt evangelism or outreach to the Dagomba or Gonja people in whose communities they are situated.

Ghana is not strange in this regard. I remember worshiping on Sunday evening in California with an entirely Anglo congregation located in a Hispanic neighborhood. I learned that the church had no service or outreach in Spanish. It is likely that the church’s neighbors considered Protestantism to be the religion of Anglos and Catholicism their religion. The behavior of the church certainly reinforced that perception, unintentionally I’m sure. So what’s happening in northern Ghana is not all that strange. In fact, I suspect that it happens in many places.

Translating the Bible into Dagomba and Bimoba presents a radical challenge to people who link their ethnic identity to a particular religion. When the Dagomba or Gonja see the Bible in their language, and then churches with services in their language, attended by Dagomba or Gonja people, the idea that Christianity is not for them breaks down. But that can’t happen if the churches keep holding services only in the languages of southern Ghana.

So the program I helped the church plan had the following components:
  • Holding literacy classes for the small numbers of Christians, and in the community for all who are interested,
  • Translating the church’s liturgy into Gonja and Dagomba so that church services can be held in those languages.
  • Translating training materials used to train lay ministers in the church so that Gonja and Dagomba Christians can be trained to lead services and perform other church functions.

Solomon Sule-Saa presenting the program to the regional church business meeting

Recently, I talked to the Ghanaian man, Solomon Sule-Saa, with whom I designed the program. He was all smiles. It is working well, he said. The churches are growing. Incorporating their languages into the church is eroding the walls between Christianity and the Dagomba and Gonja peoples.

Stuffing or stingy

Much of the Bible was written in an farming society. The parables of Jesus include many word pictures from the farming practices of his day. The parable of the sower is probably the best known, but there are many others. All of those listening to Jesus would have been well aware of the practices he was referring to, because they were all around. But 80% of Americans live in cities. Even in American agricultural belts more than 3/4 live in cities. So Jesus word pictures based on farming are distant. We may understand them or not. Even when we understand them, they don’t grab us. On the other hand, just over half of the people of Ghana live in cities. But even those have close ties to rural communities. They may have moved to a city after spending the childhood in a farming community, or they may visit, or there may be farming communities very close to the city. They may buy most of their food in a market where the produce comes from nearby farms. When we lived in Ouagadougou, a capital city, the woman next door would winnow grain in her yard; people planted millet, sorghum and maize in vacant lots. So people see traditional farming even in the cities.

For them, Jesus’ farming parables are not just understandable, they are vivid.

One part of many African markets is full of grain crops: rice, millet, maize, sorghum, etc. In traditional markets, the grain is in bags, one of which the seller opens so that buyers can see the quality. On top of grain is a tin. It is full to overflowing with whatever grain is in the sack. The grain is priced by the tin. When you buy it, the seller shakes down and heaps on more gain till the tin is overflowing and then pours the heaping tin into whatever container you brought, maybe even adding a handful for good measure. No “level’ measures here!

Jesus said:

If you give to others, you will be given a full amount in return. It will be packed down, shaken together, and spilling over into your lap. The way you treat others is the way you will be treated. (Luke 6:38)

In the US, we buy things like grain or flour in packages by weight. In fact, cereal boxes may have some empty space in them. So we aren’t used to this idea of buying something and having the seller pack as much as possible into the container. But we do get this treatment at fast-food joints when they often pack as many fries as possible into that little paper thing. So if we change the image from farming to fast food we get:

When we give, God will give back even more, like stuffing as many fries as one can into the holder so that they spill out in the bag or onto your lap and get lost in the gaps between your car seats. The way you treat others will be the way God treats you.

Are we stuffing or are we stingy?

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Same values but different

Talking to my very engaging acquaintance

In northern Ghana in July 2017, I met a man who was missing his right arm. He was very engaging to talk to so I dared ask him how he lost his arm. He told a horrific story of losing it to snakebite when he was a young boy. He began his tale by saying that he doesn’t know exactly how old he was when it happened because he never has known his exact age.

I have met a number of Africans that don’t know their exact age although that is getting rarer and rarer. The issue of age, in fact, shows how very different cultures can be. Although he doesn’t know his birth date he does know whether he is older or younger than everyone in his extended family and in his village. Even though his father doesn’t know his exact age both he and his father know whether his father is older than or younger than each of the father’s brothers, cousins and even neighbors. The same is true for his mother.

Almost every time an African mentions his aunts or uncles their relative age is specified, as in “my mothers older sister” or “my father’s younger brother”.

And even when none of them know what year they were born, they do know on what day of the week they each were born.

My acquaintance did not know his age, but that does not mean that his culture does not value knowing one’s age, quite the contrary. But rather it values knowing one’s age in a very different way than does my culture.

When people say that different cultures have different values, that’s true. But it is also true that many times they share very similar values but express them in wildly different ways.

Why, why, why?

In his excellent book about Ghanaian culture entitled Ghana in Retrospect, Peter Sarpong dedicates a chapter to Ghanaians’ belief in the supernatural. He tells an imaginary story of two schoolboys killed by a falling tree while walking to school. He notes that scientific Westerners would explain the event by noting that recent heavy rains had loosened the tree’s roots. He says that Ghanaians might accept that explanation all while seeking a supernatural explanation beyond it. They do that by repeatedly asking why. Why were the boys walking by the tree at the moment it fell? Why didn’t the tree fall earlier, or later? Why did the boys take that route to their school? Why were the boys walking together? Why didn’t they see it starting to fall and run away? Why did the heavy rains come? And so on.

If you keep asking why about an event, you will eventually come to the end of scientific explanations, at least the obvious ones. At that point, many Ghanaians will insert a supernatural explanation, says Sarpong. Perhaps a witch cast a spell at the behest of an enemy of the family.

The thing is, this is not as strange as it seems to Westerners. Let me illustrate.

On November 2, 2001 America Airlines flight 587 crashed in New York after encountering wake turbulence from the airplane in front of it. Crash investigators asked why. Early in the investigation, the vertical stabilizer (tail fin) was found some distance before the crash site, indicating that it broke off first and that caused the crash. So the investigators asked why it broke off. An examination showed that the attachments had broken. So the investigators asked why they broke. Further examination showed they were not corroded or weakened nor was the wake turbulence strong enough to shear them off. So they asked why there was such great force applied to the stabilizer. The black box revealed that the pilot had moved the rudder all the way back and forth quickly while the plane was at speed, resulting in stresses that far exceeded design limits, causing the attachments to fail and the vertical stabilizer to break off crashing the plane. But the investigators still asked why. Why did the pilot move the rudder so violently? They found that he learned it in his training, where instructors recommended it to counter wake turbulence. And so the investigation ended with changes in the training.

Even in as rigorous an endeavor as air crash investigation, it is important to keep asking why – to not settle for the first second or third explanation. It seems that the Ghanaian approach of asking why beyond the first natural explanation has good precedence. By the way, the crash investigators did not ask why the training was as it was. I wonder.

Also, if many pilots received the same training, why wasn’t there a crash sooner? Or why wasn’t there a non-fatal incident that revealed the flawed training? One that bent the attachments rather than shearing them off, for example. The crash investigation neither asked nor answered any of these why questions.

In light of these observations, I think that it is a mistake to simply write off Ghanaian beliefs by labeling them superstition. By admitting that their why questions have some rational basis, we keep ourselves from smug superiority and condescension; things that would severely limit the impact of our ministry. Besides, admitting that there is some rational basis does not imply that the beliefs are right, aligned with the Bible or helpful. On the other hand, it does admit that there are some questions beyond science, and that is an open door to the message of the Bible.

When a pear is not a pear

Dayle in the hospital in Ghana, with fresh coconut

When Dayle was hospitalized in Ghana, a Ghanaian friend called to say he was coming to visit and wanted to bring something Dayle wanted. She told him she would like an avocado, but she used the local word for avocado that she uses at local vegetable stands: pear. When he came, he brought actual pears which are hard to find and expensive. It sure was sweet of him but we were embarrassed to have inadvertently caused him the trouble and expense.

When two people in a cross-cultural situation each adapt to the other, the result can be a miss-step like this one. In general, we don’t expect Ghanaians to adapt to us. We are the ones temporarily in a country not our own, so we should be the ones to adapt, even if we don’t always succeed. But Ghanaians are hospitable, so they try to adapt to us. The result can be like ships passing in the night.

When thst happens, intentions matter. When they are taken into account, we end up appreciating each other rather than becoming irritated, disappointed or angry, but we still laugh.

Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins. – 1 Peter 4:8

Motivation for giving

If you look at the websites and publicity put out by missions and charitable organizations, you will see that many use the “problem” approach to raising funds. That approach emphasizes the lacking, negative or even disastrous aspects of a situation. Then say they need your help to fix it. When I talk to groups about Bible translation, I use several approaches including the problem approach, but I don’t emphasize it nor do I use guilt-inducing emotional appeals, or fear tactics (If you don’t give something disastrous will happen). I prefer an approach which emphasized the beneficial effects and successes of translation, inviting people to join something significant, successful and blessed by God. The Bible says:

Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. – 2 Corinthians 9:7

Andy Ring, who started the translation into the Buem language, being honored at the dedication of the Buem Bible

Here in Ghana, I have discovered that Ghanaians involved in Bible translation use a fascinating type of motivation. It is based on the fact that dozens of Westerners (Germans, Americans, Dutch, British, etc) came to Ghana to do Bible translation. Many were highly trained. My Ghanaian colleagues often mention this fact, emphasizing that highly-trained missionaries often poured their whole professional lives into translation and they did it in difficult places where most educated Ghanaians would refuse to live or work. Ghanaian Christians find this inspiring. If high-prestige Westerners do this for Ghana, they conclude, then Ghanaians should do as much or even more.

After all, it is their country. This is a motivation based on nationalism, specifically, that Ghanaians should take responsibility for Ghana.

I would have thought that telling the missionary story would demotivate. My logic would have been that if missionaries are doing it, then it is taken care of so Ghanaians won’t need to give themselves or their money. I have heard some of my Western colleagues express that same concern. But we are mistaken. The missionary story motivates Ghanaians very powerfully. It’s a good thing I was not in charge of communication for fundraising.

The culture gear

A while back, I read an article in a Western newspaper saying that those combating FGM have now discovered that laws alone are not enough; cultural beliefs must also be addressed. I had to laugh because it has been obvious from the beginning that the practice would not go away without addressing cultural beliefs. I remember a highly educated man in Burkina Faso telling me that FGM would never be eradicated among his people because all the women believe that it is necessary for sex and procreation. It may seem incredible to many of you, but FGM continues in part because some women want it. In fact, four married women in Kenya were arrested for voluntarily undergoing the procedure which had been “denied” them in their youth. Women who do not have the procedure may be considered unmarriageable whereas marriage may be a woman’s best chance for economic security and social stability.

Yet despite the obvious and entrenched role of cultural beliefs, those combating FGM have mostly chosen to promote a legal approach. That has not worked very well. A number of countries including Nigeria have banned FGM. Even with enforcement of the laws the practice continues because it is driven by powerful cultural and social forces. The Guardian newspaper ran an article entitled “Criminalization will not stop FGM in east Africa“. It cites a study by Oxford University that found that criminalization has not come close to eradicating FGM, that it leads to dangerous underground procedures, and concludes that social norms need to change. A World Vision study found that as FGM decreases, girls in Somalia are more at risk of being married young and leaving school. Cultural beliefs are driving FGM and the law cannot change that.

Dr. Sule-Saa

Moves to eradicate FGM hold a lesson for Christians that is bigger than FGM – there is a force in human societies that is much more powerful than the law. That is the culture and its embedded beliefs. Compliance with laws is very difficult where the laws run contrary to culture. But these facts hold hope for Christians. Change the culture and either the laws will change to follow or the laws will become unnecessary. Which is better, continually enforcing laws that are being undermined by cultural beliefs, or changing the beliefs and the culture so that the laws are easily enforced and not needed very often? Real, genuine, pervasive and lasting changes come from changing the culture. The Apostle Paul said that announcing the Gospel is the “power of God“. The culture can be changed and the Bible’s message is a powerful force for changing it starting with beliefs and moving on to behaviors. Dr. Sule-Saa who has studied the impact of Bible translations in Ghana says that Bible has become the framework through which people understand the world. That is the foundation of a profound change in the culture. Already, it has reduced conflict among many other benefits.

I don’t want to change the world. I want to leave behind the start of change in various cultures what will keep on changing things long after I leave.

Culture is not cute

It used to be the case that unmarried people working in Bible translation were assigned to languages in pairs. Quite a number of Bible translation programs have been done by two singles, especially by two single ladies. On occasion, one of the singles would leave – for health, to get married, etc. In such cases, we would assign another, usually one who had just arrived.

Local people would treat the first as senior and the newcomer as junior. The newcomer might be the older of the two, but in the local culture the one who had been there the longest had seniority. They would address all questions to the single with seniority, in some cases even refusing to discuss issues when the senior single person was absent. If the junior of the two offered an answer, opinion or suggestion, people would not accept it or act on it until it was confirmed by the senior. As you can imagine, some singles in the junior position found such situations very frustrating or even demeaning.

power-distance-index-graphThese situations were real culture clashes – a high-power-distance-culture meeting an egalitarian (or low-power-distance) culture. Local people are used to playing their role in the culture. In fact, they don’t know how to act any other way. They perceive their actions as polite and respectful while the junior person finds them belittling.

In my recent role in Côte d’Ivoire, I found myself having to constantly adjust to the high-power-distance culture. My natural reactions were often wrong. Even when I knew that I had to adjust and tried, I sometimes failed.

Some Africans have described a major difference between their culture and Western culture like this :

Western : I think, therefore I am.
African : We are, therefore I am.

They are expressing the idea that their value as individuals comes from their belonging to a group – family, clan, village or people. We Westerners, on the other hand, derive our value from being our own person with our own ideas. We may perceive belonging to a group as a threat to our individuality. Africans tend to believe that being part of a group enhances their individual existence.

flagglobe2The great irony in the situation described above is that local people are giving the newcomer a place in their structure thereby affirming that he or she is included. They are treating them exactly like a member of the community. But the junior person experiences this inclusion as exclusion. The harsh reality is that the newcomer cannot hang on to being a western-style individual in that context and at the same time fit into the local culture. Working across cultures is hard. It most certainly has its joyful periods, but if it is never hard, uncomfortable, painful, frustrating or confusing, then we’re not doing it right.

The experiences of US churches which are being intentionally multicultural bear this out. It ain’t easy. The picture some paint of joyful and easy multiculturalism is very misleading.

But we can’t follow our God by withdrawing into our own comfortable cultural space either, tempting as that is. Our God sent his only Son across a huge divide into pain, suffering, misunderstanding, rejection and finally death. The Son made the journey willingly and he invites us to follow him into the lives of people different from ourselves, down the street or around the world.

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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.