The ideal body in Ghana

Typically, African painting is highly stylized. (Image courtesy of MaxPixel)

I was stopped at a stoplight in Accra where hawkers were selling things to the motorists. Two men were carrying poster-sized, framed paintings of African women, one woman in each painting. They were in a style I would call boudoir; that is they sexualized the female form without nudity. The ladies had on dresses that covered them in terms of what was covered, but not how it was covered. The fabric was clingy and thin. They were obviously intended to be alluring. But the ladies were quite different from those in such paintings or photos found in the US. First the women were decidedly plus sizes. Firm muscle was not in evidence, nor were six-packs. The ladies’ hips and thighs were especially ample and took a prominent place in the paintings.

The paintings depicted the ideal feminine form according to most Ghanaians.

When I saw those paintings, my thoughts went to an article I had just read stating that most young ladies in the US feel bad about their bodies. I wondered if those young ladies know that the the perfect body is not an absolute, but is defined by fickle culture. If they lived in a different place or time they would measure their own physique against a very different standard. It’s actually sad to put oneself into voluntary slavery to any societal standard without question.

Romans 12:1-2 calls us to transform our thinking. Part of that is seeing this world’s standards and judgments as fancies and fads that change from place to place and from time to time.

Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect.

Romans 12:2

Personal loan

I have written before that culture is not just the outward stuff – food and clothing. Nor is it just the art – dance, music, carving, etc. Culture governs human relationships. Anyone working in a culture not their own is wise to learn and continue learning about that culture.

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Let’s imagine a situation where I give someone a small personal loan. But that person never comes to me to repay it. After a long while, I get frustrated and confront the person that the loan is long overdue. my debtor is offended and our relationship is now strained. If this imaginary scenario took place in some places I have worked, I as the creditor would be responsible for the bad outcome. The reason for this is one small but crucial difference between my culture and the local culture when it comes to personal loans.

In some places where I have worked, the person who receives the loan is not expected to spontaneously repay it. Instead, it is expected that the person who gave the loan will go to the other person and ask for repayment. In fact, if the person giving the loan does not ask take the initiative to ask for repayment, the person who got the loan will probably assume that the loan has been forgiven.

So in the story above, my debtor probably assumed that the loan had been long forgiven, and was then shocked to learn that I considered it long overdue. He feels badly treated. He feels that if I were polite and respectful, I would have come and asked for repayment when I expected or needed it instead of waiting till I felt it was overdue. For him, my behavior is unpredictable, and lacking ordinary human courtesy.

I now have strained or broken a relationship because I gave out a personal loan without taking the time to understand how personal loans work in the culture. This is just one of the ways that studying culture helps a missionary be a good person as defined locally.

Titles and emotions

The street in front of our home in Ouagadouogu

The street in front of our home in Ouagadouogu

In Ouagadougou on the street where we lived, I was known as “Matthew baba” – Matthew’s father. A few people knew my name, but everyone knew Matthew baba.

In his book “The Human Condition: Christian Perspectives Through African Eyes“, Joe Kapolyo writes about how Africa’s feel about this practice:

We feel very dignified when upon the birth of our first child all our relatives and acquaintances cease to address us by the use of our name and instead use the term ‘father or mother of …’ In later years, the names of grandchildren add even greater dignity.

Antoine Yegbe who became known as

Antoine Yegbe who became known as “Our consultant” during this workshop on translating Romans

I have seen this over and over. It is part of a general preference in many places in Africa for titles over names. During a workshop on translation, the workshop leader might come to be referred to as “our consultant”. If there is a way to call a person by a title instead of a name, my African friends will find it. And the titles don’t have to be official. They’ll invent one, like “our consultant” for the occasion.

Culture determines the emotional content of behavior. As Kapolyo writes “We feel very dignified …” It is my experience that titles often add elements of affection, belonging, and/or dignity.

The leader of a workshop isn’t just “consultant” but “our consultant”. The titles “father of” or “mother of” are very personal titles, unlike “president” or “major”.

the-human-conditionWe Americans experience titles as stuffy and formal. While Africans can and do use titles to show formal respect, they also use them in informal and family settings to show a combination of personal attachment and loving consideration that is hard to replicate in my own culture. I see newly arrived Americans (and unfortunately some who have been around for long enough that they should know better) react to African use of titles as if they carried the same formality as titles do in American culture.

In one case that became infamous in the place where it happened, an American woman reacted severely to being called “our mother” by retorting “I’m NOT your mother!”. But there, as in many places in Africa, mother, father, aunt and uncle are widely used as terms of loving inclusion and respect far beyond their strict biological meanings.

Understanding culture and living harmoniously in it is not just about understanding it in our heads. It’s about getting into the emotional content of its practices. And that sometimes mean rewiring our emotions to experience a cultural practice the way the people do, or at least making an effort to do so.

No more activists

In February 2018 I flew from Accra in southern Ghana to the north of the country. In the waiting area at the Accra airport and then on the plane I sat next to a friendly Ghanaian woman with her adorable, six-week-old baby daughter. Once she got seated on the plane, she started breastfeeding her baby in the matter-of-fact way I have seen so many times on this sensible continent. No complexes. No hint of embarrassment. No effort to be extremely discrete.

None of the other passengers, almost all Ghanaian and overwhelmingly male, paid her action the slightest attention. To say that the passengers approved would be to attribute to them far more agency in the matter than they actually exercised. When you drive your car do you consciously approve that the wheels go round and round?

Having spent most of my adult life in a place where breastfeeding in public is an unremarkable and assumed part of life, I am amused when it makes the news and has vocal advocates in the West.

It struck me that the best end point for true advocacy is not repeated  (let alone shrill or virtue-signaling) statements in favor of the advocated change. It is not everyone standing up and agreeing. Instead it’s the blasé acceptance manifested by the passengers on that plane.

It also caused me to reflect that just as advocacy for public breastfeeding is irrelevant in Africa, so there won’t be advocates or activists clamoring for our attention in the new heavens and the new earth. Won’t that be refreshing!

Missions and curiosity

Village in northern Ghana. Photo GILLBT, Rodney Ballard

Working as a cross-cultural missionary requires that I understand the Gospel and the culture where I am ministering. If I understand only the gospel I will end up misconstruing it because I will communicate it in ways the culture will misunderstand. So I have to be curious about the culture in which I am serving and clear about the Gospel I am presenting.

My favorite biblical example of curiosity by a missionary is found in Acts 17 where the Apostle Paul studies the idols of Athens and quotes an Athenian poet in order to explain the Gospel.

My favorite statement about curiosity comes from blogger Seth Godin who wrote:
“You can’t be curious and angry at the same time”

True curiosity about other people comes from love. When I love, I want to understand you. This is very different from idle curiosity – the kind that turns people into curiosities – things we are interested in only because they are different or exotic. If I’m truly curious about people not like me, I can’t be angry, distant, gruff, or dismissive; even when I disagree with what I find. Some mistakenly call this approach appeasement. Appeasement exists, but seeking to truly understand is not it.

God fully understands everyone and seeks out each of us where we are. So we should not be afraid to fully understand those to whom we are ministering. We should avoid using straw-man tactics and instead use steel-manning to avoid superficial understandings and convenient stereotypes.

When we do that, we imitate God’s approach to us. Plus, our presentation of the Gospel becomes clearer as do our translations of the Bible.

Parking under mango trees

Mango trees make great shade

A Ghanaian colleague of mine was making contacts in a rural area for Bible translation. In one particular village, he didn’t know anyone. So he parked his pickup under a handy mango tree for the shade. He made his contacts and left.

He learned later that the village chief had passed away some time earlier and that two men were vying for the position. The mango tree under which he had parked belonged to one of them. That man then said that the vehicle parked under his tree showed that he had received an important visitor.

He used that as a reason why people should support his bid for the chieftancy. My colleague unwittingly got involved in a bit of political intrigue.

Working in cross-culture ministry means acting with insufficient information, especially at the beginning. You never know how people are going to interpret your actions. So some missionaries start out with a lot of trepidation that they will make a big mistake and ruin their ministry. That is highly unlikely. In any case, there’s not much you can do about it.

Actually, there’s a lot we can do. Pray that missionaries will have wisdom and good relationships. When I trust God and have his wisdom I can live my life without worrying if I’m parked under the wrong mango tree.

 

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?

If you liked this, you might also like Translating Obsolete Measures

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.