Africa loves to read and hear the Bible

A while back, a friend pointed me to an article about translating the Bible in Africa by one of Africa’s most well-known theologians – John Mbiti. Before launching into the main point of the article, Mbiti briefly assesses the impact of translations of the Bible in African languages. He writes that:

Reading the Bible in their language

Africa loves to read and hear the Bible read.

Thus, through its translation… the Bible is very present in Africa. In some ways, we find our traditional life reflected in it… It is wielding a tremendous impact on the Church and beyond… It is generating Biblical Christianity and invigorating Oral African Theology.

The Bible has found a home in Africa, and Africa has become a Biblical continent. Statistically the Bible has become very much an African book. Many African readers and hearers of the Bible spontaneously identify themselves with the Bible through its content of (ancient) Jewish culture, family traditions, farming, history, pastoral (livestock) life, persecutions, suffering, death rituals, and religiosity…

Paul Hema reads the Bible in front of his humble dwelling in Burkina Faso

Our neighbor reading the Bible in Bambara

At a deeper level, the translation from Biblical languages into local languages encourages creativity and the proliferation of oral theology. This has already been happening (in the field) spontaneously among the Christians, the laity and clergy, young and old, women and men, through their composition and use of local hymns, songs, and music, instead of, or in addition to imported Western hymns translated in Kiikamba. They sing everywhere with or mainly without instruments – in the fields, in buses, walking, fetching water, herding, at school, in Churches and market places. They say or give spontaneous prayers (at home and Church services), sermons or meditations, religious education (in schools, Sunday School and their homes), all produced in one’s mother tongue.

It is easy to visit churches in the big African cities, and even a number of the smaller ones, and conclude that Christianity in Africa is doing quite well using English or another European language. But the reality is different. Christianity in Africa has its roots in the Bible in African languages even if a number of Christians are now educated and practice much of their public worship in English or another European language. The goal of getting the Bible into all the languages of Africa is still relevant even as English spreads.

No new understanding

After the dedication of the Jamaican New Testament in Jamaica, a ceremony was organized in London to introduce it to the sizable Jamaican community there. The organizers didn’t know what kind of reaction they would get. After all, those attending would have an excellent command of English. In addition, some have been critical of doing a translation in the Jamaican language also called Patwa. Critics contend that the language is too crude and undeveloped for a translation.

As part of the ceremony in London, they read some short passages from the translation. The Jamaicans present shouted with joy. They all stood. They waved their arms and jumped some with eyes full of tears of joy.

This reaction is a bit surprising. After all, they were hearing passages they had heard in English many times. There was nothing new. They were not getting a first, new or better understanding because the passages are so well-known in English. The passages nevertheless had a dramatic, fresh effect when packaged in the heart language – their mother tongue.

That is interesting and moving, but is it important? I think so. After all, Jesus said we are to love God with all our heart, all our soul, and all our mind, implying that the soul and heart are as important as our understanding. Words that activate our emotions – that touch our hearts – are more likely to change our behavior and our thinking – to align our hearts with God’s. Without those effects, understanding isn’t worth much.

The Bible in the mother tongue goes so much deeper than mere understanding – just imagine those Jamaicans in London waving their arms and dancing around with eyes full of tears.

Locked up information

Nataly Kelly, the leader of Translators Without Borders, say’s that for many people around the world, “the information that they need is locked up in languages they don’t even speak”. Translators Without Borders is a translation agency. They translate all kinds of things – books, health information, and so on. They started out translating between European languages where they hired translators or took them under contract.

When they expanded into Africa, they discovered that few African languages have trained translators. There was no one to hire or take under contract. This is not just a problem for the translation agency. It means that the life-critical information is not available: how to protect against AIDS, malaria, cholera, how to treat diarrhea-induced dehydration in children (a leading cause of death in children under five). The information is there, but it is locked up in languages the people don’t speak. She says:

Ironically, the people who need that information the most – information about health, science, technology and so on – have zero access to it because of the language barrier… So the richer countries have an abundance of linguists while three billion people are starved for translators in their languages. This is a serious handicap

Failed translation of “sugar free”

If Nataly has a client who wants a pamphlet on heart-heathly diets translated from English to German, she can readily find an experienced and qualified translator. But finding a translator to translate a pamphlet on how to avoid Ebola into the Kpelle language of Liberia (where the an Ebola outbreak took place not long ago) can be a challenge. You will find people who speak both English and Kpelle, and who are willing to translate to earn a little money although they’ve never translated before, but finding one who will do an accurate and clear translation is another matter.

Sometimes people wonder why translating the Bible into a new language takes as long as it does. One of the reasons is that you have to train the translators. A professional translator will spend several years studying their craft, so the training is not something that can be done in a week or two. For the translations where we have been involved training good translators includes carefully choosing the translators, giving them a first course of minimal training (usually about 2 weeks), then having a translation expert closely follow and critique their translation so that they are learn on the job, and then setting up a system where their translations are reviewed by members of the language community. This results in such clear translation that people are often surprised. I have often heard them exclaim that the translation is “so clear”, or “sweet”, etc.

Small selection of booklets produced by Ghanaian translators

Once they have been trained, the translators can translate anything – the Bible, health pamphlets, agricultural information, even the Universal Declaration of Human Rights . And they do, unlocking life-critical information for their peoples.

Efficiency’s limits

Efficiency is a mark of good missions and good charities. They use their money well. In biblical terms, they are good stewards of their resources. They take pains to measure their efficiency. A homeless shelter will count the number of people who use it. A mission doing Bible translation will count the number of languages into which it translates the Bible. A single translation program will track how many verses and books have been translated.

While efficiency is good, it is not nearly enough. For example, an addiction treatment center needs to track how many of its patients recover, not just how many go through the program. It is no good for it to say that it’s program is less expensive if few of its patients stay clean. That’s a waste of money too. Efficiency is no good without effectiveness.

It is good that we translate the Bible into more and more languages. I have always tried to make translation go faster and cost less. But more translations done faster and for less money must take second place to doing things so that those translated Bibles transform the communities for whom they were done.

The biggest factor determining whether a translation will be read and have impact is also the most difficult to influence – the attitudes of the people and their leaders toward the language. One study found that if church and mission leaders support the translation effort it will have wide impact, but if not people probably won’t ever even read it. The reasons why leaders and people might not favor a translation are so many and varied that can’t list them all, so here’s one example.

People might think that the language is defective or not unholy, as some Jamaicans believe about the Jamaican language, also known as Patois. This is not as uncommon as you might think. In the 14th and 15th centuries some people believed that English was not worthy of a translation.

In any case, there is no sense doing a translation into a language people think defective unless you are willing to put time and money into an effort to change those attitudes. We have a less serious version of this issue in Ghana where some church leaders and pastors think that translation into Ghanaian languages is quaint and useless, even though people at the grassroots support it. So the Ghanaian organization I work for focuses communication showing the benefits on the leaders. It’s working.

Writing the language in a way that is easier to read makes impact more likely

In other cases, efficiency and effectiveness align. Doing a translation faster, for example, generally results in people looking on the translations with favor. I have seen translation programs advance so slowly that people started making fun of them.

In general, the Ghanaians I work with are more concerned about effectiveness than are Westerners like me. While Westerners are more focused on efficiency. This sometimes results in tensions between the Ghanaians I work with and Westerners who fund translation. The side with the money has the advantage, causing efficiency to sometimes get more attention than effectiveness.

Getting to know the “other”

One of the most commonly proposed solutions for prejudice and bigotry is getting to know “the other”. This solution presupposes that we are suspicious of those we don’t know, or that false ideas about others will be dispelled by getting to know them. There is no doubt that this works for individuals. I have heard people say that their fear or concern about people of a different race or religion was dispelled when they got to know someone personally.

As well as this seems to work in individual cases, it fails with whole populations. There are many examples. The genocide in Rwanda was perpetrated by Hutus on Tutsis. But the Hutus and Tutsis live side by side. They speak the same language and are mostly indistinguishable. In many cases, Hutus killed their Tutsi neighbors they had known well for decades.

Furthermore, this is not an anomaly nor is in confined to Africa. In most of the cases of violent conflict between groups of people in Africa with which I am aware, are characterized by close contact and mutual knowledge. The book Anatomy of a Genocide: The Life and Death of a Town Called Buczacz by Omer Bartov documents a case in Europe. Bartov is a professor of history at Brown University. He notes that the close relations between two groups can actually be part of the problem.

“You can take a society in which people had lived together for centuries, and that very proximity, that very relationship between neighbors can have a dynamic of violence and self-justification,”

Knowing the other is sometimes the problem. Just ask couples going through an acrimonious divorce. So getting to know the other is a naive bromide, perhaps even snake oil.

But there is something that works, at least in Ghana. In the southern parts of Ghana, the north has a somewhat deserved reputation as a place of conflict between its many peoples, of which there are about 30. In some cases those conflicts have turned deadly. In recent years, some of those peoples have received the first ever Bible in their languages. Dr Solomon Sule-Saa has done research into the effects of those translations. He found that people who read the Bible in their language are much more likely to promote non-violent solutions to conflicts over land or other resources. The result is less conflict. Where close contact generates conflict, the Bible is helping to calm it.

By the way, there is a widespread belief in Africa that if everyone spoke the same language there would be less conflict. That belief is also contradicted by the facts.

Ghana statement

The Ghanaian organization I work with recently issued the following statement:

We believe mother tongue literacy and the word of God in our mother tongue is the most effective way to build vibrant churches and transform our societies.

Because I work with organization, I thought it would be good to unpack it. After all, my work (like that of all the staff) is predicated on this belief and contributes toward accomplishing the things it implies.

The statement is important because some Ghanaians think that their languages are of little importance or use. Some even think that their languages only serve to promote the backward practices of the past. Those with that opinion mostly live in the cities and haven’t seen the impact of translation and literacy in the rest of the country. It is a sad thing, but a number of Africans believe that their languages and traditions have nothing to contribute to the Gospel or the good of their continent. They believe this to their detriment. This is especially sad when pastors insist on preaching and teaching in a language not adequately mastered by their congregations. So there is a need to help them understand things differently. I used to be a lot more involved in communicating this message but it is now in capable Ghanaian hands.

Note also that the statement includes both spiritual (vibrant churches) and temporal (transform our societies) elements. I believe that these are stated as two elements because in English there aren’t words to combine them. The Ghanaians I work with see both as one inseparable process. If the church is vibrant, society is being transformed. They both grow from the same root. The light of a vibrant church cannot be hidden. But the light of a church using a language people don’t master is usually dim, not vibrant.

You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.
Matthew 5:14-16

Note also that the statement sees two things as fundamental to transformation:

  • The Bible in the mother tongue
  • Literacy in the mother tongue

My Ghanaian colleagues like to say that literacy is the key that unlocks the Bible. Without it, translations have limited impact. Fortunately, running adult literacy classes in the mother tongue is relatively easy and cost-effective.

Finally, note the idea of transformation. All Africans I have met want their continent to change. They are dissatisfied with how it is, all while most are proud to be African. My Ghanaian colleagues see this happening as transformation (build on what is good, carefully replace what is not), not as revolution (throwing out the old and replacing it with entirely new things).

It’s like one of my favorite jokes.

A man was lost driving in New England. He stopped at a small store to get directions. When he said where he was going, there was a pause and then the proprietor said: “Well, if I were going there, I wouldn’t start here.”

Just like you have to start a trip somewhere, so a community can only move toward Christ from the place it finds itself. When that move starts with something fundamental to the community (their mother tongue), and enabled by helpful imports (literacy and the Bible) good things happen.

Staying

A recent survey in Africa found that more than 1/3rd of Africans have considered emigrating. I was not surprised. I spent most of my adult life in Africa. During that time I have seen many Africa’s leave, including from among my acquaintances and friends. I have heard many others talk about it. Some have even asked me to help them go to the United States. Many of my African friends have family in North America or Europe. But the number of Africans considering leaving rises to more than half among young adults and the well educated. In one country, seven percent are actively making plans to leave. That’s one in 14.

In my experience, there is at least one demographic that is different. Even though they are younger and well educated, very few have any interest in leaving. Instead, they are dedicated to their communities and their countries. They stay in order to make a difference even though that means facing challenging or even dangerous situations.

Translators and volunteers for the Nawuri language

They are African Bible translators. Just prior to writing this, I sat with a group of them. They spoke passionately about their work. When obstacles came up in the conversation, they always talked about how to overcome them. Fleeing or leaving never arose. In fact, a couple of them recently lived through a very dangerous situation requiring that the army be deployed, yet they only talked about how to continue although they admitted that the situation was “serious”. Their faith in God who called them is, for them, a better refuge than leaving for a peaceful and prosperous country.

The Lord is my rock, my fortress, and my savior; my God is my rock, in whom I find protection. He is my shield, the power that saves me, and my place of safety. – Psalm 18:2

Literacy and social mobility

Korle-Bu teaching hospital and medical school, Ghana

Some time ago, I had an interesting conversation with a Ghanaian Christian doctor. He told me about a young doctor he met. When he learned that the young doctor was from the Upper West Region, he asked him if his parents were literate. He asked because Upper West Region has significant poverty rates and low education levels. A young person from that Region only becomes a doctor or other professional is he or she comes from educated parents.

The young doctor said that his parents were not literate. This was was surprising, so he pressed the young Doctor further. He learned that although the young man’s parents had never been to school they did read the Bible in their language. They had attended an adult literacy class run by the Ghanaian organisation I work for.

What this shows, my acquaintance told me, is social mobility through the Gospel. Uneducated parents who have learned to read in their own languages send their children to school and can help them succeed. I know other cases like this. So we are now seeing young professionals in unprecedented numbers from the most disadvantaged parts of Ghana and, unexpectedly, from families where the parents themselves never received an education.

Photo: GILLBT, Rodney Ballard

My acquaintance and the young doctor are both faithful Christians. For the young doctor, this is due on no small part to his parents becoming Christians through reading the Bible in their own language. For my acquaintance, this shows the power of the Gospel at work. He believes that the development of his country does not come through building things, but rather through creating faithful, servant-hearted citizens through the power of the Gospel. That’s why he volunteers his time to help translate the Bible into all Ghana’s langauges.

“If you follow my decrees and are careful to obey my commands, I will send you the seasonal rains. The land will then yield its crops, and the trees of the field will produce their fruit. Your threshing season will overlap with the grape harvest, and your grape harvest will overlap with the season of planting grain. You will eat your fill and live securely in your own land. – Leviticus 26:3-5

As good as translation

Alphabet chart in a previously unwritten language – the Lika language of the Congo

Sometime ago we asked people in various parts of Ghana what they liked about the Bible translation program going on in their language. As you can imagine, many responded that they like having the Bible in their language. One person called it an “eye opener”.

Surprisingly, many people felt that something else was as important as the translation. That is being able to read and write their language. Here are the top three answers to the question of what they liked about the translation work being done in their languages, they gave:
#1 Having an alphabet
#2 Having the Bible in my language
#3 Literacy

They love it that their language has an alphabet. They feel that brings their language into the modern era and gives it respect. They see the many benefits that being able to read and write their language brings them in daily life.

Man readying the Bible in his language. Photo GILLBT, Rodney Ballard

We tend to see the development of a writing system for a language as a hurdle to overcome before getting to translation. For us the writing of the language is a kind of beneficial side effect. But the communities where we work see it as a very good thing all by itself. Having grown up with writing all around us, I think we have forgotten how magical it is; whereas they are experiencing it for the very first time.

It’s kind of nice – producing something people love and need as a by-product.

What did I learn?

I recently traveled to Ghana for three weeks. Before I left, several people asked me what I would do there. It’s a great question. My top priority question is a bit different – what will I learn? That might be something new, or it might be something old that is confirmed or given a new twist.

So what did I learn during my trip?

Committee members and translator meeting with a regional coordinator

I learned that the initiative we set up to make language committees more effective is progressing slowly and we don’t know all the reasons why. These committees of volunteers are key to the success and impact of the Bible translations in their communities. We thought that some encouragement and clarification would make them more active, but that’s only happening for some. We don’t understand why. I think that we need to dialog with them to figure out what needs to be done. (link to more about committees)

I learned that it’s difficult to predict and plan. We restarted a number of stalled Old Testament translation programs. We knew that they each had draft translations of a few Old Testament books they had done in their spare time over the years. So we planned to take those drafts quickly through the remaining quality controls and distribute them. But the translators said that the translations needed to be reviewed first. They felt that the quality and accuracy of the translations had suffered from the slow and haphazard translation process. It will be interesting to see if they are right. We’ll know if they make significant changes. If they are right, we may have found a weaknesses with translation done by part-time volunteers. Then the question will then be cost effectiveness – does it take so much time to review the translations that one might as well start over, or will the review go quickly making the part-time translations cost and time effective?

I learned that it is worthwhile to occasionally and politely make a point in which I firmly believe. I have been making one such point once or twice a year since I came to Ghana in 2011. There was little interest. But now I find changes happening that match my suggestion. That might not have happened if I had given up or started denouncing the leadership publicly or behind the scenes. Besides, I can see that now is actually an excellent time to implement the idea, better than when I proposed it.

I learned that there is a phrase for common sense in the Akan language. I saw it on the back of a tro-tro (a van used as public transport). The words literally mean “home wisdom” (efie nyansa). A Ghanaian colleague explained to me the that it refers to a kind of wisdom one doesn’t get from school and which highly educated people sometimes lack. Sounds like common sense to me. People from very different races, cultures and nationalities share certain ideas, like common sense, something postmodern race theory appears to overlook or greatly minimize.

Easter dancing at church

I was reminded again of the frustration felt by Africans when programs which have enormous positive impact in their communities loose their funding from foreign sources. At the same time, I understand the rational of the foreign sources for moving on to something else. It appears that some frustrations don’t have answers, at least none anyone has discovered yet.

I was also reminded that part of the Easter celebration is dancing before the Lord (and the whole congregation) after church, even at a Baptist church.

Lastly, I was reminded that many Ghanaians are like some of my American friends – they complain about the poor quality of government work, like roads, all while wanting the government to do more.