Ideophones and prayer

Some time ago, I was at a training event where an African was praying in her language. In the middle of the prayer came a rapid, staccato “dedede” (pronounced day day day). The person was using very common kind of word in African languages – an ideophone. When linguists first encountered these words in African languages they said that the words were “painting with sound”. And that’s how they came to be called idea-sounds, which is what ideophones means. (Not to be confused with idiophones which is a class of musical instruments. If you remember onomatopoeia from your English classes in school, you may wonder if ideophones are just onomatopoeia. Actually, ideophone is a broader term. Onomatopoeia are a kind of ideophone.)

Information about this ideophone from "The Structure of Ideophones in African and Asian Languages: The Case of Dagaare and Cantonese", Adams Bodomo, The University of Hong Kong

Information about this ideophone from “The Structure of Ideophones in African and Asian Languages: The Case of Dagaare and Cantonese”, Adams Bodomo, The University of Hong Kong

Cock-a-doodle-doo is an ideophone. While English has ideophones, there are not nearly as many as there are in African languages, nor are they used as frequently. In English, they are limited mostly to sounds made by animals and machines. In African languages ideophones are used for many other things such as the way something moves, its shape, or its position. One of my favorites means “gigantic, unwieldy blob of a thing”

In African languages, ideophones have the same sounds (consonants and vowels) as other words in the language, but they put them together in ways other words do not. They are also different because they don’t take prefixes or suffixes.

We can say that the rooster was cock-a-doodle-dooing, or that he cock-a-doodle-dooed, but African ideophones can’t add things like “ing” and “ed” the way we do in English. These features make ideophones a separate class of words in African languages.

But the most important thing about ideophones is that they paint mental images that stir up feelings, visual memories, or sensations. Their use in a prayer is a sign that the the person praying is saying something straight from their heart. In fact, the person is saying something that would require a whole phrase or sentence to say without the ideophone. An ideophone is a like a very compact, and therefore powerful, dose of images.

Praying 1

Prayer in a church in Congo

But ideophones are somewhat in danger. Many educated Africans don’t say them often. Perhaps they have been influenced by the official language, English or French, they learned in school. Or, they may mistakenly consider them primitive. So when an educated African Christian uses an ideophone in prayer in front of other educated people, that person is showing an attachment to and respect for their language that goes beyond the ordinary. It also shows that they are conveying to God thoughts and emotions that come straight from their heart.

We work in Bible translation, but our concern is wider than that. Through translation, we want people to know that they can use all of their language to connect to God, so that they will connect to him from the deepest part of their being. The person praying was doing just that. – Woo woo woo woo woo!!!

Fighting for language

I recently read something written by an African Christian in which he wrote

“The story of my peo­ple group has been one of a com­mu­nity that fought for a long time to have the right to use its own lan­guage for…worship­ping God.”

This may seem really strange to you, but it is not at all uncommon. Actually, the writer is fortunate, his people fought to get their language used in church. Many peoples just acquiesced, abandoning the idea of using their languages to talk to God, sing his praises, or worship him. They did not dare to think that they might get the Bible in their language.

Some missions and missionaries thought that promoting one language and discouraging others would promote unity in the church. It never did work out that way.  When one of my Ghanaian colleagues talked to church leaders about translating the Bible into some of the smaller languages in their area, one responded:

“You are trying to divide the church”

We looked into it, but that didn’t seem to be a risk. We started translation in the smaller languages and it has had no negative effects on church unity, quite the opposite. In fact, one of the common effects of the process of translating the Bible is greater church unity.

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Congolese Christians praying in a regional language

Other missionaries or African church leaders just find the the number of languages daunting, or think that having church services in all of them is just too complicated. In some cases, children were punished for speaking their languages in church and missionary schools. The results of such practices has been that some African Christians have come to believe that they cannot pray to God in their own language. They may even believe that their language and ethnicity are not pleasing to God, or that he has put them under a curse.

The God of the Bible does not require that people abandon their language when entering into his presence. Neither should we.

What do we do

Alphabet chart for previously unwritten language - a step in language development

Alphabet chart for previously unwritten language – a step in language development

I work in Bible translation. I find the complexity of language and translation intriguing. I love the linguistic and cultural sleuthing required to find exactly the right word to translate biblical concepts like salvation and righteousness. But that is not my real passion. If Bible translation were only that, it would not be enough. This came home to me in while I was part of the process of recruiting a new director for the translation work in Côte d’Ivoire. Part of that process included interviews with selected candidates. One of those interviews stayed with me.

The person’s knowledge of the organization and Bible translation was impressive, even though they had not worked in Bible translation or been closely associated with it. The person described our goals and the nature of our work with a level of detail that I did not expect from someone who had not worked in the organization. This candidate talked knowledgeably about the role of language development in Bible translation, for example. He had obviously taken time to study the organization.

changeBut there was something missing. For this candidate, translation work had great value because it preserved an important part of African culture – the language. It kept languages from dying out, he said. But there was something big missing – something that came out in the interviews with the other candidates; even those who did not cite our goals in such great detail. They all talked about the transforming effect of translating the Bible into African languages. This candidate did not mention that.

Photo: Rodney Ballard

Photo: Rodney Ballard

Where the Bible has been translated into the heart languages of the people, change has followed and sometimes very big change. Churches sprang up in places were there was longstanding resistance to the preaching of missionaries; churches spang up or held on under intense persecution; believers got newfound joy, peace and fruitfulness in their lives; societal ills like drunkenness declined. In some cases translation was an important contributor to the creation of political and religious freedom.

Translation is what we do, but transformation is what we pursue … lasting, authentic, God-fashioned transformation.

PS: The candidate in question is still has the same job he had before the interview.

Ghanaian woman in literacy class. Photo Rodney Ballard

Ghanaian woman in literacy class. Photo Rodney Ballard

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.

That’s for others

Langauge Map of GhanaThere are some large, unreached people groups in the north of Ghana. They have been resistant to various attempts by missionaries and churches to reach them with the Gospel. In recent years however, small congregations have started springing up here and there. These people groups have low education and literacy rates coupled with high poverty, which is quite a contrast to the southern parts of Ghana.

A number of Ghanaian churches have outreach in the north. They have have had modest success in evangelism and church planting. As Bibles were translated into the languages, some of them began literacy programs for members of their churches so that the Bibles could be used.

They funneled money from their churches in the south for to support the literacy effort. Literacy has had effects no one really expected, and those effects have been so big that two of the churches have changed their strategy for growing their churches in the north.

Keep in mind that most of the rural Christians were poor, subsistence farmers with little or no education. Prior to learning to read, their only participation in church was to sit and listen. Neither they nor church leaders thought that they had any role to play. When church leaders organized literacy classes, their hope was that these believers would be able to grow in faith through reading their Bibles. That happened, but much, much more.

Christians in the Northern Outreach Program read the Bible in their languages

Lay preachers from northern Ghana reading their Bibles at a church conference

Some of the Christians who attended literacy classes started seriously reading the Bibles in their languages. I’m not talking about reading a few verses a day. One man told me how he read the New Testament clear through 5 or 6 times in the month following the dedication. Where the whole Bible has been translated, some of those previously uneducated and illiterate peasant farmers used their newly acquired literacy skills to read their Bibles through multiple times in short order and then to continue reading it through every few months. They became known in their communities as Bible experts.

Literacy took them way beyond being able to grow in their personal faith – they became a faith resource for others. People came to them asking questions about the Bible and about Christianity. They started teaching Bible and Sunday school classes in their language. Some became lay preachers in their churches. A few have weekly FM radio broadcasts in which they explain the Bible or have a call-in segment where listeners can ask questions. In some cases, clerics from other religions come and ask them questions.

Learning to read

Learning to read

Not that long ago, these local Bible experts were simple pew sitters. Churches have realized that they need to recognize these lay preachers and include them in their pastoral staff, both because that seemed reasonable and because they are more effective than the more educated pastors sent to the north from other parts of Ghana who have to learn the languages. But these newly-literate lay preachers have provoked yet another change that goes way beyond the church to affect their whole community. Before, many people from northern Ghana considered that Christianity was not a religion them.

They thought that Christianity was the religion for the more educated peoples of the south of Ghana. But now the local lay preacher is from a family that has lived in the community since before anyone can remember, is widely respected, and preaches and teaches in the language of the community. Faced with that, people change their mind about his religion being only for people from somewhere else.

Bible translation and literacy for believers is radically altering the perceptions about Christianity, they are changing it from being generally considered a foreign import to something that is becoming an accepted part of the community – an understandable and acceptable choice. This hasn’t happened everywhere yet. There are still communities where the churches have not organized literacy classes. There, Christianity remains a religion for others.

The beatitudes of language

On one of my trips into Congo, I found myself in the city of Kisangani over a weekend. One of the church leaders I was working with suggested that I attend the French language worship service at his church. (French is the official language of Congo, spoken by under 15% of the people. Everyone speaks one of the 220 African languages native to the country.) It is quite common for churches in Africa to have multiple services on Sunday in different languages with one of them being in the official languages of the country (French, English or Portuguese).

Choir and the French language service

Choir and the French language service

I was disappointed. Instead of finding a vibrant congregation of government officials and others with good education, the congregation was composed of 20 or 30 high school and university students. They were not in a French language service because French was their preferred language for prayer and worship. Instead, they were in a French language church service because French is prestigious and they wanted to display that they were part of the educated elite. The thing is, they didn’t master French that well, so they had the opposite effect on me, although they were certainly impressing themselves.

It is easy to think that language is about communication and so in every circumstance where there is a choice between languages, people will choose the language most likely to communicate. Sociolinguists will tell you that this is not so. Living in a places where many languages are spoken has made me acutely aware that language choice is often not about communication. The young students in Kisangani that Sunday did not choose French because it communicated best, or because it helped them express their thoughts and emotions best. No, they choose French because of its prestige. Communication, if it was a consideration, came a distant second.

Preacher at the French-language service

Preacher at the French-language service

I have seen young pastors returning from Bible School or seminary preach to people in their own village in the official language even though they know that few understand it. Why? Because preaching in the official language shows that they are well-educated.

People choose one language over another to help them accomplish their goals. If their goal is to communicate, they will choose the language that communicates best. If their goal is to lift up, encourage and empower others, they will choose the language that does that.

But, if their goal is to sound educated, enhance their prestige or establish their authority, they will choose the language that does that. Where I have lived in Africa, language choice is a great humility gauge and a very accurate detector of the intentions of the heart. Part of doing Bible translation in Africa is helping churches and pastors rethink some of their attitudes toward language. The Beatitudes give guidance for language choice in multilingual environments:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.

In many contexts English (or whichever language is the official language) is the power choice, not the meek choice. It is the choice lacking compassion for the listeners, not the merciful choice. It is the choice of those wealthy in spirit.

multilingualism

Back to Ghana

Tomorrow, our temporary assignment in Côte d’Ivoire comes to an end. Those who follow our ministry will remember that it came up suddenly back in March and Ed actually started as Director in April. We were given two goals – keep things running and work with a local committee to choose a new director. Time will judge how well or poorly we kept things running, but we are very sure that the new Director is the person God has chosen and that she will do a great job.

Ed handing over to Pierrette

Ed handing over to Pierrette

She has a Master Degree in Bible translation and has been responsible for the Bible translation department of her church for the last few years. She has also been a member of the board of the national Bible Society of Côte d’Ivoire and a member of the translation committee for her language, Abure. God’s call in her life to Bible translation is clear. During the orientation period I was repeatedly impressed that God has given her the amazing wisdom and the ability to judge situations.

We have a one-hour flights to Accra tomorrow. Back in Ghana, we plan to take at least a week off. Being responsible for the translation work for a whole country is a lot of responsibility. Added to that was the fact that Ed had to start cold and catch up with all that was going on and deal with some pressing issues which were emotionally draining. Thank you for your prayers during the last few months. Through the first two weeks of November, pray that the Lord will recharge us to 100%.

This is the great staff at the translation center in Abidjan. They do a great job.

This is the great staff at the translation center in Abidjan. They do a great job.

Role ending

The new director and her husband

The new director and her husband

As many of you know, I was unexpectedly asked to serve as acting director for translation work in Côte d’Ivoire and I have filled that role for the last six months. That ended on October 1 when I handed over to an Ivorian, Mrs. Pierrette Ayité (pronounced ah-yee-TAY). One of my principle responsibilities was to work with a group of Ivorian Christians to recruit a new director. It was with great thankfulness to God and a sense of satisfaction that I handed over to her because I believe that she will do a great job.

I have been reflecting on these last few months. I could say lots of things, but one reflection keeps coming back to me. I’ll get to it in a moment.

For a couple decades, our ministry has focused on helping African churches and African Christians understand the role they can play in Bible translation and perhaps receive a call from God to be involved. We did not come to Africa with that focus, not at all. Instead it flowed out of a set of personal experiences and out of seeing how God is growing his church on this continent – both in terms of numbers and in terms of depth.

My time in Côte d’Ivoire confirmed another reason why we pursue this focus. In familiarizing myself with the translation work after my arrival, I discovered a rather serious lack in some of the translation programs. The thing was, it was the Ivorians who saw the lack, not we white missionaries. As I dug into it, I came to be convinced that they were right to be concerned. At the end of September we has a meeting with church leaders where they fully confirmed that the lack was real and that it was crucial that it be dealt with. We should not be surprised that they saw the problem first. This is their country, their languages and their churches. They will understand them in ways we do not.

Ed working with Ivorian staff

Ed and other staff members preparing information for the recruitment of a new director

A very good reason to involve local people in Bible translation is that they will make it more effective because will see problems and opportunities we don’t. That is the reflection that keeps coming back to me. By the way, that reflection is confirmed by recent research showing that translation has more impact where local people are more involved in decision making. If you are interested in working in a cross-cultural team where each person and culture contributes and all are appreciated, ask God if working to produce lasting impact through Bible translation is for you.

PS: Dayle and I will stay in Abidjan for a few more weeks before returning to Ghana.

If you liked this post, you might also like Why Nationals? or Span.

 

Dis-honorable

I was at a meeting where an African was giving a meditation on the story in Luke 13:10-17 where Jesus saw a woman who had been crippled for 18 years. She was completely bent over and could not straighten up. The person giving the meditation repeatedly asked his African listeners about this woman’s condition:

Is that an honorable position?
Is that an honorable position?
Is that an honorable position?
Is that an honorable position?

DAN_8313

The workshop

Everyone was in agreement that it was not honorable. I agreed too. But if I had been giving the devotional on that passage I would not have focused on the honor or dishonor associated with the woman’s condition. I would have talked about the woman’s condition being painful or limiting. I think that most of my American friends would do the same. We would feel pity for the limitations or pain that such a condition would cause. If we prayed for someone with that condition, it would be to relieve the suffering and limitations that come with it.

Not many of us would pray for relief from the dishonor. Think about the word we use to use about such conditions. We called them disabilities. The focus in that word is on the (supposed) lack of some ability. It is a dis-ABILITY. But my African friend focused on the dis-HONOR. Honor is so important to cultures here that, in a discussion of what makes for good teamwork, one of my Ivorian friends said that is it important to good teamwork that no members of the team bring it dishonor. If they behave in wrong ways, he explained, others will think that the whole team is bad and thereby lacking in honor.

Different cultures bring different perspectives to the same text. My focus on the pain and limitations is not wrong or right nor was my African’s friend’s focus on dishonor wrong or right. Rather, we each bring a perspective that can enrich and expand the perspective of others.

Voices of the PoorIn this case, the perspective of honor and dishonor is very helpful. First of all, it is almost certain that the woman and the people around her in her day had the same focus as my African friend – considering the lack of honor as important as the lack of ability or the experience of pain. So his perspective helps me to understand the incident more like Jesus and the others who were present at the actual event. Second, at the turn of the millennium, the World Bank asked 60,000 experts on poverty from 60 countries to give their perspective on poverty. These experts were the poor themselves. The results can be found in a book entitled Voices of the Poor. Here’s a quote from one of the experts:

Poverty is pain; it feels like a disease. It attacks a person not only materially but also morally. It eats away one’s dignity and drives one into total despair- a poor woman, Moldova.

Voices of the Poor reveals that the poor experience poverty not just as lack of finances. They a feel the lack of respect, the dishonor. When I treat poverty as only a lack of finances, I miss an important way I can fight the effects of poverty – by giving respect to the poor. The same is true for people with dis-abilities, we can counter one of the effects by giving respect.

Jesus brought honor to the woman by healing her. We can’t always heal, but we can follow Jesus’ example by treating with respect those others may disrespect. The person bringing the meditation noted that many of the peoples without the Scriptures are bent into an dishonorable position by poverty, by disdain, or through being marginalized by others. Not infrequently, they see the translation of the Bible into their languages as something that disperses some of their dishonor.