Literacy is simple

You might imagine that literacy is complicated, that it costs a lot of money, or that adults learning to read spend years in classes. After all, not all children in US schools become fluent readers by the end of first grade and it is in second grade that most become fluent readers. Even then, it is not sure that many could read the Bible and understand it. So you might think that it takes years for an adult in Africa to learn to read well enough to read the Bible fluently. But Bible translators run literacy classes that might surprise you in many ways. I have seen adults become fluent readers, including reading Bible passages, after spending 12 weeks in intensive literacy, although it usually takes longer. They have a very big advantage over US grade school students. Because of the work of missionary-linguists, their language sounds like it spells and spells like it sounds. They don’t have to deal with the inconsistent, confusing maze that is English spelling.

Also, the literacy program is adapted to the local context. Classes are held in whatever facilities are available, even if that is under a tree. Whatever the church or community has, that’s what we’ll use.

In addition, the literacy teachers are volunteers. Few have any formal training as teachers. Some just became literate themselves and they are often among the best teachers! They do get a week or two of training. This is possible because the primer is made so the every lesson has exactly the same steps. The teacher doesn’t need to know why or how the steps work. They just learn to follow the same process with each lesson. (This wouldn’t work with English because the spelling is so complicated.) So literacy classes can be run by almost anybody. A church that wants its members to learn to read the Bible does not need to find a trained teacher. Any literate member of the congregation can do it. Even if no literate person wants to, the church can send a few of its illiterate members to a literacy class and then have the one of them who does the best become the teacher for others. When I was in Burkina Faso, one big literacy program run by another organization required a high school diploma to be a teacher. Not many were found and they wanted salaries, of course. Then the wanted proper classrooms, and they did not want to be assigned to literacy classes is remote areas. A literacy program that uses motivated members of the community does not encounter these issues.

 So, these simple literacy methods work because of motivation. The teachers, for example, are often very highly motivated. Some have been volunteer teachers for years, peddling their personal bicycle to a class several times a week, then the next year doing the same for a different class in a different location. They do this year after year. One even continued after being hit by a car while peddling his bike to class and spending some time in a hospital. They believe that they are changing lives and transforming their community, which they are. The learners are also motivated. Many want to read the Bible. Some want to use text messaging on their phone. Others want to write letters to distant relatives. They put up with the inadequacies and spend hours in class because they really want to read. If they fail, they enroll in the next class and try again. Chiefs want literacy classes in their areas so they give what they can and tell people to enroll. Nothing can replace motivation when it comes to literacy.

But the biggest reason why these literacy classes work is that they are in a language people know – their own language, their heart language. Time after time, I have seen adult literacy programs in English or French (in countries where French is the official language) get low results.

A few years ago, I met a young lady in northern Ghana who told me that her father would not let her go to school, but her uncle interceded with her father so that she could go to a literacy class in her language offered by the Ghanaian organization I work for. She did so well and her father was so impressed that he let her start school for the first time as a teenager. She advanced quickly. In the process she became a Christian and married a fine Christian man. When I spoke to her she was a few weeks from graduating from university. There are tens of thousands of similar cases in Ghana.  Combine literacy in the heart language with the Bible also in the heart language, and amazing things happen. Simple literacy yields results that are anything but simple. 

Photos: Rodney Ballard, courtesy of Wycliffe Global Alliance

Deep and wide

Ed addressing the workshop

Ed addressing a regional workshop

A few months back, I attended a few sessions of a training event for African church leaders. The topic was the use of African languages in the ministry of the church. That includes translations of the Bible in African languages, of course. The focus of the training was on getting faith deep into hearts and minds so that influences all of life. Some have remarked that Christianity in Africa is a mile wide and an inch deep. It is common for Christians and churches to split along ethnic lines during ethnic conflicts.

mandela-his-languageI know of cases where Christians have tried to harm, even kill, other members of their own church who were from the “enemy” ethnic group. Corruption is rampant in parts of African where there are many Christians. Serious Christians and church leaders are asking what is wrong and how to fix it. What is lacking in the preaching of the Gospel? What are churches not doing or doing wrong? How does faith get to the level of changing a person’s values, actions and allegiances? I have heard African Christians and their church leaders ask discuss these questions. The leaders of the workshop, themselves Africans, were proposing that deep faith that changes a person often involves the person’s mother tongue, even if it involves other languages as well.

At the end of the workshop, one of the participants, the leader of a large church in the country, told the group that he realized during the workshop that:

We win lots of souls, but we don’t give them what they need to grow in their new faith.

After the event, he asked for help planning a literacy effort for the Christians in his churches so that they could read the Bible in their own languages. We sent him a literacy specialist to help him get started. In Great Commission it is obvious that Jesus was giving instructions to do much more than “win lots of souls”. Jesus said to teach people “to observe all that I have commanded”. So we commend the church leader who wants to see the people in his churches grow in their faith.

We are doing Bible translation so that Christianity in Africa will be as deep as it is wide.

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.

Legible or fancy

KJV 1611 Genesis 1A change in technology changes the thing to which we apply the technology. There are lots of examples. Here’s one I love. What you see here is the first page of the first printing of the King James Bible in 1611. (enlarge). It is quite difficult to read. When Bibles were painstakingly hand copied by scribes, before the printing press, they became ornate. Each scribe was in fact a calligrapher.

Few had Bibles, few read them and those who did mostly had jobs that had them reading all day long – university professors, etc. So this system worked. Those who read learned through long practice to read the ornate letters with ease.

After the invention of the printing press, the first printers made Bibles that looked like the hand copied ones. They used the same kind of  ornate “fonts” and decorations. What else would they do? That kind of Bible was the only example they had. Printed Bibles spread more widely than he old hand-copied ones. Soon they were in the hands of lots of people who did not read all day long.

It took quite a while, but someone noticed that Bibles printed this way were difficult to read, especially for people who might only read the Bible a few times a week. People started experimenting with shapes of letters which were easier to read. The focus on the shapes of letters shifted from being fancy or ornate, to being easy to read. Eventually, educators began experiments to see which fonts were easier to read. Soon publishers were printing Bibles in easy-to-read fonts. Today, publishers consider carefully which font to use when printing a Bible and the main consideration is legibility. Get into the right circles, and there are still discussions of which fonts are best.

The technology of printing made the Bible and other documents available to more people. Those people needed something other than ornate letters, so the shapes of the characters (their font) eventually changed to match their needs. It’s one of very many examples of technology changing the thing to which it applied.

ImageTo print Bibles and other documents in local languages, we use fonts created by experts in making easily readable fonts. Those fonts contain all the characters we need, including a number not found in English. For many languages, we use letters like those we have in English, but we add some new letters to account for all the sounds in the language. Here’s an example of some of those added letters.

Capital of engFor the most part, these experts were and are missionaries supported by their churches and friends. Their work is a very important, if often unheralded, part of translating the Bible into all the languages of the world. In fact, I recently saw that Wycliffe is looking to recruit missionaries to do font development.

Black Hole

UNESCO School statsAccording to UNESCO, 42% of African children will drop out before finishing primary school. Because the dropout rate is so high, many adults don’t know how to read or write. So in most areas where translation is going on or needed, there are high levels of illiteracy. In fact, in most of those areas the dropout rate is well above 42%. So, translating the Bible without doing literacy results in little impact. But the major North American agencies that fund most of translation work are hesitant to do much literacy because they consider it a “black hole”.

By black hole thy mean something one can put lots of money into and never get to the end of it. They are both right and wrong about this.

Artwork courtesy of Alain r via Wikimedia Commons

Artwork courtesy of Alain r via Wikimedia Commons

They are right because of the statistics I cited above. Africa’s population is growing and many children drop out of school. So every year hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of Africans become adults not knowing how to read. Even if a literacy program reached all of them, the next year more would be added. A charity could spend millions of dollars for decades and not solve the problem. The metaphor of a black hole fits. But, the metaphor is also wrong. Literacy is only a black hole if you try to solve it once and for all. There are lots of low-cost things we can do to help people learn to read their newly translated Bibles without trying to “solve the literacy problem”.

Reagan - everyone can help someoneMany people could be blessed by spending a fraction of the money spent on translation on well-conceived literacy efforts. Many churches in Africa could run such programs at very low-cost and some, if informed and trained, could cover the costs themselves. It’s a modern malady – if we can’t solve something definitively we feel discouraged and don’t want to do anything about it. But Jesus didn’t call us to solve the world’s problems definitively, just to love our neighbor. The idea that we must fix a problem can prevent us from obeying that simple injunction. For me, calling literacy a black hole is a great example of that.

A Ghanian woman demonstrates her newly writing skills by writing in the sand. It's very low cost - no paper, no pencil, no blackboard, no chalk.

A Ghanaian woman demonstrates her newly acquired writing skills by writing in the sand. It’s very low cost – no paper, no pencil, no blackboard, no chalk. (photo courtesy of GILLBT)

Hmong alphabet

Today is International Literacy Day. So my blog today is about literacy, and it will be about literacy next week too.

Hmong alphabetThis is a wood carving in the Hmong language. It uses a writing system developed in about 1959 by Shong Lue Yang, a Laotian peasant farmer. He may be the only person in history who was killed for creating an alphabet. Writing their language in an alphabet developed by one of their own, the Hmong people began to have pride in their identity. These developments cause some to perceive Shong Lue Yang threat, so they had him assassinated in 1971.

I know of similar situations in Africa. In one case, a people dominated by another began to assert their rights after the development of an alphabet for their language and the start of the first literacy classes. The group that had dominated them reacted with violence. They even attempted to burn down the buildings of the organization doing literacy.

Young woman in literacy class in Burkina Faso

Young woman in literacy class in Burkina Faso

Literacy is about learning to read and write, but its effects go well beyond the realm of reading. Christians in Ghana who learn to read and write their languages become more active in their churches, so much so that some churches now recognize the ministry of uneducated lay people who have learned to read and who read the Bible in their languages. Women who learn to read and write are more likely to undertake new initiatives or businesses and to speak out in their communities and churches, even though the literacy classes don’t teach any of those things.

Literacy among minority peoples is a very neglected but effective form of Christian ministry. As I have written before, through literacy a person can touch many aspects of life: spiritual, economic, social and even political.

PS: The photo of the Hmong alphabet comes from Tim Brookes of the Endangered Alphabets Project. They have a gift shop with some very beautiful and unusual gifts.

What is really needed

Two weeks ago, I wrote about an incident where a missionary raised money for something that was not needed. You can read it here: https://heartlanguage.org/2016/07/07/when-understanding-fails/.

It is extraordinarily difficult for an American to understand what people in the developing world really need. A church audience was easily convinced and their hearts moved so they opened their wallets. I love their hearts, but that doesn’t make their action effective. In his book Walking with the Poor, Bryant Myers wrote: “The poor deserve more than gifted amateurs with their hearts  in the right place”.

Ebola in Africa - MapLet me give you an example of something that has proven really useful, but probably doesn’t look that way to most Americans. That is the new rapid test for Ebola. During the recent Ebola outbreak in some countries of West Africa, researchers were looking for a rapid test for Ebola. Eventually one was discovered and put into use. It takes 15 minutes. You might imagine that it would be nice to know if you had Ebola or not in minutes rather than days. But it is even more important than you imagine. In fact, it was the game changer, in my opinion.

You may have heard that people resisted the efforts of the public health officials trying to combat Ebola. In fact, in local mobs in Guinea killed some. People attacked ambulance drivers and paramedics. They hid sick relatives from the authorities. Crazy you say? Well, you’d be wrong. Their actions were quite understandable, at least they were before the quick Ebola test.

Ghanaian newspaper

Ghanaian newspaper

Let’s say you have a child with symptoms that might be Ebola. At the outset, the symptoms of Ebola are like those of many common diseases. So you can’t know what the child has. Before the rapid test, if you took your child to a Ebola center for treatment, they would examine him or her, and if the symptoms could be Ebola, your child would have blood drawn to check for Ebola. But the test took several days. Because of the danger of contagion, they won’t let you take your child home. Instead he or she is held in an isolation ward with other sick people who are also waiting for their Ebola test results. That means that your child will be housed with sick people some of whom almost certainly have Ebola. If your child doesn’t have Ebola, he or she could well contract it at the Ebola center. That’s why people resisted sending their family members and friends to Ebola centers.

Let’s say that you live in an area where there is no Ebola center, but you do have a local hospital. People who are suspected of having Ebola are keep there while awaiting the results of their Ebola tests. Do you want to go to that hospital? Send your child there? One of the side effects of the Ebola outbreak was the people died of treatable diseases because they were afraid to go to clinics and hospitals.

Ebola poster I saw in GhanaBut the rapid test changed that. In 15 minutes Ebola could be diagnosed or excluded. People came, got tested and left or were admitted. Public health crews going door to door could administer the test on the spot, eliminating the need to take every sick person to the hospital.

The rapid test was not just a rapid test, it was a tool that changed the relationship between the public health officials and the public. It is possible, I think, that the changed dynamics between officials and the public was what eventually brought an end to Ebola outbreak. We use the phrase “game changer” too loosely, but the rapid test was a real game changer. Not only is it rapid, it also works without electricity so it can be deployed anywhere.

I see the same thing in Bible translation, the things that have profound impact (small literacy programs, printing orthography guides in local languages, courses for pastors to teach them how to read in their own languages…) don’t sound like much to many American ears. I have heard the representatives of US-based translation agencies say they don’t fund those things because American Christian donors aren’t interested.

Like I said, I think that it is extraordinarily difficult for people in one place to understand what will change life for people in another place. Be honest, if you had wanted to give to the fight against Ebola and you had been presented with three choices – contributing to the development of a rapid test, to a Christian doctor or nurse traveling to effected countries to help, or giving money to support an Ebola center – which would you have chosen?

Not my religion

MosqueA number of years ago, I helped at a workshop for translators working in a country where the dominant religion is not Christianity. One of the national translators told of becoming a Christian. He had believed all his life that to be patriotic he had to follow his country’s dominant religion. Everyone from his country followed that religion. So religion and national identity were fused. It took him a long time to realize that he could still be a faithful citizen of his country and become a Christian.

In 2012, I attended a conference on evangelism in Ghana. One of the speakers, told a story about William Ofori Atta, one of the founders of modern Ghana. He had traveled to a town in northern Ghana to help with evangelism. With a church member from that city, he was witnessing in the streets. He started talking to someone. The church member stopped him, saying: “Don’t talk to him, he’s a Dagomba”. The Dagomba are one of the larger people groups in Ghana. Almost all Dagomba follow a world religion other than Christianity. The church member, himself a Christian from the south of Ghana and not a Dagomba, considered it natural that the Dagomba people follow a different religion. The Dagomba man thought the same because after listening for a minute, he said: “As for me, I am Dagomba.” Many Dagomba think that being Dagomba means following a religion other than Christianity.

Sisaala chiefs

Sisaala chiefs

Many people in northern Ghana have woven themselves an identity in which language, ethnicity, culture and religion are part of the same cloth. Following a particular religion, speaking their mother tongue and following their ethnic customs are all part of an immutable identity. In their minds, religion is not a matter of personal conviction or choice any more than being born a member of their ethnic group is a personal choice. One particular religion is seen as part of their identity. They cannot imagine being authentic members of their ethnic group while following another religion.

Worse, some Christians from other ethnic groups believe the same, like the man who stopped William Ofori Atta from witnessing.

Local languages are not morphology and syntax, they are a people’s identity
– Prof B Y Quarshie

B Y Quarshie

B Y Quarshie

Before translation, decades of missions and evangelism in northern Ghana did not change these perceptions of identity and religion. Sometimes, the way evangelism is done aggravates the perceptions – such as when evangelism is done by members of an ethnic group that is mostly Christian and they do it in their language. Or missionaries do evangelism only in the language of one of the largely Christian ethnic groups in Ghana. So, how does one break down perceptions that Christianity is a religion for only some of the peoples of Ghana?

We are working with churches in northern Ghana on a program which has been shown to change those perceptions. The key elements are:

  • Using the heart language (mother tongue) of the people including the Bible in their language
  • Holding church services and evangelism in the heart language of the people
  • Organizing literacy classes for anyone, in their heart language

Research has shown that these methods are effective in breaking down perceptions that Christianity is a religion only for others. Language is also part of peoples’ identity. When a message or teaching is “at home” in their language, people no longer think that it is foreign, or only for others.

We are rolling out this program, including seeking funding for the first three years from Ghanaian Christians. Prayers appreciated!

Selling out

GILLBT Projects 150 KonkombaIn 1977 the New Testament was completed in the Konkomba language of Ghana. At the time, there were very few Christians among the Konkomba. In fact, the Konkomba people first gave passive resistance to the translation of the Bible in their language. So when the translation was finished, only 2,000 New Testaments were printed, even though Konkomba is spoken by over 600,000 people.

In six years, those 2,000 New Testaments sold out. So 10,000 more were printed in 1984. They sold out by 1997, at which time the translation of the whole Bible was finished. So the first Konkomba Bible appeared in 1997. 10,000 copies were printed. It took just over 10 years to sell them all. This was quite amazing as there probably aren’t more than 10,000 evangelical Christian families among the Konkomba. But the Bible did sell out. So another 10,000 were printed in 2009. They sold out last year – in five years.

A few months ago, we received another 20,000 Konkomba Bibles. They were stored in our offices for a few days and filled the whole building. Within days of their arrival, 9,500 of them are already sold!

Dr. Sule-Saa

Dr. Sule-Saa

So, when all of the the 20,000 are sold, one adult in 10 will have a copy of the Bible, on average. And that is in a people group where only a few decades ago there were hardly any believers.

The Bible in their language has caused big changes. The head of the Presbyterian Church in Ghana’s Northern Region where the Konkomba live says:

Bible translation and literacy in the mother tongue has reshaped the face of the church in the Northern Region

Konkomba is not the only language in Ghana where the Bible has sold out more than once. Siwu, a small language in the Volta Region has sold out two printings of the New Testament. An just a few weeks back we received a shipment of the third printing of the Gikyode New Testament after the first two printings sold out.

While it is legitimate to ask if translating the Bible into the languages of Ghana is a worthwhile endeavor. I propose that we let specific people answer it – those who buy the Bibles till they are sold out. Their opinion is probably more relevant than yours or mine.

DSC09017

Boxes of Gikyode New Testaments just arrived from the printer

Sustainability and Language

This week, I continue with observations about the Northern Outreach Program. If you missed the introduction, you can read it here.

At least two Ghanaians and an Australian have done research into the impact of translations of the Bible into the languages of northern Ghana. One Dr. Solomon Sule-Saa wrote a doctoral thesis on the topic and another, Dr. Thomas Atta Akosah, produced several papers.

Rural church

Rural church

To understand the results of their research, we need to understand the context they studied. The peoples of northern Ghana have low levels of education. Those who do receive an education, then leave the area to find work. So rural churches in northern Ghana often have few members who have finished high school or even primary school. Where there is no translation in their language and no literacy, discipling local believers into leadership roles is a long task. Many do not know how to read. Even if they learn to read, the Bible is only in a language they do not know. Everything depends on a pastor as few others can lead a Bible study or teach a Sunday School class. The most foundational tool for Christian growth, the Bible, is inaccessible to most believers. Their context is full of information about their traditional beliefs, but it is meager in information about their new, Christian faith.

Dr. Sule-Saa research reveals that where there are translations of the Bible in the language, churches sustain themselves and even expand of their own initiative, but other churches where there is no translation in the language of the people need constant help from outside and even then they might stagnate. I have noted this result in other blog posts.

Reading the Bible in a language of northern Ghana

Reading the Bible in a language of northern Ghana

Dr. Atta Akosah’s research explains one of the reasons why this is the case. He shows that the translation of the Bible in the heart language (mother tongue) results in the emergence of effective and widely respected local church leadership; something that does not happen where there is no translation. When local people start reading the Bible in their language, some of them emerge as leaders. Applying their literacy skills and using the Bible as their textbook, they begin answering key questions – questions they ask themselves and questions being asked in their communities. They become known as sources of good advice and help.

Learning to read

Learning to read

In one area, an illiterate young man came to a Bible translator, asking to learn to read his language. So the translator taught him. He used his skill to read the Bible in his language. He went on to learn English, and become a pastor. He stayed in his home area where he started a church where he preaches in the his language. The church is composed almost entirely of converts from another world religion. He has a reputation in the community for answering the questions people have, so much so that other local pastors and even the leaders in other religions call him “the teacher”. People of all faiths come to him for answers. He even has a Bible question and answer program on a local FM radio station in his language.

The rise of empowered lay leadership also happened in the Northern Outreach Program. The emergence of this new level of lay leadership, reminds me of Jesus disciples who were called “uneducated, common men“. It is certainly a very good sign for sustaining the relatively new churches stated among the peoples of northern Ghana whether in their home areas or in the cities.

Man reading the Gospel of Mark in Krakye

Man reading the Gospel of Mark in Krakye

When I attended the celebration of 25 years of the Northern Outreach Program, I found a large hall full of representatives of churches established by the program, few educated, all with their Bibles in their languages.. When we spoke to them about the rise of local, respected lay leadership through literacy and the Scriptures in the heart language, we got a chorus of verbal affirmation, as we did when we told our observations of other results. We were not telling them anything new, just affirming what they were experiencing.

One of the reasons we are involved in Bible translation is the sustained results it achieves. That is why the byline for this blog contains the words “lasting impact.”

You did not choose me. I chose you and sent you out to produce fruit, the kind of fruit that will last. (John 15:16)