Black Elijah

harris-book-cover

During the growth of Christianity in Africa in the late 1800s and early 1900s, there was a phase where African “prophets” appeared. One of them was William Wade Harris, a Liberian man who had fallen out of favor with the church and had even spent time in prison where he had a vision from the Angel Gabriel telling him to preach repentance and the destruction of objects used in traditional African religion; then baptize those who received his message. So in July 1913 at the age of 53, he set off on foot with a small entourage for the neighboring French colony. He was not backed by any church or missionary agency.

They ended up walking across the whole coast of what is now the country of Côte d’Ivoire and on into what is now Ghana. They must have been quite a site in their bare feet, white garments with and crosses, especially Harris who always carried a large staff with a cross on top in his right hand and a Bible in his left. They walked all the way to what is now the country of Ghana. It is estimated that 200,000 people heeded Harris’ preaching and abandoned their traditional religious practices. This was a sizable portion of the total population.

His message was often opposed by traditional religious leaders, leading to power encounters reminiscent of stories in the Old Testament such as Elijah on Mount Carmel. Harris would triumph and large scale destruction of the objects of traditional religion would follow. Some of these events were recorded by French colonial administrators.

Prior to Harris, small churches had started in some towns, but they had little impact. Harris spoke in local languages and stripped western trappings from Christianity while targeting his preaching at the heart of traditional beliefs and practices. It got him in trouble with the French colonial administrators. He was arrested several times. He apparently made a miraculous escape from jail in Grand Lahou, the colonial capitol at the time. It is said that he pronounced a curse on the capitol when he left. Today, it is a deserted ghost town.

Harris instructed converts to worship on Sunday, to pray in their own languages, to keep the Sunday for worship, to pray in their own tongues, and to praise God with their own music. He named local elders and he told people that white missionaries would come later can give them the Bible in their languages. When Methodist missionaries arrived, they found churches full of believers waiting for them.

Harrist church hear Abidjan

Harrist church hear Abidjan

Today, the Harrist church is found across the area where Harris ministered. It still uses local languages and still has solid teaching, for the most part. Early Western missionaries falsely considered it a cult, probably because of its different worship practices, which you can see in the photos below. Where the Bible has been translated into the local languages, the Harrist church uses those translations avidly. Unfortunately, more than 100 years after Harris started his trek, a number of those languages still don’t have translations of the Bible. Harris’ promise has not yet been fulfilled, although slow progress is being made.

During the months we spent in Côte d’Ivoire in 2016, we were privileged to be in a position to help the translations in some of those languages on their way.

Village theology

Theologie et vie chretienne en Afrique

I have blogged before about this book written by Africans about theology in their countries and churches. The articles have a common theme – making the teachings of the Bible known and making them clear. One of the authors is a Congolese friend of mine, Dr. Bungushabaku Katho. These are my favorite quotes from his article:

“There are many resources in our villages for the understanding of the Bible and the transformation of our communities.” pg 74

“The illiterate masses can understand the Bible if we know how to reach them. Very often we realized that the experience of villagers became much more enriching for our understanding of the Bible; well above the bookish methods of the seminary hall.” pg 74

Dr. Katho has acted on these observations and that has taken him in a very interesting direction. He and his colleagues go out to discover how ordinary Africans understand the Bible in their languages. He calls this the “Village Academy”.

“But the type of education we [theologians] received keeps us from going out to discover these resources [villagers]. We think that good resources are those are found only in our libraries, in books that come to us from elsewhere. We want to read the Bible for villagers rather than with them. The experiment of the “Village Academy” is teaching us that a theologian must keep his ear tuned to the community in which he lives. In this sense, theology must cease to be a speculative discourse done for the pleasure of a few specialists.

Katho

Why this change? It’s simple. Dr. Katho is interested in real, tangible, transformational change in and for people at the grassroots.

“To have impact on on Christian living, the practice of theology in Africa must place the Bible at the center of its activities and be capable of speaking to Africans in their real situations.”

As you might expect, Dr. Katho is a big supporter of translating the Bible into African languages. After all, without translations into the languages of the people, his approach is impossible. But I like it also for another reason – it rings true to the Gospel. God sent his son to be born in the a food-trough for animals. He announced that birth to pagan stargazers and shepherds, rather than to the proper religious leaders of the day. Then his son worked as a skilled laborer before taking on a grassroots ministry with a group of uneducated men. By this method he changed the world. So standing the traditional, academic approach to theology on its head and starting with the Bible-inspired theological reflection of ordinary people in African villages strikes me as something God himself would do; or rather does, in fact.

Not only that, it works. For example, one issue in Africa is tensions between ethnic groups. But academic theology doesn’t address the issue in spite of the fact that the Bible is full of stories about ethnic conflict. However, African villagers reading the Bible in their languages have spontaneously started preaching and teaching on the issue having discovered what fancy, erudite theological seminaries have long overlooked. And it’s an issue critical to the health of both their churches and their countries.

Western Christmas in Africa

One of my Ghana colleagues and friends tells of Christmas in his village when he was a child. It was a big celebration. Most of the year people didn’t eat meat. It was a luxury. But at Christmas, my friend’s family butchered and had lots of meat. It was a real treat. Also, children got new clothes or even a pair of shoes. The adults’ Christmas parties involved unrestrained drunkenness.

Ideas about Christmas had leaked into my friends village from surrounding areas, mostly the western secular idea that it was a time to party. But the Christmas story was unknown.

Decorated palm branches

Nowadays, there is a translation of the New Testament in my friend’s language. That has changed how Christmas is celebrated. Families gather colorful flowers and weave them into palm branches that they attach to their doorframes for everyone to see. Children still get new clothes and everyone eats special meals. But now Christmas Eve is a time to go to church. The party has turned into a focus on Christ. People know who he was and what he did. They have allegiance to him.

Whereas secular western traditions of Christmas borrowed from British colonizers debased Christmas for my friend’s village, the Bible in the people’s language elevated it. In the process, the Bible has replaced secular western cultural influence with the real story of that amazing Middle Easterner named Jesus and the salvation he brings.

Who wears what?

Overflow seating at Korle Bu

I attended the 50th anniversary of the Korle Bu Community church in Accra. This church that has contributed to many different Christian ministries and churches in Ghana. At one time, all of the key evangelical ministries in Ghana had ties to this church including the organization Dayle and I work for, GILLBT. The church has consistently supported Bible translation through the years. It continues to support all kinds of missions and to run effective outreach into the community.

Man in tunic who prayed. You can see the preacher in his blue and white grand boubou behind on the platform to the left and others on the platform in suits and ties

At the event, which was a Sunday worship service, I saw something I have seen many times in Ghana, everybody was all dressed up, but each in his or her own way. The dress of the men was especially varied. The Master of Ceremonies was in a suit and tie. The Reverend who gave the main sermon was dressed in a grand boubou which is sometimes associated with Ghana’s other main religion. His boubou was made from the church anniversary cloth and decorated with the traditional embroidery. At least one other man in the congregation was also wearing a grand boubou. A prayer was offered by a main in a tunic, a style of dress also frequently worn by people following Ghana’s other main religion.

Other men in the congregation were sporting suits, slacks and dress shirts and a smattering of the traditional Ghanaian smock. So much for certain garments meaning that one belongs to a certain religion.

For the Kingdom of God is not a matter of what we eat or drink (or wear), but of living a life of goodness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. (Romans 14:17 NLT, parenthesis mine)

Ed in his Ghana smock

Mamadou Tanja, then President of Niger, dressed in a grand boubou visiting the White House in June 2005

First Heart Transplant

It probably seems strange to feature a heart transplant on this blog about Bible translation in Africa. Unlikely as it may seem, there are two links between the two; the first being Africa the second being an African language.

Groote Schuur Hospital

Those of you old enough to remember the first heart transplant may have forgotten that it took place in Africa, South Africa to be precise. It was performed by Dr. Christiaan Neethling Barnard at the Groote Schuur Hospital in Cape Town in December 1967.

The second link is language; in this case Afrikaans. That language was created with the influx of a large number of Dutch settlers beginning in 1652. They spoke Dutch, of course. Because they were influential, people around them started learning and speaking Dutch, albeit imprefectly. Plus, the settlers encountered plants and animals for which there was no Dutch name, so their names were borrowed from native languages. These forces eventually simplified and changed the Dutch spoken by the settlers creating a new language, Afrikaans, which is now spoken about 10 million people and is one of the official languages of South Africa.

Dr. Barnard grew up speaking Afrikaans at home and school. In fact, he did all his primary and secondary schooling in Africaans, only learning English once he got to university. So the first heart transplant was done in Africa by a man whose mother tongue was a language of Africa and who did much of his schooling in that language.

In light of this, it is rather silly to think that Africans would be better off to abandon their languages and speak English. Instead, I predict that they will do like Dr. Barnard and speak both – one for matters of family, community and the heart, and the other for work and their professional life. In fact, I know many Africans who do exactly that. And like Dr. Barnard and my African friends, that won’t hurt their professional achievements, not even one little bit.

So Bible translations in African languages will be continue to be widely used including by those who master English perfectly in their professional lives. In other words, they won’t undergo a language transplant.

Made for leaving

I think I always knew it, but my friend and the person who has overseen most of my work in Ghana, Paul Opoku-Mensah, clarified it for me:

Missionaries are temporary

Or as I like to say, missionaries are made for leaving. By that, I do not mean that they are forced to leave. Rather, I mean that missionaries are temporary by design. Leaving is what we are built for. We see this clearly in Jesus ministry which lasted roughly three years. We see it in the Apostle Paul’s missionary journies during which he went many places, stayed some time, then moved on. But when I say that missionaries are made to leave, I am not speaking primarily about the length of their ministry, but more about the conditions that end it. A missionary might move to an area to translate the Bible into the language there, then move on or return home when the translation is complete. That might take quite a long time, but it is still destined to end if and when the missionary succeeds. A mission that has not ended is, therefore, one which has not yet succeeded.

There’s an irony in the fact that a mission which succeeds creates the conditions for its own demise. But it goes further than that. A mission that does not end stifles new life.

Paul Opoku-Mensah taught me that it is good and natural that missionaries have different ideas than those who come to faith through their ministry. The missionary who founded The Church of Pentecost in Ghana, James McKoewn, only did evangelism and discipleship, but he was pleased when, after his retirement, the very successful church he planted branched out into medical work, schools and more. He saw these changes as a sign of his success. But many missionaries resist changes to ministries they start. I remember a person highly respected among his people telling us that a particular missionary had to go. The missionary had not done anything wrong except keep control too long.

If a missionary translates the Bible for people, those people may develop their own vision for what comes next. They will want to make sure that the translation is reprinted and on sale for the next generations. They might want to have their language used in the first few years of primary school to help their children get better grades. They may want lots of literacy classes. Or maybe they will want to translate their church’s liturgy. There’s no telling what things they will want to do to that the missionary didn’t do.

In order for this to happen well, the missionary must leave, or at least relinquish his or her hold on the ministry, so others can take it new directions.

To really succeed, a missionary must create the conditions that bring an end to his or her ministry.

Fraud

money-on-mouse-trap

Quite a few years ago, I was following a national organization doing Bible translation in a particular African country. Their board let their director go and brought in a new director. He brought in new top-level staff and they set about making some changes to the organization.

In the course of making the changes, they found that one of the translation project leaders was embezzling funds. They fired him and set about finding a new project leader. They also informed the US organization which was funding that translation project. That organization wrote back that they were stopping funding because of the fraud. They did not suspend funding pending a resolution of the issue, but rather stopped it permanently.

Now, I can understand stopping funding as a gut reaction. But I wondered if they really thought about the impact of what they were doing.

First, the people group still needed a translation. The embezzlement didn’t change that. Should they not get a translation because one person acted badly?

Second, they stopped funding to an organization that was undergoing reforms that had caught the problem. That didn’t seem like the right way to reward reformers who were fixing things.

Perhaps stopping funding gave a good feeling to the leaders of the funding organization or perhaps it made them look tough on fraud in front of their donors. But I could not think of any positive effect for the kingdom of God where the translation was happening. There, reformers were a bit disheartened and the people group saw their translation stop.

However, the reformers did go on to put in place a system where well-chosen local committees had oversight over the translation, and that put a virtual end to problems with missing and miss-spent money for translations.

Interpretation without communication

talking-head-word-cloud

Way back in 1982, I knew a missionary in Abidjan. At one time, he had just returned from a trip to another city in the country where he had preached at a church. I asked him how it went. He laughed and told me that he had preached in French and the church supplied an interpreter to translate him into the local language. After the service, the interpreter told him:

God really helped me to translate you, because I didn’t understand anything you said!

It appears to me that missionaries and African church leaders sometimes assume that as long as a person speaks both languages, he or she can be an interpreter. The business and diplomatic worlds know better.

In Africa, it is not uncommon that educated people speak their local language and the official language (French, English or Portuguese depending on the country), but have never actually read the Bible in their language. They may not know the names of the books of the Bible in their language, or how to say “Holy Spirit” or other key words in their language. They know all that in the official language, but not in their own. As most interpretation goes from the official language to the local language, you can imagine the kind of disaster than can occur if such a person is asked to translate a sermon or evangelistic message. Then there are can be other problems. The person speaking might speak too fast, or have an accent the interpreter isn’t used to.

I have sat through church services that were both well-interpreted and inadequately interpreted. Usually I understand the language of the speaker, but not the language into which the message is being interpreted. But it is still clear that the interpretation is lacking. For example, the person speaking may say something that elicits a strong response from the members of audience who speak his language, but when that is interpreted into the other language, no one reacts. Or perhaps the person speaking is telling a longish story that it is building to a climax. At the climax, the same thing happens – no audience response to the interpretation. This is more marked in churches where it is usual for listeners to verbally interact with the preacher during the sermon. When only those who understand the speaker’s language are interacting, something is wrong with the interpretation.

Few Bible schools or theological seminaries offer courses in interpretation or translation, even though their graduates will end up doing that from time to time all their lives. Their graduates will also be responsible for selecting members of their congregations to interpret, which they will do, most often without given them any instruction or training. How can they? They never got any themselves!

Fortunately, a number of Bible schools and seminaries in Africa have notice these problems and started to address them. They may require that pastoral students to study the key Bible terms in their own languages, or require them to write a synopsis of their thesis or key papers in their own language. One requires post-graduate students to give a summary of their thesis in their language at graduation when friends and family from their language are present.

Others, however, are still putting great effort into having their students understand the Bible but little helping them clearly communicate that to others. Some never even mention language to their students even in countries with many, many languages.

Optimism preferred

Decades ago, when we were expecting our oldest, I went to my favorite furniture maker in Ouagadougou and asked him if he knew how to make a rocking chair. He answered “no problem”. But when I went to pick up the chair, it was very clear that there was a big problem – the chair wouldn’t stay upright, toppling over on its back whenever I stood it up. I designed new rockers and had the furniture maker make them to my design. That rocking chair served us for more than a decade until we sold it when we moved.

Many of my colleagues and other Westerners living in Africa have been frustrated by the promises they received from Africans who told them “No problem” but there was a problem. It appears to them that Africans will say anything to get you to do business with them. A number see this as inherently dishonest.

While “no problem” optimism seems to be everywhere, it is not at all universal. I have many African friends and people I do business with who tell me exactly how it will be even if they know that is not what I want to hear. There are also some who say “no problem” intending to deceive.

But for many Africans who say “no problem”, I think that there is a very different explanation. It seems to me that rather than dishonesty or incompetence we are dealing with optimism. I don’t mean wishful thinking. Nor do I mean some conscious attempt to think in “positive” ways.

Rather, I believe that those saying “no problem” are making promises in which they themselves are fully confident. They are sure that they can deliver, even though the results later show that their self-confidence was not warranted. By Western standards, they are recklessly overconfident but I don’t think that they are intentionally dishonest. They have a can-do optimism.

Some of my readers might think that I am just wanting to put the most positive light on what I see because I love Africa. I don’t think so and I have a powerful reason. My interpretation that we are dealing with optimism fits with all kinds of other behaviors including but certainly not limited to:

  • Avoiding bad news (For example, if someone asks about an person who is ill, the answer is always that they are better, whatever their actual condition. In fact, in one place we worked if you said that their condition had deteriorated, that mean that the person died. So you couldn’t say that.)
  • Avoiding negatives (For example talking about HIV and AIDS was difficult because it was not culturally appropriate to say that someone had an incurable illness.)
  • Avoiding the idea of impossible (For example, in many places we have worked, something that was impossible was referred to as merely difficult.)

In all these ways and more, the Africans I know show that they prefer optimistic, can-do assessments. So, rather than engage in complaining or blame, it works better for me to just translate their sureness into my frame of reference by toning it down several steps. I can avoid frustration by realizing that the person I am dealing with actually believes he can and will do what he says. Instead of trying to judge his honesty, I focus on competence. This makes life a lot less stressful and it’s easier on relationships.

Hakuna matata.

Photo: John Vandermeer

Church in Accra

Legon Interdenominational Church

This is my Sunday experience in Accra:

  • There are LOTS of children in church, perhaps as many as one child for every three adults.
  • There are many young adults in church. They compose about a forth of the congregation. At least two Sundays a month, an engagement is announced, occasionally two the same Sunday.
  • Our church has a well-attended Bible adult study before church just like the US adult Sunday School classes of my youth.
  • Covenant Family Church

    The church has a well-organized Sunday school program for kids.

  • The church is over full every Sunday. There are people sitting outside listening even though they can’t see.
  • Our church has a choir that performs every Sunday. The choir members all wear matching outfits made out of brightly colored African cloth. Correction, two choirs, each with different outfits.
  • Our English-speaking congregations has part of the worship time in a Ghanaian language. People are really engaged during those times and the worship is vibrant.
  • The sanctuary is full of ceiling fans blasting away. We look for a spot right under one.
  • People dress up for church, and they dress up their kids too. The ladies are in dresses or skirts and blouses. Some men are wearing ties. The little girls have frilly dresses, black shoes and socks with lace and ribbon. They also all have earrings.
  • During worship time, people wave their hands in the air, dance and twirl white handkerchiefs.
  • The PA system is turned up way too loud!
  • Instead of walls, the sides of the Church are a row of big doors that are opened to let in the breeze.
  • There is a long prayer time. When elections are near, we are instructed to pray against voter intimidation, stuffing ballot boxes, voters who take bribes, and politicians who offer bribes.
  • There is a LONG announcement time which includes lots of personal announcements – deaths, engagements, birthdays, etc.
  • Visitors are asked to stand and introduce themselves. It appears that many visitors actually like being asked.
  • The pastors wear clerical collars.

And that’s how I know I’m in church in Ghana.