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.

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.

Too literate

Literacy class (photo: GILLBT, Rodney Ballard)

Those of you who follow this blog know that I write frequently about the impact of adult literacy in northern Ghana. Ever since I arrived in Ghana in 2010, I have heard all sorts of Ghanaians (farmers, doctors, pastors, clerks, doctors, and more) extoll the positive impact of adult literacy in northern Ghana. It is credited with effects as diverse as the spread of the Gospel, better opportunies for women, better education outcomes for schoolchildren, less conflict, and increased income. Many people who live in places where it has had great effects have pleaded for a resumption of the widespread literacy programs which were run in the 1990s.

It was way back in the early 1800s that widespread reading revolutionized the United States. For example, by 1822, more Americans read newspapers than anyone else. There were hundreds of newspapers with the largest having a circulation of about 4,000 readers. And the number of readers kept growing. From 1832 to 1836, the circulation of daily papers in New York City exploded from 18,000 to about 60,000. At that time the city’s population was less than 300,000, so one paper was sold for every five people – probably about one per family. Americans became the most literate people not just in the world but also in history.

Young woman in literacy class in Burkina Faso

We have been so literate for so long that we have forgotten what it is like to live in a pre-literate society; where key information is only available to you by word of mouth from someone who got it the same way, where you can’t track down the original source to verify the information, where you can’t read the Bible for yourself, where there are only a few people who can tell you what the Bible says and you might not know any of them, and where you can’t jot down a piece of information you will need later. I could go on and on.

Wycliffe and other translation agencies say that it is difficult to raise money for adult literacy. That’s probably the case, at least in part, because we are so literate that we can’t imagine the lives of those who can’t read and therefore we can’t imagine the benefits.

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.