When does it start?

GILLBT Projects 080 ChumbrungI am very interested in what enhances, and what inhibits, the impact of a program to translate the Bible into a language in Africa. A while back, I was reading an evaluation of the impact of a translation of the Bible done in Ghana, for the Chumburung language. It was very interesting, but one thing puzzled me. The researcher doing the evaluation used the year 1989 as a baseline because that was the year the New Testament in Chumburung appeared. The Old Testament came later. But the translators started work on the language in 1972. So a period of 17 years (1972 to 1989) is left out of the evaluation. Presumably because the evaluator thought that the impact would start with the publication of the Bible. Bible translation is a long-term endeavor with long-term impact. Still, 17 years before seeing the first benefit seemed way too long.

Town of Banda where the Chumburung Bible was translated

Town of Banda where the Chumburung Bible was translated

In fact, the process of doing the translation usually has impact. In November, Wycliffe put a series of stories on their blog in which national translators in Papua New Guinea tell of the changes in their own lives. Changes which started around the translation table. In one of them, a national translator resisted a cultural imperative to revenge the burning down of his house, because of what he had learned while translating the Bible.In another case, a church leader listening to the draft translation being read so that they could comment on it (a step called checking), said:

“Wow! It would be very good if all the church leaders were here checking this translation! We would be evaluating ourselves, not just the translation. We leaders might think that we are righteous men in the eyes of the people, but in the eyes of God, it may not be so!”

In Congo, one group was under a tree practicing reading various parts in preparation for the recording of the Jesus Film. A crowd gathered to listen to the practice. Some people came to faith and one person who had left the church and Christian life repented and renewed his faith.

The very first translation in the Nyangbo language, written on a blackboard

The very first translation in the Nyangbo language, written on a blackboard

Too often, missionary translators have seen the positive impacts of the translation process as wonderful by-products – encouraging ‘accidents’, but they make few, if any, planned or systematic effort to use the translation process itself to impact the community. In fact, some might consider that a distraction.

Fronting and deliberately planning early use and impact of translation is coming to the fore in Africa, with some interesting results. Translators have tried several approaches, including translating the Gospel of Luke, then producing the Jesus Film, based on the Gospel of Luke. There are also attempts to get more pastors involved in the testing process. Recently, a Cameroonian friend posted on Facebook that they had recorded the first 100 verses translated in the Mpumpong language. He wrote:

[We] went out on the dusty streets of Yokadouma to test it out. And before we knew we had gathered a crowd – they were all excited to hear the Word of God in Mpumpong! The people shared what they had heard, what it meant and what they thought about it.

This story points to the impact that can happen when the translation gets into the community quickly  – as soon as even one story from one Gospel gets translated, then bringing out more little pieces as they become available – getting them read in the church, recording them and playing them in the streets, performing them as skits, reading them to listening and discussion groups, or getting choirs to make new praise songs from them. In fact, a translator in Tanzania printed a few chapters, took them to a funeral and read them with amazing results. Here’s a short video of what happened: https://vimeo.com/13483359

Planning and implementing immediate use and impact into translation programs in Ghana is one of Ed’s tasks.

Don’t forget the heroes

A few months ago I was intrigued by the following news article.

Jewish and historical groups in Poland have called for a special day be put in the Polish calendar to remember the thousands of Poles who aided Jews during WW II.

The Association of the Children of the Holocaust, the Jan Karski Association and the Museum of the History of Polish Jews have addressed an appeal to President Bronisław Komorowski to initiate a Day in tribute to Poles-holders of the Righteous among the Nations medals.

Those who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust deserve a special place in the nation’s memory and historical debate, the appeal says. Read more

Map of eastern Africa

Map of eastern Africa showing Rwanda, Congo and Kenya

Something similar is needed for Africa. We see the horrors in Africa, such as the genocide in Rwanda in which radical Hutus killed almost one million Tutsis. We rightfully ask why? How could such a thing happen? Those are excellent questions, but we should ask other questions too. If you take time to read about the genocide in Rwanda, you will notice that those killed are described as “Tutsis and moderate Hutus”. The fact is that many Hutus died protecting Tutsis from the murderous rage of the  radicals in their own Hutu ethnic group (or tribe). The movie, Hotel Rwanda, illustrates just one such case.

I was in Kenya when the 2008 election crisis caused ethnic clashes. One of my colleagues, a Kenyan who gave me computer support, was saved from certain death by people of the ethnic group which were supposedly against his ethnic group. They harbored him against the attacks of their own people.

Ed and Congolese graduate

Ed and Lamumba (not his real name) graduating with a degree in Bible translation

When I worked in Congo, we sponsored a Congolese Bible translator for advanced translation studies. I’ll call him Lamumba, as it still is not safe to use his name. When he came out of Congo to start the studies in Kenya, he told a harrowing story. In his area there was a tribal war going on. One tribe would take control of his town and then kill or imprison people from the other group, then the other tribe would take over and do the same in reverse. When the militants from his own tribe were in control, a believer from his church, but from the other tribe, was imprisoned. He took that person a meal in prison. Incredibly, people from Lamumba’s church, who were from his own ethnic group, perceived that as aiding the enemy and sought to kill him. He had to sleep in a different house every night to avoid them.

When we react in horror to ethnic clashes, as we should, we should also remember that God probably has his heroes right smack in the middle. There will be many Hutu martyrs for Jesus in heaven who died defending Tutsis against the attacks of their fellow Hutus. There are other Congolese, like Lamumba, who helped fellow believers in spite of the tribal clash that should have separated them. Some probably died for it. The instigators of the ethnic conflict in Kenya are going to be tried in the International Criminal Court, but no official body is looking into the stories of those in their ethnic group who acted against their machinations.

God remembers, and one day he is going to put on display the righteous acts of those who suffered to do right, and thereby thoroughly humiliate this world (Rev. 17:8). Don’t find yourself listening to the stories and saying, “Oops! I really should have expected that,” or, “Oh! How wrong I was to condemn all Africans!”


I was working with my Ghanaian colleagues on some communication pieces (brochures, web pages, etc.) to help Ghanaians understand Bible translation. In a very good piece by one of my colleagues, he included this statement:

The Bible is a meaningful book with a message that is meant to be understood. When it was first written, it was written in the everyday language that the people of the time spoke.

Communication always starts from some assumptions about what people believe about the subject. So, those writing about AIDS might include the fact that it is not transmitted through casual contact such as shaking hands. Why write that? Well, because some people might believe that it can be. So let’s look again at what my Ghanaian colleague wrote.

The Bible is a meaningful book with a message that is meant to be understood. When it was first written, it was written in the everyday language that the people of the time spoke.

Why would he write that? He is assuming that some people think that the Bible might be a book which was not meant to be understood. Maybe they think that it is a mystical book which can only be understood by religious experts. Maybe they think that even when it was first written people did not understand it – more like a set of magical chants than meaningful words.

Translators and volunteers who shaped the transaltion of the New Testament in the Nawuri language of Ghana, assuring that it was both acurate and clear

Translators and volunteers who shaped the translation of the New Testament in the Nawuri language of Ghana, assuring that it was both accurate and clear

The thing is, his assumptions are correct. Many Africans have the mistaken notion that the Bible is not meant to be understood. Some of this comes from their traditional religions in which knowledge of the religion resides only in experts such as shamans and diviners, not in the ordinary person. It is not that the shamans and diviners explain. Not at all! On the contrary, they keep as much information to themselves as possible just like companies try to keep some things secret, such as the recipe for Coca-Cola. That way their clients always have to return to them, thus supplying a steady stream of income.

The belief that the Bible is not a book to understand is also reinforced by experience. Many Africans hear it preached in languages they do not understand, or do not fully understand, sometimes from stilted or archaic translations that do not convey meaning. The combination of coming from a religion in which they rely on experts to understand for them and hearing the Bible in language they do not fully understand can lead to an unfortunate assumption – that the Bible is not meant to be understood.

Congoelse women leaning in to watch the Jesus Film

Congoelse women leaning in to watch the Jesus Film

I was part of producing the Jesus Film in a few languages in northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo. We dedicated the films in four of the languages in the town of Bunia. As part of the dedication, we played some of the Jesus Film in each language. I could hear excited whispering as the showing started. I asked a local person what they were saying.

We can understand everything!
It is so clear!

Why the surprise? Well, they did not expect to understand. Their experience of church was one of not understanding. This is not just true in Africa, In Papua New Guinea a speaker of the Tokples languages said of the new translation in that language:

Before, the Bible has always seemed hard to understand. But as we have read from the Tokples Bible … everything has been perfectly clear. (Read more here)

But God loves to communicate. One of the speakers at the National Conference on Evangelism held recently in Ghana said:

God is a speaking God. We love God’s Word because in his Word we hear him speaking to us. We see him coming to us.

Translating the Bible is not about producing a book. It is about God speaking today; about knowing Jesus, who himself said:

The Scriptures tell about me (John 5:39 CEV)

A Symphony Orchestra in Kinshasa – the rest of the story

Not long ago 60 Minutes did a report called Joy in the Congo: A musical miracle. If you have not seen it, you should. But the rest of the story is even more interesting.

Kimbanguist band in Isiro

Kimbanguist band in Isiro

The name of the orchestra gives us a big clue. It is the “Kimbanguist Symphony Orchestra”. The Kimbanguist Church (that’s right, a church) is perhaps the largest African Independent church at 5.5 million members. It was founded by Simon Kimbangu in the Democratic Republic of Congo,  then the Belgian Congo. They are known for their brass bands, such as this one I found parading in the city of Isiro.

Kinshasa SymphonyIt was the leader of the Kimbanguist church himself who gave the instructions to start music groups with more variety that eventually led to the formation of the symphony orchestra. They had vision, but not much else: few instruments, no one who could read music. More, even Congolese laughed at the idea of classical music, saying that it just puts people to sleep. But they kept at in and they are making a sensation. You can buy a DVD documentary of the orchestra on Amazon!

All this happened in a country where corruption, abuse of human rights, sexual violence against women and poverty are rampant. The Kimbanguist Church has lost its way a bit, but it seems that there are reform movements in the church that could bring it back into the mainstream.

Christianity is growing fast in much of Africa. Up to now, that growth has mostly been in numbers. But now there are many signs of growth in depth. The world may not take Africa seriously. It may not take Christianity seriously. But just watch and you will see the suffering, poor, patient, and faithful people of God in Africa will do impressive things in the middle of the messes made by their leaders. A symphony orchestra?  You ain’t seen nothin yet!

Isn’t it obvious that God deliberately chose men and women that the culture overlooks and exploits and abuses, chose these “nobodies” to expose the hollow pretensions of the “somebodies”? (I Corinthians 1:27-28, The Message)

Cloth and meaning

In West Africa, the cloth you wear carries a message, but not at all in the same way that it might in the USA..

Assistants to a seamstress

Assistants to a seamstress

While some people wear western cloth and western-style clothes, most people wear cloth made in their country, or a neighboring country. It is light weight cotton, printed in bright colors and sold in stores and even little open-air markets in rural areas. New designs are constantly coming out. When they do, they often acquire a name packed with meaning. Few clothes are ready-made. The cotton cloth is quite inexpensive. Plus, there are tailors and seamstresses everywhere. You can hear the sound of their treadle machines (from China) in the most remote areas. Tailor-made clothes are cheaper than store-bought! So men and women pick out a cloth they like and have it sewn into a design they like.

Some people will choose cloth specifically because of the meaning of its name. So a young woman vying with another for a young man might get an outfit made of cloth named “I will win over my rival.” Her friends and family, and more importantly her rival for the young man, will know exactly what that means and to whom it applies. I learned this when a neighbor pointed out the meaning of a cloth I had just bought for my wife. The colors and design were nice, but the meaning did not fit. (I cannot count the number of things I have learned about Africa by making a mistake!)

Cloth of the Ladies of Charity of the Association of Chadian Churches

Cloth of the Ladies of Charity of the Association of Chadian Churches

The designers working for the textile manufacturers are constantly at work. If you are willing to pay for a modest-sized run, you can work with one of their designers to produce a design you like. So a company, or a church, or a civic organization can have cloth made with its logo. Because cloth has meaning and because you can have it made with your logo, it can be used for advertisement. You can have thousands of people walking around displaying advertizing your brand, your church or your organization.

Cloth for the Shalom University of Bunia in the Congo

Cloth for the Shalom University of Bunia in the Congo

Even people who do not know how to read can identify which cloth is associated with which church or other organization. People like to buy the cloth associated with their church or civic group. So the women’s organization for a church denomination might have cloth made and all the ladies who have the means will have an outfit made of it. It shows solidarity. Because of this, having cloth made for your organization is a source of revenue. The textile manufacturer will sell you a whole run at wholesale and you resell it to your members at retail. They pay no more than for any other cloth, and you get money for your activities.

Chairman of the GILLBT board in the 50th Anniversary GILLBT cloth

Chairman of the GILLBT board in the 50th Anniversary GILLBT cloth

The Ghanaian organization I work for is celebrating its jubilee year. Of course, this could not be commemorated without 50th anniversary cloth. Staff worked with the textile company to produce two potential designs which were shown to the staff and a winner selected. All of the staff bought the cloth. At the first 50th anniversary celebration, people were dressed in almost as many different styles as there were people, but made of the same cloth. Over the coming months people who want to show their appreciation for GILLBT’s work in Bible translation and literacy in Ghanaian languages will buy the cloth and have outfits made so that they too can make a public statement of support.


I have had fun imaging what might happen if we did the same in the US. One might see Republican and Democratic party cloth next to each other in the checkout line.

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Sitting outside the cantina in Tamale

Tamale staff sitting outside the cantina at coffee break

This is coffee break at the GILLBT* Center in Tamale. The staff get coffee or tea (mostly the later) inside. They then forgo the tables and chairs inside to sit outside on the foundation and sidewalk to talk. Mind you, these are not gardeners or simple laborers. There are a number of BAs and even MAs in this group. But they have no complexes about doing things their Ghanaian way. Some even wear traditional Ghanaian clothes.

One of the first things I learned about Africa is that people here live outside. Houses are for sleeping, storing stuff, and taking shelter from rain. Our neighbors in Ouagadougou would bring their chairs out to the edge of the street in front of their houses to sit, talk and gab with passer’s by. A lot like small town America used to be, but in that case people sat on their porches.

In some places in Congo, people built palaver huts under which people sit to talk (see below). Everyone brings a low stool. In fact, the stools are about the same height as the sidewalk the guys are sitting on in the  photo.  Sitting outside to talk about important matters is also very Old Testament:

“Her husband is known in the gates when he sits among the elders of the land.” (Proverbs 31:23 English Standard Version).

This and many other cultural similarities made the Old Testament popular among Africa Christians. My wife must be a very virtuous woman because at coffee break in Tamale, her husband is known at the door of the GILLBT “Cantina” when he sits among the senior staff.

Palaver hut outside Isiro, DR Congo

Palaver hut outside Isiro, DR Congo


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*GILLBT, for Ghana Institute of Linguistics, Literacy and Bible Translation. A Ghanaian organization doing just was its name says: Linguistics, Literacy, Bible translation in the languages of Ghana. It has translated the Bible into more Ghana languages than any other organization, in addition to making over 500,000 literate through its literacy programs. Dayle and I are assigned to it to help with planning and mobilizing more resources from within Ghana (Ed) and managing a Guest House (Dayle).

Sustainability in a cemetery

The current holy grail of organizations working to better people’s lives in Africa is sustainability. It is easy to understand why. When we lived in semi-arid Burkina Faso, there were many wells in rural villages that had worked when installed but then broke down and were never repaired. So there had been clean water for a while, but no more. The provision of clean water and its attendant health benefits was not sustained. I talked to a Kenyan economist who was in an economic development project that lasted several years and cost 10 million dollars. He told me that a decade after the end of the project nothing at all remained.

On the other hand, the growth of the church in Africa is a wonderful example of sustainability. Most congregations in Africa are self-sustaining. They grow and progress through their own resources and energies. In fact, Dayle and I are working to tap into that dynamism for Bible translation.

July 16 was the 80th anniversary of the death of C.T. Studd. His go-to-the-farthest-and-hardest approach shows in my favorite quote from him, ” Some want to live within the sound of church or chapel bell; I want to run a rescue shop within a yard of hell.” He trekked into what was then the Belgium Congo seeking the geographic center of Africa. It cost him. One doctor described him as a ‘museum of diseases’. But he kept going.

Ibambi graveyard and C.T. Studd's grave

Ibambi cemetery (top) and C.T. Studd's grave (bottom)

When I started working in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2001, learned that I would have reason to travel to Ibambi where Studd is buried. I couldn’t wait.

I got there as the catastrophic but little-known civil war in Congo was winding down. What Studd had started continued to grow after his death. By 1970, the area where he worked, like almost all in Congo, was overwhelmingly Christian. You will have to look a while to find a resident of Ibambi who does not claim Studd’s faith.

A local person walked me to the well-kept plot of about 20 graves including Studd’s, some fellow missionaries’, and early converts’. It was the best-kept plot in town. Talk about lasting impact! This man, probably forgotten or never known by many Christians today, buried in a forgotten place out of the sight of the world, has his grave tenderly cared for by some of the poorest, and most abused people on earth because more than 70 years after his death they still have fond respect for him and his colleagues.

I wish that it was okay to be envious, because that is sustained impact to die for – literally.
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When I miss garbage trucks

One of my colleagues working in Congo posted on Facebook that she “never thought I would miss garbage and recycling trucks.” That brought back so many memories that I had to post back “Oh, this is so so true.”

Downtown Ouagadougou

I lived in a city of 400,000 inhabitants that did not have any garbage service. In Congo, I have yet to visit a city that had a functioning garbage service. It is a service that is most noticeable by it absence. It took a while to figure out how to make living work without garbage pickup.

That is the bad news. The good news is that Africans are recycling geniuses. Seriously!

My colleague tried something new. She held a Gar -bage Sale. That’s right, a garbage sale, not a garage sale..She paid someone to spend the day sorting, washing and hauling empty containers and broken toys to market or families who will use them. In the process she learned that ripped plastic mattress covers can be sewn into diaper covers and that dead cardboard boxes make the best fire starters!

Street with natural recyclers

When we lived in Ouagadougou, people prized our empty plastic and glass containers. After the recycling geniuses picked over our garbage the real garbage was a whole lot less. Necessity being the mother of invention, and poverty being a prime creator of necessity, wherever we have lived in Africa, people have created informal and unofficial recycling that put back into use a much higher percentage of “garbage” than the official programs in the US.

Their continent has lots of problems, but by and large Africans are ingenious and resilient. It is one of the things we enjoy. Of course, we have come a ways from the day we first realized that we were in a large city without garbage pickup. Now when there is not this or that, instead of panicking, we look around to find out what local solution has been devised.

I like living an adventurous life, even when the adventure is figuring out what to do with garbage.

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Tipping point

In April 2009 we witnessed a dedication of the first dictionary in the Ndruna language and the first publication of five Epistles.  Among the speakers was a traditional Ndruna chief.  This older and vigorous man told how from the time he was a child his father, the chief before him, and others had tried to write the Ndruna language and translate the Bible into it.  Every attempt encountered insurmountable problems.  They did could not figure out how to write the language.   When they tried to do translation, the result was not understandable.  Even as a child he was so interested in having a translation that he and his father decided that he would go to the only church school in the area – a Catholic school where the prayers were all in Latin.  I was amazed as he recited in Latin the prayers he had learned as a child.  He said that he still did not understand them.

He went on to tell how a person sent out by Wycliffe came to help them with linguistic research.  That research allowed them to write the language without problems for the first time.  Then educated Ndruna men were chosen as translators.  They were given specialized training and the translation.  In the photo you see Ed those translators and others.

The the chief said that he hoped that the translators would continue to received help from the outside.  But, he said, he had complete confidence that the translation would be completed and be done well even if help from the outside stopped.  Now, according to him, the translators and others finally had all the knowledge and skills they needed.

The exuberance of the Ndruna traditional dance being performed by the women matched our sentiments – we were thrilled.  This is exactly what we are working toward – that Africans will have enough training and skills that they feel confident in  doing the work on their own.  We also hope that the chief’s confidence will be contagious.  Hearing this story, other languages, other community leaders and church leaders might dare to get involved in translation in their languages rather than sit and wait for someone to come and help them.

There is an old saying that if you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day, but if you teach him to fish, you feed him for his life.  I would add that if you teach him well enough and give him enough confidence, then he might even teach others to fish, multiplying your efforts many, many times.  That is our hope and prayer – that the chief’s words show that we are at a tipping point where the Ndruna and others will have the confidence to go beyond translating for themselves to encouraging and teaching others.  Then we will see the start of a self-sustaining Bible translation movement in Africa that will multiply our efforts more times than we will know or can count.

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Where hunger comes from

It is easy to assume that all hunger is related to economic conditions and poverty. A lot of hunger is, but a lot is also related to instability and conflict. The map below shows that the Democratic Republic of Congo has one of the highest rates of hunger in the world.

The eastern part of the country has some of the most fertile farmlands in the world. A good part of that area is, however, in the throws of conflict and insecurity. So people cannot farm the good land they have. The translators for one of the languages told me about the situation in their home area. They asked me not to give the name of the language for fear of reprisals! The area is contested by two different armed forces. If someone goes to his field, he will pass through a zone controlled by one and into an area controlled by another. The food he is bringing back to his family may be confiscated by armed men. Worse, he may be accused of siding with the other side, thought a traitor and shot. So people are unable to farm the good land they have. The solution to most of the hunger in DRC is not economic development or better agricultural methods. Instead, it is plain old fashioned but illusive peace.

Because of this problem, we have had to move more than one group of translators out of their home area.

Most of the people caught in this conflict are believers. The conflict is not between local people. Rather, it is run by powerful militias many of whom finance themselves through exploitation of the mineral riches of the country. Local people are caught in a situation over which they have no control. They are not fighting anyone.  They want peace and would do anything in their power to have it. The truth is, there is little that they can do except try to avoid the armed me who extort things from them, loot their houses and businesses and sometimes kill them.  They pray, read their Bibles if there is one in their language, and put their hope in the Lord.