Forced changes

I am filling in temporarily as the director for translation work in Côte d’Ivoire (also known as Ivory Coast). If things go according to plan, we’ll be back in Ghana in a few months.

Abandonned armoured vehicle in Ivory Coast. Photo courtesy of a colleague.

Abandonned armoured vehicle in Ivory Coast. Photo courtesy of a colleague.

Ivory Coast is coming out of prolonged period of conflict and civil war. During a good part of that time, many missionaries and almost all Westerners doing Bible translation left the country. That left the Ivorian translators on their own. Instead of stopping, most of them kept translating. Coming out of the conflict, we have a very different situation than we had going in. There are still outsiders involved, but like Dayle and I, most of them play limited roles.  Ivorians are the translators, they lead the translation programs, provide expert guidance, do the training and provide quality control.

But the change is more profound than than just changing the faces around the translation table. Churches here are picking up the will to do translation. They sponsor translation programs, choose translators and take care of some of the administrative details. Some have been quite active in doing adult literacy among their members. I am working with a group of Ivorian Christians who want to reformulate how Bible translation is done so that it fits their way of doing things. They think that will give the translations even more impact. I agree.

A number of years ago, the head of a successful African mission told me:

David could not use Saul’s armor. The church in Africa will not do Bible translation the way you do.

David was successful precisely because he abandoned the standard way, the “right way”, the king’s way, the way all the experts advised. King Saul told David:

 “Don’t be ridiculous!” Saul replied. “There’s no way you can fight this Philistine and possibly win! You’re only a boy, and he’s been a man of war since his youth.” (I Samuel 17:33)

Africa is considered inconsequential by many, just as Saul thought David inconsequential. Might Jesus’ church in inconsequential Africa devise a way to translate the Bible into its 1,800 languages that no translation expert would ever recommend and yet succeed by doing it their way? I believe that is exactly what will happen. The conflict in Ivory Coast forced some changes in Bible translation. Those changes are opening the door to more profound changes. I say: Be on the lookout for falling giants.

The meeting room at the translation center in Abidjan. Bullets came through this roof doing the conflict.

The meeting room at the translation center in Abidjan. Bullets came through this roof doing the conflict.

Backup and fools

It’s World Backup day. Seems fitting that it is one day before April Fools Day. I have a story about a fool and a missing backup, which I originally published in May 2012. Click on the title to read it all.

  • Crooks and Crow - In the early 1980’s, Liberia was in a civil war and we were living in Abidjan, surrounded by refugees. Liberians crossed the border into Côte d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast). The UN set up refugee camps but some refugees made their way to Abidjan. Among them was a class of crooks – confidence men who would tell […]

Boarding process

When we were assigned to Côte d’Ivoire in the early 1980s, I used to occasionally fly with the national airline. The prices were reasonable and they covered much of the country and neighboring countries. One morning I checked in as usual. There were a row of Air Ivoire planes outside the terminal waiting to go to various destinations. Our flight was called. We were to walk to our plane. A staff member showed us which one.

Air Ivoire did not assigned seats. So there was always a bit of polite jostling to get a seat. When we were all seated, a flight attendant came on board to make announcements. But the announcement was different. We were told that we had boarded the wrong aircraft. So the polite jostling resumed as we retrieved our carry-on luggage, got off the plane and walked to the correct plane. We were pretty much on our own until the same attendant returned to inform us that she was so sorry. She had made a mistake. We had boarded the right plane the first time!

One wise passenger broke through the generalized chaos that ensued to ask the attendant if she could tell us on which airplane our luggage had been loaded.

We dutifully jostled our way back to the first plane, listened to some groveling by the same attendant, took off and reached our destination with our luggage and without further incidents.

Gaston’s evaluation

At the dinner table with Gaston and others

At the dinner table with Gaston and others

In the early 1980s, Dayle and I worked in Côte d’Ivoire (sometimes called Ivory Coast). Part of our role was to visit translation projects and provide assistance of various kinds. On one occasion we visited the translators for the Dida language, including a wonderful Ivorian man named Gaston.  His family regaled us with a meal fit for a king. There were three courses: monkey and rice, fish and plantain fufu, then rice and beef. We ate outside under the shade of palm trees. Fufu is a prized dish in Ghana too, where we now work, so we are fortunate to be eating it again these many years later. But only if someone else makes it, because it is a lot of work.

I like spicy dishes, but the Dida spice their food several notches above my comfort zone – at a level way above “hot” which might be called “three alarm, atomic fireball surprise”. I could eat, but slowly and with some difficulty. The fact that the food was delicious helped, but not quite enough. My nose was running and my eyes were watering. Gaston saw my predicament and gave me a knowing look. I told him that the food was delicious, but the pepper was making my nose run.

“Oh”, he said, “that is good. We Dida have a saying. If your nose doesn’t run, the food doesn’t have enough pepper!”

If you liked this, you might also like Ghanaisms, Passing the Purse, or What’s in a name?

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Crooks and Crow

In the early 1980’s, Liberia was in a civil war and we were living in Abidjan, surrounded by refugees. Liberians crossed the border into Côte d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast). The UN set up refugee camps but some refugees made their way to Abidjan. Among them was a class of crooks – confidence men who would tell creative stories to pry some money out of your wallet. Their tactics were the subject of daily conversation.

A new couple arrived and joined us from the US to help. I had to travel up-country with some colleagues, so we left the new guy in charge of the office. When we came back a few days later, he told us that two Liberian men had come to the office. They told him that a Liberian friend of theirs had worked as a national translator for his language. The missionary couple leading the translation had returned to their country for some months. The war broke out shortly after they left and they could not return. The only copy of the translation of most of the New Testament was in Liberia in the hands of their friend. He was trying to bring it across the border into Côte d’Ivoire for safe keeping, when he was detained by the police. The men said that they had traveled with him and were unable to get the manuscript from him. They wanted about $300 to go back to the border, pay the fine, and get their friend released with the manuscript of the NT. They would then return to Abidjan and give us the manuscript for safe keeping.

As our newly arrived colleague told it this story, we were smirking. It sounded like some of the renowned Liberian hucksters knew a little about Bible translation and had crafted the perfect story to soak our colleague. To our chagrin, he had given them the $300. We consoled him. “Three hundred dollars is not that much,” we said. “You meant well,” we had told him. He was embarrassed.

A few days later, three Liberians showed up at our office. The two who had talked $300 out of our friend and colleagues, and another who supposedly had the only copy of the translation of the New Testament into his language. We were braced for a new story and a request for more money. Instead, the third Liberian pulled out the only manuscript of the New Testament in his language! We quickly took the manuscript to the photocopier and made another copy, whicht we put in the safe.The next day, we were able to connect the Liberian translator with the missionaries, by phone, to tears of joy all around.

God had to get us “wise” people out of the office so that he could have a “naive” new missionary give money to Liberians with an improbable story. We would never have given the money, and the manuscript might have been lost. We probably would never have even known of our mistake.

This incident taught me an important ministry lesson – if I am careful with my charitable giving to the extent that I never waste money – never make a mistake – I probably will be making a different mistake; that of not giving money where I should. This principle goes beyond giving. If I screen national translators so well that I never get one who does not work out, I will probably be turning away quite a number who would do very well. Fear of making a mistake is a dangerous thing.

Most importantly, I need to listen to the Lord and the Holy Spirit. Something my wisdom considers foolish might just be what God is doing. This danger increases with experience, so the Lord needed to inject some humiliation into my life to get me back on track, like the day I ate crow in front of our new missionary colleague and three Liberians.