Jumping ship

In 2010, I worked for an organization that was like a well-run ship. The crew was well-trained and beyond competent. The equipment might not have been the latest, but it was fully functional and well-maintained. Relations between crew members were cordial. All the safety equipment was in place. But there was a problem. The captain said we were headed to New York but it looked to me like we were going to miss New York by a very long ways.

Paul Opoku-Mensah

It was in this quandary that Paul Opoku-Mensah, the director of the Ghana Institute of Linguistics, Literacy and Bible Translation (GILLBT), asked me to come to Ghana twice to do some training of his staff. During my trips to Ghana, I had the opportunity to talk for hours on end with Paul, including twice on 14-hour drives between the north and the south of Ghana. Paul’s organization was nothing like mine. It had recently been rescued from nearly sinking and it was still leaking and listing. The crew suffered from factions and discord, even threatening to mutiny against the captain. But Paul had a plan for getting to New York I found compelling. His plan was similar in some ways to what I was thinking, but involved a number of things I had never heard of. When Paul asked Dayle and I to join the crew of his ship, we were faced with a stark choice – we could stay on our sleek ship going the wrong direction or join the fractious crew of a troubled derelict taking an uncharted course. We prayed and jumped ship.

Our “New York” destination involved engaging the church in Africa in translating the Bible into African Languages, and sustaining the use of the Bibles being translated.

A few days ago, Paul, the man who has been our captain for the last 7 years,  moved on to something new. So I am looking back and evaluating the progress the ship has made. First, it didn’t sink! And while it hasn’t yet arrived at its destination, it is a LOT closer. Churches in Ghana have been engaged. They are giving money. It’s not enough yet, but it is growing substantially every year. Because churches understand and support ministry in Ghana languages, sustained use of translations in those languages is much more likely. 

In addition to being fruitful, the journey has been intellectually stimulating. Paul taught me a lot about the theory and the practice of sustainability and engaging the church in Africa,

In 2011, God put before us a very uncertain path. That was not at all a bad thing. 

Power interface

Paramount chief being carried on litter

Akan chief being carred to a funeral in Kumasi, Ghana

One of my first big surprises in Ghana was to find traditional chiefs who are very educated. The leading newspaper in Ghana recently carried the installation of a new chief of the town of Kwahu Abene in Ghana’s Eastern Region. The new chief is a medical doctor, professor of pathology and medical researcher. I used to think of chiefs as traditional rulers with no or little education, but that is not the trend in Ghana. The Akan King has been a successful businessman in London and Toronto after which he returned to Ghana and started a successful business. When he became king, he revitalized and reorganized the royal court, settling longstanding disputes and creating a focus on education.

One of the driving forces behind the trend toward more educated chiefs is that people want a chief who has influence outside the language community, who understands how the wider world works, and has connections in that world so that he or she can create a favorable interface with the outside world – attracting economic growth on the one hand and fending off unfavorable developments on the other.

Globalization-smallerThis points to a situation common to many peoples around the world, including many bibleless peoples. They feel that they don’t fully understand the outside world or they have trouble negotiating with it and getting favorable results. They may feel that forces they don’t want or don’t understand are pushing their way into the lives.  Naming a chief who is both one of their own and who has had success in the outside world is a way of improving their ability to get the outcomes they want in a world where outside forces are a bigger and bigger part of their lives.

These peoples may be in a similar situation with regards to religion. On the one hand, they may perceive that their traditional religion is no longer be serving them well. On the other, they may be getting confusing and contradictory appeals from Christians and those of other faiths. Translating the Bible into their language puts them back in control. They can judge the claims on their own with full information. Like an educated chief, the Bible in their language gives them a power interface they often lack in dealing with ideas and forces coming from the outside world. In northern Ghana, Christians with the Bible in their languages reported that they felt able to answer people coming into their communities spreading another religion, whereas those without a Bible felt less informed and unable to respond to the claims of other religions. A chief reported that since the publication of the New Testament, so few people are going to the traditional shrine that the path is overgrown and difficult to find. Those people have found a new power interface with the spiritual world.

New Norms

The Ghanaian organization we work for has just established norms for the length of translation programs — five years for the New Testament and 7 for the Old. These assume that the basic linguistic work like getting and alphabet and primer, have already been done. They also assume that all the right conditions have been met such as adequately trained translators with biblical training including at least one with who knows biblical languages; and adequate funding for all the translation activities and equipment. I have seen under-resourced translation programs drag on and end up costing more in the long term than if they had been well-resourced in the short term.

Translation progress graph

Translation progress is more like the blue line than the brown line

Translation does not progress in a straight line. That is, if it takes 5 years to translate the New Testament, the translation does not progress at the rate of one fifth per year. Rather, progress in the first year will be slow as the translators learn and as they solve translation issues that only need solving once then can be applied throughout such as how to translate “sin”. So we expect the translation to pick up speed as it goes along and at the same time to be better quality – clearer and more accurate.

But there is a limit. The translation can only go so fast without the speed causing problems like poor translation accuracy. I’ve seen that first hand and more than once. On the other hand, translations that proceed too slowly also create problems. Local churches and international funders can get discouraged and stop their support, for example. I have seen cases where translation progressed so slowly that the translators became a joke in the community and no one would lend a hand or give money any more. Even getting the translation back on track was difficult because no serious person in the area wanted to be associated with such a sorry project.

In this way, translations are like the speed (RPM) of large diesel engines. When they are pulling a load it is bad for them to go either too slow or too fast. So the operator has to keep them in a certain RPM range. Unfortunately, many Westerners like me who are involved in translation are (rightly) worried about translation going to fast and loosing quality, but we don’t seem to see the problems of going too slow.

Just for comparison, it took the translators of the King James Version seven years to translate the whole Bible, but there were over forty translators divided into six groups each of which did part of the Bible. Also, they borrowed heavily from Tyndale’s translation which done only a few decades earlier. In fact, not a few passages in the King James translation are lifted directly from Tyndale with only minor changes if any. On the other hand, the KJV translators worked part time alongside their church duties. Nevertheless, doing a whole Bible in Ghana in 12 years with 3-4 full-time translators and no previous translation to draw on will push the limits in many of the languages where translations are still needed. If the new norms provoke efforts to see that translation programs have everything they need to progress well, they will be valuable even if they are not always met.

Training Ghanaians

Back in the early 1990s, my role lead me to read documents describing a program in Ghana to train Ghanaians as leaders of Bible translation projects. The program looked very interesting to me, so I began to follow it; reading reports and asking questions of people working in Ghana. But after the first cohort of Ghanaians went through the program, it stopped without explanation. However, I did hear that the people from that first cohort went on to lead translation programs. One of them even led translations in two different languages. So when I took an assignment in Ghana in 2011, I was pleased to meet all of them and hear their stories. 

At the send-off. The five trainees are in front

Well, it is starting up again; not the same program exactly, but something close. Dayle and I were thrilled to be part of a send-off meal for five Ghanaians traveling to Israel for eight months to do intensive study of modern and biblical Hebrew in preparation for becoming experts in Old Testament translation. When they return to Ghana, they will train translators, do accuracy and quality checks on translations, and teach Hebrew to Ghanaians translators. These five will be the team of experts who will make sure that translations in Ghana will be accurate, clear and natural. They will also serve beyond Ghana.

Board chairman explaining the importance of this training

Even better, the training was largely organized by leading Ghanaian Christians. They intervened at various steps in the process to help with visas and other formalities. The board of the Ghanaian organization Dayle and I are loaned to, GILLBT, has also caught the vision for training their own.

I am convinced that, as in the 1990s, this program will result in more and better translations in Ghanaian languages. Given the commitment and involvement of leading Ghanaian Christians, there will be more than one cohort this time.

FM and language

Logo for a Ghanaian-language FM station

Some people believe that globalization will result in a universal consumer culture that wipes out local culture including local languages. But there are a number of indications that this is not the case. One is the explosion of FM radio stations in Africa. Some of them get some or even all of their content via the Internet. For example, the BBC World Service is broadcast in Accra on 101.3. Such stations represent a homogenizing globalization where local people are affected by international influences. But many more FM stations use local languages. Of necessity, much of their content is generated locally.

This localization of FM language and content is a significant hedge against homogenizing globalization. Ghana’s National Communications Authority says that 481 FM stations are authorized to broadcast of which only 5 are foreign stations like the BBC.

In addition to FM stations, other forces are giving new vitality to African languages. In recent years, it has become a virtual requirement that Ghanaian politicians give their political speeches in their language when they’re in their area. That did not used to be the case. Some have even spoken their language in Parliament, although some mocked that. However, some defended it as well.

In some parts of the world many languages are dying. Ghana is not one of them. Here the languages are spreading their wings and traveling into new territory including the Bible, radio, politics and even education. They are carving out spaces in globalization for local culture and preferences. Ignoring them in Christian ministry would be an against-the-flow mistake.

PS: This is the next-to-last post in my series about small languages.

Impact in the Volta Region

Ghana’s Volta Region borders the neighboring country of Togo. The veneration of the python is practiced in the Volta region and extends east through Togo and Benin. It is even thought that it formed the origin of the practice of Voodoo in the Caribbean through slaves taken from the area. Even today, there is a voodoo festival in Benin  and a Python temple. The most widely spoken language in the Volta Region is Ewe (pronounced Eh-Vay). It is the language of church, commerce and relationships between peoples, in addition to the being by far the largest mother tongue in the region, extending into large parts of Togo. Christianity came to the Volta Region with German missionaries in the 1800s.

They worked in the Ewe language, including translating the Bible. In this language map you can see that the embedded in the Ewe people and language there are a number of smaller languages that Ewe is surrounded by smaller languages. Ewe became the de facto church language not only for the Ewe people, but for the people speaking those smaller languages as well. While the work of missionaries had a dramatic impact on the Ewe people and in some other places, it did not displace the veneration of the python in some of the smaller language groups. In fact, the influence of the python actually grew in the mid to late 20th century, in some cases pushing back advances that Christianity had made. Women are the most affected. They are inducted as young women. Placating the spirit of the python can even deplete a woman’s financial resources. One of the effects of the veneration was the there were few women in churches in areas of the Volta Region where smaller languages were spoken.

The first Bible translations (just the NT to be precise) in the smaller languages of the Volta Region were finished in the 1980s, with more completed in the 1990s and even more started since 2010 and a few with no translation work yet. Research done by a colleague of ours, Naana Nkrumah, focused on the impact of those translations on the veneration of the python. They were summarized in an article in the Journal of African Christian Thought and at a conference I attended. One of the marked changes since the translations were published is the number of women in the church, which has increased dramatically. Other results include:

  • Very few young women are now inducted into the veneration. In some areas, none has been inducted for over a decade.
  • Women report significantly improved financial status as a result of not spending resources placating the spirit of the python
  • The veneration has lost prestige and power. In past confrontations with Christiantiy, Python priestesses did powerful miracles which convinced women to stay away from Christianity and stay faithful to the python. Now such miracles are rare and when they do occur many women have the courage to stay with their Christian faith in spite of them.

Naana Nkrumah

What is interesting about these findings is that the Bible and preaching in an African lingua franca (trade language) was unable to compete with devotion to the python. This was in spite of the fact that the language in question, Ewe, is widely spoken and understood in the area. On the other hand, the translation of the Bible into smaller local languages resulted in dramatic change. It is my contention that understanding a language is often not enough to produce all the benefits of the Gospel. Instead, the Bible and preaching must be in the people’s heart language (mother tongue) – the language that touches their deepest center. Only then can deeply-seated beliefs and traditions be changed.

This blog is the 4th in a series on why we translate into small languages.

All bad, all good, or

There are three approaches that missionaries take to traditional religion:

  • It’s all wrong
  • It’s all good
  • There’s truth in failure

Many missionaries to Africa took the first approach. Mission documents show the widespread belief that African traditional religion was all wrong. Some held that the religious practices came from Satan himself. Some even condemned all African customs – religious or not.

The second – that it’s all good – is relatively new. It’s part of total cultural relativity. I remember a group of French academics warning us Bible translators against telling people to destroy their idols. For them, idols were good and should be retained. The people doing wrong were missionaries who taught otherwise.

The third approach – that there’s light in the darkness – says that Jesus Christ is the only way, truth and life; that no one gets to God except by him. So all other religions fail in their primary purpose. People following them may sincerely try, but their religion cannot do what religion is supposed to do. Nevertheless God puts slivers of truth in their failed religious beliefs which validate the Gospel when it comes. Don Richardson’s books The Peace Child and Eternity in their Hearts present dramatic cases of this approach.

Depending on the place, it has been decades or even centuries since missionaries came with their approach that African traditional religion was all wrong. That has given plenty of time for African pastors and theologians to evaluate the missionaries’ efforts. First, they almost always commend the selfless work of missionaries. But they also go on to propose ways it could have been better. I just read an article showing some of the mistakes missionaries made in Ghana including how they misunderstood traditional religion. It shows the inaccuracy of the it’s-all-wrong approach; but more importantly, it shows how that approach limited Gospel impact and missionary effectiveness. For the author, it hindered dealing effectively with the issue of ancestors and other spiritual powers (the Abosom).

That mirrors a book a read by an African church leader in which he states that the missionaries’ wholesale attribution of traditional religious practices to Satan actually strengthened witchcraft and sorcery, making it more difficult for the church to deal with and leading to a situation today where some church members continue to dabble in it and many more fear it.

One would think that the it’s-all-wrong approach would be the safest. It does feel like an uncompromising stand for the truth. In its effects, however, it can be counterproductive. Besides, the Apostle Paul took the truth-in-failure approach in dealing with idolaters in Athens, (Acts 17:16-31) taking time to study their different idols. He obviously thought that it was good to learn about their religion even though idolatry is condemned by the first two of the Ten Commandments and the idolatry of Athens troubled him greatly. Then he made the claim that one of their forgotten deities is the true and living God. Today, many Africans Christians take the truth-in-failure model in dealing with their traditional religion. One leading theological seminary in Ghana has even taken as its motto a traditional Akan sayiing: Nsem Nyinaa Ne Nyame (God is the primary reality in all things).

If you have friends or acquaintances who follow another religion, I suggest you try the truth-in-failure approach in witnessing to them. We promote Bible translation that takes seriously the culture and language of the people; seeking the expressions and word-images that are the slivers of truth God has placed there so that people can understand and believe.

Beyond aid

His excellency the President of Ghana

Ghana elected a new president a few months back – Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo. He has announced a new agenda for the government – Ghana Beyond Aid. Here’s what he said to business leaders in Ghana on March 20 of this year:

“We want to build a Ghana beyond aid; a Ghana which looks to the use of its own resources. We want to build an economy that is not dependent on charity and handouts, but an economy that will look at the proper management of its resources as the way to engineer social and economic growth in our country.”

Many African countries rely heavily on international aid. Right now, I have colleagues helping with a program to increase the quality of primary school education in Ghana financed by USAID.  Kenya just opened a new, 3.6 billion dollar railway 90% funded by China. The link between the words development and aid is so strong in Africa that that many Africans assume that all programs of economic, industrial or other development are funded by some other country. Front page or leading newspaper articles in Ghana newspapers regularly report that this or that country is granting Ghana a large sum of money for something. I have sometimes wondered if some Africans believe that their continent can only progress by the efforts and inputs of others.  So the idea that Ghana will get to a point where it will not depend on outside funding for its own development can rightly be called “a big idea.”

The president’s Ghana-beyond-aid mentality comes at a time when Ghanaian Christians had already been discussing the same thing for Bible translation. On the one hand, they are deeply grateful for the missionaries who left their homes and suffered deprivations to translate the Bible into their languages and for the Western missions who continue to send people and money. On the other hand, they believe that the time has come for Ghanaian Christians to supply the funds needed to translate the Bible into the languages of Ghana. The are a bit ashamed when they learn that a very small percentage of the funds for translation are coming from Ghana. This idea had been spreading among church leaders, Christian business people and others well before the President announced his Ghana Beyond Aid agenda. It might be the first time politics has imitated missions.

Piggybacking on the president’s phraseology, Christians are now talking about Bible Translation Beyond Aid, a phrase that captures the idea they already had; and which expresses their deepest motivations for both their Lord and their country. It looks like the President has, inadvertently, given a big  boost to the movement to have translation in Ghana funded from within Ghana. However inadvertent from a human standpoint, I believe that I see God’s hand in this turn of events.

Go north

When I go to missions events in Ghana, the mission speakers call for missionaries to “go north.”

The mission events are held in the South of Ghana because that is where the churches are. The southern half of Ghana is very different from the northern half. The south has many churches and Christians, the north has few. The south is much more prosperous; a much higher percentage of its people are educated; it has better health care, roads and schools. In addition, the north has had some highly-publicized ethnic conflicts, making some people from the south fearful of going there.

Because the northern areas are poorer and lack the roads, schools and other infrastructure of the southern areas, sending someone to the north is seen as a punishment. Indeed, it has been used that way. A government primary school teacher who does something wrong might be transferred to a school in the north as punishment. I read in a news paper article that a good percentage of government doctors assigned to clinics in the north never show up to take up their positions. I interviewed a job applicant in Ghana who said that in the past she had been offered a job in the north and was so afraid and unsure that she went to look without even packing a suitcase. But she liked it and stayed. Her family had to ship her things to her. “The north” has an undeserved aura of remote desolation.

West Africa

When we factor in the recent attacks in the countries just north of Ghana’s border, and the ongoing skirmishes in parts of Mali (a country north of Ghana), we add hostility and danger to the north’s aura. But “the north” is also a place where there are not that many churches or Christians. If we go far enough north we reach countries on the southern banks of the Mediterranean where Christians and churches are very far and few between. North is also where there are still languages without a translation of the Bible.

As in many cases for Christians in other places, Ghanaian Christians face an challenging missions call because going to where the Good News is scarce also means going to places less advantaged, less comfortable, less inviting and sometimes less safe than the places Christians already are.

Operation Cover the Land

The organization I work for in Ghana has adopted something they call Operation Cover the Land. The name is loosely based on Habakkuk 2:14

For the earth will be filled
with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea. (Habakkuk 2:14)

The “earth” in this case means the land of Ghana. Covering it means making sure that all the languages of Ghana have the Bible.

After all, it is difficult to imagine how a place can be filled with true knowledge of God’s glory without people having access to book that covers that topic in depth – the Bible.

Operation Cover the Land asks Ghanaian Christians to imagine what it would be like to be part of fulfilling Habakkuk’s 2,600-year-old prophesy and, even more, seeing that happen soon. And it could be very soon indeed because Operation Cover the Land envisages having translations ongoing in all the languages of Ghana without the Bible by 2020. After that, the scope  will increase to include all of Africa with Ghana providing resources for Bible translation across Africa. It is very ambitious, but then so is Habakkuk’s prophesy.