IRNI reportIn late December 2008, Kenya held presidential elections. The results were delayed, tension mounted, when one candidate was named the winner in an unusual way, violence started. We were there. We could hear gunshots, see people running in the streets. We hunkered down and waited it out. Hundreds died. People were displaced. Property losses where huge. It took it about 10 days to run its course while we stayed safely locked inside for the most part. Then it was safe again. Read a fuller report here.

We did not expect trouble. Neither did Kenyans who thought their country was a step above the kind of election troubles seen in some other countries in Africa. We were relieved when it ended, but they were disheartened. Their pride in their country had been brought low.

We resumed work shortly after New Years. On the first day, one of my Kenyan colleagues greeted me with a New Year’s greeting I had never heard before: Happy New Year Regardless.

Regardless means “despite the prevailing circumstances”. So, whatever situation, may the Lord be with you in 2014 with his loving and comforting presence. In other words:

Happy New Year Regardless


Medicine, it’s a simple word, right? Well, not quite.

I first realized that it might have a broader meaning when a single colleague of mine told of an experience she had while traveling by public transportation in Mali. At a bus station, she was approached by a woman selling things who told her “I have medicine for your children”. My colleague replied that she did not have children. “Oh”, the woman said, “I have medicine for that too.” My colleague replied that she was not married. “No problem”, came the response, “I have medicine for that too!”

Medicine for one’s children fits our definition of medicine just fine. But medicine to find a husband? You probably won’t find that at your local pharmacy. If you found a place that would sell you such a thing, they would not call it “medicine”, but rather a “charm”, “amulette” or a dating service – anything but “medicine”.

Shop - New Life Herbal Clinic_00When we moved to Kenya, the Swahili word meaning medicine – dawa – also had a very wide range of meanings. It could mean over-the-counter or prescription medicines, or it could mean various amulets and charms sold by practitioners of traditional healing. It could also mean the herbal remedies sold by practitioners like the one in the picture. The Swahili word is also applied to the mixed drinks sold at a bar.

In Ghana, the word “medicine” in Ghanaian English has a similarly wide range of meaning, because the words in Ghanaian language closest to the meaning of “medicine” have a wide range of meanings. Consider the following cases:

I smelled something like a dead animal in an office I visited. So I asked about it. “Rats were coming in, so we put out medicine”, I was told. The man went on to explain that they were looking for the dead rat killed by the rat poison (“medicine”) they had put out. Another time, Dayle was noticing that we had ants in the kitchen. A Ghanaian who was there asked “Where is the medicine?”, meaning the ant poison.

I confirmed with some Ghanaian friends that the word for “medicine” in their languages covers what one buys in a pharmacy, various poisons for household or farm use, as well as traditional talismans, amulets and charms, and that some Ghanaians use the English word “medicine” with the same range of meanings.

Linguists call this the “semantic range” of a word. The semantic range of the English word “corner” is covered by at least three French words: “angle”, “coin”, and “corner” (the last borrowed from English for soccer). We don’t notice the semantic range of a word when we speak our own language. It just seems natural to us. But when we start dealing with other languages, especially those from cultures quite different from our own, semantic range gets more noticeable, at least if you know what to look for and want to communicate clearly.

Here’s little illustration of how the word in other language which mean “medicine” also has meanings not covered by the word “medicine” in English.

Range of meanings

Semantic range is one of the things a Bible translator must study, especially for key theological words such as “repent”. For such words, it is important to understand both the semantic range of the original word and the semantic range of words or phrases in the target language that might be used to translate it.

Lest you think that African languages are strange, look up the noun “run” in an English dictionary and consider its quite extraordinary semantic range.

Universal humor

It appears to be universal that people turn problems into humor, especially when the problems come from their government, or from an important institution.

When we first moved to Kenya, the country was having rolling electrical blackouts because there was insufficient capacity to generate the amount of electricity needed. Reduced water flow behind a hydroelectric dam was the culprit. In a few months, they had put in place an alternative and the rolling blackouts stopped. During the last few months we have gone through something similar here in Ghana. The culprit this time was a dysfunctional gas pipeline. An alternative is in place that meets most of the shortfall, and more generation capacity will come online later this year. In both cases, local people developed a humorous way to deal with the inconvenience.

In Kenya, the electricity was supply by the Kenya Power and Lighting Company – KPLC. But Kenyan’s started saying that KPLC really stood for Kenya, Please Light the Candles!

Here in Ghana, we have the Electric Company of Ghana – ECG. But some now say that stands for Either Candles or Generators.

I have been told that in Nigeria, instead of saying Nigeria Electric Power Authority for their company,  NEPA, some say Never Expect Power Always.

My favorite, however, came in church when we were having blackouts in Kenya. The pastor asked the congregation what Kenyans used for light before they had candles. No one knew. So the pastor told them ­ they had electricity.

It is not just electrical outages that prompt humor. I have been told several humorous stories by Nigerians which deal with their high rate of deaths from road accidents. Humor is a powerful tool for dealing with stress. Where I have lived in Africa, it shows people’s resilience in the face of problems outside their control.

Apparently, this has been going on for a long time – at least since the writer of Proverbs penned these words:

Sorrow may hide
behind laughter
(Proverbs 14:13 CEV)