Old Presbyterian church in Abetifi
About two centuries ago, German church leaders, business people and others seized an opportunity. They sent missionaries to evangelize and translate the Bible into the languages of the Gold Coast, now called Ghana. Some came with their coffins in tow and a number died while carrying out their work. Some lost children. But they bent German economic-industrial and theological prowess to the task. They trained select Gold Coast citizens in the world’s best seminaries of the day – German seminaries – under the best theologians of the day – again German. They did language development, translation, literacy education and evangelism in the languages of the Gold Coast using some of the best linguistics training of the day from German universities. They created dictionaries and grammars of Ghanaian languages which are still highly regarded, even definitive. They produced world-class Bible translations in the languages of the southern half of Ghana. As the translations were completed, they were forced to leave because of World War I. At that point, their evangelistic efforts had only yielded modest fruit as the Gold Coast was then less than 5% Christian.
During the first half of the twentieth century, Christianity expanded rapidly, but only where there were translations. Where they existed, mother tongue translations enabled Christianity to penetrate all classes of society. Men with minimal education but who read the Bible in their mother tongues became church leaders, pastors, and evangelists. With their mother tongue Bibles they grew the church in a relatively hostile environment. Some of those churches now have millions of members and thousands, even tens of thousands, of congregations. Schools founded by the missionaries trained the people who went on to militate for and then gain Ghana’s independence and lead its businesses and industries.
Meanwhile, the transformation did not take place in areas where there was no translation. Ghana was decisively transformed where German missionaries translated the Bible, and left untouched elsewhere. Let us remember that their efforts were initiated, organized and financed by German churches and that those churches were being empowered by their members who were both creating and benefiting from 19th century Germany’s emergence as a world theological, industrial and economic power. When church members stand behind missions, amazing things happen.
I have written before that mobile phones are the first technology to be more quickly adopted in the developing world than in the places we usually associate with technology. There are lots of reasons for that, including that owning and operating one is not expensive and saves a person time and money. But that is not my story.
Dayle and I each have a phone here in Ghana with a network called MTN. We have a prepaid account, do not pay for incoming calls, and probably spend about $10 each per month on the phone, often less. Each mobile network has its own color and they each paint houses and buildings along the road in their color as advertisement.
Buidings painted in the colors of mobile phone networks
To make a little money on the side, MTN sells custom ringtones. So, when I am making a call, instead of hearing a dialing tone (which would be wasted time, right?) I hear an advertisement for a ringtone with the option to push a certain key to download it for a small fee. Free enterprise at work, no story there. It is the ringtones themselves that caught my attention, even though have I not purchased one. The most frequent offerings are recorded songs by Ghanaian Gospel artists. They have a clear Christian message. So, while waiting for my call to connect, I am often treated to a few lines of song like
- These are the days of Elijah, or
- I pledge allegiance to the Lamb
And now you know what kind of songs and message MTN thinks its Ghanaian customers want. I’ll bet that they are right.
Over 70% of Ghanaians have a mobile phone. There are 17 million mobile phones in this country of 24 million. That means that the only big group without a phone is young children.
In late August, I had just finished 3 1/2 days of communications strategy. But Kwame, a cab driver I met, was teaching me the real marketing lessons. When I rode with him, he took my number and he calls every few days to say hi and remind me that he is available when I might need him. And, if you had not heard, mobile banking is big in Africa, and it is not being led by the banks, but by the mobile phone companies. And they did not plan for it. Africans generated the idea at the grassroots. Some think that it will result in increased access to financial services for the poor and thus help reduce poverty.
Nokia phone with back off showing places for two SIM chips
Because some places are covered by one network and different places by another, a number of people started carrying two phones. No more. Here is a phone I bought for about $50 and which can be on two networks at once because it has two SIM chips. The back is off and you can see the two shiny doors for each SIM chip. Like most people here I have a prepaid account, no contract and the cost is VERY reasonable.
So, why is a a guy involved in Bible translation going on and on and one about mobile phones? Well, I do like technology. I also try to understand the place where I work. But there is more! It is possible to put the Bible on many mobile phones.
Bible Is offers the Bible on iPhone and Android. They already have the New Testament available in hundreds of languages and plan to have it in 2,000 by the year 2020! Can Africans afford expensive iPhone and Android phones? They don’t have to. There is a China-made Android phone selling in Ghana for $80 – with no contract to sign! But Scripture can be put on some phones that cost as little as $40.
There is work to do on the details, but I think that in five years there will be more copies of the Bible in Ghanaian languages on mobile phones than are printed. Because there is no printing, the cost will plummet. The plan I am helping with will definitely include getting all the Bibles in all the languages of Ghana on mobile phones.
If you like this, you might also like my blog about mobile phones making Ghana more colorful?
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On Saturday the 12th while in Ghana, I traveled from Accra to Tamale by road. In keeping with the rainy season, the sky was laden with low-hanging grey clouds that pressed their gloom down on us. To keep us from falling into depression, we were treated to a visual shock treatment in the form of the colors of the cell phone companies.
As advertisement, each cell company offers to paint your house or business in its color for free, provided you let it add its logo. MTN’s color is yellow. Vodacom’s is red. Tigo’s is blue and Zain’s are purple and green.
It seemed that every other building beside the road was painted Vodacom’s neurotransmitter red or MTN’s smiley yellow with a few of Zain’s mood-enhancing greens or purples for variety. It seems that Tigo’ s painting program is a lot less active. Perhaps it is just as well. We did not need more “blue”.
Sometimes the Vodacom, MTN and Zain colors would be right next to each (see one of the photos on the right) as if we needed to be on two or three anti-depressants at once. In one rural village, the yellow and red buildings were contrastively interspersed between the earth browns of traditional mud-walled houses.
As an adjunct treatment, taxis are required to have each of their four fenders painted a deep yellow. There were quite a few taxis in most towns; often awaiting clients in front of a building painted in cheery MTN yellow or wake-up Vodacom red.
In Congo the same thing is happening to the point that it seems that there is a race on to see which company can paint more of the buildings in town its colors.
In addition, cell phone towers are everywhere. So many that the Ghana government suspended cell phone tower construction temporarily while it studied the matter. In one place one tower rose out of a little papaya orchard, like a misplaced tree of the wrong species.
The dreary day was dealt a deadly blow. I arrived in Tamale in great spirits. My apologies to the makers of Prozac.
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