What did I learn?

I recently traveled to Ghana for three weeks. Before I left, several people asked me what I would do there. It’s a great question. My top priority question is a bit different – what will I learn? That might be something new, or it might be something old that is confirmed or given a new twist.

So what did I learn during my trip?

Committee members and translator meeting with a regional coordinator

I learned that the initiative we set up to make language committees more effective is progressing slowly and we don’t know all the reasons why. These committees of volunteers are key to the success and impact of the Bible translations in their communities. We thought that some encouragement and clarification would make them more active, but that’s only happening for some. We don’t understand why. I think that we need to dialog with them to figure out what needs to be done. (link to more about committees)

I learned that it’s difficult to predict and plan. We restarted a number of stalled Old Testament translation programs. We knew that they each had draft translations of a few Old Testament books they had done in their spare time over the years. So we planned to take those drafts quickly through the remaining quality controls and distribute them. But the translators said that the translations needed to be reviewed first. They felt that the quality and accuracy of the translations had suffered from the slow and haphazard translation process. It will be interesting to see if they are right. We’ll know if they make significant changes. If they are right, we may have found a weaknesses with translation done by part-time volunteers. Then the question will then be cost effectiveness – does it take so much time to review the translations that one might as well start over, or will the review go quickly making the part-time translations cost and time effective?

I learned that it is worthwhile to occasionally and politely make a point in which I firmly believe. I have been making one such point once or twice a year since I came to Ghana in 2011. There was little interest. But now I find changes happening that match my suggestion. That might not have happened if I had given up or started denouncing the leadership publicly or behind the scenes. Besides, I can see that now is actually an excellent time to implement the idea, better than when I proposed it.

I learned that there is a phrase for common sense in the Akan language. I saw it on the back of a tro-tro (a van used as public transport). The words literally mean “home wisdom” (efie nyansa). A Ghanaian colleague explained to me the that it refers to a kind of wisdom one doesn’t get from school and which highly educated people sometimes lack. Sounds like common sense to me. People from very different races, cultures and nationalities share certain ideas, like common sense, something postmodern race theory appears to overlook or greatly minimize.

Easter dancing at church

I was reminded again of the frustration felt by Africans when programs which have enormous positive impact in their communities loose their funding from foreign sources. At the same time, I understand the rational of the foreign sources for moving on to something else. It appears that some frustrations don’t have answers, at least none anyone has discovered yet.

I was also reminded that part of the Easter celebration is dancing before the Lord (and the whole congregation) after church, even at a Baptist church.

Lastly, I was reminded that many Ghanaians are like some of my American friends – they complain about the poor quality of government work, like roads, all while wanting the government to do more.

Knock-on effects

When we think of the effects of war on civilians, we think mostly of deaths and injured caused by bullets and bombs. But those are often a relatively small part of the negative effects. Usually, many more people die in the weeks, months or even years after the bullets and bombs stop.

When an event or situation has a knock-on effect, it causes other events or situations, but not directly:

Say a bomb knocks out a bridge, preventing people on the “wrong” side of a river from getting to a hospital. When someone who lives on the wrong side come down with appendicitis several months later, has to take a much longer route to the hospital because the bridge is out, and then dies before getting to the hospital, that death may be attributed to the war, at least indirectly.

Of course counting such deaths is not an exact science. Perhaps the person would have died even if the bridge was still intact and the operation could have been done quicker. That difficulty is why a Harvard study pegged hurricane Maria’s death toll in Haiti in an astounding 10-fold range – between 800 to 8,500.

Displaced person camp in Congo where we used to work. Photo: MONUC

The fact that it is difficult to get exact numbers should not detract from the fact that failing to take knock-on effects into account leaves us with a very wrong idea of the real impact of a disaster or armed conflict.

Right now in Burkina Faso, about 150,000 children are out of school. Armed conflict in parts of the country has closed over 1,000 schools. It is too dangerous to go to school. It looks like quite a number of schools will be closed for a while. This is a big personal blow to the children and their families, and a blow to a poor country in need of a more educated citizenry.

The same forces are slowing and displacing translation efforts and other Christian ministry. Burkina Faso Christians are braving the dangers just like Africans in other places. Knock-on effects usually don’t make the news, but they do make life and ministry difficult or even dangerous. They are having a significant negative impact in three countries where I have worked, and I personally know national translators who are affected including some for whom knock-on effects have resulted in personal tragedies. Those translators are on the cutting edge of advancing the Gospel, even though the knock-on effects aren’t making the news.

I saw under the altar the souls of all who had been martyred for the word of God and for being faithful in their testimony. They shouted to the Lord and said, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you judge the people who belong to this world and avenge our blood for what they have done to us?” – Revelation 6:9-10

God because…

The genocide in Rwanda started 25 years ago this month. About one million people were systematically killed. The anniversary is sparking reflection and comment across Africa and beyond. What went wrong? How could it have been prevented? Whose at fault? Those are valid questions, but I’m not going to address any of them.

Some say that the evil in the world is proof that there is no God. I think the opposite – it shows that there is a God.

Romeo Dallaire is the Canadian General who was in charge of the UN peacekeepers in Rwanda at the time of the genocide. His warnings that a genocide was impending, his pleas for changes UN policy and for more troups were all rebuffed by those above him. So he ended up helplessly observing the terrible events he wanted so much to prevent and stop. That experience forever scarred him as it did others. Of it, he wrote:

“I know there is a God, Because in Rwanda I shook hands with the devil. I have seen him, I have smelled him and I have touched him. I know the devil exists and therefore I know there is a God.”

Endless Congolese forest

My experience is not nearly as dramatic as Dallaire’s, but it points in the same direction. When I worked in the Congo, the Rwandan genocide had spilled over the border. I saw once vibrant cities that had become ghost towns. I heard from some who had fled their homes and lived in the countryside without shelter, many dying there of their deprivations. I became friends with a couple whose son was brutally tortured for days before dying, just because he was from the wrong tribe. I didn’t see the devil as directly as Dallaire, but what I saw increased my faith that there is a God.

But I have another reason to believe that is different from Dallaire’s. In addition to hearing about the devil’s brutal deeds first hand, I also heard about God’s deeds opposing the Evil.

A pastor friend ministered to a congregation with members on both sides of an ethnic conflict. He himself was from on of the opposing ethnic groups. When the militia associated with his ethnic group arrested a member of his congregation from the other, he took the person food (something not provided by the militia). For that, some members of his own ethnic group and congregation considered him an enemy and therefore were trying to kill him. To avoid them, he and his family slept in a different house every night until they escaped the town.

His case was not unique in Congo. Many opposed the militias associated with their ethnic group. Many were not as fortunate as my friend to escape their reprisals

If you read reports of the genocide in Rwanda, you will get hints of similar bravery. You will read that the Hutus killed Tutsis and moderate Hutus. That is, the radical Hutus killed members of their own ethnic group who opposed them. That means, of course, that some of their own group opposed them. It’s a story of bravery and righteousness that doesn’t get told very often.

In the case of my Congolese pastor friend, his actions put his whole family in danger. But his wife never reproached him for that. Instead she stood by his actions even though they put her children at risk. In them, and in many others like them, I see God because I see a display of righteousness so brave as to be miraculous.

Crucifixion or Zealotry

C.T. Studd’s grave in Ibambi

Zealotry is defined as a fanatical and uncompromising pursuit of religious, political, or other ideals. These days, the word evokes something negative. But many outstanding missionaries have been full of zeal. I remember standing at the grave of C. T. Studd in the village of Ibambi in the Congo and thinking of what brought him there – his dogged pursuit of taking the Gospel to the geographic center of Africa. At the time, most missionaries stuck to the coasts as travel inland involved long overland treks on foot.

Studd gave up a successful career in cricket for the precarious life of a missionary in the Belgian Congo in the early 20th century, where he died of untreated gallstones in 1931. He was a certain kind of zealot.

Frail but impassioned Siangombe exhorting other translators

It was near Ibambi that I first met Siangombe – a frail shell of a man riddled with health problems who had obviously once been healthy and robust. His decline was caused by his encounters with the Mai Mai militia. Their beloved country had undergone more than a century of brutal rule or interference by outside powers, and they wanted it ended. In fact, they wanted to get rid of all outside influence so that the Congo would be pure. Because Christianity came from outside, the Mai Mai opposed it the same was they opposed everything they considered not purely Congolese – violently.

Because Siangombe was a Christian and, worse, a Bible translator, the Mai Mai repeatedly beat and persecuted him. Miraculously, he survived. The Mai Mai are true zealots in the worst sense of the term. They have a reasonable, even noble, cause – the liberation of their country from foreign powers. But they add two twists:

  • They interpret their cause in a radical way – opposing all outside influences even those that do not seek to control the Congo and those that try to help, and
  • They are willing to hurt and kill others, including other Congolese, to accomplish it.

Some Congolese intellectuals defend the Mai Mai because of their unwavering stand against foreign influence, while excusing their atrocities or issuing weak and infrequent condemnations.

It is easy to think that evil people have evil intentions, but great evil is done by people with good intentions embedded in a political ideology.

Shakespeare’s evildoers stopped short at a dozen corpses. Because they had no ideology. – Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

With their zealous good intentions embedded in a political ideology, the Mai Mai are brutal even toward people who agree with their basic cause but who disagree with the way they twist it. So poor Siangombe could not avoid Mai Mai wrath even though he too wanted his country to be run by Congolese and according to their wishes.

The crucifixion is the opposite of zealotry. God saw people doing evil things to each other, so he sent his only Son to be falsely accused, slandered and even killed. That’s a very different response to the evil in the world than zealotry. In response to man’s inhumanity to man, God hurt himself.

Similarly, C. T. Studd’s zeal caused him to sacrifice himself, not punish others.

Good Friday is a reminder that God’s approach to evil is not zealotry toward others, and so neither should it be ours.

Don’t let evil conquer you, but conquer evil by doing good. – Romans 12:21

The message of the cross is foolish to those who are headed for destruction! But we who are being saved know it is the very power of God. – 1 Corinthians 1:18

Ghanaian mustard tree

In Matthew chapter 13, Jesus gives a series of parables about his Kingdom. We might consider them an window into God’s action in this world. Here are two of them.
Then Jesus said, “What is the Kingdom of God like? How can I illustrate it? It is like a tiny mustard seed that a man planted in a garden; it grows and becomes a tree, and the birds make nests in its branches.” He also asked, “What else is the Kingdom of God like? It is like the yeast a woman used in making bread. Even though she put only a little yeast in three measures of flour, it permeated every part of the dough.” – Luke 13:18-21

These parables present God’s action in the world as something that starts small and grows big, and as something that starts small and then permeates everything. This contrasts to the idea that God’s action in this world consists of big spectacular events. Big spectacular events are like tsunamis; they create lots of change. But even more change is created by the slow ebb and flow of water that causes erosion, digs riverbeds, carves gullies and canyons, and builds deltas. The tsunami seems more powerful only because it happens fast. .

Religious map of Ghana: Green is most Christian, red is least

Missionaries first came to Ghana in the early 19th century. They struggled. Not many Ghanaians were receptive to their message. But the missionaries learned the languages, translated the Bible, and trained the few that responded. They published the Bible in the Ga language in 1866, followed by the Twi Bible in 1874, and the Ewe Bible in 1914. By that time they had been in Ghana for about 80 years and still few had responded to the Gospel. Things begin to change in the early 20th century. And change they did. From 1900 to 1960 Ghana went from 5% to 60% Christian. The percentage is much higher still in the areas where the Bible had been translated.

The process looked nothing like a tsunami. The day-to-day changes were almost imperceptible. Certainly the hour-to-hour changes were. Nevertheless, the mustard seed has grown into a very large tree and the yeast has permeated the whole loaf, just as Jesus explained.

Alien Schooling

Sign at school in Ghana

For many children in northern Ghana school is a baffling experience. Because English is Ghana’s official language, that is the language used in school. But the children don’t speak English. Neither do their parents or friends. For many, the only place they hear English is in school. Furthermore, the teacher probably doesn’t know their language, so he or she can’t explain. Because parents don’t know English, they can’t help their children with homework. It’s sink or swim. Some schools even ban students from speaking their languages.

Somehow, this alien experience has come to be considered normal. So normal that students and their parents may be blamed for the poor results. And poor results proliferate – huge numbers fail and repeat grades, many drop out. For many parents, school is a lottery. You send all your kids hoping one will by chance succeed, get a good job, and benefit the whole family. That’s a load of heavy expectations to put on a first grader!

There’s hope. The Ghanaian organization I work for, GILLBT, (link) is leveraging its experience and expertise in translation and literacy in Ghana languages to change all this. It is working with schools to teach students in their own languages for the first three years then transition to English. In fact, when I was in Ghana in July, GILLBT’s training center was overflowing with teams of Ghanaians each preparing teaching materials in their language.

The preliminary results are impressive. The number of second graders reading at the required level went from 15 to over 70 percent. Because you only learn to read once, the transition to English will go quickly. In pilot projects in other countries, children starting in their own languages spoke better English by grade six than those who started in English.

Besides, all those students will become adults who can read the Bible in their languages instead of the illiterate dropouts they would have become.

Children curious about me

Can’t pray

Some time ago I talked to a man from the South West of Ghana who speaks the Anyii language. Even though it is a larger language group churches do not hold services in the Anyii language. Instead, they use English and more dominant Ghanaian languages. These practices have led to unintended and regrettable effects on many Anyii Christians.

The man told me that he was in a group of four Anyii men having a conversation in Anyii. They decided to pray. But none of them prayed in Anyii. They all switched to another language. It was clear that they thought other languages are more suited to prayer. It was as though, of all the languages of the world, the only language God doesn’t understand is Anyii. The man said:

We enter church with our tongue clipped.

If this were just an oddity, I wouldn’t be concerned. But history shows that where Christian faith bypasses the language of the people, it doesn’t go deep, and it often becomes superstitious and corrupt, as it did when it stuck to Latin in Europe.

No more activists

In February 2018 I flew from Accra in southern Ghana to the north of the country. In the waiting area at the Accra airport and then on the plane I sat next to a friendly Ghanaian woman with her adorable, six-week-old baby daughter. Once she got seated on the plane, she started breastfeeding her baby in the matter-of-fact way I have seen so many times on this sensible continent. No complexes. No hint of embarrassment. No effort to be extremely discrete.

None of the other passengers, almost all Ghanaian and overwhelmingly male, paid her action the slightest attention. To say that the passengers approved would be to attribute to them far more agency in the matter than they actually exercised. When you drive your car do you consciously approve that the wheels go round and round?

Having spent most of my adult life in a place where breastfeeding in public is an unremarkable and assumed part of life, I am amused when it makes the news and has vocal advocates in the West.

It struck me that the best end point for true advocacy is not repeated  (let alone shrill or virtue-signaling) statements in favor of the advocated change. It is not everyone standing up and agreeing. Instead it’s the blasé acceptance manifested by the passengers on that plane.

It also caused me to reflect that just as advocacy for public breastfeeding is irrelevant in Africa, so there won’t be advocates or activists clamoring for our attention in the new heavens and the new earth. Won’t that be refreshing!

Missions and curiosity

Village in northern Ghana. Photo GILLBT, Rodney Ballard

Working as a cross-cultural missionary requires that I understand the Gospel and the culture where I am ministering. If I understand only the gospel I will end up misconstruing it because I will communicate it in ways the culture will misunderstand. So I have to be curious about the culture in which I am serving and clear about the Gospel I am presenting.

My favorite biblical example of curiosity by a missionary is found in Acts 17 where the Apostle Paul studies the idols of Athens and quotes an Athenian poet in order to explain the Gospel.

My favorite statement about curiosity comes from blogger Seth Godin who wrote:
“You can’t be curious and angry at the same time”

True curiosity about other people comes from love. When I love, I want to understand you. This is very different from idle curiosity – the kind that turns people into curiosities – things we are interested in only because they are different or exotic. If I’m truly curious about people not like me, I can’t be angry, distant, gruff, or dismissive; even when I disagree with what I find. Some mistakenly call this approach appeasement. Appeasement exists, but seeking to truly understand is not it.

God fully understands everyone and seeks out each of us where we are. So we should not be afraid to fully understand those to whom we are ministering. We should avoid using straw-man tactics and instead use steel-manning to avoid superficial understandings and convenient stereotypes.

When we do that, we imitate God’s approach to us. Plus, our presentation of the Gospel becomes clearer as do our translations of the Bible.

Barrier to bridge

For many people, most perhaps, the fact that there are 7,000 languages spoken in the world today is a problem. Wouldn’t everything be a lot easier if everyone spoke the same Language?

Missionaries and churches have sometimes taken the approach that languages are a barrier, refusing to use them for worship or evangelism. Instead they use a regional, dominant, or official language. Dr. Harriet Hill and Dr. Lamin Sanneh have pointed out that this often leads to stagnation of the Christian faith.

It has become more and more common for missionaries to see languages as a bridge rather than as a barrier. In fact, seeing languages as a bridge has become so common that we can speak of a paradigm shift in missions. One very large international mission agency even shifted all of its work away from dominant languages to local languages when the saw the success of the latter approach.

Langauge Map of Ghana

Langauge Map of Ghana

Unfortunately churches lag behind missions in this paradigm shift. Their members may have a vested political economic, educational, tribal, or other interest in maintaining the dominant language. Also they are generally not aware of the successes of ministry based on the idea that every language is a bridge between the people and the Gospel.

In Ghanaian churches we sometimes encounter skepticism of the value of translating the Bible into the lesser known languages of the country. If the problem is that they lack information, they quickly change their minds once they are informed. On the other hand, things are more difficult if they have a vested interest in maintaining the dominant language. Language is often highly political.

So, our goal of mobilizing the churches in Ghana for translation addresses both the need for information and the need to moderate some political positions.