Cloth and meaning

In West Africa, the cloth you wear carries a message, but not at all in the same way that it might in the USA..

Assistants to a seamstress

Assistants to a seamstress

While some people wear western cloth and western-style clothes, most people wear cloth made in their country, or a neighboring country. It is light weight cotton, printed in bright colors and sold in stores and even little open-air markets in rural areas. New designs are constantly coming out. When they do, they often acquire a name packed with meaning. Few clothes are ready-made. The cotton cloth is quite inexpensive. Plus, there are tailors and seamstresses everywhere. You can hear the sound of their treadle machines (from China) in the most remote areas. Tailor-made clothes are cheaper than store-bought! So men and women pick out a cloth they like and have it sewn into a design they like.

Some people will choose cloth specifically because of the meaning of its name. So a young woman vying with another for a young man might get an outfit made of cloth named “I will win over my rival.” Her friends and family, and more importantly her rival for the young man, will know exactly what that means and to whom it applies. I learned this when a neighbor pointed out the meaning of a cloth I had just bought for my wife. The colors and design were nice, but the meaning did not fit. (I cannot count the number of things I have learned about Africa by making a mistake!)

Cloth of the Ladies of Charity of the Association of Chadian Churches

Cloth of the Ladies of Charity of the Association of Chadian Churches

The designers working for the textile manufacturers are constantly at work. If you are willing to pay for a modest-sized run, you can work with one of their designers to produce a design you like. So a company, or a church, or a civic organization can have cloth made with its logo. Because cloth has meaning and because you can have it made with your logo, it can be used for advertisement. You can have thousands of people walking around displaying advertizing your brand, your church or your organization.

Cloth for the Shalom University of Bunia in the Congo

Cloth for the Shalom University of Bunia in the Congo

Even people who do not know how to read can identify which cloth is associated with which church or other organization. People like to buy the cloth associated with their church or civic group. So the women’s organization for a church denomination might have cloth made and all the ladies who have the means will have an outfit made of it. It shows solidarity. Because of this, having cloth made for your organization is a source of revenue. The textile manufacturer will sell you a whole run at wholesale and you resell it to your members at retail. They pay no more than for any other cloth, and you get money for your activities.

Chairman of the GILLBT board in the 50th Anniversary GILLBT cloth

Chairman of the GILLBT board in the 50th Anniversary GILLBT cloth

The Ghanaian organization I work for is celebrating its jubilee year. Of course, this could not be commemorated without 50th anniversary cloth. Staff worked with the textile company to produce two potential designs which were shown to the staff and a winner selected. All of the staff bought the cloth. At the first 50th anniversary celebration, people were dressed in almost as many different styles as there were people, but made of the same cloth. Over the coming months people who want to show their appreciation for GILLBT’s work in Bible translation and literacy in Ghanaian languages will buy the cloth and have outfits made so that they too can make a public statement of support.


I have had fun imaging what might happen if we did the same in the US. One might see Republican and Democratic party cloth next to each other in the checkout line.

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Logs on the ferry

Chad is a landlocked country in central Africa

A few years ago, I was traveling by road in Chad. We were spending many hours bouncing down rough roads in a heavy-duty 4×4. At one point, we came to a ferry. Because the river was very low, there was a steep bank down to the ferry on our end and a steep bank up from the ferry on the opposite bank. It was a small ferry, holding only four vehicles. We arrived first so the loaded us first. We got out and stood near the car.

Next came a Peugeot 404 pickup overloaded with passengers and cargo. The driver stopped at the top of the grade and had the passengers disembark there. As he started down the bank he began going faster and faster until the engine was screaming in low gear. The penny dropped for everyone else. People were diving off the road and off the ferry and yelling warnings in languages I did not understand. Finally I got it – the pickup had no brakes.

It bounced on to the ferry at a most unreasonable speed, motor still screaming in low gear.  I was safe, but I worried about our vehicle.  It was then that I noticed them – two largish logs laying across the end of the ferry. So this was not the first time that there had been a problem with a vehicle with no brakes. The Peugeot narrowly missed our vehicle and plowed into the logs.  They were not up to the task given them. Into the river they went. Following close behind the cab of the pickup disappeared into the opaque, brown water. Everyone ran to the rescue, but the driver came bubbling up unhurt. There was a lively exchange of words, again in a language or languages I did not understand. I was told that the driver was unhappy with the ferry crew, but they had pointed out that brakes are required by law.

I thought, “Now they have to call for a crane to remove the pickup because the ferry is pinned between the pick up and bank.  We will either sit here for days or drive a very long way around to find a bridge or a different ferry.”  That thought proved my lack of knowledge of Chadian ingenuity.  The rear tires of the pickup were still, barely, on the front ramp of the ferry. The front and rear hinged ramps were connected by cables that ran through pulleys on steel poles above the deck of the ferry. So, when one ramp went down the other necessarily went up. The crew tied the pickup to the ferry with large ropes, then recruited passengers to stand on the other ramp one at a time until the weight of the passengers was greater than that of the pickup. Down went the back ramp with passengers standing on it and up went the font ramp with the pickup on it.  The crew coaxed it back onto the ferry. A few minutes later we had crossed the river and were ascending the other bank.  The pickup driver was trying to get the water out of his engine and complaining about the muddy river water in the many 110 pound bags of sugar in the bed of his truck.

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N’Djamena church

I went to a church service in N’Djamena with Paul Djideti (pronounced gee-debt-ee). The church is on one of the main boulevards of the city and it is a church composed mostly of the thin Chadian middle class. In spite of the middle-class setting, the women and small children sit on the left side of the church and the men on the right.

The service was to start and 10 AM and be followed by a fellowship meal – something that happens only once a year. We arrived at 10:07. There is a semi-permanent shelter for fellowship events next to the church. It is made of pipes permanently planted in the ground to which are attached very colorful tarps, perhaps made of some kind of carpet.

The men are dressed up – some in suits and ties, some in slacks and nice shirts including shirts made of colorful African cloth, some in safari suites and one or two in traditional Chadian robes. The women all have their heads covered, mostly with very colorful cloth matching their clothes which include a full-length skirt and embroidery.

The church building is quite nice. It has a high roof with open metal trusses and metal roofing. There are very big windows all the way around so keep the air flowing in the hot climate. There are ceiling fans too, but there is no electricity. It is a well-conceived sanctuary in an arc around the platform and the seating is sloped with white plastic chairs on each “step” of the slope. The walls are unfinished and unpainted cement and the floor is uncovered and unpainted concrete.

I am told that there will be a communion service and then the meal. It turns out to be a bit different. There is a station for hand washing near the main entry to the church. Most people are washing their hands before entering. I wondered if this was a reflection of a north African influence.

The service started at 10:20 with the pastor and elders around a communion table in front of the platform. The pastor led the communion service with a number of elders praying and leading songs. Because there is no electricity, there is also no PA system. Like many churches in Africa, there is a lot of movement and little noises during the service. Children make a bit of noise and move around. Some adults have little conversations with each other during the service. It is almost impossible for me to hear what is being said.

The singing is mostly traditional French hymns from a hymnbook which has been around for a ♠very long time. But it is almost impossible to recognize the hymns because they are sung with a strong North African flavor. For two, I only recognized the hymn from the words and then afterwards I was able to figure out that the melody was the one I was used to but with very different harmony and a lot of notes changed. They sang a number of songs. At 10:50 the bread is distributed. It is in loaves and each one breaks off a piece. At 10:55 the cup is distributed. They used about six “common cups” with each cup being passed from person to person.

The men are seated on the right and the ladies on the left. Small children are with the ladies. Preteens mostly had an area to themselves among the ladies. Teens sit with the men or women.

At this point, my pen runs out of ink and I can’t take any more notes! When communion is finished the pastor goes to the platform and the elders back into the congregation.

We sing and there is another prayer. It is now 11:12. The song leader gives us a 3-4 minutes exhortation. At 11:25 they ask all visitors to stand. About 20 people stand. We are greeted but not asked to introduce ourselves (relief!). Another man goes to the platform and makes a number of announcements. Then yet another man goes to the platform to report on an evangelism effort. 63 persons were contacted, 15 made commitments to Christ and six were Christians who repented from not following Christ. Four of the new converts were in the service, others had decided to attend other churches closer to where they live. The four are introduced and church members who live in their neighborhood are asked to stand. The man making the announcements announces that the evangelism efforts need some Bibles in Arabic. At 11:36 the sermon starts. The text was Acts 2:43-47. We are exhorted to continue in the same things the early Christians did. At 11:55 the sermon is over. It was clear, to the point and very well presented. At 11:45 they get the PA system working on a battery (still no electricity) and at least I hear all of the last 10 minutes of the sermon.

We sing a hymn while the offering is being taken. The hymn drags and the song leader stops us and insists that we follow his speed. He taps the cadence on the pulpit and we sing at a good rate. The faster rate works – more people are singing and they seem more engaged.

The final prayer is at 12:06. We each pick up our white plastic chair and take it outside. There are a few tables but not nearly enough. The shelter is not big enough for all of us. I sit with Paul under a mango tree. Things move slowly and my little group is asked to join the serving line at 12:55. The food was amazing. I had “boule” – a kind of very thick millet porridge, fish and greens. We all ate with our hands. A young lady came around with a basin and a teapot. She pours the water over our hands as we wash them over the basin.

The ladies are seated with the ladies, the men with the men and children from about 10 years and up are also together. Things break up suddenly. I am told that we are leaving and all of a sudden it looks like half the crowd is leaving. It is 1:40 PM.

(This was originally posted on a different site. It was republished here in March 2012.)

Nessiel Ndjibogoto

Nessiel is the man who leads the organization I will be working with. A few years ago he told us an interesting story about his life. His mother had carried four pregnancies to term and lost the baby at birth or shortly thereafter. Her fifth pregnancy was Nessiel. So when he was born she named him Nessiel, which in her language means “He won’t last”.

A few years ago Nessiel went to visit his now aged mother. She told him that now that he had given her grandchildren it was time to reconsider his name! Nessiel responded by telling her that he was involved in Bible translation in the languages of Chad of which there are over 120. He told his mother that man might call that task “It won’t get done”. So he wanted to keep his name to show that God’s evaluation of a situation are not the same as man’s.

(This was originally posted on a different site. It was republished here in March 2012.)

Chad trip

I (Ed) will be in Chad from October 20 through November 1 plus a travel day on each end. Chad is a country in Central Africa with plenty of challenges. I will be in N’Djamena (pronounced n-jah-MAY-nah) and Moundou (pronouced moon-due).

Here is a map.

I will be working with a Chadian Christian organization which does Bible translation. Wycliffe is partnering with them. They have a great vision, good skills and the confidence of the churches in Chad. What they lack is the capacity to manage their budget well. They also want help with managing funding which Wycliffe sends them to the legal standards required. My job will be to work with them to develop a plan for both of those and to make a recommendation to Wycliffe concerning future partnership with this national organization.

Pray for good interactions, for transparency and for clarity. I will be doing almost all of my work in French, so clarity is an important thing. While I can say anything, I sometimes struggle to say it with the right nuance and tone.

I’ll post more as I am able. I am not at all sure what internet connection, if any, I will have in Moundou.

For more information on Chad and the national organization I will be working with see:

(This was originally posted on a different site. It was republished here in March 2012.)