Kente

Young man weaving Kente cloth

When we lived in Burkina Faso we were introduced to strip weaving. Using simple looms, hand-made out of branches and strips of home-cured leather, men wove beautiful strips of cloth which are then sewn together to make cloth. Weaving, it turns out, is a man’s job in Burkina Faso. The cotton is dyed before weaving, and the intricacy of the design depends on the skill of the weaver. I still have a garment made by a man who won third place in a national weaving contest. It is a beautiful combination of blue, black, silver and white.

Here in Ghana, there is a very special kind of strip-woven cloth called Kente (pronounced ken-tay). It contrasts other strip woven cloth in Africa by its vivid colors and geometric shapes. A room full of Kente cloth can be a bit overwhelming.

Kente cloth shop near Kumasi

Traditionally, Kente cloth was only worn by the members of the royal court. The weavers worked for the king. Now days, it is freely available. You can buy it at the airport as well as in many markets. But for the really good stuff, you need to go to the source. I had the opportunity to visit the town which is home to the weavers for the royal court. We visited a small shop stuffed with the brightly colored fabric while a young man sat at a traditional loom in the street outside making even more.

Nawuri Chiefs in Kente Cloth

Nawuri Chiefs in Kente Cloth

The most common use of the cloth is as men’s wear. A large piece is draped in a specific way over the left shoulder leaving the right shoulder bare. I’ve tried it. I learned that I need a lot more practice before I try wearing it in public! The men who wear it all the time make it look so easy. The men in the photo wearing kente are traditional cheifs among the Nawuri people of Ghana’s Volta Region.

If you liked this, you might also like Cloth and Meaning, Festooned with Signs, Fancy Caskets. or Mobile Colors.

 

Advice from Ghana Taxi Windows

Ghanaians love to put interesting sayings on their vehicles and shops. Often they are quotes from the Bible and, almost as often, quotes of traditional sayings, some of which sound like they might come from the Bible, like “God’s time is best”.

A number offer advice to the reader. These are often found on taxi windows. Another feature of Ghana is that Ghanaians are not embarrassed to write the signs in their own languages. Taxi windows are as likely to carry words in the Twi or Ewe (pronounced Aye-Vay) languages as they are to display English. Most of the advice is pretty good.

We’ll start on the main road from Kumasi to Accra, where I found this taxi offering advice in the Twi language. Literally it means “Think about yourself”. The meaning is something like “Don’t put your nose in other peoples’ business”, “Mind your own business” or “Don’t Meddle”.
My next example comes from the streets of Accra. This taxi driver is also offering advice in the Twi language. We are told to “Let it go”, meaning that when someone does something bad to you, then let it go. In other words, forgive them. “Let it go” is an interesting idiom for the concept of forgiveness. It is important that we do not assume that the English and Twi idioms have exactly the same meaning. That considered, the hard part of forgiveness is often to “let it go”, that is, not keep dwelling on the matter, running it over and over in our heads.

Next we have a taxi on a road in the beautiful highlands of Eastern region. This time we have advice in English. Apparently, gossiping is not something confined to any one culture or age. We are warned about it in parts of the Bible written 2,000 years ago. This taxi driver seems to think that the advice is as relevant for contemporary Ghanaian society as it was then.

One day, I walked out the gate and found this taxi beside the road. The driver was grabbing a bite to eat from the roadside food stand. I commented on his advice. He brightened up. According to him, we need to be humble because even Jesus Christ was humble. I suppose that he had read the second chapter of the book of Philippians. About an hour later, he came driving past me as I was finishing my walk. He leaned out the window, smiled and yelled, “Be humble!”

These photos were originally posted on my Facebook feed. If you liked this, you might also like Festooned with Signs, God’s Time is Best. or Shame.

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Dying languages

You may have heard that a large number of the world’s languages are dying. That may have caused you to wonder if it might be a waste to translate the Bible into those languages. That is a very good thing to wonder about! As you might expect, the answer is not a simple “yes” or “no”.

First, how many languages are dying out? Well, UNESCO has an Atlas of Endangered Languages (Moseley, Christopher (ed.). 2010. Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, 3rd edn. Paris, UNESCO Publishing)  which you can find on line at http://www.unesco.org/culture/languages-atlas/en/atlasmap.html.
For Ghana, it lists five languages as endangered. There are five degrees of endangerment ranging from vulnerable to extinct. Languages not endangered are listed as “safe”. Here is the UNESCO language vulnerability scale definitions for each degree of endangerment.

Degree of endangerment

Intergenerational language transmission

Vulnerable

Most children speak the language, but it may be restricted to certain domains (e.g. home)

Definitely endangered

Children no longer learn the language as mother tongue in the home

Severely endangered

Language is spoken by grandparents and older generations while the parent generation may understand it, they do not speak it to children or among themselves

Critically endangered

The youngest speakers are grandparents and older, and they speak the languages partially and infrequently

Extinct

There are no speakers left

None of the Ghana languages are extinct. Only one gets the next-worst ranking – “critically endangered”, and three get ranked as having the least severe degree of endangerment – “vulnerable” – where most people still speak the language. So it is far from certain that all of the five languages listed as endangered will die out. Even if they did, because there are more than 60 languages spoken in Ghana, at least 55 languages will continue. They are in no danger of dying out in the foreseeable future. In fact, almost all of them will probably even continue to grow. The situation is similar to this is much of Africa. On the other hand, many languages in other parts of the world seem to be headed toward almost certain extinction, as the following chart shows.
Chart of languages in danger of dying worldwide

Chart of languages in danger of dying worldwide

Before we translate the Bible into a language, we do some research to find out if the language is dying, and other facts about it. This assures that we make a good investment of God’s resources. We also make the decisions by taking into account the situation for each language, not on the basis of global trends.
Lastly, some language trends are not developing the way many predicted. For example, it was thought that the Internet would cause the spread of English and the consequent death or marginalization of other languages. But according to a recent analysis of languages used on the Internet:
In 2009, it only took 37 languages to reach 98 percent of people on the web, but in 2012 it takes 48 languages to reach the same percentage
So it might be that the Internet is actually making a way for smaller languages to survive, perhaps even extend themselves. Trends in human society are rarely linear or easy to predict. What seems obvious, sometimes turns out to be false.
Rest assured that we pay special attention to the question of language death in our planning and decision-making. Our agenda is to serve people who speak languages that are very much alive.

If you liked this, you might also like Teach Them English.

No hard knocks

“Knocking, knocking, knocking”. When I lived at the guesthouse I heard it every day. Ghanaians coming to our little apartment say it softly as they approach the front door. There was no doorbell, and they never knocked. If I am deep in thought, they might have to repeat their gentle “Knocking, knocking, knocking”. In Burkina Faso, instead of knocking people said, “Ko, ko, ko.”

Kassem village

Kassem village

A short visit to a village in Burkina Faso will explain why. The round houses sit inside a boundary wall of mud, straw, small rocks and sometimes animal dung. The entry is an opening without a gate or door, although the residents may block it at night with tree trunks or pieces of wood. This is where all visitors stop. Knock all you want, there is nothing here that will make a sound that will carry. If you knock on the mud wall you will get scraped knuckles, but no sound. Calling out “Ko, ko, ko”, on the other hand, makes a lot of sense.

When our two sons were 1 and 3, we took them out of Burkina Faso, the only place they had known, to the US with a stop to visit friends in Switzerland. It was January, so on our first day in Switzerland our boys got to know snow for the first time. Then I went for a walk with our older son around the small town. I realized how much they had adopted the culture of Burkina Faso when our oldest walked up to the door of a Swiss store, stopped and called, “Ko, ko, ko.” I had to tell him that the Swiss have a different way of life, and that they just walk through doorways of stores without calling. No one is listening for them.

In Burkina Faso, we learned that there is a specific kind of person who knocks on doors. That is the thief checking to see if anyone is home. So, how might you translate Revelation 3:20 into a language of Burkina Faso? If you translate it word for word, what will people understand about Jesus?

Village in Burkina Faso near Banfora

Village in Burkina Faso near the town of Banfora

 

Cufflinks in Kete-Krachi

GILLBT 50th Anniversary cloth

GILLBT 50th Anniversary cloth

The Ghanaian organization Dayle and I work with is celebrating its 50th anniversary. As in many African countries, on such occasions an organization will have special cloth made and sell it. I explain that more in my blog on [get title and reference]. Anyway, here is the 50th anniversary cloth. Of course, along with other staff Dayle and I enthusiastically had outfits made of the cloth.

GILLBT board chair in his 50th Anniversay celebration cloth

GILLBT board chair in his 50th Anniversay celebration cloth

I was pondering what to have made – a long sleeved shirt, short sleeved, or something else when I saw the chairman of the board in his outfit (see photo). Then a couple days later at church I saw a man in something with different cloth but the same design, but his had cufflinks. I could not remember ever seeing cufflinks on that kind of outfit. But over the next few days I saw several. I had not worn cufflinks for years, so I decided that I would do it. We found a tailor (they are not expensive here), and commissioned my outfit. The tailor himself was wearing an outfit in the same style, also with cufflinks. We found a set of inexpensive cufflinks and I was ready to go.

My next trip was to the town of Kete-Krachi near Lake Volta. We left very early in the morning and did not arrive until after dark. The last 60 miles or so were on a very bad, dirt road. We bumped and jostled our way there at about 25 miles per hour. It seemed interminable. Anything but a serious 4×4 would be beaten to death in no time on that road. We were there for the dedication of the very first Scripture ever published in the Kaakye language – the Gospel of Mark. Of course, I took my new outfit, and all my colleagues would be wearing their anniversary cloth too. The next day I was getting dressed for the event when I discovered that I had made a serious mistake. I had forgotten the cufflinks!

Shop in Kete-Krachi where I bought cuflinks

Shop in Kete-Krachi where I bought cuflinks

Kete-Krachi is a smaller town with not much of a shopping district. I thought that I would have to wear something else and all of my colleagues would be in their 50th anniversary cloth. No one in the delegation had a pair of cufflinks with them, nor did any of the Kaakye translators, with whom we had breakfast. On a lark, we drove down the main road glancing at the shops. There weren’t many and it would not take long. My colleague, Naana Nkrumah, said “Stop! Stop! That one!” I got out and walked over to the little shop to see a glass and wood display box in which were placed about 20 pairs of cufflinks! Not only would I get cufflinks, I would have to spend a little time choosing among various designs. I bought a pair for about $3, was rescued from my error, and was able to celebrate the event in the proper attire.

Cufflinks in Kete-Krachi — who would have guessed.

Literacy for Life

Many deep comments have been made about the following passage from Luke chapter 4, and rightly so:

And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read. And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”20 And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down.

Today, I do not have any deep thoughts about this passage, but I do have one simple question: How and where did Jesus learn to read?

Literacy class at night

Rural literacy class being held at night by lamplight – Photo by Paul Federwitz

Universal public education is a relatively new thing in human history. It is certain that the Roman authorities who ruled the Jews at the time did not provide education for them. So, how did Jesus learn to read?

Well, he learned in the synagogue from the Rabbi, or perhaps some in his family from his parents.

Teaching children to read was part of the Jewish tradition. Before the advent of government-funded universal education, is also became part of the program of the church. Sunday School started out as a school (reading, writing, ‘rithmatic’) which happened on Sunday before church. It became what it is today when universal schooling took away its original purpose.

A woman teaching other women to read

A woman teaching other women to read – GILLBT photo

As Christianity has grown rapidly in Africa and other places, it is encountering again some of the issues it faced in the not so distant past in Europe. Many churches today are in places where most people do not know how to read and write. Think about that. What would it be like to be in a church where most people do not know how to read? What challenges would that present for Bible study?

Man selling literacy books in the market

Man selling literacy books in the market – GILLBT photo

Here in Ghana, the organization I work with (GILLBT) is addressing this issue with a program called Literacy for Life. This program, run by Nelson Jatuat, offers churches help (training, primers, etc.) setting up church-based adult literacy for their members. People learn to read their heart language. Each lesson includes both teaching to read and write as well as a Bible lesson. It is offered in 18 of the more than 60 languages in Ghana.

Woman and child reading the Bible in their language

Woman and child reading the Bible in their language at a Bible dedication – GILLBT photo

This year, 900 local churches are participating in the program and over 15,000 church members are learning to read. Every year, different churches take part and a similar number of Ghanaian Christians are enrolled. The program is run on a shoestring – churches offer the locale, chalk, and blackboard  free of charge, teachers are volunteers with no pay (although they may receive something small as a recognition for their services), and learners of their churches buy the books. Using these methods, churches and GILLBT can work together to teach an adult to read fluently in his or her language for well under $100. Now that is a bargain.

The program is run by Nelson Jatuat who travels to various parts of the country to train teachers and help churches with evaluation at the end of the teaching cycle.

Outdoors literacy class

Outdoors literacy class – GILLBT photo

Not only do the participants learn to read the Bible in their own languages, they also gain a life-skill that they can use in all kinds of ways. They can keep records, correspond with family, sign their name on official documents, teach a Sunday School class, be the secretary for a local women’s group, take part in a Bible study, or teach a literacy class themselves all things which they could not do before knowing how to read and write. This program has a disproportionately favorable impact on women – the reverse of the unfortunate tendency of development programs to favor men.

Nelson Jatuat

Nelson Jatuat who runs GILLBT’s Literacy for Life program

Where else but in adult literacy in minority languages can a person simultaneously proclaim the Gospel, make disciples, enable others to make disciples, carry out a practical economic development activity and elevate the status of women all at the same time? And where else can one do all that but among some of the most marginalized and neglected people on earth? Anyone out there want to get involved in that? Contribute to it? Come and do it? Pray for Nelson?

If we could ask them, what do you think they would say – the people who taught Jesus to read? And the Christians learning to read through GILLBT’s Literacy for Life program? What do you think they will say in heaven about those who taught them, subsidized their books, sponsored those who developed primers in their languages? And when they say it, do you think that Jesus might remember his own experience learning to read and be impressed?
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Outdooring

One cannot live in Ghana for long without hearing about or being invited to an outdooring ceremony. If you go to one, you might see a scene like this:

The Ashanti chief, adorned with gold bracelets, rings and chains, closed his eyes, bent his head down and chanted a prayer to the health and fortune of the squirming 3-month-old boy before him. Nana Adu Adjei, a 57-year-old Ghanaian, had donned his green, yellow and royal purple kente cloth for an ”outdooring”.

But you don’t need to be in Ghana. The scene described above took place in New York City and was reported in the New York Times.

Among many peoples of Ghana and elsewhere in West Africa, a baby is kept indoors until he or she is eight days old. The baby is then brought outdoors for the first time in a ceremony called an “outdooring”. It is the occasion for a party with friends and family. In many cases the baby receives its names at this ceremony and in some cases, male children are circumcised.

A word like “outdooring” is a Ghana-ism. It was born out of the contact of the English language with cultural realities for which English has no words. The word “christening” really doesn’t fit.

English is the official language of Ghana which inherited it from the colonial period when Ghana, then the Gold Coast, was a British colony. But there are over 60 languages spoken in Ghana, and very few Ghanaians speak English as their first language. They learn English in school, use it in government business, but speak their own languages in their families and in their communities. They continue to follow their many helpful traditions even when they profess a world religion such as Christianity.

English does not have words for many of the things that they hold dear, or just want to talk about. So they have invented new English words, or they sometimes use standard English words, but with new meanings.

Culture is a powerful force – so strong that a local culture can bend a world language like English to fits its needs, rather like gravity can bend light. When that happens, some mistakenly say that Ghanaians are not speaking English correctly. As I am writing, my impoverished spell checker has mounted a campaign against “outdooring”, suggesting that I replace it with “outpouring”. That Ashanti chief in his traditional regalia could teach it a thing or two about a proud part of Ghanaian culture.

Prayer Centers

Like Africans everywhere I have been, Ghanaians are very religious. Churches dot the southern and central parts of the country and there are quite a number in the north. A number of those in the south were built in the 1800s by missionaries in classic Western church architectural style, like the ones in the photos below, but many are very simple buildings or even just little shelters.

Church composite

Churches in Abetifi (L) and Akropong (R), Ghana

But that is not my topic today. Rather, it is the prayer centres (Ghana follows UK spelling for English), prayer houses and prayer grounds which one sees here and there.

Sign - Prayer center

Despite its modest construction, this prayer center is in the capital city.

In my travels in the US, I don’t think that I have ever seen a sign along the road for a prayer center, prayer house or prayer ground. Here, you cannot drive very far without seeing at least one. I would have more photos of them if they signs did not fly past before I had time to snap a picture, or the road was wide enough to pull off for a photo without creating a traffic hazard. Prayer is an outstanding feature of Christianity in Africa. All night prayer meetings are not uncommon.

Sign - Zion Prayer Ministry

This place offers specific prayer times including “All Night”

When I ask African Christians about this I get a variety of answers, but the most common is something along the theme of “You have money, doctors and good medical care. We don’t. You have responsive governments to which you can make complaints, we don’t. You have economic systems that are not rigged in favor of a few, we don’t. All we have is prayer.”

The prayer centers I have seen are humble, rustic, basic affairs, not to say crude or inadequate. From my perspective they are under-resourced. Does God think that they are? Does their lowly construction make them less helpful? I wonder.

Church of Pentecost Prayer Ground

This prayer ground looks like it doubles as a carpentry shop

Ringtones

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

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.

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Yugu-yugu

Young men selling used  Broni-wewu shoes in a market the town of Tamale, northern Ghana

Young men selling used Broni-wewu shoes in a market the town of Tamale, northern Ghana

In the markets in Africa one finds all kinds of wonderful used clothes. They can be nicely arranged, or just in a pile that you paw through. There is everything, shoes,  underwear, shirts, blouses, coats, sweaters, lingerie, anything. The clothes arrive in bales at the ports where they are purchased by merchants who transport them into the most remote village for sale.

From these piles of clothes, called yugu-yugu in Burkina Faso, we clothed our children with high-quality brands like Oshgosh B’gosh in pristine condition at a small fraction of the original cost. Of course, sometimes people buy things and wear them without knowing what they are, which can create some humorous relief for us. I saw a small, frail, elderly woman selling peanuts by the road while wearing an Incredible Hulk tee-shirt.

Because the clothes are known to come from the lands of white people and because they are in such good condition that people could not imagine a living person getting rid of them, they are called “broni wewu” which literally means “dead white man/woman” in the Twi language of Ghana.