Learning going the wrong way

Dedication of representative translation committees for three Ghana languages, 2014

Launching translations in three small languages in Ghana’s Volta Region that no on ever learns, although the people who speak these languages almost always learn the regional language.

In Africa, people who speak small languages learn larger languages, but the reverse does not usually happen.

When a missionary whose language is English learns a small language, that speaks volumes. Not only has the missionary learned the language, he or she has done something counter their own interests. Learning the smaller language is a step down the social ladder. When Africans learn smaller languages to minister to people, that also speaks volumes about humility and service. I have written about a specific example.

An African translator told me how a church leader mocked him for volunteering to help in literacy in his “little language”. The person told him that such activities have no value because his language is so small.

But the things that are growing the church in rural areas in northern Ghana and northern Côte d’Ivoire are translations and literacy in those “worthless” languages that no one will bother to learn. It’s another delicious example of God’s subversion from below:

Instead, God chose things the world considers foolish in order to shame those who think they are wise. And he chose things that are powerless to shame those who are powerful. (I Corinthians 1:27)

It turns out that the things people readily dismiss as useless provide the real leverage for transforming communities and bringing Gospel life.

The Doctor

Rev Dr Browne (right), at a conference on translating the Bible

Rev Dr Browne (right), at a conference on translating the Bible

Doctor Browne is a real doctor. By that I mean a medical doctor. But these days he is also a minister of the Gospel with Lighthouse Chapel International, a church that was started in Ghana, and is found throughout Ghana and in other countries. Doctor Browne is a doctor’s doctor. Before becoming a minister he taught at a medical school and consulted on difficult cases. For a while, he was responsible for all the churches belonging to Lighthouse Chapel International in northern Ghana.

As soon as he was given that responsibility, he started learning one of the most important languages of northern Ghana – Dagbani, the language of the Dagomba people.

That is an interesting thing to do. Northern Ghana is not as prosperous as the part of Ghana Doctor Browne is from. Many Ghanaians with credentials not nearly as impressive as Dr. Browne’s don’t want to work or live there. Also, learning Dagbani is a big step down the social ladder. But Dr. Browne saw value in learning Dagbani, of identifying himself with them. In a few months, Doctor Browne learned Dagbani better than others in his church who had been there for much longer.

Doctor Browne’s actions are all the more amazing when compared to the actions of others. For example, some ministers in Ghana will only use English because it is prestigious. They preach in English even when they know that people don’t understand. They would never learn Dagbani, or any other Ghanaian language. Also, many Ghanaians with his education and credentials dread, as I wrote above, being assigned to northern Ghana because of the lack of services. Instead, many are emigrating to the USA or to Europe.

The continued use and impact of translations in the languages of Ghana depend on ministers of the Gospel like Doctor Browne who are more interested in communicating the Gospel than in prestige or their careers.

While others are heading up, Doctor Browne is going the other direction. Actually, his direction is the real up – the direction Jesus took:

Think the same way that Christ Jesus thought: Christ was truly God. But he did not try to remain equal with God. Instead he gave up everything and became a slave, when he became like one of us. Christ was humble. He obeyed God and even died on a cross. Then God gave Christ the highest place and honored his name above all others. (Phil 2: 5-9)

The Ram, the Lion and the Lamb

Merry Christmas - animated bannerThis is our first Christmas in Ghana. I am celebrating by adding something uniquely Ghanaian.

Ghana has a rich history, culture and beliefs. Long before explorers and missionaries arrived, the Akan people of Ghana developed a rich set of symbols to explain their beliefs. One of them is this stylized representation of rams horns, called “Dwennimmen

Dwennimmen - Rams horns

Akan symbol Dwennimmen, representing rams' horns

A ram will fight fiercely with a predator or another ram. So it is associated with strength, which is why the ram’s horns are found on Dodge Ram trucks. But it also submits quietly to slaughter. In the Dwennimmen symbol, the Akan people captured these opposite qualities of the ram: meekness and strength. It was a reminder to those who are strong to exercise their strength in humility.

At Christmas, we celebrate the all-powerful God coming down and being born as a baby. He was born with animals into a family of modest means. Talk about being meek and being strong!

When Jesus was accused by Pilot, he did not try to defend himself, just like the prediction about Jesus in Isaiah:

He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
yet he opened not his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
so he opened not his mouth. (Isaiah 53:7 ESV)

Again, great strength exercised in great meekness, just like the Akan symbol Dwennimmen.

Another animal used to symbolize Jesus is the Lion. He is called “the lion of the tribe of Judah” (Revelation 5:5). The lion, of course, represents strength and courage The praise chorus “How Great Is Our God“, celebrates the unexpected juxtaposition with the words

Christmas animation - mixedThe Godhead three in one
Father, Spirit, Son
Lion and the Lamb
Lion and the Lamb

When Jesus said that his kingdom is not “of this world”, his meek approach to power must be one of the things he meant. Through simple grassroots action, such as Bible translation, that kingdom is expanding around the world. There is a power in the Gospel even when to this world it seems timid or meek, just as it did the first Christmas.

People associate all kinds of symbols with Christmas: snow, sleighs, Santa, reindeer, trees, wreaths, stars, angels, wise men, shepherds, a stable, a manger, even tin soldiers and more. This Christmas I am adding a Ghanaian symbol to my repertoire – ” Dwennimmen” or rams’ horns.

May you have a blessed Christmas.

Manger banner