Ideophones and prayer

Some time ago, I was at a training event where an African was praying in her language. In the middle of the prayer came a rapid, staccato “dedede” (pronounced day day day). The person was using very common kind of word in African languages – an ideophone. When linguists first encountered these words in African languages they said that the words were “painting with sound”. And that’s how they came to be called idea-sounds, which is what ideophones means. (Not to be confused with idiophones which is a class of musical instruments. If you remember onomatopoeia from your English classes in school, you may wonder if ideophones are just onomatopoeia. Actually, ideophone is a broader term. Onomatopoeia are a kind of ideophone.)

Information about this ideophone from "The Structure of Ideophones in African and Asian Languages: The Case of Dagaare and Cantonese", Adams Bodomo, The University of Hong Kong

Information about this ideophone from “The Structure of Ideophones in African and Asian Languages: The Case of Dagaare and Cantonese”, Adams Bodomo, The University of Hong Kong

Cock-a-doodle-doo is an ideophone. While English has ideophones, there are not nearly as many as there are in African languages, nor are they used as frequently. In English, they are limited mostly to sounds made by animals and machines. In African languages ideophones are used for many other things such as the way something moves, its shape, or its position. One of my favorites means “gigantic, unwieldy blob of a thing”

In African languages, ideophones have the same sounds (consonants and vowels) as other words in the language, but they put them together in ways other words do not. They are also different because they don’t take prefixes or suffixes.

We can say that the rooster was cock-a-doodle-dooing, or that he cock-a-doodle-dooed, but African ideophones can’t add things like “ing” and “ed” the way we do in English. These features make ideophones a separate class of words in African languages.

But the most important thing about ideophones is that they paint mental images that stir up feelings, visual memories, or sensations. Their use in a prayer is a sign that the the person praying is saying something straight from their heart. In fact, the person is saying something that would require a whole phrase or sentence to say without the ideophone. An ideophone is a like a very compact, and therefore powerful, dose of images.

Praying 1

Prayer in a church in Congo

But ideophones are somewhat in danger. Many educated Africans don’t say them often. Perhaps they have been influenced by the official language, English or French, they learned in school. Or, they may mistakenly consider them primitive. So when an educated African Christian uses an ideophone in prayer in front of other educated people, that person is showing an attachment to and respect for their language that goes beyond the ordinary. It also shows that they are conveying to God thoughts and emotions that come straight from their heart.

We work in Bible translation, but our concern is wider than that. Through translation, we want people to know that they can use all of their language to connect to God, so that they will connect to him from the deepest part of their being. The person praying was doing just that. – Woo woo woo woo woo!!!

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

On the bus

Traveling by bus in Ghana can be an enlightening experience. One trip Ed took on the bus, someone stood up and prayed for safety in travel just before departure. Very refreshing! A newly-arrived British colleague decided to take a bus from Elmina to Accra along the coast. She was quite surprised when someone stood up and prayed for God’s protection over the ride to Accra. When the bus pulled into the station in Accra, she was very pleased and equally surprised that someone stood up and thanked the Lord for a safe journey. People are quite used to that kind of worship in Ghana. Just last week, one of our guesthouse guests was telling of her bus ride up country where, during the length of the trip, two different people stood up and gave passionate sermons. But even more amazing is that the last one took an offering! I was wondering about the stewardship of that offering, but apparently it’s not a problem.

The religious freedom we have here in Ghana is amazing. I can even get lost in worship in a store in town with the awesome worship songs played over the sound system in many  stores. I’ve even seen employees freely worshiping.  They are singing happily, themselves sort of glowing with a joy and peace. It is truly refreshing.

Of heads and eyes

Our son Mark started suffering with migraine headaches in his teen years. I have them too, but Mark’s were much worse. He would end up in the hospital in Nairobi, where were living at the time. He would have debilitating pain and stroke-like symptoms such has one side of his body going numb. One of Mark’s migraines was a major family event that took at least a day out of our lives and caused us lots of emotional anguish.

Through a Wycliffe colleague, we had come into contact with an African evangelist named Dennis. At the time he had no formal Bible or theological training, but he showed a gift for evangelism and ministry to the poor. A few days after Mark had been to the emergency room with one of his worst migraines, Dennis called the house to chat. Among other things he asked how we were doing. Dayle told him that she was discouraged about the headaches. Dennis asked if he could come pray for Mark. Of course, Dayle was happy to say yes. She set a date and time which worked for Dennis and Mark’s school schedule.

Even before the day came for Dennis to visit, he phoned to ask how Mark was doing. Dayle told him he had not had another migraine yet. Dennis told Dayle Mark was healed. But he looked forward to meeting with him and told Dayle that he would have no more migraines. Dayle told me when I came home. I was skeptical. I would wait and see.

That was April 2003. Shortly afterward the doctor suggested a change of medication. The newest and best drug was not working so he suggested a drug which had been around for so long that Dayle’s mother told us that she had taken it in her teens. Also, we were able to discover more triggers. Cured meats turned out to be one of the main culprits. So no pepperoni pizza for Mark.

Mark never again had a debilitating migraine while we were in Africa. In fact, it was not until 2010 that he had another severe migraine. Whether it was Dennis’ prayers, the new drug or identifying the triggers I don’t know. In any case I see God in all three. It also does not bother me that Dennis prediction lacked some accuracy. Contrary to what he said, Mark did have more migraines. But, from the day that Dennis prayed for Mark, his migraines ceased to be a major events in our lives and within a few months they ceased to be a cause of major concern. In my book, that qualifies as healing.

Years earlier in Burkina Faso, we were introduced to a young man named Adama, from that country, who had come to the Lord out of drugs. He was a very calm and enjoyable person, but he had used drugs and they had left him with a moderate mental impairment before he came to the Lord and quit using. He could not do complicated tasks and he worked very slowly. We hired him occasionally to do yard work. He did good work, but he could only do in one day what most people could do an hour or 2.

Our oldest son, Matthew, was about five years old. He was having a series of eye infections since he was one month old. Allergies coupled with the dry and dusty environment were making his eyes vulnerable. One day Adama came by and asked if there was anything he could pray for. Dayle said that Matthew had started another eye infection. Adama asked Matthew if he could pray for him. When Matthew said, “yes,” Adama stood behind him, put his hands over Matthew’s eyes and prayed for him. Matthew never had another eye infection.

In addition to giving glory to God, these stories point out something profoundly important for missionaries – the people they go to minister to can also minister effectively to them and it can be mutual spiritual enrichment and encouragement. It’s reciprocal.