Christmas decorations and graduations

On the day before the 4th of July, Dayle went down to the section of the local grocery store which has Christmas decorations. Here, that section is up all year long. She bought some red garland and a string of gold-colored stars. Then she went to the greeting card section and bought a card – a graduation card. Any person here would have found this sequence of events completely normal.

Garlands of all colors

Garlands of all colors, but especially red, are what proud family members and friends drape on graduates at the end of graduation ceremonies, often accompanied by piecing ululations from the ladies.

One would think that a ceremony introduced to Africa from the “West” would follow western traditions, and it does. But Africans have infused the ceremony and surrounding events with their own unique elements – such as Christmas garland hung on the graduate. There are other surprises. After the graduation there is, of course, a party. The party involves food, music and sometimes dancing. The dancing is not usually the man-and-woman kind of the west, but a group dance without partners – kind of like a free-for-all line dance without the lines. But the real particularity of the party is who throws it. The person who plans the party, who pays for it and who invites family and friends to come is — the graduate! The graduate gives a speech at some point during the party. Most of that is spent thanking teachers, family and friends for their support.

The fact that the graduate organizes and pays for the party is a window into the culture, the economy and African aspirations. Only a very small percentage of Africans graduate from college. Getting a college degree is, therefore a great achievement. A Congolese man told me that graduation from college with an advance degree is the second most important ceremony of a person’s life – after their funeral! Furthermore, a college graduate is seen as a resource by the whole extended family, village or community he or she comes from. So they all contribute money to the cause of anyone who gets into university. Few families can afford to send a son or daughter without the support of the extended family , village or community.

So, it is logical that the graduate organize and pay for the party. After all, he or she has made it this far because many people sacrificed something to help him or her financially.

The party we went to was for Fortuna Tioye. A wonderful lady from Burkina Faso who received a Master of Arts in Christian Education degree. How we got invited to her graduation, and ended up being the guests of honor at her party is a story that goes back to 1996. I was working as an advisor for a group of Burkina Faso Christians getting involved in Bible translation. We were working with a church in the southwest to get a translation of the Bible going in the major language of the area. When we laid out the qualifications of the person to lead the translation effort they said “We don’t have anyone like that.” We encouraged them to keep looking until we got back to them in a few months.

In the meantime and unbeknownst to all of us, Sami Tioye, a speaker of the language, a Christian and university graduate with a degree in linguistics, was teaching French at a high school in another part of the country. It is a long story how it all happened, but one day Sami Tioye walked into my office in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, and asked about serving as a Bible translator for his language. When he told me his educational background and desire to serve God however, I was floored. Here was a young man who surpassed all our requirements. The Lord just stuck him in our path.

Sami has shown such outstanding ability and commitment that he was selected to do a doctorate in translation at the Nairobi Evangelical Graduate School of Theology. His wife, Fortuna came with him and in addition to raising four young children and supporting her hubby in his doctoral studies, has gained an MA!

A cake and satisfaction

We were at her party eating the best chocolate cake in the world while Fortuna gave her speech; still in her graduation gown and cap with several bright red Christmas garlands hanging around her neck. I thought, Sami and Fortuna are going to do much more good in Africa than Dayle and I ever have or will. I had a great sense of satisfaction about our efforts and vision to help African Christians get involved in getting God’s words in their heart languages.

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