Hi – Fine

Supermarket in NairobiOne day in Kenya at the grocery store, I said, “Hello,” to the bag boy. He responded, “Fine”.  In Swahili. which is widely spoken in Kenya, you greet someone by saying, “Habari,” which can be translated “How are you?” The response is, “Mzuri,” meaning “I’m fine”. So in the exchange “Hello” – “Fine”, the bag boy was hearing “Hello” with the meaning of “Habari” and responding with the meaning of “Mzuri”.  This is called interference. It happens when a person transposes the meanings and structures of his language onto another.  Sometimes, the results can be hilarious.

When learning French, Dayle tried to say, “I’m full,” translating the sentence word for word into French as “Je (I) suis (am) pleine (full)” which happens to mean “I’m pregnant”. It was stranger when I made the same mistake.  We have stories of similar mistakes so embarrassing I can’t write them here.

Language map of Burkina Faso

Language Map of Burkina Faso (click to enlarge)

Learning the Cerma (pronounced “CARE – muh”) language in a rural location in Burkina Faso, many years ago, had lots of such moments. People would remember particularly funny things I said while learning Cerma. They would tell them again to everyone when I came around, and the telling would be followed by gales of laughter.   One of the helpful by-products of learning another language is a little comic relief for those around us.  That is, comic relief for them and embarrassment for us. Language learning requires enough confidence in the Lord and his love, that the hits our egos take do not cause us to give up.

Interference can happen in hidden ways..  There are two words for peanuts in French – cacahouettes and arachides.  One day in the Congolese town of Isiro, I asked someone to get me some cacahouettes.  He went into town and returned much later saying  he Fruit seller at roadside standcould not find any.  That was impossible.  Peanuts are common.  Everyone grows them and they are for sale everywhere, just like the locally-grown fruit at this roadside stand in Ghana.  After discussion I figured out that in that area cacahouettes means packaged or canned peanuts.  The poor fellow had gone looking for packaged peanuts in what was essentially a ghost town because of the war.  It was an impossible mission.  He had to go back to buy locally grown, unprocessed arachides and that only took him a few minutes.  I have had enough such experiences to wonder how much of any message gets across when it is given in a second language.

Even I have to admit that my language mistakes are pretty funny, although sometimes not for ten years .

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Tipping point

In April 2009 we witnessed a dedication of the first dictionary in the Ndruna language and the first publication of five Epistles.  Among the speakers was a traditional Ndruna chief.  This older and vigorous man told how from the time he was a child his father, the chief before him, and others had tried to write the Ndruna language and translate the Bible into it.  Every attempt encountered insurmountable problems.  They did could not figure out how to write the language.   When they tried to do translation, the result was not understandable.  Even as a child he was so interested in having a translation that he and his father decided that he would go to the only church school in the area – a Catholic school where the prayers were all in Latin.  I was amazed as he recited in Latin the prayers he had learned as a child.  He said that he still did not understand them.

He went on to tell how a person sent out by Wycliffe came to help them with linguistic research.  That research allowed them to write the language without problems for the first time.  Then educated Ndruna men were chosen as translators.  They were given specialized training and the translation.  In the photo you see Ed those translators and others.

The the chief said that he hoped that the translators would continue to received help from the outside.  But, he said, he had complete confidence that the translation would be completed and be done well even if help from the outside stopped.  Now, according to him, the translators and others finally had all the knowledge and skills they needed.

The exuberance of the Ndruna traditional dance being performed by the women matched our sentiments – we were thrilled.  This is exactly what we are working toward – that Africans will have enough training and skills that they feel confident in  doing the work on their own.  We also hope that the chief’s confidence will be contagious.  Hearing this story, other languages, other community leaders and church leaders might dare to get involved in translation in their languages rather than sit and wait for someone to come and help them.

There is an old saying that if you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day, but if you teach him to fish, you feed him for his life.  I would add that if you teach him well enough and give him enough confidence, then he might even teach others to fish, multiplying your efforts many, many times.  That is our hope and prayer – that the chief’s words show that we are at a tipping point where the Ndruna and others will have the confidence to go beyond translating for themselves to encouraging and teaching others.  Then we will see the start of a self-sustaining Bible translation movement in Africa that will multiply our efforts more times than we will know or can count.

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Odd happenings in church in Ghana

During my June and July 2010 trips to Ghana I had some surprising, interesting and informative experiences in church.

In a beautiful church building in the town of Tamale (shown on right), they took a count of those attending by age and gender.  When an age and gender group was called out, such as all men over 40, all those in that group had to stand while they were counted.  Those counting called the number to the front where it was recorded and then that group could sit down.  Then another was called and so on.  I don’t think that this one will work in churches in the US, at least not for the ladies.

Visitors were asked to go to the front and stand facing the congregation. We were asked to say our name, where we were from and why we were there.  It was rather odd to walk up to the front and stand facing everyone.  In southern Oregon, a church known for this would not get many visitors!  But the Ghanaians, both visitors and the others, really seemed to like it.  I think that there is a genuine interest in knowing the visitors and that the visitors want to be known.

We were asked to break up into “Day-born groups”. At firs I did not understand what I was hearing.  When I asked, I was informed that they are groups to raise money.  Everyone belongs to one according to the day of the week he or she was born on.  I had no idea, but I looked it up my birthday on my phone and found out that I was born on Tuesday.  Everyone else knew.

In June, the World Cup was happening and the Ghana team was still in the running.  During the prayer time we were asked to pray that the Ghana team would win.  The leader was quite insistent that prayer would cause the Ghana team to win.  There was a titter of laughter through the congregation as he went on.  In some parts of Africa such laughter indicates unease about the statements being made.  I was later able to confirm that was the case here.

In the capital Accra (Accra Chapel in photo) and in Tamale the church service was suspended right in the middle for “Christian education”.  The congregation broke into groups which were like Sunday School classes.  They lasted about 40 minutes, then the church service resumed.  In one of the churches, there was a special class for visitors. The lesson was a mixture of “what is a Christian” obviously for leading visitors to Christ, and “what is the church” aimed at helping visitors considering this church as their home church.  On another Sunday, the Christian education was from Nehemiah 5:1-20.  The teachers asked the class the question “What can we do to prevent injustice?” He then added that we should answer only for injustices within the church because injustice in politics “can only be changed through prayer”.

The taking of the offering is a joyous moment involving dancing to the front in a line accompanied by music. One Sunday the music team started singing “Jesus is the Sweetest Name I Know” for taking the offering.  The worship leader stopped them and got them to do something much more up tempo.  It worked.
Just to be clear, the church services were not just full of stuff I found odd or interesting.  There was a lot of great worship and teaching that made me feel connected to the worldwide body of believers.

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For the last three months, I have been advising a Bible translation organization in Ghana – the Ghana Institute of Linguistics, Literacy and Bible Translation (GILLBT). Sometimes I wonder what I can offer because GILLBT has been so successful.  Among its many accomplishments are:

  • Translated the NT into 28 languages and the whole Bible into five more
  • Made more than 500,000 Ghanaians literate. Of those adults who learned to read in GILLBT classes, many then went to school with more than 100 getting university degrees, uncountable numbers becoming nurses or teachers and many others became pastors
  • Earned the right to appear on an international web site with a handful of other organizations as having the best literacy practices in the world
  • Won an international award for literacy
  • Developed alphabets and grammars for more languages in Ghana than any other organization, by far

In July, I attended the annual meeting of GILLBT which a number of church leaders also attended.

The man responsible for the Presbyterian Church in the north of Ghana told me that out of GILLBT’s work his church has six ordained ministers and over 50 catechists. He also told me that people read the Bibles in their languages and it enables them to follow Christ.

Another pastor from one of the most dynamic and self-supporting churches in Ghana (The Church of Pentecost) said that the challenge in Ghana is to make the Gospel real to people.  He went on to say that because of the work GILLBT his church was able to preach the Gospel into the local culture and make it real.

Yet another addressed the assembly and said: “You know my people – that we used to wear amulets and talismans for protections.” He went on to say that people thought those things were absolutely necessary.  Today, he said, the talismans and amulets are gone.  “They have been replaced by the Word of God in our hearts.”  He said that can only happen when God’s Word is in the local language.

Right after these things were said in the meeting, I had lunch with Dr Solomon Sule-Saa (front right in photo, visiting land on which GILLBT might build).  He is a research fellow at the Akrofi-Christaller Institute of Theology, Mission and Culture in Ghana.  He is also a member of the GILLBT board. When I remarked on the striking testimonies of the effects of GILLBT’s work, he told me and the others at the table that he became a board member because his MA and PhD research in northern Ghana revealed that GILLBT’s work resulted in transformation of community life including contributing to the end of a tribal conflict.  He stated that “GILLBT is the most effective organization in northern Ghana.  It creates more positive transformation than all government programs combined and for much less money.”

While I lived in Ouagadougou, I met a man who was doing research on the church in Ghana.  He and his fellow researchers had collected information about all the churches in every city, town, village and hamlet in Ghana.  He told me that GILLBT’s work was the most effective rural church planting program in Ghana because everywhere GILLBT started work, churches followed whereas before there had been none.  Interestingly, GILLBT does not do church planting, but Bible translation and literacy.  Out of that churches grow without anyone in GILLBT starting them.

So, if you have ever wondered if Bible translation in African languages is worth the trouble, just look at what has happened in Ghana.

GILLBT fell on hard times a couple of years ago.  It has taken very effective steps to get back on track.  They have named a new and dynamic director (for whom the board is praying in the photo, Dr. Sule-Saa in the back.). I am coming into that process when it is quite advanced to help plot a course forward.  It is quite humbling and daunting, but it also a wonderful thing to be associated with an organization which has had such great impact.

I am really looking forward to making several trips to Ghana over the next year, perhaps longer and working by email and Skype with the GILLBT leadership.

(For more about us, see our website www.HeartLanguage.org.)