Africa is big

How big is Africa, really?

As a matter of fact, Africa is the second largest continent. That fact is overridden by my visual memories of the world maps I saw at school. They were made with a Mercator projection which causes lands further from the equator to appear larger than they are. So North America appears to be larger than Africa.

The Democratic Republic of Congo, where Dayle and I have been working, is as large as the United States east of the Mississippi. The map may hide that fact, but it becomes so clear when working there.

Someone named Kai Kraus has done us all a favor by producing a unique map of Africa that illustrates its real size in an unusual and helpful way – by filling it with the US, China, India, and a number of other countries.

Here are some other facts about Africa’s size and diversity:

  • • One square foot of land out of five are in Africa
  • • More people live in Africa than in any other continent except Asia.
  • • Almost one out of three countries in the world are in Africa.
  • • The climate varies from hot and dry to hot and humid to mild.
  • • Africa has snow
  • • Africa is home to one species of penguin
  • • It has both vast deserts and dense rain forests
  • • Its peoples speak more than 1,800 languages

Here is a link to another map based on the same idea:

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The Meaning of a Phrase

It dawned on me a couple years ago that the meaning of “spiritual” had undergone a major shift. I go to Africa for a while, and when I come back things have changed, including the meaning of some words.  Those changes come as a shock.  But I can’t complain, because sometimes I change meaning myself. One day when I was traveling in Burkina Faso we changed the meaning of a phrase in order to find a bit of humor in a dangerous situation.

I had traveled to the far southwest of the country; to a beautiful area with rolling hills and wooded grasslands. It gets good rainfall and is full of orange and mango trees. While good for the tress, the rainfall was not good for the unpaved road. It was often in very bad condition, keeping the abundant fruit and other produce from getting to the rest of the country. In the market mangoes were almost free – the combination of abundant supply and little demand illustrating the law of supply and demand I had learned in high school economics. At one point we had even driven over a bed of mangoes someone had abandoned on the road!

At the end of my work, I was with a couple colleagues traveling back down this road toward home. As usual, there were no other vehicles on the road. At one point, the road goes over a bridge that spans a small ravine — the roadway of the bridge being perhaps 80 feet above the rocky and mostly-dry river bed. When it came into sight, we saw a man sitting in a chair beside the bridge. He got up, walked to the middle of the road and waved for us to stop.

When we rolled to a stop, the man said the strangest thing, “We would like you to drive over the bridge slowly”. (In a country with a literacy rate of less than 30%, it was apparently deemed ineffective to put up a road sign.) So we asked why. His response sent a chill down our spine, “A heavy truck went over the bridge yesterday causing the bridge to fall into the ravine. We brought out equipment which just pulled the bridge up and back into position. But no one has driven across the bridge since.”

We got out to look. The structural beams of the steel bridge were even more bent and deformed than usual. We decided that the TV ads were right – we needed a “designated driver”. With some other passengers I walked over the rickety bridge while our unfortunate designate slowly drove our good-sized 4×4 over the bridge. He was, perhaps, the most reluctant “designated driver” ever chosen by his peers.

I have been over a number of marginal bridges before or since, but none as scary as this one because of the height. Here are a few pictures including a satellite view of this bridge with a new paved road and new concrete bridge beside it.

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Where did this happen?

I start by paraphrasing a very famous beginning: “Long, long ago in a country far, far away.” The story of this blog is unlike Star Wars in that it is true and has not been made into a major motion picture. But it has many similarities including an oppressive government out to kill reformers who had the “religious” power to overthrow it.

The government of the time was exacting unreasonable taxes from the people keeping them in the most dire poverty while protecting the ruling class who lived in opulence. The religious leaders were allied to the ruling class and shared in its power and wealth. Like much of Africa today, the ruling elite and the religious leaders ran the government and the religion in a language they had learned in school but which the majority of the people did not know. Laws were written in this language and religious services were held in it, leaving most people politically powerless and with a religion of superstition and not of understanding.

Into this situation came a man who was part of the system – a scholar, a theologian and a priest. I’ll call him Dr. X. He came to abhor the suffering and superstition he saw, so he embarked on a dual path to change things. On one hand, he wrote academic theological articles denouncing the abuses and the doctrines that supported them. His other method was more radical and in the end, more successful – he translated the Bible into the local language, began writing about faith in that language and trained a corps of men who traveled from place to place reading the Bible and preaching in the language of the people..

The political and religious powers did not like it, but they let it go on for a while. But, when people began understanding and then demanding real reform, the political and religious powers cracked down. They outlawed the Bible in the language of the people. That did not stop Dr. X and his followers. So the religious and political leaders made a law allowing the execution of anyone following Dr. X’s teachings or possessing any part of his translation. Any student or professor having a copy of any part of Dr. X’s Bible or any of his writings was thrown out of his University. To enforce this, professors and students were questioned every month. (This so stifled academic life that the University eventually went into a long period of academic decline.) But a visiting professor took Dr. X’s ideas back to his country, where he put them into practice. Even though he was eventually killed for them, many people in that country became followers of Dr. X’s religious and political ideas.

Even after Dr. X died of natural causes, and in spite his followers being tortured and killed, they continued their work. Their faith spread especially among the lower classes and went underground. Many stayed outwardly faithful to the official religion in the official language while secretly attending readings of the Bible and preaching in their language. It is reported that some poor peasants paid several day’s wages for just a part of Dr. X’s outlawed translation even long after his death, and that others who wanted it but could not afford it solved that problem by memorizing large portions.

Dr. X’s ideas for political reform also went underground. Official bans could not suppress them.  They grew and circulated until they finally bore fruit more than a century later.

So who was Dr. X? When and where did he live? Into what language did he translate the Bible? Well, the language was English; the man was John Wycliffe; the university was Oxford; the country was Great Britain and the time was the 1300’s. (Sorry to those who thought I was telling a story about some exotic place in Africa or Asia.)

Some scholars trace the beginnings of modern democracy to the translation of the Bible into the language of the average person in Europe. One author writes, “Once people were free to interpret the Word of God according to the light of their own understanding, they began to question the authority of their inherited institutions, both religious and secular, which lead to reformation within the church, and to the rise of constitutional government in England and the end of the divine right of kings.” The early pilgrims to the New World came with many ideas about politics and religion which Wycliffe had promoted. So, everyone who voted on November 2 has a Bible translator to thank for setting in motion the actions and ideas which lead to that right. I am in Bible translation because history shows that the Bible in every person’s language eventually leads not only to salvation and healthy churches, but also to profound societal change even if that can take some time.

I would like to hear your reactions to this idea that Bible translation lead to democracy.

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Safe Place

Dayle and I don’t quite know how it happens but we realize that it has already happened when one of us speaks the ominous seven-word phrase: “I put it in a safe place”. I am beginning to wonder if the phrase has magical power. Here is my evidence.

First, the phrase is magical, because pronouncing it will cause the thing to disappear at least until it is no longer needed but more likely until we move or possibly until the apocalypse. I wonder if “apocalypse” means “the time when things put in a safe place will finally reappear”.

Second, this phrase means that the thing in question was of some importance; enough that Dayle or I spent a little time thinking about a “safe” place to put it. We should remember something into which we put such deliberate thought.

Third, when I ask where something is, Dayle always say something like, “I remember. I saw it when I had just come back from the pharmacy to get Excedrin because you were having a headache from chopping all that wood for the neighbor because the pastor had preached in the good Samaritan and the newspaper had said we were headed into a cold spell with clear nights when we would be able to see the full moon. And the telephone rang – it was my cousin calling to thank me for the birthday card I sent him, and when I went to the phone I saw it and I thought ‘I’ve got to put that in a safe place’ and I so picked it up and … now I don’t remember where I put it.” This phrase “I need to put this in a safe place” has the power to erase all memory for the few minutes after having thought or spoken it. How else can I explain that we can remember where we were when we thought it, what day it was, what we were doing, the phase of the moon, the subject of the sermon the preceding Sunday, whose birthday it was, what we had brought at the store that day, who had just called on the telephone, and of course where the thing was, but have no recollection at all of subsequent events; especially not of where we put the thing?

Forth, saying “I put it in a safe place” expands the number of places to put things in our average-sized place to an infinite number. If not, we would then find the thing after looking “everywhere”. Saying that phrase has obviously increased the number of places to put things in our house to everywhere + 1.

Finally, putting stuff in a safe place really works. As far as we can tell, no harm has ever come to the things we put in a safe place. We are still trying to verify this, but we have been hindered by the fact that a number of items we put in safe places have not yet reappeared.