Tom Brown

I think that it was the morning after we arrived in Ghana. To get up to speed with her new job, my wife Dayle was looking through informational materials. She found ta rotating schedule for the food served at breakfast. For one of the days the listing just said “Tom Brown”. Those words just looked more than a bit shocking on a menu!

Package of Tom Brown

Package of Tom Brown

After a laugh, we set off to do what we ought to do with all cultural things that throw us for a loop – suspend judgment and get information. We wanted to know what, and hopefully not who, was Tom Brown.

We found the answer in the grocery store where you can buy packages of Tom Brown.  It is a dark tan flour made of toasted corn meal, ground peanuts, ground black-eyes peas and millet flour, which is used to make a porridge. Very nutritious!

Many cooks add lemon juice and ground fresh ginger. The lemon makes it pretty tart. So Tom Brown can be a bit of a sourpuss.

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Sustainability in a cemetery

The current holy grail of organizations working to better people’s lives in Africa is sustainability. It is easy to understand why. When we lived in semi-arid Burkina Faso, there were many wells in rural villages that had worked when installed but then broke down and were never repaired. So there had been clean water for a while, but no more. The provision of clean water and its attendant health benefits was not sustained. I talked to a Kenyan economist who was in an economic development project that lasted several years and cost 10 million dollars. He told me that a decade after the end of the project nothing at all remained.

On the other hand, the growth of the church in Africa is a wonderful example of sustainability. Most congregations in Africa are self-sustaining. They grow and progress through their own resources and energies. In fact, Dayle and I are working to tap into that dynamism for Bible translation.

July 16 was the 80th anniversary of the death of C.T. Studd. His go-to-the-farthest-and-hardest approach shows in my favorite quote from him, ” Some want to live within the sound of church or chapel bell; I want to run a rescue shop within a yard of hell.” He trekked into what was then the Belgium Congo seeking the geographic center of Africa. It cost him. One doctor described him as a ‘museum of diseases’. But he kept going.

Ibambi graveyard and C.T. Studd's grave

Ibambi cemetery (top) and C.T. Studd's grave (bottom)

When I started working in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2001, learned that I would have reason to travel to Ibambi where Studd is buried. I couldn’t wait.

I got there as the catastrophic but little-known civil war in Congo was winding down. What Studd had started continued to grow after his death. By 1970, the area where he worked, like almost all in Congo, was overwhelmingly Christian. You will have to look a while to find a resident of Ibambi who does not claim Studd’s faith.

A local person walked me to the well-kept plot of about 20 graves including Studd’s, some fellow missionaries’, and early converts’. It was the best-kept plot in town. Talk about lasting impact! This man, probably forgotten or never known by many Christians today, buried in a forgotten place out of the sight of the world, has his grave tenderly cared for by some of the poorest, and most abused people on earth because more than 70 years after his death they still have fond respect for him and his colleagues.

I wish that it was okay to be envious, because that is sustained impact to die for – literally.
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The 2011 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of Ghana was held in late August the picturesque mountain town of Abetefi. (also spelled Abetifi)

Presbyterian church in Abetifi, Ghana

Presbyterian church in Abetifi, Ghana

The opening was a mixture of western and Ghanaian influences. As in many American churches, the songs were projected on a screen, but with two differences. First, the songs were hymns. Second, they were projected in two languages side-by-side: Twi and Ga. Ghanaians have no qualms about mixing pieces of their tradition and culture with other influences and then tossing in a bit of technology to create what they want.

As the moderator ascended the pulpit, a lady in the audience created a disturbance. She called out in a language I did not understand while flailing her limbs. Depending on your world-view and theology you would either say that she was having a mental breakdown or that she was demon possessed. The Ghanaians I talked to offered the latter explanation. Three men started carrying her out the back by force. The moderator asked that the lady be brought forward and he designated three pastors to pray for her. After that the men took her outside.

In a sign of changing times in the oldest continually operating church in Ghana, founded in 1829, the moderator, who was finishing his first year in that office, thanked all those who had sent encouraging text messages to his phone. The way mobile phones have exploded here, it is not surprising that it is in Africa that I first heard people thanked publicly for sending encouraging text messages.

The choir was really great! In another example of mixing traditions: they sang a cappella in classical style but in a Ghanaian language, Twi. You can listen to a recording I made of the choir singing in Twi. I made it on my compact camera so the quality of the recording does not do the choir justice.

My overall impression was of an African church that had made the Gospel its own

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Fancy caskets

“This is the second most important event in my life after my funeral”, my Congolese friend told me at his graduation from seminary.

As surprising as this statement was, I should have expected it. Funerals are a big deal wherever we have worked in Africa. I saw Africans bumped from a once-a-week flight without complaining because it was to make room for a man and his wife going to his father’s funeral. Church leaders sometimes denounce the amount of money sometimes spent on lavish funerals.

It was in Accra, Ghana that I found the most colorful funeral accoutrements. There, a few casket makers specialize in caskets made in a form that reflects the profession of the deceased. Customers can pick from a selection of ready-made caskets in a variety of forms, or special order one in a form which will commemorate the deceased. And, yes, they do bury them.

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