Before missionaries — there was God

Did you know that the people of Ghana knew a lot about God before the missionaries came?

Gye Nyame - None other than the Lord

Akan symbol for the omnipotence and omnipresence of God

When the first missionaries arrived they found this symbol everywhere, and it still is found all over Ghana . It stands for the Akan language words “Gye Nyame” often translated “Except God”. I prefer the translation “None other than the Lord”. It echoes the most fundamental things the Bible says about God:
• He always was and always will be
• He is all powerful
• He is everywhere
• Everything comes from and depends on Him.

Gye Nyame sign

Gye Nyame (None but God) street sign in Accra

Akan symbol for the death of God

Akan symbol for the death of God

This next symbol is about the power of God to overcome death. It come from the Akan belief that God created life and death, but death killed him. However, he came back to life and now he lives forever.

This set of beliefs has too many parallels to the death and resurrection of Jesus to mention in a blog like this. Given that the Apostle Paul developed a whole theme from an idol to an unknown God in Acts 17, I have to wonder what he would have developed from this symbol if he had come to Ghana.

Akan symbol of the banch for the grace of God

Akan symbol for the grace of God

This branch stands for the Akan words “Nyame Nti”, meaning “by God’s grace”. From their belief that “Except (for) God” (first symbol) there is nothing and the obvious observation that man will die without food, the Akan people deduced that they could not survive without the food that God put on the Earth. From that, they further deduced that we humans live by God’s provision and so by his unmerited favor, or grace. In this, they are a lot more like the first settlers to celebrate Thanksgiving than a lot of Americans today, who are thankful, but may not attribute their bounty to God’s doing.

God was working here in Ghana long before missionaries came. After spending 30 years as a missionary in Africa, Dr. H. Junod stated: “Wherever I went, I found that my Master had been there before me.” He was referring to these symbols among other things. God prepared the way for missionaries by revealing himself. This is not a new idea. The Apostle Paul develops it in the book of Romans:

“But the basic reality of God is plain enough. Open your eyes and there it is! By taking a long and thoughtful look at what God has created, people have always been able to see what their eyes as such can’t see: eternal power, for instance, and the mystery of his divine being.” (Romans 1:20 The Message)

A modern-day missionary, Don Richardson has developed this idea further in his book “The Peace Child” from which a movie was made.

The image projected of Africa as “the dark continent” is way off the mark. God was at work here and he still is. Africans are responding to that in record numbers, finding in Christian faith the fulfillment of the thoughts God put in their ancestors. I’m thankful to be here and see it firsthand.


Bible Translation and WHAT?

It is a truly weird thing. Whoever thought of World Toilet Day? Who thought that it could catch on? In spite of the weirdness, the World Vision Blog on the topic is interesting reading. There is even more weirdness. Why am I as a Bible translator writing about World Toilet Day in a blog about the Heart Language? I’m so glad you asked!

On its blog, World Vision notes that children living in households with no toilet are twice as likely to get diarrhea as those with a toilet, causing more deaths every year than AIDS, malaria, and measles combined. Toilets, of all things, save lives, especially the lives of children. In addition to installing over 30,000 toilets last year, World Vision also trained more than 165,000 in proper hygiene practices.  — keeping kids and communities safer and healthier.

Training is good, but only if people heed it. Studies have shown that often people do not change after receiving training. One of the reasons for that is the language used. A language is  not just a means of communication, it is also a way to reach people’s emotions and deepest values. When training is given to promote some change – like better hygiene practices – the language needs to be one which touches the emotions and values of the person. Unfortunately, using language people have learned, rather than their heart language, often reaches the intellect, but not the soul. It is very difficult to change behavior without touching the emotions profoundly. Those of us who have always been taught in our heart language do not realize what a powerful advantage we have.

Another problem is understanding. In one case a family planning project in Africa encountered problems because the term “family planning” had been translated as “bar the road to children”. That flew like the proverbial lead balloon. A little cultural research,  of the kind we do when seeking for key terms in Bible translation, discovered a phrase for spacing plants in the field so that they give better yields. A switch to that terminology made all the difference. Sometimes those in evangelism or development complain that people are resistant to change when we have not done our homework to discover their cultural perspective. See my blog on Eternal Life, for a great example.

Recording Mangbetu HIV-AIDS song

Choir singing newly written song about AIDS in their heart language - Mangbetu

Finally, often change involves new beliefs. Many people have never heard the germ theory of disease. They believe that disease is caused by all sort of things from curses, to failure to appease the ancestors or breaking taboos. Teaching hygiene to such people involves getting them to accept a new understanding of the cause of disease. Doing that in a language which might not even have terms for their traditional beliefs and which does not have the power to touch their culture will produce limited results. When we first did AIDS training in the heart language, the group went to prayer and repented at the end of the first day, then went out and began ministering to HIV positive people in the community that they had shunned. They had received the same information in another language but it did not have the that effect.

Our God communicates. He reveals himself. He talked through the prophets in people’s heart language. On the day of Pentecost, everyone heard in their own language. For that reason, missionaries have long used the heart language to communicate and they have translated the Bible into the heart language of many peoples. It is hard work and takes time, but the results are long-term, sustained impact. Plus, it is communication like God himself would do it. It took me two decades in Africa to realize that the power of the heart language can be leveraged for other changes – such as better hygiene – that save lives.

The languages of the world are not a problem, they are God’s vehicles given to each people to “save” them in all kinds of ways. So my focus has expanded. Bible translation is still at the center, but I now work with churches and language communities on all kinds of stuff they want to change wherever the heart language can have its powerful transformative effect even if that has to do with toilets and hygiene. Hence our byline: Connecting at the deepest level – the heart language – for lasting impact.

Rejoicing over the irrelevant

Finally a command in the Bible that seems easy to follow!

Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. (Romans 12:15 ESV)

But what if I have no intellectual or emotional attachment to the thing that is making others happy? What if it just leaves me totally apathetic? What if it commits that most horrible of modern American sins – the sin of being irrelevant!



Recently a huge breakthrough was announced for a disease that affects more than 200 million people every year and kills 781,000, most of them children. The breakthrough  will not get rid of  the disease, but it will reduce the number who get it and the number of deaths. That disease is malaria and the breakthrough is the first successful vaccine trial.

You may not even have seen the news. It is a BIG deal where I live even though it will still be years before the vaccine is approved and widely available. Nevertheless, would you join with the African parents who are happy about this and rejoice with them before the Lord, even though it does not affect you directly in any way?

Fight narcissism. Be happy about something that does not help you.


Handkerchiefs are for worship

The vibrancy of worship in African churches is remarkable. One of the key factors in the vibrancy is language. How many times have I been in an African church service which started with staid singing in English or French (depending on the country)  and then sprang into joyous outbursts of praise when there was a song in the local language. It is clear which language reaches the whole person. It is not for nothing that it is called the heart language!

You don’t take your handkerchief out at church unless you really need to. But many Ghanaians like to worship while twirling a handkerchief, although any piece of cloth will do. It adds a nice twist to their praise.

Enjoy the video.

The Rock that God Put

Growing up, I suppose that I assumed that street names and house numbers were everywhere. When I got to Africa, I found that was not always the case. Nairobi streets are all named and each house or office has a number. There are maps of the city. When we lived in Ouagadougou a few main streets had names, but I never saw numbers on buildings and I made my own map.

Ada Isaac in his home villageIn the mid 1980s while living in Burkina Faso, I was looking for a man named Ada Louka Isaac. He was a high school math teacher who had shown an interest in the translation of the Bible into his language – Kassem. I knew that he lived in a suburb of the city of Bobo-Dioulasso. I traveled to Bobo-Dioulasso by train and caught a taxi at the train station. I gave the taxi driver the name of the suburb.

I knew that the suburb was new, had few homes and that most lots were vacant. So I thought I would have little problem finding Isaac’s home. Boy, was I wrong. People had planted millet on the vacant lots. It had grown to a height of 15-18 feet turning the rutted dirt roads of the suburb into little canyons from the bottom of which I could see nothing. The taxi driver quickly realized that I did not know my way and began complaining that the price we had settled on would not be enough. (The taxi did not have a meter.) As I was assuring him that I would pay him a fair amount, there was a loud crunch and the sound of things breaking from under the vehicle. With a look of concern the taxi driver stopped, got out and looked under his taxi.

We were in one of the narrow millet canyons. I could only see ahead and behind. Not only was I not going to find Ada, I would have to walk out of the suburb. I got out of the taxi. Through the millet stalks I saw something. When I walked toward it, I found a few young men making tea. After the obligatory greetings, I asked if they new Isaac Ada (using the short form of his name). One of the young men asked: “Do you mean Ada Louka Isaac, the math teacher? He lives way over on the other side! You will never find him! But I can show you the way.”

He grabbed his moped and we walked back to the taxi. The transmission of the taxi had hit a protruding laterite rock. Laterite is so soft that the sounds we had heard were the rock breaking, not the transmission! In a few minutes I was at Isaac’s place.

How many years ago did God put that laterite rock in that spot? How did he arrange for it to not be leveled by the grader that made the road? Why did those young men decided to make tea where I could see them? Coincidence? I don’t,  think so. I found Isaac because of the rock that God put. If I am effective, it is because of all the ways God intervenes to make things happen.

Isaac did get involved in the translation into his language. More, he became a founding member of a national organization in Burkina Faso doing Bible translation. He is still a personal friend.

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