I have written before that mobile phones are the first technology to be more quickly adopted in the developing world than in the places we usually associate with technology. There are lots of reasons for that, including that owning and operating one is not expensive and saves a person time and money. But that is not my story.

Dayle and I each have a phone here in Ghana with a network called MTN. We have a prepaid account, do not pay for incoming calls, and probably spend about $10 each per month on the phone, often less. Each mobile network has its own color and they each paint houses and buildings along the road in their color as advertisement.

Buidings painted in the colors of mobile phone networks

Buidings painted in the colors of mobile phone networks

To make a little money on the side, MTN sells custom ringtones. So, when I am making a call, instead of hearing a dialing tone (which would be wasted time, right?) I hear an advertisement for a ringtone with the option to push a certain key to download it for a small fee. Free enterprise at work, no story there. It is the ringtones themselves that caught my attention, even though have I not purchased one. The most frequent offerings are recorded songs by Ghanaian Gospel artists. They have a clear Christian message. So, while waiting for my call to connect, I am often treated to a few lines of song like

  • These are the days of Elijah, or
  • I pledge allegiance to the Lamb

And now you know what kind of songs and message MTN thinks its Ghanaian customers want. I’ll bet that they are right.

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Why do we do this?

Why have we spent more than 30 years in Africa, learned a couple languages, traveled over bad roads, made a bunch of new friends, missed family weddings?  Well, I’ll turn to the words of an obscure monk who invited debate on church issues and ignited a historic reform movement:

The Bible has hands and feetAnd lay hold of me it did! With such joyful results that the idea of making it available to others intrigued me no end. Seeing that joy in others who hold the book and take it into their hearts and lives – that’s what keeps me here.

I thought that you might also like this image drawn by Josh Harris after his pastor preached on Jude and quoted these same words from Martin Luther. Although, I would draw it with both running toward each other.

CJ chased by a Bible


Young men selling used  Broni-wewu shoes in a market the town of Tamale, northern Ghana

Young men selling used Broni-wewu shoes in a market the town of Tamale, northern Ghana

In the markets in Africa one finds all kinds of wonderful used clothes. They can be nicely arranged, or just in a pile that you paw through. There is everything, shoes,  underwear, shirts, blouses, coats, sweaters, lingerie, anything. The clothes arrive in bales at the ports where they are purchased by merchants who transport them into the most remote village for sale.

From these piles of clothes, called yugu-yugu in Burkina Faso, we clothed our children with high-quality brands like Oshgosh B’gosh in pristine condition at a small fraction of the original cost. Of course, sometimes people buy things and wear them without knowing what they are, which can create some humorous relief for us. I saw a small, frail, elderly woman selling peanuts by the road while wearing an Incredible Hulk tee-shirt.

Because the clothes are known to come from the lands of white people and because they are in such good condition that people could not imagine a living person getting rid of them, they are called “broni wewu” which literally means “dead white man/woman” in the Twi language of Ghana.

What alphabet

People sometimes ask me if we use the English alphabet to write other languages. The answer is not a simple yes or no. Take this example, which is John 3:16 in Nkonya, a language of Ghana.

Tsúfɛ́ dwɛ́ Bulu lɛ́hɩɛ dwɛ́ anyánkpʋ́sa. Mʋ́ sʋ ɔlɔpʋ mʋ Bi ɔkʋkʋ́nʋ́ ɔkʋlɛ pɛ́ ámʋ há, mɛ́nɩ ɔhagyíɔha ánɩ́ ɔlɔhɔ mʋ gyi omóowu, mboún obénya nkpa ánɩ́ ɩtamatá.

A lot of the letters are the same as in English including all of the consonants. But some new vowels have been added: ʋ and ɔ for example. In addition, there are accents above the characters like those in French. So Nkonya uses the same characters as English, but with a few additions. Also, some language do not use some letters, notably q.

Two things have a big influence on what letters are used in the alphabet of a language.

  • The language itself
  • Tradition

Every language is unique, so we use the tools of descriptive linguistics to discover what sounds are in the language. That way the alphabet reflects the language, rather than imposing an alphabet that would be foreign. Plus, doing that makes it a lot easier for people to read and write the language.

The second big influence is tradition. English is the official language of Ghana, so it is natural that the way Nkonya is written corresponds to English as much as possible without changing what is uniquely Nknoya about the language. But, other places have different traditions. The speakers of a minority language in Thailand, for example, would probably want their language written in a way similar to Thai which looks like this.

เพราะว่าพระเจ้ารัก ผูกพันกับมนุษย์ในโลกนี้มาก จนถึงขนาดยอมสละพระบุตรเพียงองค์เดียวของพระองค์ เพื่อว่าทุกคนที่ไว้วางใจในพระบุตรนั้นจะไม่สูญสิ้น แต่จะมีชีวิตกับพระเจ้าตลอดไป (John 3:16)

Or consider these examples from Punjabi and Tamil:

John 3-16 in Punjabi

John 3-16 in Tamil

But sometimes people have a way to write their language that is different from the dominant language. This is the case for the Inuit language of Canada in which the Bible was just published for the first time. It does not use an alphabet, but rather a syllabary which looks nothing like English or French.

John 3:16 in the Inuktitut syllabary

John 3:16 in the Inuktitut syllabary

Remember that these strange-looking letters look completely normal to the people who read them every day and English looks just as strange to them as these do to us. If you are ever in North Carolina, consider making your way to the museum of the alphabet outside Charlotte which traces the history and diversity of ways we human beings write our languages.