Crocodiles of Sabou

When I worked in Burkina Faso, I would often travel between Ouagadougou and Bobo-Dioulasso. That would take me past the town of Sabou which had a small lake infested with crocodiles, sacred crocodiles. By sacred, they did not mean that people worshiped the crocodiles. Rather, they did not kill or harm them. Even better, they fed them.

Mark and Matthew with crocodile at Sabou

Mark and Matthew with crocodile at Sabou

It was a tourist attraction. Because the crocs were well-fed, they were somewhat docile. With the help of a local guide you could pick up the tail of one sunning itself on the shore, which is where I always found them. Usually, the guide’s assistant would distract the crocodile with a chicken tied on a string at the dangerous end while the tourist picked up the tail at the other.

One day, I found myself driving through Sabou and decided to make the short detour to see the crocodiles. I arrived to find the place deserted. No people, tourists or guides, and no crocodiles. I got out of the vehicle to stretch a bit. Shortly a young man came rushing toward me.

“Bonjour”, he said. Did I want to see the crocodiles?

Of course, I replied, but it seems that I am unlucky today.

“Pas de problème ” (no problem), he answered. “Pas de problème” is the Burkina Faso equivalent of hakuna matata (from The Lion King).

Quickly, before I could get out of my stunned state and react, he stripped down to his underwear, walked out into the lake and came back dragging a 12 foot long crocodile by the tail – all for my viewing pleasure. Needless to say, I gave him a nice tip.

PS: This video was taken during a later visit to Sabou


There is a controversy brewing in Jamaica. The Bible Society is translating the Bible for the first time into Patois, the Creole language of Jamaica. This is welcomed by some and opposed by others. Those who oppose it want priority put on English. Some consider Patois to be substandard and even backward. While they see English as the language of development and access to the international world.

Congolese study the Bible in their languages in Ariwara

Congolese study the Bible in their languages in Ariwara

The Patois controversy is recycled. At various times and places, people have opposed the translation of the Bible into the common language for exactly the same reasons. Those arguing for English in Jamaica may not know, for example, that in the 14th and 15th centuries, educated people made the same arguments but in favor of Latin and against English. At the time, it was clear that Latin was the language of world affairs, that it had a fine literary tradition, and that anyone wanting to get ahead would not do so by learning English.

Paul Hema reads the Bible in front of his humble dwelling in Burkina Faso

Paul Hema reads the Bambara Bible in front of his humble dwelling in Burkina Faso

Nevertheless, reformers like John Wycliffe and William Tyndale translated the Bible into English and even wrote theological books and articles in English for the first time. The famous Swiss reformer, John Calvin, first wrote his well-known theological work, “Institutes of the Christian Religion”, in Latin. When he revised it, he wrote in French, his mother tongue, shocking much of the world. But today, even among those who know his “Institutes”, few remember than he first wrote them in Latin.

In a BBC News article on the controversy, their religious affairs correspondent, Robert Pigott, reports that when the Gospel of Luke in Patois was read for the first time in one of the churches it had an electrifying effect. One woman, referring to the passage where Jesus is tempted by the Devil, said:

“It’s almost as if you are seeing it. In the blink of an eye, you get the whole notion. It’s as though you are watching a movie…”

Traditional leader reading Gospel of Mark in Kaakye

Traditional leader reading Gospel of Mark in the Kaakye language of Ghana

Nevertheless, more conservative Christians say that translating the Bible into Patois dilutes the Word of God. That too is an argument recycled from controversies in other times and places. Historically, those who make that argument have always been wrong, because when the Bible was eventually translated into the “substandard” language it proved to be effective for evangelism and discipleship.

As someone involved in Bible translation into minority languages, you will guess on which side of this controversy I am aligned. I have no doubt that, in the end, some of the lowly men and women who read the Bible in their insignificant languages will be found to be very wise, dignified and worthy by the final Judge of such matters.

I suspect that those promoting English think that they have a high view of the Bible. But I think that it needs to be even higher. It is not the Bible, but the language that is in danger. You see, a humble language cannot drag the Bible down, but the Bible does elevate a humble language.

But God chose the foolish things of this world to put the wise to shame. He chose the weak things of this world to put the powerful to shame. (I Cor :27 CEV)

Congolese study the Bible in their languages in Ariwara

Congolese study the Bible in their languages in Ariwara

For a story of the impact the Patois translation is already having, see

You might be interested in checking out the Hawaii Pidgin Bible website.


One cannot live in Ghana for long without hearing about or being invited to an outdooring ceremony. If you go to one, you might see a scene like this:

The Ashanti chief, adorned with gold bracelets, rings and chains, closed his eyes, bent his head down and chanted a prayer to the health and fortune of the squirming 3-month-old boy before him. Nana Adu Adjei, a 57-year-old Ghanaian, had donned his green, yellow and royal purple kente cloth for an ”outdooring”.

But you don’t need to be in Ghana. The scene described above took place in New York City and was reported in the New York Times.

Among many peoples of Ghana and elsewhere in West Africa, a baby is kept indoors until he or she is eight days old. The baby is then brought outdoors for the first time in a ceremony called an “outdooring”. It is the occasion for a party with friends and family. In many cases the baby receives its names at this ceremony and in some cases, male children are circumcised.

A word like “outdooring” is a Ghana-ism. It was born out of the contact of the English language with cultural realities for which English has no words. The word “christening” really doesn’t fit.

English is the official language of Ghana which inherited it from the colonial period when Ghana, then the Gold Coast, was a British colony. But there are over 60 languages spoken in Ghana, and very few Ghanaians speak English as their first language. They learn English in school, use it in government business, but speak their own languages in their families and in their communities. They continue to follow their many helpful traditions even when they profess a world religion such as Christianity.

English does not have words for many of the things that they hold dear, or just want to talk about. So they have invented new English words, or they sometimes use standard English words, but with new meanings.

Culture is a powerful force – so strong that a local culture can bend a world language like English to fits its needs, rather like gravity can bend light. When that happens, some mistakenly say that Ghanaians are not speaking English correctly. As I am writing, my impoverished spell checker has mounted a campaign against “outdooring”, suggesting that I replace it with “outpouring”. That Ashanti chief in his traditional regalia could teach it a thing or two about a proud part of Ghanaian culture.

Prayer Centers

Like Africans everywhere I have been, Ghanaians are very religious. Churches dot the southern and central parts of the country and there are quite a number in the north. A number of those in the south were built in the 1800s by missionaries in classic Western church architectural style, like the ones in the photos below, but many are very simple buildings or even just little shelters.

Church composite

Churches in Abetifi (L) and Akropong (R), Ghana

But that is not my topic today. Rather, it is the prayer centres (Ghana follows UK spelling for English), prayer houses and prayer grounds which one sees here and there.

Sign - Prayer center

Despite its modest construction, this prayer center is in the capital city.

In my travels in the US, I don’t think that I have ever seen a sign along the road for a prayer center, prayer house or prayer ground. Here, you cannot drive very far without seeing at least one. I would have more photos of them if they signs did not fly past before I had time to snap a picture, or the road was wide enough to pull off for a photo without creating a traffic hazard. Prayer is an outstanding feature of Christianity in Africa. All night prayer meetings are not uncommon.

Sign - Zion Prayer Ministry

This place offers specific prayer times including “All Night”

When I ask African Christians about this I get a variety of answers, but the most common is something along the theme of “You have money, doctors and good medical care. We don’t. You have responsive governments to which you can make complaints, we don’t. You have economic systems that are not rigged in favor of a few, we don’t. All we have is prayer.”

The prayer centers I have seen are humble, rustic, basic affairs, not to say crude or inadequate. From my perspective they are under-resourced. Does God think that they are? Does their lowly construction make them less helpful? I wonder.

Church of Pentecost Prayer Ground

This prayer ground looks like it doubles as a carpentry shop

Not just anyone can translate

Because I am involved in Bible translation, I read about translation – all kinds of translation, not just Bible translation. These days, that means reading on the web. I came across an important article by a professional translator and researcher in translation issues, Nataly Kelly. It is entitled “Clearing up the Top 10 Myths About Translation“. A number of the 10 myths are not very applicable to Bible translation, but one is applicable not just to Bible translation, but to all kinds of Christian ministry in places where there is more than one language – which is most of the world. So what is this myth?

Any bilingual can be a translator or an interpreter.

Nataly goes on to write:

The ability to write in English does not make a person a professional writer. The ability to speak English does not make a person a professional speaker. Likewise, the ability to write or speak two languages does not mean that a person can translate or interpret. Plenty of people who are perfectly fluent in two languages fail professional exams for translation and interpreting. Why? Being bilingual does not guarantee that a person will be able to transport meaning from one language and culture to another without inflicting harm in the process.

Why do I think that this is important for Christian ministry in areas where there is more than one language? Well, because it seems to me that many missionaries, evangelists, pastors and even whole churches do not know it. Churches in settings with more than one language pick a person from the congregation to translate the Pastor’s sermon. They do so only on the basis that the person speaks both languages. The interpreter receives no orientation or training, nor is his or her interpretation evaluated.

Short term missionaries come and pick just any person who speaks the local language and English to be their interpreter. The interpreter may even be interpreting Bible stories in the VBS classes run by the short-term missions team. The result is the message gets lost in poor translation. But that is not what God intended, because we read in Deuteronomy chapter 30:

11 “This command I am giving you today is not too difficult for you to understand, and it is not beyond your reach. 12 It is not kept in heaven, so distant that you must ask, ‘Who will go up to heaven and bring it down so we can hear it and obey?’ 13 It is not kept beyond the sea, so far away that you must ask, ‘Who will cross the sea to bring it to us so we can hear it and obey?’ 14 No, the message is very close at hand; it is on your lips and in your heart so that you can obey it. (NLT)

Congolese translator candidates

A leading Congolese Bible translator teaching potential translators selected by their churches. Out of this group, only one or two will be chosen. Photo by Doug Wright

We need to be wary of making God’s message difficult or far away. Unfortunately, naïvety about language causes some to do just that. When churches and missions were offered (they did not ask, we offered) training for their interpreters in Burkina Faso, they came back afterward to say how much more people understood of the sermons, thus affirming that the interpretation of sermons needed improvement and that they did not know that improvement was needed.

Here in Ghana and most places, all Bible translation is done by native speakers of the languages. But not just any native speakers. Churches send a group of at least 8 potential translators matching a specific profile to a short course in translation. In 5-10 days we can see which are gifted in translation and which are not. The gifted ones are chosen as translators. It is not just any person whom God has gifted to translate into his language.

Bible Translators receiving specialized training in Tamale, Ghana

Bible Translators receiving specialized training in Tamale, Ghana

But we do not stop there. Bible Translators receive specialized training and that training is renewed regularly. For example, if the national translators in a language has translated the Gospels, and they plan to translate the Psalms next, then they will get special training on translating poetry before they start. The need for training is why we made it a priority to help a Christian University in Congo start a training program for Bible translators.

It will seem odd to those of us who speak English or another major language, but it is not uncommon to have pastors trained in English in Africa who do not know the names of the books of the Bible in their own languages, nor the correct words for key concepts like faith, salvation or repentance in their own languages. The Ghanaian responsible for pastoral training for a large denomination here in Ghana confirmed this to me just this week. This is because their schooling and training is entirely in English. If you take someone like that to be an interpreter into his language, you will not get a good result, even worse if you just take any person off the street.

Interpreting the pastor’s sermon, or for a short terms team does not need the same degree of rigor as Bible translation, but they do need more than just choosing anyone. Businesses, governments, book publishers, Nataly Kelly and many more know that they need professional translators with specialized training to get their message clear. Sometimes we Christians don’t, proving Jesus’ words:

For the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light. (Luke 16:8 ESV)


If you liked this, you might also like:
Jesus walks on bones
Eternal life goes missing