Passing the Purse

In Burkina Faso,a person lower on the social hierarchy does not let someone higher status carry anything.

Dayle and Eleanor returning from the market in Niangoloko

So, when Dayle’s mother came to visit us in rural Niangoloko, Dayle had to carry all the purchases back home when they went to the market together. Allowing your visiting mother to carry something on a shopping trip was the sign of a lazy and disrespectful daughter. People were not shy to let Dayle know that.

Here in Ghana it is the same. When we arrive at the office in the morning, one or more of the staff run to carry our computer and lunch bags into the office for us. As self-sufficient and egalitarian Americans, we don’t like it. But, I have seen the hurt in the eyes of local people who don’t understand when Americans resist having their stuff carried.

Once, this social feature allowed me to do an analysis of the social hierarchy in village in Burkina Faso in about 3 minutes.

Daniel Kompaore, Director of ANTBA, on a visit to translation projects (not the trip in this story)

Daniel Kompaore, Director of ANTBA, on visit to translation projects (not trip in this story)

An American couple was visiting. They represented an agency helping fund Bible translation. We took them to a rural location where a translation was underway. I was in the vehicle with the couple, the director of a national Bible translation agency (ANTBA), and a driver. When we got to the location, many people had gathered to welcome the couple. The American woman got out of the vehicle with her handbag. Immediately, the Director reached out and took it from her to carry it as the international visitors were higher status than he. In the blink of an eye, the driver took it from the Director as he could not let his Director carry a bag while he was around. I rushed to the side of the worried woman to assure her that no harm would come to her bag. Meanwhile, the chairman of the board of the local church saw the driver with the bag, he took it from him, as visitors always have the highest status. The pastor took it from him. One of the translators took it from the pastor. The bag continued its descent down the social hierarchy until it ended up in the hands of a small boy who dutifully and cheerfully carried it at the heels of the visitors until we got back in the vehicle to leave, when someone of middle status took it from him and gave it back to the visitor.

I am sure that the village had no written rules about who should carry whose bag, but everyone knew where they fit in the social hierarchy and they took the bag from those higher and relinquished it to those lower. The bag passing from hand to hand told me who had higher and lower status. I was too enamored watching the bag go from hand to hand to take it when it was my turn.

Watching the bag go from hand to hand also gave me a revelation. An advantage of  hierarchical societies is that everyone (except those at the very top and very bottom, of which there are few), learns to cheerfully serve and cheerfully be served.

Mother Tongue Day

Tower of BabelToday is International Mother Tongue Day which gives focus to minority languages. But we all have a mother tongue even if it is not a minority language.

Of course, the Bible has something to say about the fact that we all speak different languages. Everyone knows the story of the tower of Babel. As a reminder, here is the passage:

God said, “These people are working together because they all speak the same language. This is just the beginning. Soon they will be able to do anything they want. Come on! Let’s go down and confuse them by making them speak different languages—then they won’t be able to understand each other.” So the people had to stop building the city, because the Lord confused their language and scattered them all over the earth. That’s how the city of Babel got its name. (Gen 11: 6-9 CEV)

I have heard quite varied interpretations of this story. According to a common interpretation, this is the story of a curse. Those who hold this interpretation also hold the view that the multiplicity of languages is a curse, or at least a hindrance. This interpretation, however, does not square with other parts of Scripture. I’ll come to that in a minute. But even if it is true that the multiplicity of languages is a negative thing, that does not make it a curse. God’s actions to correct us are not curses! They are loving attempts to get us back on the right track. So if speaking many languages helps us to follow God, that would be a good thing.

Wait! The Apostle Paul pretty much said that:

From one person God made all peoples who live on earth, and he decided when and where each people would be. God did all this, so that we will look for him and reach out and find him. (Acts 17:26-27)

So the Apostle is saying that

  • God made all peoples, and
  • He decided where they would live and when, and
  • He did this so that they would search for Him and find Him.

These verses do not mention language, but language is an integral part of the identity of a people. The verses are clear. God divided the human race into ethnic groups (most with their own language), so that they would seek and find him. Making it easier to find God is not a punishment! If God says (through Paul) that the multiplicity of ethnic identities leads to more seeking of God, then we should listen to that carefully and allow that to influence our view of language. Too often, we let our views on language diversity be determined by our politics or our patriotic sentiments, and not by the Scriptures. Because our linguistic and ethnic identities are designed by God to help us seek and find him, we dare not disdain, neglect or ignore them in any sphere but especially not in the ministry of the church or in missions.

Number of languages spoken in the world today

Number of languages spoken in the world today

That there are multiple languages on the earth is not a disorder. It is not an aberration, a problem to be solved, nor a hindrance to human development. It is part of God’s purpose to bring people to know him. Interestingly, people from major languages do not get this. But those from minority languages often do. When their language is written and translated, they feel recognized and elevated. See my blog Counted for one example.

We who speak international languages often do not know what it is like to speak a language others consider unworthy or useless. The thing is, that is never God’s opinion. He created our languages and cultures for a purpose. As my colleague in translation, Eddie Arthur, wrote:

The God who was not ashamed to be born to a peasant woman and laid in a manger is not ashamed to speak Kouya, Jamaican patois or even modern-day English.

Whatever the reasons others celebrate Mother Tongue day, let’s celebrate the good gift of our mother tongues and our ethnic identities. And let’s use that good gift the way He intended – to seek Him and find Him and to help other seek and find him.

PS: I often use the phrase “heart language” instead of “mother tongue” because some take “mother tongue” to refer to a historic or ancestral language which they sometimes no longer speak.

Non-talking Parrot

Dayle with our parrot

Dayle with our parrot

Everyone loves talking parrot stories. We never had a talking parrot, but we had something better. He was a Senegal Green to whom we never gave a name. With his specialty in noises, he drove us crazy while sitting in a cage on our front porch next to the front door of our place in Ouagadougou.

The front door included auto-closing screen doors which made a distinctive slap-clack when someone went through them. That parrot would randomly make exactly that sound. Thinking that someone had walked in unannounced, we would rush to the front door in concern, only to find no one there but the parrot.

The yard was walled as is typical in Ouagadougou. Someone needed to open the gate to let a car in. We would often honk if we knew someone was home to come open the gate. You guessed it; that parrot would make the sound of our car driving up and the exact sound of our horn honking. We would make a frustratingly useless run to the gate.

Senegal green parrot in the wild

Senegal green parrot in the wild

We had two dogs. When we feed them at night, one would eat quickly and then try to eat the food of the other. Occasionally, this would result in a dogfight. Dayle told me that the parrot could imitate that. I thought that was exaggerated. Then after we took the dog food out one evening, a hear a fight starting – snapping, snarling, growling, the whole deal. So I went out to find the dogs eating calmly, and the parrot putting on a great performance.

A talking parrot would have been amusing. What this parrot did was annoying, although it did become amusing five years later.


This post is about a man you probably never heard of who did something unheard of.

Ulfilas evangelizing the Goths

Ulfilas evangelizing the Goths

Ulfilas lived some 1600 plus years ago; from about AD 330 to 380. He left the comfort of his life as a Roman citizen to evangelize the Goths – an east Germanic tribe.

The Goths spoke their own language, of course. So like many missionaries Ulfilas learned it to communicate with them. There is nothing unusual about that. Ulfilas also wanted to translate the Bible into the language of the Goths, but there was a problem. The Goth language had never been written. It did not have an alphabet. So he took on the extraordinarily difficult intellectual challenge of writing down a language which had never been written. The thing is, he succeeded, thus becoming the first person to accomplish that for a language not his own. His alphabet captured accurately the sounds of spoken Goth. It has 27 letters borrowed from the Greek and Roman alphabets. Ulfilas did this in about 360 AD without the benefit of studying linguistics which was not invented until almost 1300 years later! People who attempt this task today study linguistics first and are supported by a whole body of literature that explains all the ins and outs as well as experts they can consult not to mention talking to other people who have done it. Dayle and I had all that support when we proposed an alphabet for the Cerma language in Burkina Faso.


A page from Ulfilas’ translation into Goth

Ulfilas was way before his time. It was not until the 1700s that writing down unwritten languages became a somewhat common missionary endeavor. In the 19th and 20ths centuries it boomed. Today, more languages have been written for the first time through the work of missionary Bible translators than any other way! This fact shows the fallacy in the claim that missionaries destroy culture. Much more has been done to preserve and develop the world’s minority languages by missionaries than by anthropologists.

Also, only a relatively small number of people, a few thousand perhaps, will ever go down in history as giving an unwritten language an alphabet. Time is running out for anyone wanting to follow in the steps of Ulfilas.

If you liked this, you might also like Counted, Patois, or What Alphabet.