Universal humor

It appears to be universal that people turn problems into humor, especially when the problems come from their government, or from an important institution.

When we first moved to Kenya, the country was having rolling electrical blackouts because there was insufficient capacity to generate the amount of electricity needed. Reduced water flow behind a hydroelectric dam was the culprit. In a few months, they had put in place an alternative and the rolling blackouts stopped. During the last few months we have gone through something similar here in Ghana. The culprit this time was a dysfunctional gas pipeline. An alternative is in place that meets most of the shortfall, and more generation capacity will come online later this year. In both cases, local people developed a humorous way to deal with the inconvenience.

In Kenya, the electricity was supply by the Kenya Power and Lighting Company – KPLC. But Kenyan’s started saying that KPLC really stood for Kenya, Please Light the Candles!

Here in Ghana, we have the Electric Company of Ghana – ECG. But some now say that stands for Either Candles or Generators.

I have been told that in Nigeria, instead of saying Nigeria Electric Power Authority for their company,  NEPA, some say Never Expect Power Always.

My favorite, however, came in church when we were having blackouts in Kenya. The pastor asked the congregation what Kenyans used for light before they had candles. No one knew. So the pastor told them ­ they had electricity.

It is not just electrical outages that prompt humor. I have been told several humorous stories by Nigerians which deal with their high rate of deaths from road accidents. Humor is a powerful tool for dealing with stress. Where I have lived in Africa, it shows people’s resilience in the face of problems outside their control.

Apparently, this has been going on for a long time – at least since the writer of Proverbs penned these words:

Sorrow may hide
behind laughter
(Proverbs 14:13 CEV)

Translation and democracy

Some time back, I read with interest a statement by Dr. Lamin Sanneh to the effect that democracy has its roots in the translation of the Bible into the common language. Coming from a Yale historian, that statement carries some weight.

Wide as the WatersNot long ago, I read Wide as the Waters, by Benson Bobrick. I found it hard to read at first because of the seemingly endless historical facts. I am more the kind of person who wants the facts summarized, with more time spent on the lessons learned from the facts. I am sure that others will appreciate the detailed history for its true worth.

But in the final chapter, my preference for lessons learned from the facts was more than satisfied. Not only that, Bobrick develops Sanneh’s conclusion in some detail. I would summarize his historical finding this way:

If people can know the ultimate truth – the truth about God – and make up their own minds about it, then what rationale could there possibly be for keeping lesser truths from people, and preventing them from making up their own minds about those? That includes knowing the truth about their government and making up their own minds about what it should be and how it should act.

Bobrick sees the translation of the Bible into English as revolutionary. The subtitle of the book is “The story of the English Bible and the revolution it inspired.” Perhaps we do not appreciate the radical nature of the proposition that each person should make up his or her own mind about God and politics. But there was a time, and not that long ago, when that idea was novel and it still is in some parts of the world. At the time of the first translations of the Bible into English, those who believed that people should make up their own minds were considered dangerous to the king and to the church. The Bible is a subversive book. ‘”Few sources”, as one historian notes, “are as rich as the Old Testament in undesirable kings who come to exemplary bad ends”’ (page 279). That kind of book is not what a sovereign king, or any dictatorial government, would want the people to read!

Perhaps the most telling of Bobrick’s arguments in favor of his thesis is that Kings and religious leaders of the time of the first translation of the Bible into English saw clearly that it would ultimately lead to power shifting to the people, and they opposed it for that reason. The book contains quotes from Kings and church leaders of the time saying as much – quotes which eventually came true.

Bobrick traces the link between translation of the Bible into English and political ideas of freedom in the following paragraph:

The Protestant doctrine of the priesthood of all believers, of the supremacy of the individual conscience, encouraged many to read their own destiny into such verses as ‘Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.” Through prayer and meditation, they learned to approach God without assistance, and in reading the Word of God to themselves heard it, as it were, not from a priest on high and at a distance, but from deep within their own immortal souls. They turned out tracts proclaiming themselves “free-born,” and by the time Laud and his prelates attempted to inculcate passive obedience as a virtue of the faith, scriptural notions of their obligations to righteous disobedience had taken hold. (pages 279-280)

Benson Bobrick

Benson Bobrick

He also notes an interesting historical fact – before the translation of the Bible into English, individual freedom in matters of faith and politics was almost absent, but after the first translations appeared, it became prominent:

“The English Bible fairly marks the divide. For despite Cromwell’s dictatorship, by and large those who pleaded for the rights conscience, for free discussion, and for an unrestricted press were those who held to the supreme authority of Scripture in all things. And after James II issued his Declaration of Indulgence, it was the English Nonconformists who held the balance of power and risked their own immediate freedom on behalf of the freedom of the realm.

The development of the vernacular marked the origin of a culture belonging to the masses, which increasingly reached toward popular and democratic institutions.

The position of some that believing the Bible and having a personal faith is anti-democratic, is historically inaccurate. In fact, the opposite is the case.

In a future blog, I will relate how the translation of the Bible into the languages of Ghana has lead to similar developments – making the translation of the Bible into the vernacular a form of political and social empowerment, in addition to its obvious effects on faith.

Source: Wide as the Waters, Benson Bobrick, Penguin Books, 2002, especially pages 280-297

Small differences

When we first moved to Burkina Faso, we noticed that people hung curtains in windows and doorways so that the nice side was visible from outside the house, and the plain side toward the inside. This small difference is a sign of a much larger difference. Houses were for sleeping and storing things, but people lived outside. If you went to visit someone, you sat with them outside their house, not inside.

I was intrigued by a story of an African man who went to a conference in the US. Between meetings he went outside hoping to socialize with other participants. At first he thought that people were not friendly, only to go back inside and find everyone socializing there.

Often, small differences in culture, like curtains turned with the nice side the “wrong” direction, signal more important differences which need to be internalized by anyone working cross-culturally.

Girls pounding fufu

Girls pounding fufu

Here in Ghana, local restaurants list food on the menu by the staple – fufu, banku, rice balls, tuo zaafi (or TZ), kenkey, rice, fried rice, etc. The meat is then added. So you order fufu and then specify that you want fish, or chicken, for example. I am used to American menus which list dishes by the meat, often with options for the staple – French fries, baked potato, rice, etc. A Ghanaian friend of mine was having trouble finding what he wanted at an Accra restaurant with a western-style menu because he was looking the staple he wanted and could only find meats. Americans can have the same problem, in reverse, with Ghanaian-style menus. This small difference shows what is considered the center of the meal – for Ghanaians it is the staple and for Americans it is the meat. I try to adjust. So, if a Ghanaian asks me what I want to eat, I try to remember to say the staple instead of the meat. That way I give an answer that fits expectations.

They say that the devil is in the details. But in cross-cultural work, the joy, understanding and true connections to people often come from paying attention to the details.

Jan Hus

Composite - Jan HusToday (July 6) in 1415, Jan Hus was burned at the stake in town of Konstanz, then in Bohemia. A monument still stands in the town marking Hus’ life.

Hus was a theologian and an academic who rose to the position of Rector of the University in Prague. Already when he was a student, Hus had admired the writings of John Wycliffe, an Oxford scholar and theologian who had translated the Bible into English for the first time. Wycliffe’s translation and his writings were much criticized. His critics did not want the Bible in the language of the man on the street, preferring to keep it in Latin only. English, they thought, was not a holy enough language for a translation of the Bible and the ordinary man could not be trusted to interpret it. Wycliffe and Hus believed that the Bible should be the ultimate authority for belief and teaching. He trusted the common man to interpret it better than the theologians of his day.

Wycliffe’s writings came into prominence in Bohemia, where Hus lived, when the sister of the King of Bohemia, Wenceslaus, married King Richard II. of England in 1382. Due to her influence, the writings of John Wycliffe were widely circulated in Bohemia . Hus renewed the attachment to them he had developed as a student. He began promoting them in his sermons and writings.

Eventually, the order was given that all of Wycliffe’s writings be destroyed and all of his followers required to recant. Hus refused even after numerous attempts to persuade him, saying that he would only be persuaded to change his beliefs if they could be shown incorrect according to the Bible. When he was burned at the stake in on 6 July 1415, Wycliffe’s translation and writings were used as kindling for the fire. His last words were: “In 100 years, God will raise up a man whose calls for reform cannot be suppressed.” In fact, 100 years later, in 1517, Martin Luther nailed his famous 95 Theses of Contention on to the church door at Wittenberg.” Then Luther went on to translate the Bible into German.

So, if you read the Bible in your own language, if you believe that people should be able to express their beliefs freely, or that you should be able to decide for yourself what you believe by reading the Bible for yourself, you owe a debt to the likes of Jan Hus who died for those ideas.

Today, July 6, is an excellent day to remember that. Besides, it’s my wedding anniversary.

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