Singing the Bible

Recording a biblically sound song about AIDS in Congo

Recording a biblically sound song about AIDS in Congo

Recent research in India discovered that singing Scripture songs is a prominent way believers there spread the Bible. It is a natural, low-cost, and effective way to make the Bible known. Better, it attracts non believers.

New translations of the Bible happen predominantly in places with low literacy rates. Research done in such places showed that almost 25% of Christians who could read learned by signing out of a hymnbook or book of praise songs. Think about it. The person looks at the same words and sings them over and over, week in and week out.

Some learn to read by the sheer force of repeated exposure without being taught. I have written about this before.

Almost everywhere I have been in Africa, believers who see someone translating the Bible into their language ask that their hymns and Scripture songs also be translated and/or published. Unfortunately, this request is too often ignored. That is sad. Perhaps Western missionaries no longer value hymn books because they have largely disappeared from our churches. But we need to make our decisions based on what works in here, not what is useful at home.

GILLBT and church leader showing their agreement with the proposal

GILLBT and church leader showing their agreement with the proposal

Recently, I helped a church in northern Ghana design a program to spread the Gospel in the two largest, unreached people groups of Ghana, together representing almost 2 million people. One of the key elements was the creation and publication of church songbooks in those two languages, so that the church services could be entirely in those languages. Without that, people in those language groups think that Christianity is not for them, but only those who speak other languages.

Learning by picture

A language in Uganda, plurals in parenthesis. Photo credit: Paul Thomas

A language in Uganda, plurals in parenthesis. Photo credit: Paul Thomas

Almost all the languages in the world that do not have a translation of the Bible do not have a dictionary or other books or resources. So learning one of those languages is not a matter of enrolling in a class, buying a piece of software or getting a book, as one might to learn Spanish or Chinese. So, what does a missionary do? Well, it’s not exactly easy but people have developed a number of techniques that help a lot.

This photo illustrates one technique: draw a picture or take a photo of something, then have someone tell you the names of the various parts of it. This works for lots of things: the body, houses, tools, plants, animals, countryside scenes, etc. Then you write the words on the drawing or on the photo. The drawing or photo also makes the words easier to remember, and certainly a lot more fun to review!

What if the language does not have an alphabet? No problem! Spend a little time learning the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) which has a letter for every sound made in human speech. Hint: Ask a linguist or Bible translator and they can tell you what part of the IPA to learn and which you can ignore for the country where the language is. Or, you can just invent new letters for “strange” sounds.

Body parts in Mayogo language of Congo

Body parts in Mayogo language of Congo

You can add internal organs, as for this drawing in the Mayogo language of Congo. Or, you can break the picture down too. So from the body you can move to just the hand and get all the parts: fingernails, knuckles, thumb, finger, index finger, little finger, and so on. This works great for getting family relationships straight. Make a friend and take some photos of his family. Then you can get the words for brother, sister, father, mother, uncle, aunt, cousin, and so on.

This method also allows you to discover how people look at the world. For example, the foot and lower leg might have the same name. Or there might be a different word for older brother and another for younger brother. These differences show up more quickly and clearly when working with a drawing or photos.

If you want, you can take this a step further. The local person you are working with might have to get the hang of it at first, but you can point to something on the photo or drawing and ask; What do you do with this? So in answer to “What do you do with a hand?”, you might get wave, stir, shake hands, carry, give, take and so on.

Best, when local people get the hang of what you are doing, you can turn it into a game. Have fun, connect with people, show their language and culture respect while learning it!


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Observations of a church conference

DSC04536The 13th Annual Conference of the Northern Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church of Ghana was held just south of the city of Tamale at a Presbyterian Lay Training Centre. I attended one of the 5 days. Here are my random observations of that day. They have little to do with the content and more with the “color”.

  • Solomon Sule-Saa, chairman of the northern presbytery, in clerical collar and traditional smock

    Solomon Sule-Saa, chairman of the northern presbytery, in clerical collar and traditional smock

    All of the Presbyterian ministers wore clerical collars. Quite a few wore them under the traditional northern garment called a smock – a wonderful combination of traditional and Western dress.

  • The prayer time, lead by a Presbyterian minister, had distinct Pentecostal overtones – all praying at once, prayers against spiritual forces that might come against the conference.
  • Mention was made several times of living peacefully with Muslims who are the majority in the Northern Region. This is important, because there have been sporadic religious clashes. I was reminded that in North America we have never had to live out our faith in a place where most people follow a different world religion.
  • The chiefs wonderful hats

    The chiefs wonderful hats

    The Association of Christian Chiefs sent a delegation to the conference. Their leader was installed as the chairman of the meetings, even though he spoke in English only through an interpreter. In the past, chiefs were the guardians of traditional belief and practice. It is not a small thing for a chief to break away from that, so much so, that I have heard some Ghanaian Christians say that a chief cannot be a Christian, just like I have heard Americans say that a politician can’t be a Christian. They came in traditional garb. I especially liked their hats!

  • The leader of the delegation from the Association of Christian Chiefs opened the meeting. He said that he is so full of joy that he could only offer a prayer of thanks to God for all the good work the church is doing. He prayed right then, including asking that  God would get glory for it all.
  • The meeting was conducted in English. After each person spoke, however, there was a summary translation into Dagbani. A few, such as the leader of the Association of Christian Chiefs, spoke in Dagbani (the most important local language) and were translated into English. However, none of the prayers, songs done by choirs, or congregational singing, was in English. They were mostly in Twi and Ga (languages of southern Ghana and the languages of Presbyterians from southern Ghana now living in the north), with some Dagbani. African languages are still alive even in high-level meetings.
  • One of the invited guests was a Gynecologist. He said that the most vulnerable people at the hospital were pregnant women and unborn children. In the pas,t mortality in pregnancy and childbirth was very high, being almost a daily occurrence at the hospital. He had instituted changes that brought that down 300%.
  • Second best teacher receives an award

    Second best teacher receives an award

    A teacher at a Presbyterian secondary school in the area had been named the second best teacher in Ghana. The Presbyterian Church here is known for quality education. The teacher thanked God for the fact that he serves in a a well-organized school, which allowed him to succeed, and the conference acknowledged him with an award.

  • Invited guests brought greetings from the church or organization they represent. Most bring an envelope, literally, with money to help with conference expenses, which they all call a “token”.
  • A Presbyterian choir in robes sang in Ghanaian languages (from the south of Ghana, not from this area), but in a European style, which they master. It is beautiful. Then a youth choir sang in Dagbani, but in a very traditional style, marked by accompaniment only with a drum, unison (no harmony), complex rhythms, a lead singer singing in solo, with the others coming in on the chorus. This shows that the traditional music forms are still in vibrant use among the youth.
  • There were several mentions of problems with the financial viability of the Presbytery. It appears that many see the solution to the problem coming through church businesses, as much as through the giving of church members.
  • The Director of GILLBT and the head of the northern presbytery exchanging the description of the literacy program

    The Director of GILLBT and the head of the northern presbytery exchanging the description of the literacy program

    We were there to present a literacy proposal. The vote to adopt it passed unanimously, with much waving of hands and fanfare.

  • A representative of the national office said that he hoped that the ladies choir (which sang beautifully in the Twi and Ga languages of southern Ghana) would be compelled to sing in local languages in the future because of the number of local women joining the church. He called this a vision for the coming years. He said that faith is not in any one language, but that true faith reaches out and brings in others.
  • The speech from the local political envoy was based on fruits of the Spirit and the fact that society needs them, because otherwise selfishness, crime, conflict, etc. abound. The conference theme was “The Fruit of the Spirit and the believer” Gal 5:22.
  • When asked to speak, one lady quoted a proverb, “When the elder takes his bath, then the water is finished”. I had no idea what it meant or how it applied to the context. I think that she was saying that she was being asked to speak out of turn.
  • In addition to the chiefs in their wonderful hats, and the ministers in clerical collars and smocks, some ladies were in traditional Africa dress, but others in smart, Western business attire. Some men were in suits with ties, and others in traditional wear, including a local member of parliament. So, a person wanting to dress in style has lots of options.

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When does it start?

GILLBT Projects 080 ChumbrungI am very interested in what enhances, and what inhibits, the impact of a program to translate the Bible into a language in Africa. A while back, I was reading an evaluation of the impact of a translation of the Bible done in Ghana, for the Chumburung language. It was very interesting, but one thing puzzled me. The researcher doing the evaluation used the year 1989 as a baseline because that was the year the New Testament in Chumburung appeared. The Old Testament came later. But the translators started work on the language in 1972. So a period of 17 years (1972 to 1989) is left out of the evaluation. Presumably because the evaluator thought that the impact would start with the publication of the Bible. Bible translation is a long-term endeavor with long-term impact. Still, 17 years before seeing the first benefit seemed way too long.

Town of Banda where the Chumburung Bible was translated

Town of Banda where the Chumburung Bible was translated

In fact, the process of doing the translation usually has impact. In November, Wycliffe put a series of stories on their blog in which national translators in Papua New Guinea tell of the changes in their own lives. Changes which started around the translation table. In one of them, a national translator resisted a cultural imperative to revenge the burning down of his house, because of what he had learned while translating the Bible.In another case, a church leader listening to the draft translation being read so that they could comment on it (a step called checking), said:

“Wow! It would be very good if all the church leaders were here checking this translation! We would be evaluating ourselves, not just the translation. We leaders might think that we are righteous men in the eyes of the people, but in the eyes of God, it may not be so!”

In Congo, one group was under a tree practicing reading various parts in preparation for the recording of the Jesus Film. A crowd gathered to listen to the practice. Some people came to faith and one person who had left the church and Christian life repented and renewed his faith.

The very first translation in the Nyangbo language, written on a blackboard

The very first translation in the Nyangbo language, written on a blackboard

Too often, missionary translators have seen the positive impacts of the translation process as wonderful by-products – encouraging ‘accidents’, but they make few, if any, planned or systematic effort to use the translation process itself to impact the community. In fact, some might consider that a distraction.

Fronting and deliberately planning early use and impact of translation is coming to the fore in Africa, with some interesting results. Translators have tried several approaches, including translating the Gospel of Luke, then producing the Jesus Film, based on the Gospel of Luke. There are also attempts to get more pastors involved in the testing process. Recently, a Cameroonian friend posted on Facebook that they had recorded the first 100 verses translated in the Mpumpong language. He wrote:

[We] went out on the dusty streets of Yokadouma to test it out. And before we knew we had gathered a crowd – they were all excited to hear the Word of God in Mpumpong! The people shared what they had heard, what it meant and what they thought about it.

This story points to the impact that can happen when the translation gets into the community quickly  – as soon as even one story from one Gospel gets translated, then bringing out more little pieces as they become available – getting them read in the church, recording them and playing them in the streets, performing them as skits, reading them to listening and discussion groups, or getting choirs to make new praise songs from them. In fact, a translator in Tanzania printed a few chapters, took them to a funeral and read them with amazing results. Here’s a short video of what happened:

Planning and implementing immediate use and impact into translation programs in Ghana is one of Ed’s tasks.

Tea rolls

A number of years ago, a Canadian woman arrived in Ghana to manage a guest house in Accra. Shortly after starting in her new role, the Ghanaian staff tell her that the guest house needs tea rolls.

Kitchen staff at the guest house

Kitchen staff at the guest house

So she goes to the cooks and tells them to bake some tea rolls. This causes a very animated discussion. They respond that they have always just bought tea rolls in the past and that they don’t know how to make them. “Nonsense,” the new manager replies, “We are not going to buy tea rolls when we can make them.” The cooks give her amazed looks followed by a frenzy of discussion in English and Ghanaian languages. The cooks ask her if they really can make tea rolls in the kitchen. “Why not?” the manager asks back, adding that it is quite simple to make tea rolls and that they have all the ingredients. The cooks stare back in incredulity and then break into an even more animated talking frenzy.

In the end, the opposition to her plan to make tea rolls is overwhelming, so she sends one of the staff into town to buy them. When he comes back with tea rolls, it all becomes clear. What she did not know is that in Ghana English,  “T-roll” means toilette paper.

Anyone living in an English-speaking country other than their own runs into misunderstandings, some of which are very funny even if only after first being very frustrating. To connect with people, rather than just make fun of them, a person needs to become a student of this new form of their own language.

PS: Some of y0u may have received this earlier due to a mistake I made while writing it. Sorry if you are getting this a second time.