The plague

Have you ever wondered what happened to the plague? I don’t mean plague in the generic sense of an epidemic or pandemic. I mean, of course, the black death also called the bubonic plague. This is the desease that, after ravaging other continents, arrived by ship in Europe in 1347 and proceeded to killed one third of the population of Europe over the next five years, then periodically crop up in certain towns for another 300 years.

Northern Congo

When I worked in northeastern Congo, I learned that the World Health Organization registers about 2,000 cases of the plague worldwide every year, of which half occur in northeastern Congo. So I worked in plague alley, so to speak. Was I brave or foolhardy to work there? Hardly. The risk was very low. Our contingency plan said that there was a 100% risk of an outbreak of the plague and a zero percent chance it would affect us.

Why? Because the plague is treatable with any of a variety of inexpensive and widely available antibiotics. Virtually the only people at risk are those who contract it but do not seek treatment until the desease is advanced. Those who do seek timely treatment suffer no long term effects and return to health quickly. So we could walk plague alley with little concern.

There are still several regions where rodents carry the plague and sometimes pass it to humans. That includes most of the Western United States. If that’s where you live, and you’re just now learning that it’s a place where the plague is endemic, be assured, your fear of the plague should be the same as before. Rank it with polio.

The desease that struck fear in the hearts of all Europe now gets little attention except to make funny scenes in Monty Python movies. The thing that was furiously fought with the best methods known at the time, is now easily defeated with a simple treatment. Insignificance; that’s what happened to the plague.


This is a page from our son Matthew’s baby health book from Burkina Faso. There are a number of cases of boils in over a period of six months. Because the official language of Burkina Faso is French, the baby book is in French. So you see mention of “furoncles” – boils in French. Notice the s on the end of the word. Matthew did not have a boil each time, but multiple boils. Each time he had antibiotics, and that cleared up the boils, but not for long. In one sequence, he was given antibiotics for 10 days on September 7 (7.9.85 on the health card). They cleared up, The course of antibiotics ended on the 16th, and on the 19th the boils came back worse than ever. If I remember correctly, he woke up with 8 or 10 boils on the 19th.

The doctors had no answer other than to give repeated and frequent courses of antibiotics. One doctor told us that the staff germ that caused the boils was found in the soil and in the dust. In short, it was everywhere. The boils were painful and Matthew began to dread going to the doctor. Then we told a missionary couple with another organization. They said that we should treat him aggressively for prickly heat including bathing him with certain soap we could find at the pharmacy and applying a specific lotion for prickly heat after his bath. They also said that we should give him children’s vitamins with zinc. The prickly heat rash causes small breaks in the skin through which the infection can enter, they said. There were no children’s vitamins with zinc in Ouagadougou, so we got family to buy Flintstones Vitamins with zinc in the USA and send them to us. While waiting for them to arrive, we began washing him with the soap and treating him with the lotion for prickly heat. It was not a complete cure, but the cases of boils immediately became less frequent. After the vitamins came, they stopped altogether. When Mark came along, we gave him the vitamins and washed him with the special soap and he never had boils.

We were shocked that none of the doctors we consulted suggested any of the steps that solved the problem. Apparently, they did not know that it could be solved with vitamins containing zinc or by treating prickly heat aggressively. But God knew that we would not find the answer where we were looking, so he sent that missionary couple our way. We ran into them without planning to, and we just happened to tell them about the boils. God set up that meeting. Many times we have found comfort and solutions beyond what science could provide in the people God put around us.

The most dangerous animal

This week is national mosquito control week in the US. Worldwide, controlling mosquitoes is a big deal because they are, in fact, the world’s deadliest animal. Every 40 seconds, a child dies of malaria transmitted by a mosquito. Dayle and I have had colleagues whose children died of malaria. Here in Ghana, our Ghanaian colleagues in Bible translation regularly take sick days because of malaria or take time off work to go get tested. Some of my African friends involved in Bible translation spend days every year in hospitals with children, spouses or other family members who are very ill with the disease.

In a 2011 survey, 72% of companies in sub-Saharan Africa reported a negative malaria impact, with 39% saying the negative impact was serious. Malaria not only kills, it reduces productivity. Translators’ work suffers when they are extra tired because malaria is depleting their strength but not yet making them sick. Malaria affects the education of their children.

One survey found some poor households spend as much as 25% of their income on malaria treatment. The link between malaria and poverty is widely recognized with malaria being the cause and poverty the result, whereas for many other diseases poverty is the cause and the diseases are the result. T. H. Weller, a Nobel Laureate in Medicine in 1958, wrote:

It has long been recognized that a malarious community is an impoverished community.

In Sri Lanka, an outbreak of dengue fever, another mosquito-born disease, infected tens of thousands and killed hundreds. Dengue is a debilitating illness. When I contracted it, I was not able to work for two months.

When you pray for national translators and others, pray for protection against malaria and other mosquito-born illnesses.

Bad news

Since Dayle fell desperately ill on July 8, we have gone from one medical surprise to the next. Every few days, her illness and it’s treatment would take a new twist.

Most of those twists were not the kind we were hoping for. I am writing this three months into the saga, and the twists finally stopped, we think, two weeks ago. She is free of infections and her heart problem is not serious, it seems.

On the first week of this saga I was reading Psalm 112. Verse seven says of the righteous person that:

He is not afraid of bad news; his heart is firm, trusting in the LORD.
Psalm 112:7

It is not because the righteous person never gets bad news that he or she doesn’t fear it. Rather, the person who trusts in the Lord realizes that sometimes life will bring him or her bad news, yet he or she doesn’t fret, worry or obsess about the potential for bad news.

I understood this verse as a promise. If I kept my focus on trusting God, he would keep fear of bad news out of my head and heart. So far, he has.

Dying of what

Sign_skull_and_crossbonesWe appreciate it that people pray for our health and safety in Africa, although Americans who have not been here may over-estimate the dangers. But what are those dangers? Unfortunately, Africa has an image in the US of being a place of strife and conflict, so you may think that we need prayer for protection against armed rebels or militias. It also has an image of a place where they are chronic and endemic diseases such as malaria, AIDS and even Ebola; so you may pray that we would be protected against illness.

Fatal accident in front of our place, two years ago

Fatal accident in front of our place, two years ago

When I was in the US, I was often asked about attacks against Christians. That is one of the themes in the news about Africa, especially from religious broadcasters. But of those three: conflict, disease and attacks against Christians, the most likely to happen to us personally is disease. We are thankful for good health during our first years in Ghana. May the Lord continue that trend!

What you may not know is that the most likely cause of death or disability for us is an automobile accident. Sorry, I know that is very pedestrian. Nothing exotic about it.

WreckThe World Health Organization says that nearly 3,400 people die on the world’s roads every day. Tens of millions of people are injured or disabled every year. Over 90% of traffic deaths worldwide occur in low and middle-income countries. A traffic accident is the most common cause of the death of foreigners in Africa. The rate of fatal traffic accidents in Ghana is 13 times higher than in the US. That is actually good for African where the continental rate is 24.1 times that of the US. This high rate is due to speeding and lack of enforcement of traffic regulations. These are exacerbated by the attitude that traffic accidents are random events over which people have no control – that they are a matter of fate.

Overturned truck near our apartment

Overturned truck near our apartment

When we travel by road, we see at least one recent traffic accident per day, often more. That is not counting the overturned or wrecked vehicles from accidents that more than a day old. The newspapers have news of accidents with fatalities several times a week. Two years ago, we even had a fatal accident right in front of our place.

It’s not exotic. It’s not glamorous. It’s probably not something your church will get excited about, but pray for our travels in Africa anyway.

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More irrelevant rejoicing

Anopheles mosquito

Anopheles mosquito. Photo: James Gathany (CDC)

It has never been done. There has NEVER been a vaccine against a parasite, any parasite. On the other hand, making a vaccine against a virus is difficult, but at least the general process is known. The researchers working on a vaccine against the malaria parasite are climbing one big hill. A few weeks ago, I blogged about a very promising research trial of a malaria vaccine. Now, researchers taking a different track have had very promising laboratory results.

Malaria causes many more deaths worldwide than HIV/AIDS. Each year 225 million people contract malaria and 781,000 die. Most of the deaths are among  young children and 90% of the deaths happen in Africa.Most families in people groups without the Scriptures in Africa will have lost at least one child, niece, or nephew to malaria. National Bible translators lose days of work each year treating their children for malaria.  Working among the bibleless peoples of Africa, one cannot avoid the constant and sometimes deadly impact of the disease. We hare here to give people the Scriptures in their heart language, but we cannot ignore the other difficulties they face.

The Gates Foundation is funding malaria research, including the successful research trial. I admire Bill Gates, not because of his success at Microsoft, but because of what he is doing with the Gates Foundation.  My admiration is not simply that he giving away is money, but how he is doing that. He is targeting high priority items, such as malaria, which only very rarely get mentioned on the front pages. It is possible to give money in a way that creates a “name” for oneself. Instead, Gates seems to be doing it more in the spirit of Jesus words:

When you do good deeds, don’t try to show off. If you do, you won’t get a reward from your Father in heaven. When you give to the poor, don’t blow a loud horn. That’s what show-offs do in the meeting places and on the street corners, because they are always looking for praise. I can assure you that they already have their reward.  When you give to the poor, don’t let anyone know about it. Then your gift will be given in secret. Your Father knows what is done in secret, and he will reward you. (Matthew 6:1-4 CEV)

You might not have a lot of money or expertise to throw into the fight against malaria, but you can do things that will be good for them – and for you! Give a sacrifice of praise for the progress being made. Pray for all the needs of the peoples still without God’s Word in their heart languages.

Fight narcissism. Be happy about something that does not help you or anyone you know. Pray for something that cannot help you or anyone you know.

Bible Translation and WHAT?

It is a truly weird thing. Whoever thought of World Toilet Day? Who thought that it could catch on? In spite of the weirdness, the World Vision Blog on the topic is interesting reading. There is even more weirdness. Why am I as a Bible translator writing about World Toilet Day in a blog about the Heart Language? I’m so glad you asked!

On its blog, World Vision notes that children living in households with no toilet are twice as likely to get diarrhea as those with a toilet, causing more deaths every year than AIDS, malaria, and measles combined. Toilets, of all things, save lives, especially the lives of children. In addition to installing over 30,000 toilets last year, World Vision also trained more than 165,000 in proper hygiene practices.  — keeping kids and communities safer and healthier.

Training is good, but only if people heed it. Studies have shown that often people do not change after receiving training. One of the reasons for that is the language used. A language is  not just a means of communication, it is also a way to reach people’s emotions and deepest values. When training is given to promote some change – like better hygiene practices – the language needs to be one which touches the emotions and values of the person. Unfortunately, using language people have learned, rather than their heart language, often reaches the intellect, but not the soul. It is very difficult to change behavior without touching the emotions profoundly. Those of us who have always been taught in our heart language do not realize what a powerful advantage we have.

Another problem is understanding. In one case a family planning project in Africa encountered problems because the term “family planning” had been translated as “bar the road to children”. That flew like the proverbial lead balloon. A little cultural research,  of the kind we do when seeking for key terms in Bible translation, discovered a phrase for spacing plants in the field so that they give better yields. A switch to that terminology made all the difference. Sometimes those in evangelism or development complain that people are resistant to change when we have not done our homework to discover their cultural perspective. See my blog on Eternal Life, for a great example.

Recording Mangbetu HIV-AIDS song

Choir singing newly written song about AIDS in their heart language - Mangbetu

Finally, often change involves new beliefs. Many people have never heard the germ theory of disease. They believe that disease is caused by all sort of things from curses, to failure to appease the ancestors or breaking taboos. Teaching hygiene to such people involves getting them to accept a new understanding of the cause of disease. Doing that in a language which might not even have terms for their traditional beliefs and which does not have the power to touch their culture will produce limited results. When we first did AIDS training in the heart language, the group went to prayer and repented at the end of the first day, then went out and began ministering to HIV positive people in the community that they had shunned. They had received the same information in another language but it did not have the that effect.

Our God communicates. He reveals himself. He talked through the prophets in people’s heart language. On the day of Pentecost, everyone heard in their own language. For that reason, missionaries have long used the heart language to communicate and they have translated the Bible into the heart language of many peoples. It is hard work and takes time, but the results are long-term, sustained impact. Plus, it is communication like God himself would do it. It took me two decades in Africa to realize that the power of the heart language can be leveraged for other changes – such as better hygiene – that save lives.

The languages of the world are not a problem, they are God’s vehicles given to each people to “save” them in all kinds of ways. So my focus has expanded. Bible translation is still at the center, but I now work with churches and language communities on all kinds of stuff they want to change wherever the heart language can have its powerful transformative effect even if that has to do with toilets and hygiene. Hence our byline: Connecting at the deepest level – the heart language – for lasting impact.

Rejoicing over the irrelevant

Finally a command in the Bible that seems easy to follow!

Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. (Romans 12:15 ESV)

But what if I have no intellectual or emotional attachment to the thing that is making others happy? What if it just leaves me totally apathetic? What if it commits that most horrible of modern American sins – the sin of being irrelevant!



Recently a huge breakthrough was announced for a disease that affects more than 200 million people every year and kills 781,000, most of them children. The breakthrough  will not get rid of  the disease, but it will reduce the number who get it and the number of deaths. That disease is malaria and the breakthrough is the first successful vaccine trial.

You may not even have seen the news. It is a BIG deal where I live even though it will still be years before the vaccine is approved and widely available. Nevertheless, would you join with the African parents who are happy about this and rejoice with them before the Lord, even though it does not affect you directly in any way?

Fight narcissism. Be happy about something that does not help you.


Of heads and eyes

Our son Mark started suffering with migraine headaches in his teen years. I have them too, but Mark’s were much worse. He would end up in the hospital in Nairobi, where were living at the time. He would have debilitating pain and stroke-like symptoms such has one side of his body going numb. One of Mark’s migraines was a major family event that took at least a day out of our lives and caused us lots of emotional anguish.

Through a Wycliffe colleague, we had come into contact with an African evangelist named Dennis. At the time he had no formal Bible or theological training, but he showed a gift for evangelism and ministry to the poor. A few days after Mark had been to the emergency room with one of his worst migraines, Dennis called the house to chat. Among other things he asked how we were doing. Dayle told him that she was discouraged about the headaches. Dennis asked if he could come pray for Mark. Of course, Dayle was happy to say yes. She set a date and time which worked for Dennis and Mark’s school schedule.

Even before the day came for Dennis to visit, he phoned to ask how Mark was doing. Dayle told him he had not had another migraine yet. Dennis told Dayle Mark was healed. But he looked forward to meeting with him and told Dayle that he would have no more migraines. Dayle told me when I came home. I was skeptical. I would wait and see.

That was April 2003. Shortly afterward the doctor suggested a change of medication. The newest and best drug was not working so he suggested a drug which had been around for so long that Dayle’s mother told us that she had taken it in her teens. Also, we were able to discover more triggers. Cured meats turned out to be one of the main culprits. So no pepperoni pizza for Mark.

Mark never again had a debilitating migraine while we were in Africa. In fact, it was not until 2010 that he had another severe migraine. Whether it was Dennis’ prayers, the new drug or identifying the triggers I don’t know. In any case I see God in all three. It also does not bother me that Dennis prediction lacked some accuracy. Contrary to what he said, Mark did have more migraines. But, from the day that Dennis prayed for Mark, his migraines ceased to be a major events in our lives and within a few months they ceased to be a cause of major concern. In my book, that qualifies as healing.

Years earlier in Burkina Faso, we were introduced to a young man named Adama, from that country, who had come to the Lord out of drugs. He was a very calm and enjoyable person, but he had used drugs and they had left him with a moderate mental impairment before he came to the Lord and quit using. He could not do complicated tasks and he worked very slowly. We hired him occasionally to do yard work. He did good work, but he could only do in one day what most people could do an hour or 2.

Our oldest son, Matthew, was about five years old. He was having a series of eye infections since he was one month old. Allergies coupled with the dry and dusty environment were making his eyes vulnerable. One day Adama came by and asked if there was anything he could pray for. Dayle said that Matthew had started another eye infection. Adama asked Matthew if he could pray for him. When Matthew said, “yes,” Adama stood behind him, put his hands over Matthew’s eyes and prayed for him. Matthew never had another eye infection.

In addition to giving glory to God, these stories point out something profoundly important for missionaries – the people they go to minister to can also minister effectively to them and it can be mutual spiritual enrichment and encouragement. It’s reciprocal.


I got up in the night on Friday (Sept 10) and as soon as I sat up in bed the world started going around, fortunately only for a few seconds. When I came back to bed and put my head down, around it went again. Disturbing. When I got up in the morning, same thing. More disturbing. Saturday night, same thing. Every time I laid down in bed and every time I sat up from lying down in bed.

So, I made an appointment with the doctor. I explained my symptoms. His response? “This is cool!” I was not expecting that, but it was reassuring. He laid me down to the left, which is not usually how a lay down. Nothing. Then to the right which is how I lay down and the world started spinning around me. Fascinating.

He declared that I have benign positional vertigo. I need to have something called the “Epley’s maneuver.” Apparently it will make the world spin like mad while it is being done, but then I will be cured.