Africa loves to read and hear the Bible

A while back, a friend pointed me to an article about translating the Bible in Africa by one of Africa’s most well-known theologians – John Mbiti. Before launching into the main point of the article, Mbiti briefly assesses the impact of translations of the Bible in African languages. He writes that:

Reading the Bible in their language

Africa loves to read and hear the Bible read.

Thus, through its translation… the Bible is very present in Africa. In some ways, we find our traditional life reflected in it… It is wielding a tremendous impact on the Church and beyond… It is generating Biblical Christianity and invigorating Oral African Theology.

The Bible has found a home in Africa, and Africa has become a Biblical continent. Statistically the Bible has become very much an African book. Many African readers and hearers of the Bible spontaneously identify themselves with the Bible through its content of (ancient) Jewish culture, family traditions, farming, history, pastoral (livestock) life, persecutions, suffering, death rituals, and religiosity…

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

Our neighbor reading the Bible in Bambara

At a deeper level, the translation from Biblical languages into local languages encourages creativity and the proliferation of oral theology. This has already been happening (in the field) spontaneously among the Christians, the laity and clergy, young and old, women and men, through their composition and use of local hymns, songs, and music, instead of, or in addition to imported Western hymns translated in Kiikamba. They sing everywhere with or mainly without instruments – in the fields, in buses, walking, fetching water, herding, at school, in Churches and market places. They say or give spontaneous prayers (at home and Church services), sermons or meditations, religious education (in schools, Sunday School and their homes), all produced in one’s mother tongue.

It is easy to visit churches in the big African cities, and even a number of the smaller ones, and conclude that Christianity in Africa is doing quite well using English or another European language. But the reality is different. Christianity in Africa has its roots in the Bible in African languages even if a number of Christians are now educated and practice much of their public worship in English or another European language. The goal of getting the Bible into all the languages of Africa is still relevant even as English spreads.

What’s Africa like?

When we arrived in Burkina Faso (then Upper Volta) in 1978, gas stations were just gas stations. They had gas pumps and a small office. You stopped there to get gas, nothing more. There might be a sign but the price was not posted. The price was pretty much the same everywhere, so posting it served no purpose.

In 1999 we moved to Kenya where, at the time, gas stations were also mostly just gas stations. Although some had vehicle services like tire repair. But mostly you just went there for gas. They had signs and the price was usually posted.

A few years later I found myself making trips to the northeast corner of the Congo. There gas stations were … well, they kind of weren’t. If you drove a motorcycle, you stopped for gas at crude wooden tables by the roadside on top of which sat old liquor bottles filled with gasoline. Most drivers bought a fifth at a time. Once in a hefty 4X4, we pulled up to a mud hut from which the attendant rolled out a 55 gallon drum of fuel which he poured into a 20-liter container for measurement and from there it went into the vehicle – at more than $10 per gallon if I remember correctly. In the NE of Congo, I only saw one functioning gas station.

We are now in Ghana were gas stations post the price on their electronic sign. In a first in my experience, the gas pumps sometimes talk to me. In a first for me in Africa, the pumps sometimes have a slot for a credit or debit card. The stations mostly have nice, air-conditioned convenience stores with cold drinks, snacks, sometimes a hot food deli or even an adjoining restaurant/snack bar. Dayle has a favorite ice cream bar she sometimes gets when we stop for gas in Accra. Along major roads you will find full-service stops with sit-down dining, quick take away, restrooms, and fuel.

Sometimes people in the US ask me what Africa is like. Well it’s like its gas stations – there’s a lot of variation. Is the US like Arizona or Florida? Miami, Seattle, Las Vegas or Salt Lake City?

By the way, Ghana is definitely like Oregon because in both places an attendant pumps the gas for you.

Size of Africa

Each country show by its flag

From 60 to who knows

Ed in Cameroon with Daniel Ngwanou

Ed in Cameroon with Daniel Ngwanou

In the late 1990s my responsibilities included finding ways to increase the number of translation projects in Africa lead by Africans that were linked to Wycliffe. At a time when hundreds were lead by Western missionaries, I found 60 lead by Africans. That was better than the dozen or so of only a few years earlier.

Recently, I came across a document I had written at that time. In it, I had written my personal goal of seeing that number go from 60 to 120 in four years.

Sylvester Nkrumah (Ghana) and Uche Aaron (Nigeria), part of the first wave of national translators in Wycliffe's work in Africa

Sylvester Nkrumah (Ghana) and Uche Aaron (Nigeria), part of the first wave of national translators in Wycliffe’s work in Africa

I am pretty sure that goal was met, although I don’t have data to prove it. The increase was probably only attributable to me in very small part. When I saw that old document, what struck me as more important is that the goal now looks silly. Today, it is the norm that programs to translate the Bible are lead by Africans. Programs started years ago by Western missionaries are winding down and a few new ones are starting here and there. They are the exceptions.

We thought that having more Africans doing Bible translation was something that needed to be promoted. In a way it did. But mostly so that our ways of working would accommodate it. Hindsight allows us to see that it was going to happen anyway. God was making it happen.

I used to be concerned with finding God’s will for me. I now understand that includes getting behind a trend in which I see God’s hand and running with it. At a minimum, I don’t not want to buck a trend only to find later that it was God’s doing. But what I really want is to set unnecessary goals because God is going to accomplish them anyway. By setting the goals, I’m not making them happen, I’m just showing my alignment with God’s actions.

Whose plans

I was living in Ouagadougou at the time. I had an appointment away from the office which I would attend with a Burkinabé man. He had come to the office and we would go together. But stuff kept happening. You know the situation: first a phone call, then a question, then someone stopping by. On it went.

I was a little frustrated and concerned about being late. Finally, we were on our way. I mentioned to the man accompanying me that we would be late because of all the interceptions. He replied:

Your plans are your plans,
but that was what God was doing.

I really did not have the time to digest that right there, but the words have stuck with me. Insights from people in other cultures enrich my understanding of life, God and godliness. He reminded me that a strong focus on my plans can keep me from seeing God’s hand in situations.

The Last Chapter

In the early 1980s, I was traveling in Mali. It was hot. The block house where we were to spend the night had baked in the sun all day. Well after dark, it was still like an oven inside. So when I was offered a cot to sleep outside, I did not hesitate.

I took a paperback book and a flashlight with my cot and read a little before falling asleep. During the night, I knocked the book off the cot and onto the ground where I found it on the morning. It was lying face up, and when I picked it up I found that termites had eaten the last chapter. I never did know how that novel finished.

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Next week, I will resume answers to the questions I was most asked in the US.


Grants Pass

Grants Pass

The thing about sidewalks is, they are in the wrong places.

When I am in a suburb in the US, I find myself walking on spacious sidewalks. At intersections I find a cross walk. If there is a traffic light, I also find a button I can push which will give me a “walk” signal and stop cross traffic so that I can cross safely. Not long ago, I crossed a major highway – US 99W – on foot several times. And I did so calmly because I was in a cross walk with the “walk” signal lit.



On the other hand, when I walk in Accra, even in the nicer neighborhoods, there are rarely sidewalks. Worse, ditches, fences, walls, parked cars, and the little kiosks put up by enterprising Africans, too often take up every inch of walking space, so that there is not even the narrowest strop of dirt or grass left. I am forced out into the street next to cars moving at a pretty good clip. So are other pedestrians. In suburbs in the US, I often find that I am the only person using the sidewalks. All those beautiful sidewalks, and so few people using them. On the other hand, pedestrians far outnumber drivers in most African cities. A new highway in Accra was built right through a heavily populated area with inadequate provision for the many pedestrians. Drivers speed along the highway as people try to cross. The unfortunate result is predictable, or at least it should have been. It is always in the news.

In the US, we build sidewalks that are underused while the places that really need them don’t build enough. So, the thing about sidewalks is, they are in the wrong places.

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Click on any photo to enlarge it and start a slideshow.

Flag map of Africa

This map of Africa marks each country with its flag. Almost on third of the countries in the world are in Africa. For two places on the map the 2012 flag is different from the 2011.

  • The new nation of Southern Sudan
  • Libya reverted to a pre-Khaddafi flag

Flag-map-of-africaDownload a higher resolution PDF of this map here.

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Fancy Caskets


What is New Year? It’s a party, that’s for sure. A time to make resolutions, to look back on the last year, and for some to make predictions.

Prediction made in 1924 of cars in 1950I like the predictions. The predictions about the coming year are okay, but the wrong predictions made in past years are fascinating and sometimes hilarious. Popular Science published a great photo gallery of their past predictions about automobiles. Some of their predictions were close, but the overall form of the car was off.

The 20th century saw a lot of predictions about religion. Some of them were widely accepted for many years, yet turned out to be spectacularly, blatantly, and publicly wrong. In a fascinating article in Foreign Policy Magazine, Timothy Samuel Shah and Monica Duffy Toft wrote about one of these spectacularly wrong predictions:

In April 1966, Time ran a cover story that asked, “Is God Dead?” It was a fair question. Secularism dominated world politics in the mid-1960s. The conventional wisdom shared by many intellectual and political elites was that modernization would inevitably extinguish religion’s vitality. But if 1966 was the zenith of secularism’s self-confidence, the next year marked the beginning of the end of its global hegemony. In 1967, the leader of secular Arab nationalism, Gamal Abdel Nasser, suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of the Israeli Army. By the end of the 1970s, Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini, avowedly “born-again” U.S. President Jimmy Carter, television evangelist Jerry Falwell, and Pope John Paul II were all walking the world stage.

The secularism that dominated politics and the thinking of political pundits also lead them to predict that as African countries became independent they would shake off the religion of the colonial powers, Christianity.

Protestants in Africa

Number of Protestant Christians in Africa

Not long ago the Pew Charitable Trusts released results of a global study of Christianity. The map to the left shows the number of Protestants in different African counties. The bigger the circle, the more Protestant Christians in that country. I have highlighted four because they are among the 10 countries in the world with the highest numbers of Protestant Christians. They are Nigeria, South Africa, The Democratic Republic of Congo and Kenya. Of the top 20 countries in the world in terms of numbers of Protestant Christians, nine are in Africa.

In Accra, we just experienced an event which illustrates the persistence and growth of Christianity in Africa. For its special New Years Eve service, one of the larger churches in Accra rented the national stadium. As you can see in the photo, they filled it.

Central Gospel Church fills the Accra Stadium for its New Years service

When Ghana government minister Elizabeth Ohene made her predictions for 2012 for the BBC, she said: “The area of the biggest growth on the continent will continue to be in religious congregations…” She is undoubtedly right, but beware, it is possible for those who believe to join in the spirit of the secularist prophets who were so stunningly wrong about the future of Christian Faith. We do that when we look at the trends in our country or our world and worry that they will overwhelm us. Instead, let’s trust and be faithful.


Before missionaries — there was God

Did you know that the people of Ghana knew a lot about God before the missionaries came?

Gye Nyame - None other than the Lord

Akan symbol for the omnipotence and omnipresence of God

When the first missionaries arrived they found this symbol everywhere, and it still is found all over Ghana . It stands for the Akan language words “Gye Nyame” often translated “Except God”. I prefer the translation “None other than the Lord”. It echoes the most fundamental things the Bible says about God:
• He always was and always will be
• He is all powerful
• He is everywhere
• Everything comes from and depends on Him.

Gye Nyame sign

Gye Nyame (None but God) street sign in Accra

Akan symbol for the death of God

Akan symbol for the death of God

This next symbol is about the power of God to overcome death. It come from the Akan belief that God created life and death, but death killed him. However, he came back to life and now he lives forever.

This set of beliefs has too many parallels to the death and resurrection of Jesus to mention in a blog like this. Given that the Apostle Paul developed a whole theme from an idol to an unknown God in Acts 17, I have to wonder what he would have developed from this symbol if he had come to Ghana.

Akan symbol of the banch for the grace of God

Akan symbol for the grace of God

This branch stands for the Akan words “Nyame Nti”, meaning “by God’s grace”. From their belief that “Except (for) God” (first symbol) there is nothing and the obvious observation that man will die without food, the Akan people deduced that they could not survive without the food that God put on the Earth. From that, they further deduced that we humans live by God’s provision and so by his unmerited favor, or grace. In this, they are a lot more like the first settlers to celebrate Thanksgiving than a lot of Americans today, who are thankful, but may not attribute their bounty to God’s doing.

God was working here in Ghana long before missionaries came. After spending 30 years as a missionary in Africa, Dr. H. Junod stated: “Wherever I went, I found that my Master had been there before me.” He was referring to these symbols among other things. God prepared the way for missionaries by revealing himself. This is not a new idea. The Apostle Paul develops it in the book of Romans:

“But the basic reality of God is plain enough. Open your eyes and there it is! By taking a long and thoughtful look at what God has created, people have always been able to see what their eyes as such can’t see: eternal power, for instance, and the mystery of his divine being.” (Romans 1:20 The Message)

A modern-day missionary, Don Richardson has developed this idea further in his book “The Peace Child” from which a movie was made.

The image projected of Africa as “the dark continent” is way off the mark. God was at work here and he still is. Africans are responding to that in record numbers, finding in Christian faith the fulfillment of the thoughts God put in their ancestors. I’m thankful to be here and see it firsthand.


Handkerchiefs are for worship

The vibrancy of worship in African churches is remarkable. One of the key factors in the vibrancy is language. How many times have I been in an African church service which started with staid singing in English or French (depending on the country)  and then sprang into joyous outbursts of praise when there was a song in the local language. It is clear which language reaches the whole person. It is not for nothing that it is called the heart language!

You don’t take your handkerchief out at church unless you really need to. But many Ghanaians like to worship while twirling a handkerchief, although any piece of cloth will do. It adds a nice twist to their praise.

Enjoy the video.