Authentic people

One of the laudable aspects of modern missions has been to take the Gospel to remote places and peoples. Such peoples were often considered undeveloped or even “primitive”. We’ve mostly abandoned that conception, replacing it with the idea that such peoples are authentic or that they represent an ideal way of living. Under that conception, anything that changes their traditional way of life is inauthentic – a kind of degredation or cultural pollution.

Even missionaries get caught up in this idea. I saw it in Africa when missionaries loved the people and culture in the remote place where they lived and ministered, but they disliked the cities, sometimes considering them to be less than truly African. The real Africa, for them, was rural Africa supposedly little changed through time and contact with the outside world.

Some missionaries even considered educated Africans to be less than fully African. I even heard one once say directly to a highly educated African that he was not really African when he showed that he no longer believed the local traditions about camelions.

It is certainly true that not all outside influences bring helpful change to rural peoples. Some are very destructive. But we are called to minister to the people in front of us, not some idealized version of them.

Bibles in church

In 2017, the Ghanaian organization I work with (GILLBT) received a letter from a pastor of a congregation composed of believers from the Buli language. Here’s the gist of that letter:

This is to inform you that last Sunday during the Bible study period, we noticed an unusual thing that about half of the adults had their Buli Bible and each was eager to read whenever a reference was made. It was so good and pleasant to see that. I wish to say thank you GILLBT for this wonderful thing you have done. Long live GILLBT.

This is amazing for three reasons.

First, far fewer than half of Buli adults can read. In fact it’s probably less than one in five. It is likely that many of the people in church got there through a literacy class.

Second, the church in question is in Accra, a long distance from the area where the Buli language is spoken. Historically, people moving out of their area to a city learn the language of the city in order to find work and interact with their neighbors. Quite a few people, including pastors planting churches, think that local languages are therefore irrelevant to church planting in cities. It turns out that the opposite is often true – that local languages are very effective in evangelism of people newly-arrived from rural areas.

Third, because these believers can read, they have much better job opportunities. The effects are obvious. Christians do better economically than other recent, uneducated rural people moving to cities.

Lastly, these Christians will not be swayed by false teaching because they check everything the preacher says from their Bibles. By the way, the Buli Bible was dedicated two years ago this week.


Michael Serchie, Gilbert Ansre and Ed

Michael Serchie, Gilbert Ansre and Ed

One of my great joys in Ghana is working with Gilbert Ansre (pronounced like haunts-ray without the h). I had heard about him years ago when we worked in Burkina Faso. Now he is one of those people who are supposedly retired, but is always involved in something. And so we persuaded him to lend a hand in developing a plan to finish translations in all the languages of Ghana.

He is over-qualified. His past includes:

  • Setting up and heading the first department of linguistics at the University of Ghana
  • Being an ordained minister in the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Ghana, for more than 50 years
  • Working on the translation of the Bible into 13 languages in West Africa, including his own language, Ewe (pronounced eh-vay)

There are few people who can bring high level theological and linguistic expertise to the task of Bible translation. Ansre is one of those. Missionary translators often work in remote areas. Their sacrifices for marginalized peoples are laudable. But their focus on remote areas can also cause them to overlook nationals who might champion their work or even contribute to it, such as Gilbert Ansre.

In a way, there are two Africas:

  • A rural one which can be difficult to access because of poor roads, suffering from poor schools and other problems
  • An urban one where political power resides and where most educated people live.

Prof Ansre speaking

Prof Ansre speaking

An idea has emerged in planning to finish the translations in Ghana which I had not expected – join those two worlds together. It turns out that they have a lot to offer each other. The urban environment has expertise, such as Gilbert Ansre, that the rural one needs. But the rural people have important things to offer too. For example, when they read the Bible in their own languages, they develop truly African theologies. By that, I mean theologies that answer their most burning questions. For example, tribal conflict is a problem in some parts of Africa. But Western commentaries and theologies rarely deal with it and never at any length, even though the Old Testament is full of tribal conflict. It turns out that rural African Christians seek answers in the Bible that can enhance the teaching of theology in the urban seminaries. In fact, Gilbert Ansre teaches two such courses.

By linking the urban and the rural worlds, we can enrich both and provide a platform for sustaining the use and impact of Bible translation in African languages, all while driving theology where it needs to go – into answering the questions rural and urban Africans really have today.