Bibleless Peoples part 3 – Controversy

This is part three of a series on the bibleless peoples. In this part, I want to look at the political controversy that often surrounds the languages they speak.
Fear of disunity and conflict is one of the main drivers of political controversy over language. Some people worry that having different communities speaking different languages will result in tensions between those communities that will eventually create enough conflict to tear a country apart. That is the view from the national level. People with this view will sometimes propose that everyone in the country speak the same language.

The view from within a small language community in a nation is very different. They often hear the proposals that there be only one language as a threat – not to their language but to their very identity and existence. So they often react with opposition to the proposals.

Ironically, proposals that there be only one language often create the very political tensions they are designed to end. Recently this exact scenario was played out in India when a prominent person proposed that all India should speak one language. Opposition from those whose mother tongue is another language was strong and swift. Even when they already spoke the proposed language! They said it was an attempt to enslave them and “a war cry” against them. The controversy continued even after the proposal was backtracked. So a proposal made to create unity created tensions instead. Something similar happened over omitting a language on a plaque.

To understand the political reaction against one-language proposals, we need to move away from understanding language as simply a means of communication. Instead, ethnic groups often use the individual threads of their language, their culture, their history, and their religion into weave a cloth that constitutes their identity. They perceive that they cannot lose any one thread, say language, without unraveling the whole cloth. So their language is not just their means of communication, but rather an integral and cherished part of who they are. For this reason, bibleless peoples often feel that their identity is threatened when their language is threatened.

Professor B Y Quarshie says:

Local languages are not morphology and syntax, they are a people’s identity

And Professor Lamin Sanneh wrote:

Language [is] not merely a tool fashioned to achieve limited and temporary goals. It [is] also a dynamic cultural resource, reflecting the spirit of the people and illuminating their sense of values.

And a recent article in a Nigerian newspaper stated:

Language is more than spoken words. It is the bedrock of any cultural and traditional society. Take away the language, and the core spirit of heritage and history is lost.

Ghanaian with his Bible

People’s attachment to their language showed up recently in South Africa when the daughter of TV stars would only speak English and not her parents’ African language. Many South Africans criticized her for abandoning her true identity. They were fine with her speaking English, but thought she should speak her African language too. I could continue with unending examples of the fierce attachment people have to their language because it is part of their identity.

Language will probably always be a hot political issue given the competing demands of national unity and local identity. But the attachment people have to their language makes it a great medium for transmitting the Gospel. Those announcing the Gospel do themselves a great disfavor if they see language as divisive, or as only a utilitarian issue of communication rather than as a God-given door to peoples’ hearts.

We take the latter approach, and so we call this blog Heart Language.

What value for unity

Road to Siwu country

Road to Siwu country

Shortly after we arrived in Ghana, we travel to the Volta Region to participate in the launch of a reprint of the New Testament in the Siwu language, the first printing had sold out. The Siwu are a small, people group in Ghana’s Volta Region. They number about 36,000. In spite of being small, they were a divided community. At some point, a number of them had moved some distance away where they established new Siwu towns and villages. Even though it was not that far, the new and the old Siwu communities did not have that much contact with each other.

Then rivalries developed. Siwu from one community did not go to the yearly festivals in the other, which is rare, Worse, they no longer went to the funerals in the other community. In Ghana, everyone goes to funerals. People go to the funerals of distant relatives and even the family members of people they work with. They even go to the funerals of people they don’t like or get along with. Not going to the funeral is a powerful statement of separation. The Siwu were very divided.

Siwu New Testaments being auctioned

Siwu New Testaments being auctioned

What brought the two Siwu communities back together was the process of translating the Bible – not the teachings of the Bible mind you, but the process of translating it. The two sides collaborated on the translation. People from both Siwu communities started coming to translation events. Both communities sent people to be involved in the translation. The same translation was distributed in both communities. Literacy was organized in both. And then, of course, they started coming to other events in each others’ communities.

I have heard this story over and over with variations. The most usual is Christians and church leaders saying that the effort to translate the Bible into their language caused churches to work together who had not cooperated ever. At dedications of Bible translation, the most often cited impact of the translation program I have heard is the unity the translation program brought between churches.

Siwu chief at the launch

Siwu chief at the launch

At first I did not think that much of an impact. It was not one which motivated me personally. Other results, like people coming to faith, church growth, reduced drunkenness, and less domestic violence are big motivators for me. But unity as a motivation kind of fell flat. On the other hand, Africans have a high value for unity. This does not necessarily mean that they are more united. It does mean that they have strong feelings of loss when unity is absent, and they rejoice more when it is regained. The repeated and joyful comments about unity regained at that Siwu event confirmed their value for unity and gratefulness at its return.

Jesus prayed for unity for his followers:

I want all of them to be one with each other, just as I am one with you and you are one with me. I also want them to be one with us. Then the people of this world will believe that you sent me. I have honored my followers in the same way that you honored me, in order that they may be one with each other, just as we are one. (John 17:21-22)

Young Siwu man with traditional drums

Young Siwu man with traditional drums

Unfortunately, Jesus’ value for unity hadn’t rubbed off on me. I’m too American, valuing individualism more than unity. Also, I’ve been taught to be wary of approaches to unity which negate Jesus’ teaching. But years of hearing the joy of Africans at regained unity among their churches has finally rubbed off on me. Unity is one of the wonderful results of translating the Bible. It is one of the ways Jesus’ prayer for unity among believers is worked out in practice.