Archive for June 2007
Several churches in the Babanki area are holding literacy classes, encouraging adults to read and write in their own language. Many Babanki people are literate in another language (like English), but now that they have their own alphabet, they are learning to use it too.
View and share on YouTube: Learning To Read Babanki
In response to the recent Babanki Church Service video, PapaFjord posted the following question: “I’m surprised to hear so much English spoken. Is this common or did they do this for your benefit?”
Yes, it is common for sermons, Scripture readings, songs, and other church-service components to take place in English or in another language of wider communication. This may be surprising to some of you. It is very, very important to understand why it occurs and what some of the implications are.
The first thing to understand is that language communities are not monolingual. That the Babanki people share a common identity and a common language absolutely does not mean that they speak only Babanki and no other languages. Some Babanki people can speak a neighboring African language, like Kom. Many can speak some English, which is the official language of government and commerce in the region and is taught in schools. Those who have lived outside their homeland (e.g. attending university or working in a city) often speak very good English and/or French.
There are complex historical and sociolinguistic reasons that English is used extensively in many church services. Because the early missionaries often taught in English and used English Bibles, some people feel that church “should” take place in English because it is what they are used to. Thus, there can be pressure to continue using English because “that’s how we’ve always done it before.” Another factor is that many pastors serve in congregations outside of their own language communities, so they cannot speak the language of their congregation and default to a language of wider communication.
So, it is a fact that English is used extensively in church services. Is that good enough? If people know some English, can they get all they need from church and from the Bible? What are the implications of such a thing for people’s spiritual lives and for the life of the church?
I’m not qualified to answer those questions, but we’ve spent the last three weeks interviewing people who are. Novethan Shanui is a pastor in Bambalang Village, where the people speak a language called Chirambo. Just this month, Pastor Shanui’s friend Pius Mbahlegue completed a bachelor’s of theology at Cameroon Baptist Theological Seminary. Both men are involved in the early stages of a Chirambo Bible translation project. Hipolite Ngalame is the literacy supervisor for the Bakossi Bible translation and literacy project in another part of Cameroon. Let’s see what they have to say:
In some cases, people find English almost totally incomprehensible, and church is a ritual with little or no meaning. Pastor Shanui explains:
“When I say the call to worship in Chirambo, some will hear it better. And they will say that they have not known that somebody could say it in Chirambo. The normal thing is that it should be in English. And I have discovered that, in the past, when the pastor is, like, reading a passage for the call to worship, the people just know that that is a time that they just need to stay quiet. Not necessarily hearing what he is saying, but that is just a time. When I say it in Chirambo, when I look at the people’s faces, I can read from there that they are happy and they are getting what is being said.”
What would it feel like if you couldn’t understand what was being said in church? Pius expresses it poignantly:
“When a pastor is preaching, not many people are getting [it] — especially when it is in English. That I know because as we are in the church, most of the time people — some women and some fathers — will tell us that, ‘Well, it is you people who understand English. You are asking us that do not understand English to say what? We do not have anything to say. It is you who understand English.’ So, they think that, well, God will speak to us who understand English better than them. They are just picking the crumbs.”
Other people feel more comfortable in English and may think that they understand it well. But Hipolite says that this is not always the case:
“As a translator, then, I made other discoveries which really pushed me forward. One of them is, like, the translation of Moses and the burning bush. Over time, the use of ‘bush’ in this area — the English word ‘bush’ — is for forest or farm or something, and most of what you see even as illustrations is Moses in the burning bush. Which means Moses is in the forest, and the forest is on fire.
“And then we met a series of church leaders in a meeting, and I told them, ‘We may think we know the Bible by reading it in English, but the English language in itself, not being our language, and our understanding of certain English words being different from what they intend in the English, may be derailing us.’
“And so when I asked them, ‘OK, what do we understand by Moses’ story? Who can tell us what Moses saw when we talk of the burning bush?’
“And so they say, ‘Nothing, he was in a forest that caught fire.’
“And I say, ‘OK, that’s fine. Now, let’s look at what the Bible says. Let’s get the English word ‘bush’ and see.’ And then we go to a dictionary, and a bush is a shrub — it’s a small tree. ‘And what was the geographical location of Moses?’
“‘He was in the desert.’
“‘Now, do we have a forest in the desert?’ That’s not possible. And then I say, ‘This is Moses and the burning bush.’ It was Moses and a small tree. And the Bakossi translation makes it clear that it is Moses and a small tree and not Moses in the forest.
“And then the people say, ‘Whew, do you mean I’ve been a pastor for 30 years and I’ve been wrong all along?’ But it was clear: They were wrong. And it’s not because they wanted to be wrong but because the language had made them wrong.
“And then I asked, ‘Supposing this was a key element of faith? Supposing you are wrong about the meaning of salvation?’”
Hipolite explains that a message in English will not be taken as seriously as a message in Bakossi would be:
“Boys who flirt around with girls can say [in English], ‘Oh, I love you,’ and say, ‘I love you,’ to the next girl and ‘I love you’ to the next girl.
“And I ask them, ‘Can you say that in Bakossi to a girl?’
“And then they say, ‘No, I can’t.’
“And you say, ‘Why?’
“[They] say, ‘Because I feel guilty if I say it. I don’t mean it.’
“So when he has to say it in the mother tongue, he knows it should be true.
“If it’s this serious with the mother tongue, it shows that if the gospel is to be serious, then it has to be in the mother tongue.”
In Pastor Shanui’s experience, a message in a foreign language is a foreign message — people can’t see how it can truly be for them:
“The people will know and will believe that Christianity is their thing when they see it in their language. In the past — and I think still now — many think that Christianity is the white man’s religion. And I think part of it is that they don’t have it in their language. And I think that, truly, if it was also their thing, why is it not in their own language? Why did God not also speak in their language? So, I think that having the Bible in their language will make them feel that Christianity also is their thing.”
Yes, many church services are conducted partly or primarily in English. Thus for most people, the gospel remains a foreign message that is difficult to understand. That’s one of the reasons that Bible translation is so important.
Here’s a glimpse of the church service we attended this morning:
View and share on YouTube: Babanki Church Service.
Tonight we’re in Bamenda, Cameroon. We’ve been traveling around the country for the past two weeks and finally landed in a place with reasonable internet access. We’ve visited five language communities since you heard from us last, so we have a lot of catching up to do. But for now, here’s a brief video about the trip we made today. We met the Babanki Bible translation and literacy team, and they showed us how they use a computer program called Adapt It to help them in their work.
View and share on YouTube: Babanki Bible Translation.