DEC 09 A TRAVELLER'S TALES
By a Wayfarer
By a Wayfarer
3 Can we read the map?
“It was as if someone had switched on the light.” The speaker was a very well-educated man of the Gban tribe in central Côte d’Ivoire - the former French Ivory Coast. A schoolmaster, fluent in French as well as several of the local languages - of which there are 64 in Côte d’Ivoire. As a man of education and standing in his community, he is frequently called upon to read the Bible in the Catholic Church he attends. So, you might think if anyone can read with understanding, he would surely be able to do so. So, what did he mean? It was the culmination of a long story - one that began over 50 years ago.
One day in 1959, another young man from the Gban tribe, called into a Christian Mission Station in the town of Oumé in central Côte d’Ivoire. Looking around he saw books and leaflets in French and several other local languages, but none in his own language. He asked the young missionary, Olive Howard (working with WEC International ) , “Where are our books?” Sadly she had to say “There aren’t any.” This troubled her deeply and the upshot was that she later went with a colleague to live in the young man’s village, learn his language with its grammar and syntax, reduce it to a written form ( never before undertaken ) then teach this back to the Gban people. A major undertaking indeed. By comparison, climbing Mount Everest is a doddle. Although gradually small items of literature began to be produced, it would be over 40 years before the whole New Testament would be published.
Olive Howard & Gban Pastor in translation workshop
It may seem strange to us who take written material for granted, but it was also a major undertaking to teach people - some already able to read French - to read their own language. Unlike French, Gban - in common with many other African languages - is a complex tonal language. It is therefore necessary to use special internationally recognised phonetic symbols for the text.
In our country, we are witnessing two tragedies, both avoidable. The first concerns children leaving school illiterate, having chosen to reject free education. The second concerns most adults who have chosen to reject their Maker's instructions - our road map for the journey of life - by failing to read and study His word, the Bible.
In Côte d’Ivoire, many just don’t have the choice. The inadequacy of the education system conducted in the language of their former colonisers, French, (a foreign language for them ) has left nearly half the men and two thirds of the women unable to read and write. The disastrous consequences of illiteracy for a nation cannot be overemphasized.
In recognition of her monumental work on behalf of a significant group of the population of Côte d’Ivoire, Olive was awarded the equivalent of a Knighthood by the Ivorian Government in 2001.
Visiting Côte d’Ivoire in September 2004 during a lull in hostilities in their protracted civil war, I observed in one school in a moderate-sized town, kids being taught in French. However, French is at best their second language. For quite a few of the kids it is not spoken at home at all. Some were clearly struggling with this “foreign” language.
Although there is a Government sponsored Literacy Campaign, it has really been the Christian Churches that have been able to make the most significant contribution to the task. In some of the remote villages, primary Literacy classes are held after the Sunday morning service. The blackboard fixed to the end wall of the Church, while the students - young and old - sit on benches under the trees struggling with their own small chalk boards. In other places, a mother-tongue reading lesson is held prior to the Church service - at 7.0 a.m.! For most of them, their only opportunity to obtain any literacy training based in their own mother tongue.
Literacy class in village, central Côte d’Ivoire
But, back to our Schoolmaster. The thing that had had such a mind-blowing impact on him was being able to read The Bible in his OWN language for the very first time. Things that had totally escaped him when reading a foreign language suddenly became as clear as day in his own language. Anyone brought up on the King James version of the Bible, easily fails to grasp the fact that when that was first published, it too was mind-blowing - a translation into the common vernacular of the people. NOT some stuffy bit of scholarly writing only of interest to University Professors, or students of esoteric and dead languages.
Most of us are totally unaware of the amount of cultural idiom that makes up our dynamic and ever-changing language. Literal “translations” whether in written text or in verbal communication are an absolute minefield. Some years ago, a team if IT specialists got together with Linguistic specialists to try and produce a computer programme that would aid translation. After much research and effort, they conducted their first trial - a simple and well-known proverb translated from English to Russian, then back to English, as a check of effectiveness of their work. They had an unpleasant shock. The simple phrase “Out of sight, out of mind” came back to them as “Blind and mad”. Back to the drawing board!
This speaks to me of Christmas - yes, Christmas! What God has done for all of us is to send us a living message that is readable and understandable in ANY language - Jesus. No-one has ever seen God - we simply don’t have the capacity to do so - any more than anyone has ever seen the wind or electricity. But in Jesus, God has sent us a perfect translation of Himself that we CAN read and understand.
Pastor reading from his Gban New Testament
Centuries before, a poet had written about God’s Word - “By Your word, I can see where I am going - it shines a beam on my path.” Psalm 119 verse 105
This Christmas, many people will hear again those familiar words - “The people walking in darkness have seen a a great light” Isaiah 9 verse 2 - and “The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us - and we have seen His glory.” John 1 verse 14
May many of you also find the light switched on for you, this Christmas.