The Jim Harries Mission Page



Jim's Work



Contact Us



Jim's Journal - April 2005

Greetings to all friends in the name of Christ our Lord!

Why this long piece?

I first sent out a draft of the long article in this Jim's Journal to a select few people. I got various types of helpful feedback as a result. Some people wondered whether such a potentially confusing article should be in a Journal such as this!

I have agonized over whether to include it. Now I have decided to go ahead. I believe that it is a significant piece. I believe that it points to the new age of Christian mission in the years ahead. My many years in Africa, the discipline of Ph.D. study and (I trust) God's guidance have all contributed to this article's writing.

It appears to me that Western nations have been working with African countries on the basis of flawed assumptions. That is in missions, and also in relationship with the non-western world in general. It is those assumptions that have caused interest in Christian mission to flag, especially in Britain, at the end of last Century. I believe that the West has been mislead, that there is a need for a great renewed effort in Christian mission today, and the time has come for it to begin.

Missions, International Relations, and Inter-sport Language in the African Context

Summary: Taking varieties of sport as analogous to languages and cultures of the world reveals a degree of tragedy underlying current international relations in terms of trade and aid, as well as mission and church in Africa. A culturally sensitive linguistically diverse approach is advocated to replace current emphases based on assumptions of the transferability of superior features of Western culture.

The Anglo-Saxon English speaking world (including Britain and America) is these days in the singular position of being mono-linguistic in a very multilingual world. (One would be hard put to find other countries today with as little emphasis on multilingualism as is found in native-English speaking countries). They are also owners of the much coveted language of international communication, which everyone else is meticulously imitating and arduously appropriating. Linguistically, Anglo-Saxons lead the globe.

While a member of the Anglo-Saxon tribe, I have been brought up bilingual, and subsequently learned three more languages. I have discovered that there are two ways in which to learn a language. One is by simply substituting sounds or words of the new language for the meanings expressed in the original language. Thus to use the new language as if it is the original language but sounds differently. This is how I learned German. Second, is to learn the new language in the context of its own culture and world-view. This is how I am trying to learn Dholuo and Kiswahili.

Doing the latter has come to be a bit of a shock. The deeper that I delve into African languages, the stranger the world appears. Aspects of life that are non-existent in the English of England come to be prevalent. Much of what is there in the English of England, becomes invisible to the users of these African languages!

This becomes very evident when a visitor from England comes and holds a conversation with an African person, who has learned English in school in Africa. The latter way of learning English without participating in the English peoples' way of life, results in learning such that English words correspond to meanings and usage's of African mother-tongue terms. Both these people use English, but they end up only understanding 20% of what the other person is trying to do!

The participants in such a conversation often seem to be mystified as to what is going on. (If they are not mystified, it may be because they are not very observant!) Their respondent seems to say things that are off target. I guess that both go away variously amazed by their confrontation. When I sit in on such a conversation, I often do not know whether to laugh or to cry. Knowing a great deal of what is going on in the mind of the Englishman as well as that of the African, I realize that they are not getting each other! Helping them however is difficult, sometimes impossible. It is amazing how much faith an Englishman puts in someone, just because the sounds he makes are those of the English language. The African can become concerned that certain things being explained to his visitor may result in him bringing less money. Try as I might, I cannot explain African values to the English-man or vice versa. Such are learned through experiencing a culture, not just through hearing someone talking.

My own response to this baffling situation these days is simple. Use an African language when speaking to an African. Use a European language when speaking to a European. If both are present, then say nothing! Sometimes I have to say something. That is difficult. I usually say as little as possible to a mixed audience made up of African and European people, and in every little I say can easily feel bad about telling lies and bringing confusion.

A classic and peculiarly visible instance of this is with regards to time. A meeting arranged for 2.00pm will in this part of the world start at 4.00pm. When speaking to Europeans one needs to say 'we will meet at 4.00pm' whereas local people must be told 'we will meet at 2.00pm' or they will come at 6.00pm. What do you say when both are present? Such instances are multiplied in language use and understanding in less visible but just as unhelpful ways.

As I write, I can sense that people who are monolingual, or who have learned a second language in a classroom for use while on holiday, are not getting me. Some readers may be frustrated, as I seem to be conjouring something out of nothing! That is exactly the problem. That is why learning another culture is usually a shock! Apologies to monolingual Englishmen. Please bear with me, those who want to have a better understanding of 'the world out there' and its manifold mysteries!

I have struggled for a long time to find a means of illustrating this difficulty to a monolingual person. Perhaps I have finally succeeded!

A good illustration to help a monolingual person to understand this dilemma, is to think of sport. The English-speaking world knows of many sports and games. Each one has its own vocabulary! In cricket we have out, over, run and innings. In foot ball we have goal, defense, a shot and a free kick. In tennis we have a set, a match, a racket and a serve. Now imagine that these games represent different peoples with distinct languages. One people and language of tennis, one of football and one of cricket.

If a football player says to a cricket player that he scored a goal, the cricket player won't have a clue what he is talking about. So the football player must learn the language of the cricket player. Instead of reporting that he scored a goal, the football player must say that he got a run. But hang on, you may say, a goal is not the same as a run! And that is exactly the problem!

Then it comes to be the turn for the cricket player to explain to a football player that the ball hit the wicket, and thus he was out. Football fields do not have wickets, but do have goal posts, and players are not knocked out, but the ball can go out. So from saying the ball hit the wicket and the player was out, we get the ball hit the goal post and went out - in other words a corner was awarded! Having a corner awarded in a football match is quite different to a batsman walking out at the end of his innings. And that is exactly the problem!

In tennis a powerful serve that hits the net has to be retaken, as it is counted a failure. In explaining this to a football player, the tennis player is forced to say 'powerful shot' instead of 'a powerful serve'. When the football player hears that the powerful shot has put the ball into the net, he may rejoice at this, leaving the tennis player askance!

Those examples (that could be multiplied many times) are powerful illustrations of translation blunders are what I face constantly here in Africa. Such things happen constantly when English and African people converse. They are also what I find in the essays written by African students using English. African students using English write like a cricket player who is used to describing a cricket match using the terminology of football. When I mark the essay using my knowledge of football, I see all the familiar terms being used. The terms do not seem to be used in the right way, but I give the writer the benefit of the doubt and give him a grade as I hardly want to be accused of being racist.

But does this analogy of sport hold up? After all, one person can learn to play many different sports, and adjusts accordingly. If I play football I say 'good goal', whereas if I play cricket I say 'good run', and there is no confusion.

We would of course never be so foolish to teach someone the language of a sport without also teaching them how that language is used and the rules of the game. There is no 'inter-sport' language. Every sport, has its own language. Note that even if the same word(s) are used in different sports, the way they are used and their meaning varies significantly! A football player a rugby player and a cricket fielder can all 'catch the ball', but for the football payer it is a foul, for the rugby player very normal, and for the cricket player means that the bats-man is out!

Anyone inventing an 'inter-sport' language would be laughed out of town! So why don't we laugh when English is used as an international language? Perhaps we ought to laugh more, or cry!

One reason that we do not know to laugh is because (as I mentioned at the beginning of this piece) the people driving the use of English as first language in many countries in Africa are ignorant of cross-cultural translation issues, because they are only ever used to one language and one culture.

So why do people in African countries, who often know many languages, not do something about this? There are a number of reasons. Primarily because English as a language brings money, whether you understand it correctly or not! Also because African people give a major role to divine powers and spirits in their lives; they are used to living with mysteries. English is taken as a language that is resplendent in mysteries.

Do the cultures of different nations vary as do sports? Surely they do! Aims in life differ, how to relate to fellow players (citizens) differs. What is considered good behaviour (play) and bad behaviour (play) differs, and so on. While the differences may not be as apparent as those between football and cricket, there are many more of them of sufficient magnitude to make the analogy valid!

As one person can learn more than sport, so one person can learn more than one culture. Hence missionaries have often become very at home in cultures very foreign to them, and people from around the world adjust to life in the West but can still go back to their home village, with more or less difficulty. (This difficulty brings what is known as reverse-culture-shock.) Whereas learning the rules of a new game may take an afternoon, learning the rules of a new way of life takes years, decades or even generations! (Of course to learn to play a game well also takes much longer than an afternoon). Failure to spend those years leaves one blundering in ways illustrated using the sport examples above!

It is possible to learn to talk about a sport, without ever having played it, observed it, or understood the rules. But at some point a person so talking will make blunders that reveal the parody going on. On the other hand, (and this is normally what happens at the international level with the use of English) we may also give him the benefit of the doubt.

International relations do not, in my experience, take account of the above factors. The common assumption is rather that all are playing the same game (which is considered by the West to be a kind of pseudo-Christian version of hedonism otherwise known as secularism), but playing it more or less well. Those considered to be playing it well are called First World nations, those considered to be playing it less well are called Second World nations, and those seen as playing it poorly are referred to as Third World nations. Little thought is given as to whether there may actually be different games being played! Aid and development assistance is dished out according to the rules of the Western game. Full stop.

Continuing with our sports analogy, and taking football as if it is the 'Western sport' nowadays all other countries are taught the rules and techniques of football, regardless of the game they are actually playing. This means that cricket players are taught how to head the ball, relay racers how to tackle, rugby players how to dribble, swimmers how to run faster, and so on add nauseam! This is a principle cause underlying the folly of so much aid to the third world today! Christian mission and missionaries easily fall into the same tap. Such baloney reasoning brings, aggravates and perpetuates chaos, corruption, misunderstanding, lawlessness and underdevelopment in the world today.

Someone may argue that the above cannot be true because there are people from all over the world who are these days functioning effectively in Western societies. Such fails to realise the difference between having a few visitors adjust to a local game, and having as few travellers transform a foreign game into their game! There is frankly no gradual process by which a tennis match is transformed into a football match! Rather, having someone come and kick the tennis ball is either irrelevant, or spoiling what is going on. To turn to football every one would need to abandon their tennis rackets, move to a football pitch, and start again. If this total rejection of one's past is impractical, then any advice given to these people by a football coach will be unhelpful. In other words, the fact that a few Africans who live in the West can adjust to Western ways of life, is far from saying that Africa itself can be Westernised! Trying to Westernise it out of ignorance is like that fellow going to kick the tennis ball! If he has money he will be permitted to kick it, but frankly, he is interfering.

The probability, given the vast numbers of options of human existence, that people are playing the same game of life the world over, is indeed very low. I suggest that the nations of the world are engaged in 'games of life' as diverse as cricket, football and tiddlywinks. We cannot easily say that any one of these games is better than another! But they are different.

In fact the discipline of looking at, improving, comparing and evaluating the relative advantages of different games is called theology. This is because what is the best game does not depend primarily on the players, but on the referee and the governing body of the sport!

In the light of this, surely the area of cross-cultural relations needs serious reconsideration. Particularly that of the Western to the non-Western world!

Can we go on assuming that every one around the world is playing exactly the same game of life, and that happens to be the game that we are playing in England? Have we not recognised that to some long life is important, to others quality of life? To some many children, to others few? To some to follow traditions, and to others to break them? To some to grow food, and to others to buy it? To some rain is a blessing, and to others a curse, whereas others don't believe in 'blessing' or 'curse'? To some shoes means 'warm', to others shoes means 'modern'? To some the dead are still around, to others they are gone.

Outside of the native English speaking world much of the English that people 'know' consists, as mentioned above, of words that are implicit translations of words in their mother tongue. Similarly, the way people will use their English will be on the lines of the rules of the use of their mother tongue. This means both that non-native English speakers will struggle to make sense of English texts from the native-English speaking world in which different rules are applied, and that people from the native English speaking world will struggle to understand what the non-native English speakers are meaning. This struggle is comparable to that of someone who is trying to understand a game of hockey, while insisting that the only valid rules for a game must be those of tennis.

As applying the rules of tennis when playing hockey, will never result in a champion hockey team, so being forced to function in English will never make a non-native English country develop. (As explaining a game of football while being restricted to the terminology of basketball will be a confusing affair!) It will only perpetuate its dependency. Helping a country to 'develop' is helping it to go from where it is, to where it isn't, not from where it isn't to where it isn't again - that is ridiculous, but being attempted all over the non-western world. (Like teaching tennis players to shoot a penalty, or chess players to knock down a man carrying a rugby ball!) The only way to take someone from where they are, is to do it using their language, and from the basis of their culture (i.e. starting from where they are).

"But the world is crying out for a knowledge of English" you may argue. I am not denying a role for international languages - of which English is perhaps the most widespread today, as second (or third or fourth) language to enable some mutual appreciation on a cross-cultural (inter-sport) basis. But in all too many places (especially in Africa) English is being given to children as the language that they are taught in at school, that is as if it is their first language. Why?

The reason is that what is in English comes cheap, free (or even with payment) [Note: Courses in English around Commonwealth Africa, for example, can often be taken with a scholarship to cover not only the fees of the course, but even the upkeep and accommodation of the student, at times with the student's family. No such subsidy, or is it salary, is available for learning in a non-English language. Someone knowing English often gets a paying job, not because they understand what they are doing, but because they know the language of money.] and often in abundance. Foreign aid from the wealthy English speaking world is constantly subsidising and effectively forcing its way around the world. Someone in Bongo-bongo land setting up a school in Bongo-bongo language (that its children actually understand) will get no foreign aid. Someone who knows Bongo-bongo language, will get little foreign trade. So Bongo-bongo land will teach all its children in English, thus receiving grants, loans, books, subsidies, wealthy visitors, gifts, sweets, international recognition - you name it. The only sacrifice they make in the process - is to condemn Bongo-bongo land's citizens to chasing shadows of half understood wisdom that will never give them the self-appreciation that will enable them to advance. The Bongo-bongo people will always remain second-class and ignorant. (Which country in the world has ever developed using a language other than its own?) Every subsidy or aid for education in English around the globe (probably directly or indirectly 95% of the international aid budget) [Note: Giving aid is like throwing someone a rope. The rope connects back to the thrower, for example Britain or the USA - that is the powerful English speaking world!] may be another nail in the coffin for the prospects of the growth of any indigenous wisdom, economy or society.

Taking action, such as aid and development policies that hamper the growth of the economy and society of another country, is no joke. Like going to someone's house and stealing the minds of someone's children, it is immoral. Subjecting as this does whole societies to confusion and chaos is cruel.

The 'rules of the game' of life, arise from the metaphysical realm. Whether secularism (a new religious movement arising out of Christianity), Buddhism, African Traditional Religions, Protestantism or Taoism human societies cannot operate without certain parameters of stimulus and response in relation to the metaphysical. (That is why all development / aid workers are also missionaries, whether they know it or not). To ignore such is to play a game without knowing the rules, or to play one game by the rules of another.

The realms covered by the physical as against the metaphysical realms varies extremely widely from one culture to another. In fact the distinction between these two may be non-existent. Hence the whole of the 'game of life' for some people is in a sense in the metaphysical realm. When such people come across the modern world, interpreting the unknown through the filter of the known, they take the products of modern life as arising from the 'gods' due to the performance of rituals. Taking rationally planned procedures as if rituals is a classic confusion of games. This is why as Africa sees more and more amazing technology, so belief in magic rises.

So what then is helpful development aid to the non-western world? Firstly it is inherently theological. We cannot get away from ultimate questions of human life by pretending that they are not there. The truth of what happens after death is vitally important in determining what is a 'good' way of life. Answers given to questions about God become the foundation of the varieties of 'sports' being played around the world. Human wisdom is always limited. Is it good to pay someone generously if he then kills himself with a fast car that he has been enabled to buy through his raised income? Is it good to have tertiary education in Africa if this results in such a mixing of men and women that sexual promiscuity then kills thousands or millions through aids? Reference to God is vital in discerning what is good and bad; what games should be played and how.

Secondly, 'help' must always be from a basis of understanding. As ex-footballers become football coaches, but may not be good at teaching someone how to play chess, so expertise that is foreign is not helpful. To 'help' a foreign people one must begin by learning about them, especially learning the language and beliefs and from there-on functioning on the basis of that language, and those beliefs. [Note: I do not mean accepting that the beliefs are try in an absolute sense. Their not being true in an absolute sense however does not prevent them from being so as to need to be taken on board in order to understand a people and a culture. For example in much of Africa failing to appreciate the role of the dead in the lives of the living is like trying to understand men without realising that they have wives. Or linking in also with the 'theological' above, sharing in the aim in a football match of putting the ball in the goal, without realising that there is a referee on the pitch applying certain rules.] For Africa Qorro is right in saying that "There is a need, therefore, for policy change in the whole of Africa toward using African languages as media of education in order to bring about development" (2003:194). An inter-sport language is a nonsense that would only create confusion, so all too often is an international language.

Global Christian mission for 'tomorrow', I suggest, needs to be sensitive, long term, founded in material poverty, expressed in local languages and cultures and rooted in personal sacrifice. Such mission is badly needed for tomorrow, starting today.


2003 'Unlocking Language Forts: language of instruction in post-primary education in Africa - with special reference to Tanzania' 187-196 in: Brock-Utne, Birgit and Desai, Zubeida and Qorro, Martha, 2003 Language of Instruction in Tanzania and South Africa (LOITASA) Dar-es-Salaam: E and D Limited)


Home - My household currently stands at 15 people, including two of our YTC / STC teachers who are staying with me. Please pray with us as we are seeking God as to know whether we should take on another child, probably a girl as some of the girls that I had have left to get married.

KIST - My time as acting Principal and interim Dean is going well. As I write, our new KIST Chapel is being built, and will soon be up to eave level. Give thanks that a well qualified African man has been appointed to take my place as KIST Dean as from 1st August 2005! This next term promises to be busy, with new student admissions and preparation for graduation as well as the regular teaching programme.

STC - Siaya Theological Centre made a good start last term, with a weekly Saturday class. Attendance levels were good, and we hope to continue with the same programme next term. One of the young men currently staying with me is in training to begin expanding the Siaya teaching programme over and above this one class, as from January 2006.

YTC - We finished last term on a high note with our official 10 year anniversary celebration of Yala Theological Centre. (Although it was actually founded in January 2004). We have been having 8 classes in operation on a weekly basis, with an average weekly attendance per class of about 4 or 5. We intend to continue the same classes next term.

UK Diary, September to December 2005

I plan to be in the UK and making visits on the dates below. Note that some of these visits are shorter than they have been in past years. This is so as to enable me to take time to progress with my PhD studies while in the UK. (I now have official approval to hand in my thesis anytime from 1.12.05).

Worpswede / Osterholz Scharmbeck

31st Aug. - 12th Sep. 2005

Andover Baptist Church

28th Aug. 2005 then 13th - 18th Sep. 2005 then 30th Oct. -1st Nov. 2005 then 10th - 13th Dec. 2005 then 18th Dec. 2005

Wantage Baptist Church

21st -27th Sep. 2005 then 26th - 27th November 2005

New Farm Chapel., Alresford

27th - 29th Sep. 2005 then 2nd - 3rd Oct. 2005 then 4th Dec. 2005

Acomb Baptist Church, York

7th - 10th Oct. 2005 then 12th - 13th Nov. 2005.

Central Baptist Church, Norwich

13th - 18th Oct. 2005 then 5th Nov. - 6th Nov. 2005.