Dr. Stephen Ney – ‘On English’

An Update from Sierra Leone

Below, on the left, is what we call here in Sierra Leone an English broom; on the right, is also a broom, sometimes known as a country broom. Can you see the difference? 

Below, on the left, you can see English rice (actually grown in Vietnam or India) and on the right, country rice, which is local and actually much healthier, though eaten by (I’d guess) far less than 5% of Freetowners. The pattern isn’t hard to figure out.

If “desirable” and “modern” is what English means, then what is assumed, and what is implied, when in Sierra Leone English is the language of much preaching, most church singing, and all formal education, from the lowest levels? One assumption is that the things that grow out of Sierra Leonean soil are inferior to those that originate elsewhere. Two implications are that indigenous characteristics of the society or of an individual should be disavowed and that any valuable form of training should transmit foreign ways of thinking and living. Fanon might describe the implicit commandment this way, Turn white or disappear.

Certainly, all of immense, diverse Africa can’t be described in this way! But probably more of Sierra Leone can be described this way than of most African countries. Much of Sierra Leone’s modern social and political history is about domination by Britain and then by an elite group of African immigrants, the Krio, who had very little loyalty to or knowledge of the indigenous people or cultures of Sierra Leone.

In a context where Christian faith and formal education exist exclusively in English, and where English things have greater value and higher status, I suspect that

  • Children will struggle to understand or respect their elders, which will surely mean the erosion of Africa’s strong tradition of respect for elders and ancestors.
  • Elders will struggle to benefit from what their children are learning, which will lead towards their impoverishment and their irrelevance.
  • All Christians will be discouraged and disempowered from finding continuities between what they believed/knew and what their ancestors believed/knew; they will develop an impression of absolute discontinuity, which I think is what Paul, a Jew, laboured unceasingly to prevent among Jews as he announced the Christian way.
  • All people will begin to assume that what they need can only come from afar. Through no initiative of their own, they might one day be delivered of what ails them and provided with what they lack – all from afar, not by means of homegrown resources.

This bad situation is partly the result of missionaries’ and colonial rulers’ decisions, and it’s a situation that naturally becomes increasingly hard to change over time. This is particularly because powerful people (including myself!) benefit from Anglicization; it’s the powerless who tend not to have “mastered” English who would be more comfortable and successful in a de-Anglicized world.

Like the makers of this sign, which stands near our apartment, most Sierra Leoneans have learned the lesson, and pin their hopes on English expatiation.

In such a context, I feel that it’s vital I be careful not to assume I understand a speaker just because he or she is using English. If something doesn’t sound right to me, say at church or in an academic presentation, I’m a lot slower to intervene now than when I was new in Africa; now I see a higher likelihood that the problem is with my understanding, not with the actual substance of what I’ve heard.

As well, I try to encourage the alternatives to English. This isn’t about post-colonial guilt, about repudiating the blessings of my home-culture and my education – though sometimes I do wish my advanced studies hadn’t focused so much on things written in English! But this is about promoting the full-orbed flourishing of those I’m called to serve among. (Missiologist Jim Harries is a loud and convincing voice announcing the benefits of mission in the vernacular. You can read a brief piece by him here, or find many of his writings here.)

But how to encourage alternatives?

First, we try to speak the main local language, Krio, both when we’re at home and when we’re out. We aren’t as good at this as we know we should be. Still, it takes us in the direction of real friendship and reciprocity. And it gives us at least a little credibility when we show and tell Sierra Leoneans that God loves them just as much as those in rich, Anglophone countries; God has given them a cultural heritage packed full of blessings. And it allows us to draw our Sierra Leonean sons, into the riches of the cultural heritage God has apportioned to them by birth.

Second, I encourage all my university students, and particularly catalysts in the LCI training program, to use African languages in their research and in the outreach and education projects they’re carrying out through the LCI. One of them, Isaac, uses the Mafa, Fulfilde, and Roua languages when he speaks to artisanal miners in the mountainous north of Cameroon, seeking to understand the environmental consequences of their spiritual beliefs, and to look for openings for the Christian message. (Here’s a video where he tells you about his project.) Another, Albertine (a blog about her is here) though her formal education has mostly taken place in the Senegalese capital Dakar, far from home, has because of the LCI been able to invest more of her time and more of her attention in learning about her Mankagne roots.

Third, I’m trying to figure out a theological perspective on the world that’s indebted not only to the (natural) sciences but also to the humanities. Maybe you’ve heard of Francis Collins, who is the foremost US voice urging that Christian theology and the sciences are, generally speaking, allies, both gifts from the God of Jesus Christ. As the head of the Human Genome Project when it made its incredible discoveries twenty years ago, Collins had good reason to call his autobiography The Language of God (Simon & Schuster, 2006). He explains on page 123 that, “For me, as a believer, the uncovering of the human genome sequence had additional significance. The book [of the genome] was written in the DNA language by which God spoke life into being. I felt an overwhelming sense of awe ….” I think he is perfectly right to argue that when Genesis 1 & 2 say God “spoke” the world into being, that verb can incorporate the slow, long processes that evolutionary biology works on describing and that are encoded in DNA molecules. After all, the scriptures are adamant that God’s speaking “at the beginning” are completely in keeping with God’s ongoing speaking (e.g., Psalm 29, Psalm 95), so Collins’ claim doesn’t really contradict even biblical interpretations that reject mainstream science on how species originated. It’s indisputable that the processes of DNA replication are important parts of God’s continuous (re)creation.

However, from my perspective DNA isn’t God’s language any more than are cells, communities, or beauty. Calling DNA God’s language could lead us into a terrible reductionism, as if human beings and human societies could be completely explained by the “instructions” that lie in each human cell. I think it’s just as correct to say that DNA is the consequence as the cause of the living world that humans experience, the world God created in a free act of self-giving love. (I gained this understanding from Steane, Science and Humanity). Another problem with calling DNA God’s language is that my DNA articulates only a small part of what God apparently wants to say to me. It says nothing about a glorious sunset, nor about repentance, nor about the death and resurrection of the Son of God, who is himself the Word of God, the pinnacle of all God’s communication, as Hebrews 1 explains.

I love how the metaphor of DNA as God’s language helps Collins to develop an understanding of God’s nearness in the processes of scientific discovery and in his own experience of living in the created world. However, as I help train young scholars in Francophone Africa and Latin America I’d rather tell them that God’s language is whatever language they speak and think. When I say this I’m depending on the authority of the Incarnation – that the Word of God was made flesh and dwelt among us – and of Pentecost – that God’s direct communication surmounts all the obstacles of language and culture that divide the human beings he has created, which is to say that human languages are perfectly equipped to carry God’s message. I’m also referring to the insight that the world we experience is constructed through the language we speak and think, really therefore the only language in which God could speak to us at all levels of our being. I’m trying to think along the lines of Paul’s Areopagus sermon in Acts 17, where he indicates that God takes responsibility for the geographical location and the cultural diversity of each group of people, asking only that we human beings might seek him from where we are, since he isn’t far from where we are.

God evidently has many languages. Speaking or becoming like the English is less likely to get you closer to God than putting down roots into the soil of the culture where God planted or is planting you.

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