Stacey and I have chosen to live in a village here in Cameroon and work directly with a single people group: the Kwakum. The longer we are here, the more we are thankful we have chosen this method. Just the other day my neighbor Patrice told me that several people in the same village died at the same time. I asked what happened and he told me that there was mbɔsɔ cyɛti, which they would translate into French as mauvais médicament ‘bad medicine’.
I asked some follow-up questions, because I wanted to better understand what happened. I asked if it was tromadol, a drug that people sometimes take here. Patrice looked confused, clearly I had not understood. He then explained that someone had put the mbɔsɔ cyɛti in their field in order to prevent people from stealing. These people who died must have entered the field (whether or not to steal he was not sure) and they died as a result. What he was describing was not “medicine” as I would think of it. He was describing what amounts to a spiritual scarecrow.
The Problem: Clashing Conceptualizations
The above situation presents the linguistic symptoms of a clash of cultures. Should you walk into my village one day and hand Patrice a package of Tylenol, he will tell you that it is cyɛti. You would walk away writing in your journal that cyɛti means ‘medicine’. And you would be right, to a degree. The question is, “What do you mean by medicine?”
At the recommendation of a colleague, I just finished reading an article entitled “Cultural linguistics, mission, and theology for the majority world” by missionary Jim Harries. Harries applies what is written about cultural linguistics by a linguist named Sharifan to theological education in non-Western countries.
The basic idea from Sharifan is that different cultures have different ways of understanding the world around us, which he calls “cultural conceptualizations.” He applies this linguistically, showing that people use words differently in different cultures because of these conceptualizations. One very basic example is the word “mother.” In most Western cultures, the word “mother” refers only to the person who biologically gave birth to the speaker (or in the case of adoption, the woman who raised him). However, in a lot of non-Western cultures the word in their language for “mother” can refer to older sisters, aunts, cousins, and beyond.
Applied to the situation above, what this tells me is that when the Kwakum hear and use médicament ‘medicine’ in French, they have conception of something that is physical, but has supernatural power. So (it seems to me) when I give them Tylenol and tell them it is medicine, they are understanding something much different from what I am meaning. And, the other way around, when they say médicament ‘medicine’ to me, I am understanding something very different from what they are meaning. If the problem of clashing conceptionalizations is ignored, essentially what happens is that two people think they are speaking the same language, when they are not.
A Solution: Immersion
The main issue discussed in this article was how the problem of clashing conceptualizations is amplified in theological education in the non-Western world. Though this application does not directly impact our ministry, I found some of his generalizations to be very helpful. For instance, Harries writes,
Missionaries who endeavor to learn a language for use in ministry or evangelism should learn it with its conceptualizations. This requires immersion experience in the local community.Harries 2018:16
I have seen an overall movement away from missionaries living in villages and learning the local language. Sometimes missionaries will be living in big cities and ministering to multiple people groups. Most of the time, when this happens, the missionaries are working with a language of wider communication like French or English. While this is completely legitimate, Harries warns that missionaries in such an environment must be aware of possible miscommunications like the ones mentioned above.
From what I can tell, this leaves a need for (at least some) missionaries to move into the villages, to be fully immersed in the culture, and to learn not only to speak the language, but also to conceptualize the world like the nationals. I see this as a particularly important need in Bible translation.
A missionary who spent 20-some years here in Cameroon told me about their translation project. At one point they came to a passage which condemns sorcery (perhaps Galatians 5:20). The nationals told the missionary the word that they wanted to use to speak of “sorcery.” Because he had lived with them, learned their language and culture, and knew the word, he recognized that they were seeking to condemn “bad sorcery.” That is, magic that is used to harm (like the spiritual scarecrows above).
If they had used this word to translate the word “sorcery”, it would have left them open to practice any type of magic that does not involve directly harming someone else. Is that what Galatians 5:20 is talking about? No. It is very clear in the Scriptures that God does not want us practicing any kind of magic.* But the only way that this missionary could have helped them understand the this truth is if he understood their language and culture.
So, if you are wondering, this is why Stacey and I are living in a village. There are many different types of missions and many more types of missionaries. We see the danger in ministering to the people without a deep understanding of their language and culture, and believe that the best way to learn their language and culture is to live with them. Not everyone is going to do what we do, but as we have thought about how we want to reach the Kwakum, we cannot think of any more effective way.
*To be clear, we are not talking about pulling rabbits out of hats. The “good magic” I have experienced among the Kwakum is calling out to spirits to bring peace during times of contention. Or the pouring out of kerosene on the ground to try to get it not to rain during a funeral. While these practices might seem innocent (or even good), calling out to spirits is never neutral. And since they are not seeking to glorify God in these situations, it seems clear to me that any power they receive comes from the Devil. Further, they often invest a good amount of money into these practices, which is part of why they remain poor.
Harries, Jim. 2018. Cultural linguistics, mission, and theology for the majority world. Australian Journal of Mission Studies, vol 12, no. 2. 8-15.