Mission: Burkina Faso

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

More than 17 years ago - on Sept. 14, 1991 - The Washington Times reported on a Silver Spring couple named Stuart and Cathie Showalter , two Christian missionaries who had recently spent two years studying languages and cultures of ethnic groups surrounding the village of Loropeni in Burkina Faso.

     The couple - linguists with the Summer Institute of Languages, a sister organization to Wycliffe Bible Translators - committed then to return to the West African nation for an additional 15 years of living among and develop a written language for the Kaan people.

     Driven by unquenchable religious faith, the Showalters returned to Loropeni in 1991 after Mr. Showalter received his doctorate from Georgetown, bringing along their two children, Nathanael and Esther, ages 4 and 1 at the time.

     The roads were nearly impassable, and there were no telecommunications.

     "Our first house didn't have electricity or running water. We dug a latrine, brought water in with buckets and took sponge showers," Mr. Showalter said in an recent interview. His wife remembers bumpy, eight-hour rides to the Ivory Coast, where Nathanael and Jesse, the couple's third child, were born.

     But this time around, they also got a more-receptive response from the 6,000 or so Kaan people who live in 20 villages, surrounded by larger populations of Lobi and Jula.

     "Our initial reception by the Kaan people had been arms-length and guarded. They seemed to ask themselves what we were all about," Mr. Showalter said. "They were positive to our face when we explained we wanted to learn their language and write it down, but they waited to see what we would do. Foreigners pass through and never come back. People began to take us seriously when we came back."

     Mrs. Showalter was awarded an M.A. in linguistics, a subject she taught until she married Stuart, one of her students. But what she really needed was a crash course in multitasking.

     With physicians many hours and miles away, she taught herself how to treat her family's numerous bouts with malaria and other health maladies. She had to prepare slabs of meat cut randomly and often haphazardly from local game with machetes, and deal with poisonous snakes and scorpions.

     The Kaan people build houses in clusters forming distinct villages surrounded by cultivated fields. They have a king, who rules with 10 elders having control over different aspects of the Kaan territory. There is a secondary head called the land chief, who is in charge of how the land is distributed and used by the people.

     Every ethnic group in the village is different. The Lobi people have no kings or chiefs linking families and clans together; instead, each family has its own compound with the head as chief. The compounds are spread apart at least three "bowshots," which the Lobi say helps them avoid arguments.

     The Showalters considered these and many other cultural differences before compiling the grammar, developing the language, creating a writing system, codifying it and creating a body of Kaansa literature that will last.

     In 1993, they built a house in Obire so that they would be in the middle of 12 Kaan villages.

Kaan Christians attended Lobi churches and listened to Lobi translations of the Bible, but felt like outsiders. So the Showalters' next project was to teach people to read Kaansa and provide a written literature.

     The Kaansa language proved tough to learn; it has four tones, nine vowels that work in sets based on the position of the back of the tongue, seven noun classes, four grammatical genders and verb forms that the Showalters had not seen in any other language in that region.

     The Showalters developed a written alphabet that uses 29 modified Roman-script letters and three diacritic marks. They are now compiling a Kaansa-French dictionary and a Kaansa grammar book written in French - France having been the colonial power in Burkina Faso, and French being the official government language.

      The current published body of literature in the Kaansa language now includes primers on teaching reading, a collection of folktales and oral histories, a booklet on how to treat basic health problems, a booklet on malaria and how to prevent it, a vocabulary book comparing ancient and modern objects in use in the community, a book of civics lessons and a book on basic, practical mathematics.

     The Showalters also have published several books of the New Testament and a booklet on aspects of ancient Mediterranean cultures at the time of Christ.

     But cultural hostility posed problems: the current Kaan king, whose name is taboo and is referred to only as Kaan Iya, had sought to prevent Christians from worshipping in their own churches, and his predecessor, Dabira Farma, didn't want his people to read at all, let alone read the Bible. But Mr. Showalter found a new way to help solve the area-wide malaria plague and, at the same time, soften the king's hostility toward Christians.

      Dr. Ian Macdonald, an American physician, was doing all he could to help Burkina Faso's people with health problems. He told Mr. Showalter about a new type of netting impregnated with insecticide that kills mosquitos for two or three years.

     Mr. Showalter suggested to the king that the netting be distributed to all Kaan people, not just people who followed the traditional religion or not just the Christians. The king readily agreed and appointed a commission with four traditionalists and four Christians. Then he supervised distribution in the area's 12 villages, encouraging people to use the netting.

     "This program exemplifies ways missionaries can integrate Christian precepts with secular needs," says Rick Langston, a pastor with Summit Church in Durham, N.C.

     Mr. Showalter said, "We saw the Lord calm things down and make it possible for Christians to work with non-Christians, and we saw a huge improvement in health in the region. This was a pivot point: We've made considerable progress teaching people to read and in translating key parts of the New Testament. Perhaps, best of all, we've started training a cadre of native translators and teachers."

     But Mr. Showalter said the credit must go elsewhere.

     "Obstacles have loomed large, but, with the Lord's help, we've overcome them. And we've largely accomplished our objectives. Again and again, Cathie and I prayed our favorite Scripture verse, Proverbs 3: 5,6 - 'Trust in the Lord with all your heart; and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make your paths straight.'"

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