I’m reading some interview transcripts today from Uganda, full of names: place names, school names, business names, mountain names. The names have many syllables and a lot of vowels. It’s very confusing and they all sound very much alike. I’m thankful my colleague Alex, who did the interviews originally, took time to spell out some of the names for us on the recording.
I’ve spent much time over my years with Food for the Hungry struggling with place names.
I remember a few years ago working on proposals and reports for communities in Ethiopia, where much of the communication is in Amharic, a language related to Hebrew. The names I was reading took several bounces to get from a local language, into Amharic, then into English. Amharic uses its own alphabet so we had to transliterate the community names from one alphabet to another. (Transliterate is a fancy word for copying the sound of the original language, using the alphabet of the new language.) I commented to an Ethiopian colleague that I was getting quite a bit of variation from staff members in the transliterations of the smaller community names, the ones that aren’t on the map. “Well, you see, before FH started working in those places, no one cared very much how the names were spelled in English,” my friend said. “Sometimes we’re writing the name in English for the first time and so people will pick different ways to spell it.”
Blew me away.
By writing the name in English, by passing it along in stories, we said to the people living there, “Your community now matters, even to someone you will never meet.”
It took me back to Genesis 2:19-20, where God asked Adam to name all the birds and beasts. It says the second half of verse 20, “…. for Adam no suitable helper was found.” I don’t think God actually discovered anything new, when Adam handed out names — He always knew Eve was part of the plan. But through the naming process, God led Adam to understand that that there was something fundamental missing. When you name things, you put the world in order and you see things more clearly. Like, seeing that Community A has different needs from Community B. Like, understanding how communities relate to each other, and to the world around them.
So when you see that unpronounceable village name in an FH story on-line, or you read the name of a sponsored child that’s been painstakingly translated into another language and alphabet, consider this: Each time you read that name, you say to the Devil and to others who think you’re wasting your time, “This child on the other side of the planet with no hope, matters to me and to God. This village that people would call God-forsaken isn’t forsaken at all.”