Sing or Dance?

Translation is fun.

The middle line of Psalm 149:1 in Maa reads

«Entaranyaki OLAITORIANI osinkolio ng’ejuk»

This translates «שִׁ֣ירוּ לַֽ֭יהוָה שִׁ֣יר חָדָ֑שׁ» (Hebrew) or «ᾌσατε τῷ κυρίῳ ᾆσμα καινό» (Greek).  Some of y’all might know the King James:  “Sing unto the LORD a new song!”

But the Maa phrase can translate into English as “Dance unto the LORD a new dance!

Um, what?!  How’s that?

If we’ve visited with you, you may remember the answer.  The noun <osinkolio> means equally “song” and “dance.”  The verb <arany> means equally “to sing” and “to dance.” Thus “arany osinkolio” can be translated four ways into English:
……. • I sing a song,
……. • I dance a dance,
……. • I sing a dance,
……. • I dance a song.
In the Maasai cultural imagination, singing with the voice without also dancing with the body (or is that dancing with voice while singing with the body?) is unimaginable, except for the infirm or lame.

While other African languages have different words for singing and dancing, as does English, this lexical insight applies across many African cultures.

of COURSE we line dance during worship here.  What else?

Word of the Day


“to clean or remove charcoal
from the outside of the calabash gourd
after cleaning the interior of the gourd.”

The gourds — used as containers especially for milk and sour milk — are cleaned with a stick of wild olive wood (olóírién), the end of which is a live coal. This burns away any pathogens or other bad stuff and lines the interior of the gourd with charcoal, which has a filtering/purifying effect. It also gives your milk a smoky taste.  So if you’re taking chai in the villages and your tea tastes a bit like smoked cheese, this is why.

So AMESÚT only refers to the removal of olive wood charcoal from the outside of a gourd that’s just been cleaned on the inside.

How’s that for specificity?

book review: Forgiveness and Justice

Forgiveness and Justice are incompatible, right?  Forgiving someone means foregoing justice, doesn’t it?  Isn’t it just cognitively impossible to think of pursuing justice and forgiving at the same time?  That’s how the popular thinking goes … but that’s not biblical thinking at all.
Lamentation (and even anger) at injustice, the seeking of justice, and the practice of forgiveness are all closely intertwined.  W. E. B. Du Bois (1868-1963) included in his book Souls of Black Folk a chapter entitled “Songs of Sorrow.”  In one place he astutely notes that such songs of sorrow (such as the “Negro Spirituals”) offer hope, “a faith in the ultimate justice of things.”
Bryan Maier has written an excellent study that explores this relationship between lament for wrongs suffered and hope for justice.  We can’t over-recommend his Forgiveness and Justice:  A Christian Approach (2017).  At just 160 pages, it’s a fairly quick read.
There’s nearly a cottage industry of books on forgiveness.  Most contemporary teachings on forgiveness follow one of five models (though there are others) —
  • therapeutic forgiveness (the victim should forgive for the sake of the victim’s well-being, the state of unforgiveness only causes further injury to the victim, and may cause the victim to risk damnation),
  • forensic forgiveness (forgiveness as a transaction — the cancelling of debt, granting clemency from deserved punishment),
  • relational forgiveness (transactional forgiveness plus possible reconciliation of a ruptured relationship),
  • unilateral forgiveness (forgiveness is a one-sided action, all on the side of the victim, and it doesn’t matter whether the perpetrator repents), or
  • dispositional forgiveness (having a forgiving or conciliatory spirit).
All of these have some merit but tend to either try to say too much or too little.
Offering an alternative (and more robustly biblical) course, Maier lays out three boundaries delimiting forgiveness.
  • “Boundary #1: Forgiveness Is a Response to a Moral Violation”
    • “Forgiveness, in order to make sense, must presuppose that an offense has been committed; otherwise there would be nothing to forgive.”  Forgiveness is only required when there has been a moral violation, an offense that is inherently unrighteous/unjust.
  • “Boundary #2: Forgiveness Is Not a Cognitive Reframe”
    • This cognitive behaviorism may have its place, within appropriate limits, to offer a fresh perspective — life has handed me a bunch of lemons?  No problem, I’ll just make lemonade!  Clearly, perception does shape behavior.  Changing our perception can help us not to get stuck in resentment.
    • But forgiveness is something different.  Defining forgiveness in this way can blur the lines of reality, foster gaslighting, and confuse such concepts as
      • condoning, excusing, justifying, and showing mercy.
    •  Often cognitive reframing can ultimately call evil, good — see, God can bring good out of that situation, so what happened to you was really good after all!, and you should praise God for this abuse!  (NB:  We — Joshua and Ruth — have both, separately, heard this type of thing many times over the years.)
    • As a result, this type of focus ultimately makes victims more vulnerable to future acts of injustice and harm.
  • “Boundary #3: Forgiveness Is More Than Empathy”
    • Maier notes that “many forgiveness authors suggest some kind of empathy with the perpetrator as a means of ameliorating the resentment” which a victim feels as a result of the moral violation he or she suffered.  Of course we know that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”  But we must also recognize that “that if the victim’s sin cancels out the sin of the perpetrator, then the whole basis for justice collapses. If we are always guilty in some kind of morally equivalent way, then we can never charge our offenders.  If a victim must be totally free of any sinful behaviors or thoughts before the offender can be addressed, justice would never occur.  In the classic passage on confronting a brother (Matt. 18:15–20), the victim’s sin (which we know is present from the rest of Scripture) is never mentioned.”
Maier then outlines “four contours of a Christian approach to forgiveness,” asking a series of questions that we must answer to reach a biblical definition of forgiveness on the foundation of the three boundaries listed above.
  • “How does God forgive?”
  • “How does healing relate to forgiveness?”
  • “Is forgiveness primarily self-centered or other-centered?”
  • “Is forgiveness active or passive?”
After examining (in chapter 3) the relationship between resentment and repentance, he explores each of those four questions.  Reminiscent of Bonhoeffer’s discussion of “cheap grace” in The Cost of Discipleship, Maier explains the hidden costs of the “cheap forgiveness” that many in the Church insist upon.  With cheap forgiveness, because the offender has neither confessed nor repented, “there is no agreement that what was done was wrong” and the victim remains unsafe, and true reconciliation is impossible.  It is appropriate to address ongoing resentment harbored by a victim once the offender has confessed and demonstrated signs of repentance, including where necessary some type of restitution to restore justice.  And so, because “trust is the basis of true unilateral healing for victims,” if such “resentment poses a barrier to genuine forgiveness,” this should be dealt with.  But often “resentment is merely an appropriate emotional reaction to sin yet to be addressed.”  In such circumstances, “healing can only come by means of some assurance that one day justice will be complete and final.”  This is not a desire for revenge and vengeance borne out of bitterness and rancorous resentment, but a godly and natural desire for justice and righteousness.
Our scholar friends will recall that both the Old Testament Hebrew root צדק (tz-d-q) and the New Testament Greek rootδικ (-dik-) are inclusive of our English ideas of “righteousness” and “justice.”  There is no justice in the midst of unrighteousness, and no righteousness in injustice.
Of course, it is worth mentioning that it was after Israel named their daughters “Miriam”, or themselves “Mara” — names that mean “bitter” or “bitterness” — that God sent savior-redeemers (Moses, Boaz, and ultimately Jesus).  God in God’s wisdom acted salvifically after God’s people recognized their bitter lot.
Maier has chapters on “authentic repentance”, “trusting God for justice”, “results of forgiveness”, and “forgiveness and justice in counseling.”  Here is his exposition of what the simple statement “I forgive you” should mean:
Because of your repentance and the facts that the price for your sin has been paid (by God), the effects of your sin against me have been substantially healed, and your repentance has stopped the previously hostile messages to me, your sin can no longer damage me. Since you are taking responsibility for your sin, I no longer have to make up distorted reasons why it happened, and that is good for both of us. Finally, our relationship is now different and I agree to treat you in light of this new relationship.
We (Ruth and Joshua) recommend this book — Forgiveness and Justice: A Christian Approach — to any pastor, preacher, counselor, or missionary in any context.  It’s practical, theologically robust but in everyday language, and firmly grounded in Scripture.
For that matter, we recommend it to anyone
  • who struggles with forgiveness,
  • who struggles with justice,
  • who is passionate about justice, or
  • or who is passionate about forgiveness.
We guess that covers most of us.
Note:  We have this book in paper and in Kindle (it’s also available for Nook).  We didn’t include page numbers as I (Joshua) was referring for the quotes to the digital copy, which sadly doesn’t include “real” page numbers.  Bryan Maier’s Forgiveness and Justice is available from Christian Book Distributors, Joseph Beth, BooksAMillion, Barnes & Noble, or wherever fine books are sold.

love and action

Proverbs are delightful. They offer a window into a culture.  I especially enjoy pairs of proverbs which seem contradictory. One of my favorite pairs is found in Proverbs 26.4-5.  I’ll quote in Hebrew for our nerdy friends (and because Hebrew fonts just look cool) and in English.
אַל־תַּ֣עַן כְּ֭סִיל כְּאִוַּלְתּ֑וֹ פֶּֽן־תִּשְׁוֶה־לּ֥וֹ גַם־אָֽתָּה׃
עֲנֵ֣ה כְ֭סִיל כְּאִוַּלְתּ֑וֹ פֶּן־יִהְיֶ֖ה חָכָ֣ם בְּעֵינָֽיו׃
Do not answer a fool according to his folly,
lest you yourself also be like him.
Answer a fool according to his folly,
lest he be wise in his own estimation. (NET)
A few months ago, I learned a similar pair of proverbs in Maa:
Ebaiki ninyor, nimiret.
Mebaiki ninyor, nimiret.
For those interested in such things, here’s the IPA phonetic pronunciation:
Ɛbáɨ́kɨ nɨ́nyɔ̄r, nímīrēt.
Mɛbáɨ́kɨ nɨ́nyɔ̄r, nímīrēt.
Perhaps you love him/her, yet you don’t help him/her.
It cannot happen that you love him/her and you don’t help him/her.
(My list of Maa pronouns includes over 200. This, of course, does not count the innumerable constructions which are possible through the use of pronominal prefixes and infixes. But Maa doesn’t distinguish between he/she/it — “ninye” does triple duty.  In these proverbs, ninye isn’t used.  Instead, pronominal prefixes/infixes indicate both subject and object.)
The initial verb in each of these proverbs is interesting; ɛbáɨ́kɨ / ebaiki is literally “it is reached” or “it is arrived at.” Idiomatically it is “maybe” or “perhaps”. The pronominal 3rd person prefix ɛ- is replaced with mɛ- in the second one. Depending on tone, this is either negative or subjunctive; here it is negative. Thus ɛbáɨ́kɨ / ebaiki introduces something that is conceivably possible whereas mɛbáɨ́kɨ / mebaiki indicates that what follows is inconceivable and impossible.
Ebaiki ninyor, nimiret. Perhaps you love him/her, yet you don’t help him/her.
Within human relationships, it is quite imaginable that we profess love for someone and yet there is no actual demonstration of love.  We say “we love you” but don’t help the supposed beloved, and in fact we often harm instead (whether by sin of commission or sin of omission).
Mebaiki ninyor, nimiret.  It cannot happen that you love him/her and you don’t help him/her.
Thus our actions (or inactions) will belie our words.  “The proof is in the pudding,” as the old English proverb states.
But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.”
Show me your faith without works
and I will show you faith by my works.”

(James 2.18, NET)
Love does no harm to its neighbor.
Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.
(Romans 13.10 NIV-1984)
If we claim to love while either actively harming or simply refusing to assist, our actions prove that we do not, in fact love.
Mebaiki ninyor, nimiret.  It is not possible to love in merely word or sentiment.  Love helps those who are loved.
Beloved, let us love one another.
(1 John 4.7)


I have just learned that we have lost another giant.  The great John S. Mbiti of Kenya, professor and theologian and philosopher and mentor, passed from this life a couple of weeks ago, 6 October 2019, a bit before what would have been his 88th birthday.

If you are interested in —
.        • African culture or religion or philosophy,
.        • Christian theology,
.        • hermeneutics, or
.        • African Christianity —
then you should read his works. His monographs African Religions and Philosophy (1969) and Concepts of God in Africa (1970) were seminal and remain classics.

I can’t claim to have known him personally, but I was honored to meet him a few times, to have heard him lecture a couple of times, and to have had one delightful one-on-one conversation with him. He was a gentleman and a scholar … and a true Christian.

Professor John S. Mbiti and friendsThis picture was taken at a Centre for World Christianity event in Nairobi in March 2018. Those pictured include Professors Mark Shaw, Jesse N. K. Mugambi, John S. Mbiti, Andrew F. Walls, with Dr Ingrid Reneau Walls & Dr Kyama Mugambi.

Some of you haven’t heard of John Samuel Mbiti before.  For an excellent though short introduction to Prof. Mbiti’s work, see Francis Anekwe Oborji, “John S. Mbiti – Father of African Christian Theology: .A Tribute,” Journal of African Christian Biography 4/4 (October 2019): .3-14.
The issue is available online at the Dictionary of African Christian Biography here
(There are also booklet formats for printing available, in either A4 or 8.5×11.)

Professor John S. Mbiti, may your memory be eternal until you rise again to meet our Lord.

Lenana’s Oreteti

Lenana was a well-known Laibon (oloiboni, “ritual expert”) of the Maasai, b. sometime between 1860 and 1870 (he was circumcised in 1882, perhaps at the age of nineteen? … traditionally, Maasai did not keep track of their birthdates, but only of when they were circumcized) and dying in 1911.  The name Lenana means “of the gentleness.”  An important Maasai leader during the colonialization of East Africa by Great Britain, he is better known among the Maasai themselves by the other form of his name, Olonana (“he of gentleness”).

Lenana is a fairly common Maasai boy’s name. I’ve not heard (though I don’t know everything) of anyone else named Ololana, though.

The term, as an adjective, is a term of endearment —
Li alashe lai lenana is “O my brother of tenderness
Lo ltau lai lelana is “O my heart of tenderness, the dynamic equivalent of “Sweetheart in English.  I (Joshua) often address Ruth with the short form, lo ltau lai (O my heart!).

I probably hear the adjective more often than the name.  For “sweetheart” more literally, you could say oltau lemelok (or lo ltau lemelok in the vocative).

The feminine equivalent of lenana (pronounced, by the way, like LAY-NAH-NAH, for English-speakers) is nanana.  I’m not sure that I’ve ever heard it, though.  Namelok ([feminine thing or person] which-is-sweet) is more common as an adjective for females.

It is said that upon his death, Olonana’s corpse was secretly moved from his homestead (enkang) in Kiserian to this site, where his body was accorded the rare privilege of burial, marked by planting an oreteti sapling. (Historically, corpses were laid out on the ground and hyenas come to eat the body at night.  Burial is a rare salutatory honor in traditional Maa culture.) The oreteti is a sacred tree of ceremonial significance in Maasai culture. Oreteti trees are places of sanctuary and holiness.

Oreteti refers to fig trees:  ficus natalensis, ficus sycomorus, ficus gnaphalocarpa, ficus mucosa.  It is one of four types of trees considered sacred or holy by the Maasai.  Note the smooth green leaves (even in the dry season), and also that there are no thorns.

Lenana’s Oreteti:
(click pictures for a larger images)

This oreteti tree is now nearly 110 years old, and is an important landmark — geographically and culturally. The Oreteti AIC (Africa Inland Church) congregation has its building a short walk down the mountain from here, taking its name from this tree.

(Photos taken on 1 October 2019.  I was meeting with Benson ole Kurraru, the pastor of Oreteti AIC.  He also oversees AIC church planting and ministerial training in the Olalaiser area of Kajiado county.)


The Maa word for locust is olmaati (ɔlmáatî for linguists); the plural is ilmaat (ɨlmáāt). I don’t know whether these are the same species of locusts and plagued the ancient Egyptians (and others), but they are African locusts and can thus swarm.

Today I saw more of these ILMAAT than I’ve ever seen before in one place — not quite EMUS OOLMAAT (a swarm of locusts), which is probably a good thing. These were around the famous Oreteti Tree of Lenana, near the lower peak of the Ngong Hills toward Kona Baridi, Olepolos, and Kiserian.

Enjoy the 27 second video clip:

(click on the photos to see larger images)

OLMAATI / ILMAAT can refer to a number of different species of grasshoppers/locusts, some of which are consumed by some African communities (though not by the Maasai). Don’t try to mimic John the Baptist and dip these in honey, though! — these pictures are of Green Milkweed Locusts (aka African Bush Grasshopper or phymateus viridipes for our latinophone or entomologist friends). They like to eat milkweed and various members of the nightshade family, and so are decidedly NOT good to eat.

Edit:  (5 November 2019)
What’s the difference between a grasshopper and a locust?
The difference between a locust and a grasshopper is that they’re locusts when they’re swarming, and otherwise just grasshoppers. (That’s a bit simplified, but close enough.)  Except in some parts of America, cicadas are called “locusts”.