Nik Ripken: Lost in Translation

Is He Worth It?

Nik Ripken: Lost in Translation

Storytime with Nik Ripken: Lost In Translation

A fun story about God getting the glory even when our words are less than perfect.

White all over

Every culture has its norms. I daresay every culture in the world thinks that its culture is the best, superior to all others. I remember standing in Somalia one day in a bombed out section of the city of Mogadishu with 3 or 4 guards. There was no government, no schools, running water, or government-supplied electricity. One of my guards asked me where my family was living and I informed him they were in Nairobi, Kenya. He looked at me and said, “Thank God I live in Somalia and not in a horrible place like Kenya!”

I could only stare at him with total incomprehension.

This cultural superiority expresses itself in many ways. Some of them demean others. Some are hateful. And some are downright funny – unless you are the victim.

I went with some of our African leadership to visit a remote village, not knowing I was the first person of my flavor, my color, to visit this village. As usual when I showed up for the first time it caused a big stir and was taken as an opportunity for feast or party. When my wife and boys often went with me to such remote locations it was as if the village would cease working for a week just to be around our children, stare at them, play with them, pinch their white skin, and pull their blonde hair.

But this time I went alone.

We spent the usual number of hours greeting everyone, being introduced for the first time, sharing the best of food, while sitting in the most honored of places at the evening meal. Often it was 11 to midnight before I could go in exhaustion to my sleeping bag. But even then the children were not satisfied. Apparently after their parents had gone to sleep they had snuck out of their beds, surrounded the rondoval in which we were sleeping, and proceeded to whisper and laugh. Now I have always been a light sleeper and having a dozen or so African children whispering and laughing outside of my hut is a sure nemesis for my being able to sleep. Finally in exasperation I asked one of the men in the hut with me, “What do these children want? Why won’t they let me go to sleep?”

With a great deal of chagrin one of the pastors visiting with me said, “They want to know if you are white all over? All they can see is your face and hands while you are dressed and they are wondering if only your face and hands are colored white?” Knowing I would not get any sleep until I “addressed” their concerns, I went outside of the hut, during the full moon of the East African coast, dressed only in my University of Kentucky basketball shorts – which I used as pajamas.

The children gasped in horror. I heard them say, “Isn’t it terrible to be white like this all over your body?” Another said, “He looks like a grub which you sometimes find under a rock.” Another commented, “Maybe when he gets older this horrible white skin comes off and God gives him a black skin?”

With what little dignity I could salvage from the moment, I held my head high, adjusted the waistband of my University of Kentucky basketball shorts, and then crawled back into the sleeping bag never to appear again unless fully clothed.

He will eat you

Every culture and people group has their own language and cultural norms. Anyone who wants to effect change in cultures other than their own are required to become increasingly skilled in language and culture. But the process can often be painful. My wife is a perfectionist. In the 4 languages we’ve had to formally study, she is very careful to gather her thoughts and be word perfect before she attempts to use a language other than her own. As for myself, I learned languages because I share stories and tell jokes. I cannot stand being unable to communicate with people. So give me 3 or 4 sentences in any given language and I can turn them in to a page or 2 of significant, linguistic nightmares.

I will never forget the first time where I used the local language in East Africa in front of my family at a restaurant. I was positive I had looked at the waiter and asked him for a simple glass of iced water. What I actually said to him, apparently, was, “Would you give me a kiss on the mouth?” I knew something was amiss when he began to pucker up and lean toward me!

I have looked for many times, since then, for a proof text in the Bible which requires families to eat at home and never go to restaurants.

But one cultural euphemism in very rural African villages continued to elude me. Coming from rural Kentucky I should have expected and looked for such tales used by grandmothers for frightening little children. Where I grew up in Kentucky when you were not good your grandmother would say, “If you don’t behave the bogeyman will come and get you!” I spent many nights as a child afraid of the bogeyman. What I did not know, in this part of rural East Africa, was grandmothers who told their grandchildren, “If you are not good the white man will come and eat you!”

And then I would arrive; the first white man they had ever met, jumping out of my pickup truck, weighing about 120 pounds, looking lean and hungry, with my arms thrown out wide, seeking to embrace the children of this village  while attempting to speak in my simplified, local language.

The children would run screaming from my presence! They knew for sure I had arrived to eat them.

Grandmothers by the scores would come and greet me, touch me on the face, and thank me for coming to their village. This had no spiritual connotation whatsoever; it had everything to do with their grandchildren. I had scared these kids so badly there would not be a discipline problem in this village for weeks to come.

It’s bad to meet your grandmother’s bogeyman and to find out it is you.

The Wasp Dance

I could write a book about the beds we have slept in in rural African villages. Let me rush to say, these are some of the most hospitable people on the face of the earth. They would literally borrow money in order to keep us in their homes, feeding, and entertaining us.  One village heard that we were accustomed to sleeping in a Western style bed, so they carried a bed over two mountains, rebuilding it for us to sleep in. If ever we write such a book it would also have to include our numerous encounters with mosquitoes, critters which inhabited beds and mats before we arrived.

It was also about this time that I was introduced to the mosquito coil.

This was a simple chemical device which you lit the end of with a match.  It burned down to increasingly small coils, emitting a noxious smoke inside of your sleeping space, with the intent to kill any mosquitoes in the nearby vicinity. It was deadly for mosquitoes, but no one ever mentioned to us about its effect on wasps.

Climbing into my sleeping bag one night I did not notice a huge wasp nest in the grass ceiling of the hut in which I was sleeping with 3 other men. Just before I lay back on my sleeping bag in the warm summer night air, I lit my mosquito coil and watched its vapors disappear into the thatch roof of the hut. While mosquito coils are effective in killing mosquitoes they only serve to make wasps groggy, and after they wake up, they are very angry. By lighting the mosquito coil near my sleeping bag these noxious fumes arose and drugged many wasps in the ceiling. They began to fall from the ceiling into my sleeping bag. For many minutes they lay dormant inside of my sleeping bag until the anesthetic of the mosquito coil began to wear off.

Then they started getting mad.

And as they came out from under the anesthetic they began to take out their anger on the country boy from Kentucky. I don’t know how many times I was stung but I do remember, with extreme embarrassment, my ejection from the sleeping bag yelling at the top of my voice as these wasps stung me all over the lower part of my body. I woke up my sleeping mates and the entire village.  Many people came running worried their visitor was being attacked by thieves…or perhaps having a psychotic episode. All the while I was dancing out of the hut, beating myself, trying to lead the wasps in my sleeping shorts to an early death.

It was not long until I accomplished this urgent task of eradicating all of the wasps upon my person. Once this task was successfully done, I looked around, and found most of the village staring at me with various looks of concern and growing amusement. Here I was, half dressed, with my friends from my hut beginning to explain to the broader village what indeed had happened; I was not suffering from dementia, but had lit my mosquito coil and had been sharing my sleeping bag with a nest of wasps. Some kids began to giggle until the whole village had a good laugh at my expense. Kids began an attempt to imitate the dance of the white man in their village that night. The village found this hilarious. I found it less so.

For the next 3 days we ministered in this village. Whenever we would walk past a group of children, they would look at me and begin the wasp dance, until they fell laughing on the ground.

I don’t think I ever returned to that village.

Mountain Ponies

We visited a small church in the mountains of South Africa near the border with Lesotho. This was a remote place which seemingly grew 3 tons of rocks per acre – this is how weak the soil was in the mountains. Everything seemed to be scrawny and thin here; the cattle, horses, trees, and even the people. While having 5 white-skinned people visit this mountainous community was a novelty, it did not seem to translate over into having more people visit the church and begin a relationship with Jesus. All we could expect was 15 to 20 souls participating in any religious event. This continued until they announced during the week that church would be discontinued on Saturday. I was confused, so I asked them what they were planning for Saturday, as we had come from such a long way to be with them?  They informed me,

“Tomorrow we are taking off and riding our mountain ponies up into the hills to hunt foxes.”

When I informed them of my desire to accompany them on this fox hunting journey, many of the villagers looked at one another and laughed. One of them said, “There is no white man alive who has ever been able to ride these ponies into the mountains.” Now there’s not much I can do in life which borders on the excellent, but one of these is the ability to ride any pony or horse, no matter its size, disposition, gender, or breeding. When I was just a young boy I used to train unruly horses for other people for the fantastic amount of $40 per animal. Therefore I was a little put off by these villagers insinuating my ability to ride their ponies was in deficit.

Seeing I was adamant, and not about to back down, they invited me to meet them the next morning at 6 am for their fox hunting ride into the mountains.  It was a bit of shock to find almost the entire village surrounding the home where this Kentucky boy was to join the men of the village and ride over the mountains.  I’m not entirely sure, but I believe people were laughing and I felt fairly certain they were taking bets quietly on how long I would tough out the journey, or how long before I fell off and had to make my way back to the village on foot.

Now I have to admit this was one of the most wildest and challenging rides I ever attempted. These Lesotho Mountain ponies could climb like a goat. I have never experienced anything like it before or since this challenging ride into the mountains of Lesotho. These ponies could put their front feet on a rock ledge and pull themselves up. When we went down steep mountainsides covered with rock shale, these ponies would sit on their backsides and slide down the mountain. It was like no other ride. For the first few miles the men in our pony entourage would look back at me, waiting for me to fall off, ask to go home, or just quit.

Every time they turned to look back at me I just goaded my pony faster until I was riding in the front with the leaders for most of this mountainous terrain.

It was a breathtaking ride and one of the most strenuous activities I have ever attempted. It made some extreme sports look like playing a game of Monopoly. Yet I started the trip and I finished the trip, to the great surprise of many. Now I have to admit the next morning I could barely walk as I was so sore from riding that skinny pony on a broken saddle through so many mountain ranges. I could barely stand up. I could barely lift my arm to brush my teeth. My legs felt unattached to my hips. My backside felt as if it had been kicked by King Kong. Yet we were there to meet with the 10-15 good church folks for the entire week, minus the Saturday of foxhunting. Whining and complaining to my wife I put on my Sunday best and went to the church to participate in a 4 to 6 hour service.

To our surprise the church was packed. Seemingly most of the village was now ready to attend Sunday services and listen to the Good News which Jesus always brings. We had no clue what the difference was between the simple crowd on Friday and this packed audience on Sunday. I wondered if it was my articulate manner of speaking, or the winsomeness of my wife, or just the attraction which our 3 sons bring to any equation?  Soon after the service began one of the elders came to us and said,

“The entire village has turned out today to attend worship and hopefully to have their lives changed. The village cannot stop talking about how you rode your pony throughout the entire fox hunt yesterday. They believe any white man who can accomplish such a feat has certainly brought truth to their village. Your ability to ride the pony yesterday has served to verify the truth of your presence and message.”

I thought to myself, “Four years of college and three years of seminary, all that Greek and Hebrew, and professor after professor. And yet all I really had to do to be a positive witness to this village was to come from Kentucky with my ability to ride a ragged pony over a bunch of rocky mountains.”

It is amazing, and sometimes disconcerting, what gives the Gospel a hearing.

Sour Milk

Almost anyone who has lived overseas in the two-thirds world will have stories on at least three subjects. These will include misadventures in regard to airplanes flown, toilets used (more later about this one), and food eaten. There is an old overseas worker’s rhyme which goes something like, “Where He leads me I will follow. What He feeds me I will swallow.”

Our boys have been good troopers as they have seldom complained, while growing up in Africa, of the long distances traveled over rocky terrain, mats on the floor’s on which they slept, or food eaten by hand which you will never find even in fast food restaurants. Actually we are all hopelessly warped a little bit as our family reminisces about the foods we miss in sub-Saharan Africa.

But our youngest will never attempt to drink Maasai milk again.

Now this is perfectly understandable once you learn the ingredients of such a well-loved drink by these wonderful people. The Maasai love their soured cow’s milk. This drink is a blend of sour milk, a little cow urine as a preservative, along with some blood from the cow. This concoction is contained in a long red gourd from which one drinks. Predictably , the first time we went to visit the Maasai they kindly offered us their favorite drink, allowing us Westerners to drink their delicacy from a glass rather than a gourd.

Now here is my secret to drinking unpalatable drinks. Do not take tiny sips! If what you are given to drink is counter to your taste buds, don’t sip, but down the whole thing in one huge swallow.

Our youngest son was five years old and he felt left out from drinking the Maasai milk. I said to him, “You don’t want to drink this.” He said, “I want to drink this.” “You don’t want to drink this.” “I want to drink this!” This litany went on for about ten times back and forth, until his mother, my wife, said, “Let him drink the milk.” I gave her my special look which communicates, “This is not going to work out well” while we passed the Maasai milk to our youngest son. He took one sip of this special milk and, as it hit his taste buds, he spewed the milk out hitting us and the Maasai elders standing nearby!

Twenty years later we have still not been invited back to that village.


He weighed 300 pounds and most of that was heart. Hailing from rural North Carolina, he had taken two months of his vacation time to serve with us in Mogadishu. This was the time before the United Nations entered Somalia; times where we were more free to move around the city in the countryside with relative safety. I was walking with him down one of the insane streets in Mogadishu trying to orientate him to what his new two-month environment felt and looked like.

To say he was overwhelmed would be a misrepresentation of the words he said and the looks he gave me as we walked through the market. There one found the usual pieces of goat meat, a few stringy vegetables, and some cans of Pepsi-Cola that were 8-10 years old. What caught one’s eyes was the availability, next to these food staples, of AK-47s, RPG’s, bazookas, and other weapons of destruction – all for a miniscule amount of money.

Walking down the main street Bum was amazed that one had to buy their petrol and diesel fuel from cigarette smoking young men sitting on the barrels of these combustible liquids! Neither of us was accustomed to taking our lives in our own hands just to watch Somalis hand-fill the tank of our 4 x 4. I stopped to talk to one of my friends and Bum wandered a little bit ahead of me. Once I caught up with him he looked at me apologetically and told me he was sorry for leaving me behind. I jokingly said to him, “Don’t worry. It is organizational policy that volunteers walk in front of career personnel. This way, if there is any fighting, the volunteer will get shot first, protecting me as a career person.  You need to understand the home office has thousands of dollars invested in me as a career personnel, whereas volunteers arrive, paying their own way.”  Bum looked at me and laughed, seemingly catching the Somalia-tainted humor.

Two weeks later the situational humor was turned back onto me.

I was on the roof of the team house listening to Bum as he orientated four new nurses to our relief organization. It was rewarding to hear how well he orientated these nurses after just a few weeks in such a insane environment. Everything was going well until I heard him say, “Don’t be surprised if Dr. Nik asks you to walk in front of him out on the street, because it is the policy of the home office that volunteers are to be shot first as there is so much money invested in career personnel like Dr. Nik.” I ran down the stairs as fast as I could to assure the nurses that no such policy existed and apologized to Bum for the leg-pulling a few weeks past which seemingly had made sense to him.

Now we laugh as we retell the story to each other, but sadly such was Somalia.

A Near-wife Experience

We had planned to go and check on the opening of a hand-dug water well.  We had not planned on one of our team members buying a young girl as a wife along the way.

During the famine and civil war in Somalia one of our most appreciated projects was assisting in the digging of water wells in remote villages.  During the dry season the few rivers in the area would dry up with the result that young girls and women would have to trek many miles to get a dirty bucket of water.

Once we had addressed the severe situation of starvation in many villages we began a program of food for work.  We would provide a village with food if they would provide labor for various projects.  Often freshwater was the commodity most needed.  We would provide the tools and villagers would dig, by hand, water wells that sometimes went down 300 feet!  Once the wells were dug we would also provide concrete rings for lining the well to keep it from becoming contaminated or collapsing.  These projects were very popular.

It was April 21st, supposedly the hottest day in Somalia annually.  It was a scorcher and I was in a terrible mood.  We had worked very hard in this village to provide a deep, freshwater well for a place that often had people dying from a lack of water.  This area was not secure and we often had problems coming and going into this embattled environment.  But finally the well was completed and we were ready to pull up the first bucket of the freshwater.  But before we could draw the water, religious leaders from a nearby mosque showed up for the first time.  They surrounded this freshwater well, quoting from the Qur’an, and adding their editorial remarks.  On this scorching day of the year, one in which we felt that we deserved to celebrate the opening of this well and our partnership with this Muslim village, these religious leaders from the mosque sucked all of the joy out of the moment.

They said something like this. “We thank you Allah for sending these Christian slaves from America to serve your Muslim people.  We now dedicate this water to Islam and we thank you for the way you make Christians serve Muslims.”

I was ticked off.  I was quite angry that these religious leaders thought that they could steal my free will.  I was angry these leaders attempted to enslave our team also; especially these particular religious leaders who had not shoveled one spade of dirt nor placed themselves in danger during the weeks the well was dug.  Now I had to spend additional hot and dusty hours refuting the claims of these religious leaders while assuring the Somali people of this village that we had chosen to come to their village, chosen to love them in Jesus’ name, and we had chosen to be obedient to God by coming to their village.

Finally we began the long journey back to Mogadishu with my Chief of Staff and a retired bi-vocational pastor who had graciously come to Somalia with his wife, giving of their time sacrificially.  This pastor was very gifted in getting his hands dirty while retaining people skills of such a level that he seldom met a stranger.  It was at his suggestion that we stopped along the main road at what appeared to be Somalia’s version of a 7-Eleven store, just in hope that they might have a chilled Pepsi or Coke.  While Hassan and I sat in the truck our older colleague went in search of a cold drink.  I was beginning to worry that he had been gone way too long when he suddenly came at a trot from inside the tiny store.

Noticing his pale and scared face I asked him what was wrong.  He blurted out, “I think I just bought a girl and I might have just gotten married!”  I said, “Hassan please go into the store and find out how much trouble we are in.”  Hassan was gone for about 45 minutes before returning and informing us, “Yes, we now have a new wife for our brother here.”  Apparently this elderly man, forgetting all of his cultural orientation and training, had entered this small store that held three men and a beautiful young girl around 12 or 14 years of age.  Though he knew better, he patted this small, Muslim girl on the shoulder and said with country charm, “You are so cute that for $50 I will just take you home with me.”

Very quickly the girl’s father recited some words from the Qur’an and the other two men agreed with the verses read and the shop owner pronounced to the bi-vocational pastor that his daughter was now the American’s wife!

I was sweaty, tired of the 120° heat, frustrated by the battle with the religious leaders, and now this.  I asked Hassan what was the cultural thing that needed doing to get us out of this current mess and he went back into the store and was gone for about 45 minutes.  He returned to where I was sitting in the truck, and where my colleague was hiding, and informed us what it would take for us to culturally extract ourselves from this “wedding”.  The little girl was excited about being able to leave Somalia and her parents were thrilled with the thought of the resources which could come from such a ceremony. 

Hours later we were finally on the road to Mogadishu having culturally dealt with, and extracting ourselves from, the marriage issue.

As we drove the two hours to Mogadishu we began to decompress and our older colleague was able to joke about his near-wife experience.  Soon we were all laughing at how we had found ourselves in such a ridiculous situation and had finally extracted ourselves.  Laughing, we finally arrived at our team house in Mogadishu.  While Hassan and I thanked the guards and unloaded the tools and boxes from the back of the truck, our oldest colleague went into the team house and told his wife of many years of the “funny thing” that happened on the way home that day.

That was his second mistake.

Dolly Parton

I suppose that I should have turned left at the second mountain?

I envy the workers that go overseas today; armed with cell phones, GPS, and electronic gadgets that help them to find the most remote places while also aiding them in finding their way home.

Not so in Malawi, East Africa in 1985.  I had agreed to take some lady and her family from the hospital to their home village.  When I asked them where the village was located they all said in unison, “Not far!”  I was young enough and inexperienced in this cross-cultural stuff so I did not understand that any place, anywhere in a vehicle was “not far!”  I should have remembered the time when our family was driving down another mountain when a man frantically waved us down and begged for ride.  We squeezed him into the truck and drove for some time.  I kept glancing at him from the corner of my eyes, waiting for him to tell me when we had arrived at his village?  Finally I asked him straight out where he lived.  He looked at me, smiled and said,

“Oh I live in a village not far from where you picked me up.  I just wanted to ride in an automobile for the first time.  Let me out and I’ll walk back home.”

So here I was, having dropped off the family after their stay in the hospital.  And somewhere in the mountains of Malawi I was hopelessly lost with petrol stations, towns, and bathrooms, seemingly nonexistent.  Almost without warning I came over the top of a mountain and there was a small one-horse town.  As I went to the only shop that seemed to be open I couldn’t place the music that was coming out of a speaker so loud that you could hear from one end of the town to the other.

Finally it dawned on me that I was hearing Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner singing a duet!

Wondering how those country singers found their way on top of this mountain and in this town, I went into the store asking God in his mercy to provide me with the rare opportunity of purchasing a Coca-Cola or Pepsi.  When I asked the shop owner concerning the possibility of this miracle he just pointed to an old gas-powered fridge at the back of the store.  Opening the door of this ancient fridge, that must’ve come on the ark with Moses, I discovered two Pepsi Colas totally encased in ice.  Walking back to my truck, I got a hammer and screwdriver out of my toolbox and went back into the store and chiseled those two Pepsis out of the ice.  Going to the porch of the store I sat with my back to a termite infested post, pried the bottle caps off those colas, and leaned back and listened to Dolly and Porter wail their country song. It felt like I was back home in Kentucky.

About an hour later a man came to the town who could point me toward the right mountain pass I needed to find my way home.  30 years later I can still picture myself sitting on the wooden porch, covered with the dust of Africa, sipping a Pepsi, and listening to Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner singing the same song over and over and over again.

Life was good.