The birds of the heavens declare the glory of God
In 2018-2019 a linguist-bird-watcher produced a carefully-researched poster of the top 50 birds of Jos and central Nigeria, with birds such as the African Grey Woodpecker, Common Bulbul, Red-billed Firefinch and the exquisite African Paradise Flycatcher. The poster has English, Latin/Scientific and Hausa names for the birds but often local people know the bird and know its name in the local language but have no idea what it’s called in English, let alone the Scientific name. So as an experiment, the Ashɛ translators and literacy workers gathered around the poster to see what birds they could recognise.
Quickly the Common Bulbul (Pyncnonotus barbatus) was recognised as ‘ekwar’, and the Red-billed Firefinch (Lagonosticta senegala) as ‘ekpacik’ and the Red-eyed Dove (Steptopelia semitorquata) as ‘eŋgbɛnɛu o udẽẽ’ amongst many others. It was fascinating to see all this indigenous knowledge come out and be shared between young and old on the team, knowledge that might otherwise be needlessly lost. Some of these bird species show up in the traditional stories we have studied in translator training, and this kind of ‘ethnobotany’, often neglected, is part of giving God the glory he is due. While many people in the area are sacrificing their future for immediate short term wealth, cutting down trees without replanting, seeing no value or beauty in God’s rich creation, it fits right in with God’s creation mandate to recognise all these different birds and the local meaningful names that Ashɛ people have handed down from generation to generation.
Young people in a materialistic age may be tempted to look down on their heritage — the language, the land, the culture, the creatures that God has given them — for the sake of speaking English, moving to the city, gaining the gadgets, wealth, prestige, power and influence that everyone seems to chase after. Bible wisdom suggests that kind of idolatry is foolish, futile and quite unfulfilling. Perhaps this is why Jesus spoke of God’s love and care for his creation in his teaching in Luke 12:22ff
“And so I tell you not to worry about the food you need to stay alive or about the clothes you need for your body. Life is much more important than food, and the body much more important than clothes. Look at the crows: they don’t sow seeds or gather a harvest; they don’t have storerooms or barns; God feeds them! You are worth so much more than birds!”
Of course birds common in Nigeria are not always going to correspond to the birds of Israel and in our Ishɛ translation of Luke’s gospel the translators followed the widely used Hausa version and tamely used a generic onoŋ ’bird’ here. But perhaps we could have captured Jesus’ teaching more vividly by using the iŋkpok irek ‘pied crow’ instead. In God’s way of running the world, even the very smartest of birds like this gets by without storehouses and stockpiling that people can be so taken up with.
Congratulations and thanks to Matthew Harley, contributing bird-spotters and photographers and Eden Creation Care Initiative for the poster.