By guest blogger Steve Pence, Translation Administrator in Mbeya, Tanzania
As we began our trip through the high country of Mbeya Region in southwestern Tanzania, my motorcycle taxi driver looked at me skeptically with the face of a mischievous teenager. In my meager Swahili I told him that I was an old man and very afraid. He laughed and accelerated as I gripped the frame behind my back, willing myself to stay on. I soon realized he was a very skilled driver, fast but surprisingly smooth over the increasingly rough road. At mud holes, he put his boots on the ground and steadied the bike, walking it through. On especially rough downhill stretches we danced along, almost in slow motion.
Ahead of me on the road were my colleagues, Waya and Lawi, each on another motorcycle taxi. They are translating portions of the Bible into their own local language, Safwa. Today I would witness the testing of a draft of Matthew in a Safwa community.
Reaching our destination, we stood under the eaves of a building, trying to escape a steady drizzle. The motorcycle drivers huddled with us. Waya and Lawi took advantage of the opportunity, pulling out their trial texts of the Gospel of Matthew. The texts were printed in a large font and double spaced, with lots of room to write. Peppered across each page were words and phrases highlighted in pink, each of which needed to be investigated to make sure it communicated clearly and accurately.
With almost no introduction, just a few words saying that they were translating the Scriptures, Waya and Lawi began reading the Safwa words aloud. It was as if electricity shot through the air. One moment men quietly waited out a storm on a day that had turned gray and wet and sleepy. The next moment, eyes popped and hands waved as everyone tried to talk at once.
Lawi and Waya both started writing, scratching through words, drawing arrows into margins and making notes. A word they had used for “axe” was unknown here. It was used in another Safwa town at the bottom of the hill, but not up here on the mountain. And up here people don’t use the same word for killing another person as they do for killing a plant or a cow. Here they use a special word for each. Still, nearly everyone nodded in amazement, saying “Yes, this is real Safwa!”
As more people gathered, we were invited down the street and into a room. It was, as Waya called it, “a simple hotel.” We sat on a bench while others sat on empty buckets. The dirt floor was wet. A fire smoldered in the corner beside a collection of big thermos bottles, probably containing tea or hot milk. A single bare bulb dangled unlit from a rafter.
The animated conversation over God’s Word continued without a pause. One teenager excitedly told us he was born again. Another confessed, “I’m not born again. I don’t even go to church now.” But all were glued to the Safwa Scriptures being read and discussed.
In another town that afternoon, Waya approached a roadside checkers game and quickly drew keen interest from the crowd. In this area, isolated on rough mountain roads, few people have yet heard of the Safwa Bible translation project. Waya’s crowd was even amazed that their language could be written at all. So Waya explained the Safwa alphabet as people took seats on culverts scattered about. A donkey joined them, enjoying the tall grass. Waya gave examples of Safwa words that could not be written in Swahili, the national language taught in schools, but could be written in the new Safwa alphabet. People nodded and grinned. A second printout of Safwa Scriptures was passed around.
When it was time to go, one young man stood and said, “Safwa! This is good! I understand it very well. I have been made happy.”
All across the highlands of southwest Tanzania, an area the size of Austria, scenes like these are being replayed as drafted Scripture portions are painstakingly checked in village after village. Eventually, more than three million people speaking thirteen languages will have God’s Word. Each of you has a part in this. Thank you!