Rains kept down the crowd’s numbers, but not their joy…

Kyela Town, Mbeya Region, Tanzania —

A decade-long Scripture translation project has culminated in the publication of the complete New Testament in the Nyakyusa language. The team is part of SIL Tanzania’s Mbeya Cluster Project working with over a dozen language communities in the area. Despite steady rains and localised flooding, people have come from around Mbeya Region and abroad to mark the milestone with a day of celebration.

From the translation team’s office in Mbeya, colleagues who want to join in the festivities fill a 30-seat bus hired for the day. In early morning fog, they pass the three-hour trip to Kyela by singing praise songs. One of the two Nyakyusa translators, Pastor Edwin Kanyiki, recalls his experience joining the team.

“I heard a radio advertisement and applied,” Kanyiki says. “I was chosen but my church did not want to let me come, so another took the job. Eight months later, the team asked if I will still like to come. I said yes, and this time my church agreed, so I attended a training seminar. In February 2011, I began the work.”

In Kyela Town, the Nyakyusa project’s two-man Literacy / Scripture Engagement team has been working all week with the local language committee and volunteers to make final preparations for the celebration. As the bus arrives from Mbeya, a traditional tea is ready for all the guests. Then everyone begins to fill the church, an old Moravian sanctuary now nestled inside a larger structure being raised to replace it.

Senior Translator for the Nyakyusa project, Andrew Mwamatandala, remembers their struggles to build the team. “I started full-time work in 2010,” he says. “But many other candidates could not come to Mbeya. It was hard for them to leave their families. But I did not fear. I wanted only to get a good Scripture for Nyakyusa, because the old translation has become hard for people to read—and it is difficult to find copies.”

The day’s ceremonies kick off with a procession. Local dignitaries and other honoured guests march from the nearby translation office together with the team, following a woman proudly carrying a large box of New Testaments on her head. Once inside the church, they are welcomed by a local church choir in vibrant song and dance. For several hours, music alternates with sermons and speeches from pastors and community leaders. More choirs lead the crowd in celebration, even with songs written and sung in Nyakyusa language.

“I knew nothing about translation when I began,” Kanyiki continues. ”It was even a big challenge for me just to learn to use the computer and other tools, because I did not get that in school. But since then, my translation work has helped me more and more, to preach and teach in my church.”

“One of the translators told me about experiencing God in his work,” says Ahimidiwe Mahali, the team’s Translation Coordinator. “Whether we get the New Testament or not, he told me, we have been getting the message. Understanding the Scriptures, as they translate verse by verse, is helping them serve in their community.”

Estimated at nearly one million strong, the Nyakyusa language community spreads across three districts in western Tanzania and one in northern Malawi. “We struggled to reach those in Malawi,” says Dan King, Translation Advisor for the Nyakyusa team, “until we used an SIL plane to visit. Suddenly, we were able to meet many leaders including the chief. We spent a week traveling to villages, recording people speaking and having them read our books to see if they work.”

When every scheduled speaker and honoured guest has addressed the crowd, it’s time to open the box. Local leaders gather round, some break the colourful wrapping, and one triumphantly holds a Nyakyusa New Testament high above her head. The crowd erupts in joyful cheers and ululation.

“I saw pastors speaking Nyakyusa at this event,” says Mwamatandala. “Many of us understand well, but have trouble with grammar. When they hear a preacher use our language, they get very happy. They long for Nyakyusa to be used again in their church services.”

“Nyakyusa was the last team,” Kanyiki remembers, “the last to begin in the Mbeya Cluster Project. But we worked hard and long, sometimes even at night. Now we are the first team in Mbeya to finish the New Testament!”

With the box of New Testaments now open, prayers of thanksgiving and dedication fill the church. Then the Nyakyusa Language Committee chairman and master of ceremonies oversee a special time of recognition for the translation team members, with gifts and words of encouragement given to each.

As they accept the honours, each has words of inspiration for the people in return. “Even our children can understand this Scripture,” says Kanyiki. “Now we will be able to know God better,” adds Mwamatandala. And from Mahali, “Your New Testament has come at the right time. If you can get one, you should read it.”

As the official ceremonies close, with more songs from the choirs, people make their way back across the muddy field to the translation office. The Literacy and Scripture Engagement teams have many Nyakyusa language resources available for purchase, including teaching materials, story booklets, and the printed New Testament. The first items to sell out are flash drives and memory cards which contain not only the New Testament in text and audio recordings, but also the JESUS film in Nyakyusa.

While some linger over the table filled with Nyakyusa language resources, others join the crowd at tables filled with food. Happy feasting continues until everything is gone, and people begin to leave so they can get home before dark. Back on the bus for the return to Mbeya, the translation team and their colleagues watch the Nyakyusa JESUS film and swap stories about the day’s events.

“Be confident to use the Nyakyusa New Testament in your church services,” King tells the people. “Use it in your Bible studies and prayer meetings.” Minority language speakers, King explains, often engage well with their Scriptures privately but struggle to bring it into the world of public worship. When they do, it makes a huge difference in the level of understanding and discipleship in the community. “Until a generation ago, the Nyakyusa did that all the time,” he adds. “Now they can start to do it again.”

This story was written for SIL Tanzania by:

Kenny Grindall (Communications Coordinator)

SIL International is a global partner among academic and professional organisations which offer language development services. SIL works alongside speakers of more than 1,700 languages in over 100 countries. Active in Tanzania since 1989, the organization makes its services available to all without regard to religious belief, political ideology, gender, race or ethnolinguistic background.