Tanzania’s Vwanji people welcome their New Testament

Matamba, Njombe Region, Tanzania

Bishop Stephen Nguvila was the last to enter the big church. He walked behind the procession of colorful choirs and somber dignitaries, many wearing clerical collars. Those in the congregation who knew the new Bishop from his former career smiled to see this humble man wearing a collar, golden rings, and a big cross—emblems of the high Lutheran office.

But today was not a “high holy day” when such full regalia would be required. Today for the Bishop culminated that former career—many years on a team of mother tongue Bible translators for the Vwanji people of southwestern Tanzania. Today the Vwanji community gathered to launch publication of the first complete New Testament in the Vwanji language.

Bishop Nguvila knelt before the altar, opening in prayer. The assembled choirs followed with a soaring a capella song in ancient, high-church tradition. Then, suddenly, an electric guitar broke in with a decidedly African riff. In an instant, visions of European cathedrals disappeared. The choirs, soon followed by many in the congregation, began clapping, swaying, and dancing to the local beat.

A distinctly African, distinctly Vwanji, celebration had begun.

However, the Vwanji people’s enthusiasm for their language and for Bible translation did not start today. As early as the 1960s Vwanji Christians had done a translation of Mark’s Gospel. But serious linguistic study and alphabet development began in 2003, when the Vwanji partnered with SIL. Shortly after, with assistance from SIL, Vwanji speakers began advanced training in translation principles. By 2008 a full-time team of well-trained mother tongue Vwanji speakers, including Nguvila, was underway with translation of the Vwanji New Testament.

Vwanji is one of thirteen languages spoken in the highlands of southwestern Tanzania, a land of rugged mountains. Steep plots of bananas, maize, or potatoes are plowed by farmers bundled against chill fog, swinging heavy hoes. All this is very far away from Tanzania’s famous savannas filled with elephants and roamed by tourists in safari vehicles.

SIL partners in linguistics, literacy, and Bible translation together with many of the language communities of this remote region. Mother tongue speakers work cooperatively at a central location under SIL’s Mbeya Cluster Project receiving training and technical support. From there they visit their communities regularly to meet church leaders, hold literacy classes, and test scripture drafts.

Now, after years of painstaking work, cases of Vwanji New Testaments have finally arrived. So now, choirs must sing and dance. Many guests must come. A truck must be found to haul firewood. Huge pots must be stirred. Speeches must be given.

The day’s festivities drew many government officials: from education, health, police, even the national parks. When at last the first box of Vwjanji New Testaments was opened for all to see, it was the Commissioner of the entire District who held the first copy high. She spoke to the gathered crowd, as commissioners do, of roads and crops. But she also praised the importance of mother tongue Scriptures. As she finished, a sturdy looking man struggled down the aisle carrying a huge sack of wheat on his head, a gift in appreciation of her visit.

A small caravan of SIL staff from the Mbeya office made the three hour drive to the Vwanji area. A bus followed by several four wheel drive vehicles started out on the narrow ribbon of precious asphalt that links neighboring Zambia and Malawi to the distant coast. After an hour crawling among container lorries and tankers, they dropped into the Rift Valley passing flooded rice fields. A dirt road then wound its way through acacia forest and up again, up the steep escarpment into the rolling green highlands of the Vwanji people.

Today’s Master of Ceremonies was the first Vwanji translator to get SIL training, Rev. Ahimidiwe Mahali. It was a great thrill for Mahali to watch the crowd gather, to hold one of the first copies, to see the chaos at the book table. (More than 200 New Testaments were sold that day.) Mahali recognized the first person in line, a simple guard, from a rural area, still wearing his gumboots. “I didn’t expect,” Mahali said smiling, “such a person would be the first to buy a copy.”  

But, for Mahali, none of that was the best part.

Mahali’s best Bible translation memories were seeing those Scriptures make impact in the Vwanji communities. “In the beginning of this work,” he said, “we were taking pieces of the text, checking them in the community. We would go to the people one by one. Or sometimes we read a portion in the church. You could see the difference our Vwanji language makes. You could see the Word touching people. You could really see it.”

And more recently, with some portions like Luke’s Gospel already published, pastors have been asking Mahali, “When are we getting the New Testament?” One pastor said, “I was preparing a sermon from the Swahili Bible and I didn’t get well [the meaning]. I took my English Bible, and I didn’t get it well. But when I took the book which you have translated in Vwanji, it was very clear.”

One of the men who today carried the box of Vwanji Scriptures up the aisle was long-time mother tongue translator Rev. Nahumu Mhalila. “You can always tell a Vwanji song from Swahili (the national language),” Nahumu says. ”Even if you don’t speak either language. Especially at a Vwanji funeral. At a funeral, people sing songs and everyone is sad. But when a song starts in Vwanji, that’s when everyone cries.”

But at today’s celebration, no one was crying. Though the speeches may have been Swahili, the songs were in Vwanji. Today, when a hymn started in Vwanji, the whole church was on its feet, dancing, jumping, joining in the song.

The words of one well-known Vwanji hymn were acted out by the choir using traditional weapons. Several women held great bamboo clubs over their heads, then slashed them to the floor, striking down invisible enemies as they sang. One man brandished a spear. But this Vwanji hymn declares that the weapons of the Christian life are very different: a Christian’s weapons are God’s words.

God’s words are powerful. And for the Vwanji, from today, God’s Word is with them.

This story was originally written for SIL Tanzania by:

Steve Pence (Language Teams Administrator, Mbeya Region)

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.