God’s Word now available for over 200,000 people…

Makete Town, Mbeya Region, Tanzania

“Japanese Express” is the name on the bus, but this line operates in East Africa. Somehow, its drivers manage the blind curves and steep dirt grades that connect towns and villages in the Livingstone Mountains of southwest Tanzania, home of the Kinga people. Here, tiny plots of corn or wheat hang from hillsides like notes pinned to a bulletin board. When a bus finally pulls into a gravel car park like the Makete Town bus stand, swarms of vendors hold baskets to the windows, offering roast maise, sodas, or bananas to passengers.

But today in the Makete bus stand, only a few meters away from this chaos, another crowd has gathered. Most sit in plastic chairs carried here on the heads of teenagers. Special guests are shaded by tarps spread over a wooden frame. A generator powers huge speakers. Choirs are wrapped in colors nearly as brilliant as the sun overhead. All these have come to the public bus stand to celebrate completion of a New Testament in their own language: the Kinga language.

“It would be very easy to use the Lutheran Church. All the facilities are there,” explained Rev. Saul Lwilla, mother tongue translator for the Kinga people. But the Kinga language committee refused.

No! It must be a neutral ground, they said. This Bible must be for all the Kinga people, not just one church. “Here we have Roman Catholic churches and Lutheran. We have Baptist, Pentecostal, and Moravian. We have all of these.”

The Church, in many forms, has been in these mountains for generations. But diversity of language — over twenty are spoken nearby — has often been a barrier to real understanding of the Gospel. One of today’s many speakers described the area’s first Christian sermon, delivered in 1891: A missionary preached in German. Another German who had lived in South Africa translated into Zulu. A visitor from Malawi knew Zulu and translated into his own tongue, Chichewa. Finally, a local pastor who understood Chechewa spoke to the crowd in Nyakyusa, a cousin language to Kinga, and one which many in the congregation could manage.

Now, however, God’s Word has a direct path to the hearts of the nearly quarter million speakers of Kinga.

This video commemoration of the Sangu New Testament launch event was created by Steve Pence, who served at the time as Language Teams Administrator for the Mbeya Cluster Project, and also wrote this story.

A highlight for many present was the public reading of that Word. A lineup formed from those who had learned to read Kinga. A young child, a teenager, several adults, and an elderly man took turns at the microphone. It was crucially important to demonstrate, Lwilla explained, that this Bible is easy to read for all ages. Early missionaries had published a previous Kinga New Testament. But mistakes were made in its alphabet, so reading was tough to learn.

But the translation being celebrated today is based on professional analysis of the Kinga language by linguists from SIL International, which has managed the Kinga translation project. “The new Kinga alphabet includes the right Kinga sounds,” Lwilla added, “and learning to read Kinga today is easy.”

Rev. Ahimidiwe Mahali is translation coordinator for SIL’s Mbeya Cluster Project, which has translation and language development work underway in thirteen of the area’s languages. Pastor Mahali was among the guests impressed by the reading. “When I saw that young boy read Kinga, I cried,” he confessed, tracing a line down his cheek, then touching his heart.

Later, Rev. Lwilla described some of the challenges still ahead for the Kinga Christian community and the new translation. “The Kinga pastors, most of them are using Kinga,” he said. “But they are not good readers of Kinga. The people would like their pastors to use this translation in their preaching and in their services.”

But pastoral training is often westernized, he went on. Seminaries teach in English and Swahili. “So I don’t really blame them,” Lwiila said. “But there is now a second step we need to take to help and encourage pastors to use this translation.”

“But, ” Lwilla said finally, “I feel we have done something remarkable, and God is going to bless people who are going to use this New Testament in Kinga.”

This story was 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.