Celebrating the completed Sangu language New Testament

Utengule Town, Mbeya Region, Tanzania

“Wapalila! Wapalila!” Everyone shouted at once and the bus lurched to a stop. Evangelist Job Wapalila, looking a bit sheepish for almost missing the big event, managed to cram himself on board. Wapalila is a mother tongue Bible translator, as were most of today’s passengers. They represent almost all of the languages spoken in the highlands of southwest Tanzania — at least thirteen. All have been working as part of a team with SIL International to provide God’s word to their own people.

It is a team that has been astoundingly successful, as today’s celebration would testify. Today they would celebrate completing the New Testament for the Sangu people — the sixth New Testament completed by this team in the last two years.

The bus inched past the market district of Mbeya town, choked with three-wheelers, push carts, and mothers in colorful cloth with babies wrapped onto their backs. There were no tourists in safari vehicles. But Tanzanians come to Mbeya from all over the highlands to buy fertilizer or to have a truck overhauled. Mbeya made an ideal location for a language office — a place with good power and internet where translators could work efficiently, yet close enough to language communities for constant checking of Bible texts.

As the narrow highway began a steep descent, the bus took its place in a line of slow-moving lorries. The acrid smell of hot brakes was soon overpowering. They were dropping into East Africa’s famous rift valley and the home of the Sangu people. Big-humped cows lay in the thin shade of thorn trees. Brick kilns, like dun colored mini-pyramids, rose from the plane. Tiny rice fields, ringed by weedy berms, stood parched and brown, waiting for rain.

One of today’s passengers had travelled from Switzerland. Andy Huber worked for five years with the Sangu as Translation Advisor. Among Andy’s favorite memories was seeing a Sangu translator have an “Ah-ha!” moment, when a Bible text would come to life with real understanding. “It’s not easy to have such an experience in Swahili,” Andy explained. “Even though Swahili is spoken in many places here, it’s still not the language people learn early on.”

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.

One of the Sangu translators once told him, “You know, Andy, I’ve been a Christian a long time. But being in this project, working on this translation, it’s like being in a Bible school. It has shown me anew what life with Jesus is about.” He was realizing in-depth, by interacting with the word of God in his own language. “It’s like I’m born again.”

Eventually the bus pulled into an open village market. Young men hoisted 100 kg sacks of rice. Noisy three wheeled tractors passed. Visitors, choirs, and passerbys gathered around an open sided tent, built from branches and tarps. Children sat on dusty leaves. Tall cattle herders, robed and beaded, stood at the fringes.

Honored guests gave speeches. Choirs sang and the crowd danced. Huge speakers blared. The Sangu New Testament was unwrapped and held high. Sangu people opened their copies for the first time and turned pages slowly.

Sangu translator Yoram Chapaulinge summed up the day: “I saw many, many, many people coming to buy and take the Bible for their families’ use. So, I said ‘Ah! I see the future is good! The Light of God to the Sangu community is there!’ I see the people of God receiving the Word of God as well as receiving God himself.”

This story was originally written for SIL Tanzania by:

Steve Pence (Language Teams Administrator, Mbeya Region)

SIL International is a global leader 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.