The Ndali people celebrate their completed New Testament

Ndembo Town, Songwe Region, Tanzania

Handshakes are long in East Africa, and often loud — with great shouts and much laughter as old friends meet. Women give a deep, dignified curtsy from their knees, with backs held tall and straight as if still carrying a heavy headload of firewood or green bananas. Some men grab each other like bears, press their torsos together, slap backs, then switch their heads to the other side for another huge embrace.

This morning a simple country church was surrounded by the roar and tumult of greeting. From all corners of Tanzania, speakers of the Ndali language had gathered in the Ndali heartland for a celebration. This morning they celebrated completion of the first New Testament in their mother tongue.

Ndali people live in the rugged highlands of southwest Tanzania. Theirs is a land of red and green — red soil and red brick cottages with red metal roofs. But it is the intensity of green that can take a visitor’s breath away. Hillsides are thick with banana fronds and dotted with bamboo. Upper ridges often bear the stately remains of ancient forests, the tallest canopies shrouded in cool mist.

But far below, in one narrow valley, history was made. “This day will be remembered from generation to generation,” according to Safari Mbughi, one of several mother tongue Ndali translators who have labored for years over this New Testament.  As the visiting District Commissioner said to the crowd, “Not since God created Earth and Heavens has the Ndali people had a writing in their language.”

Perhaps it was Dan King who made the longest trek, travelling from the UK to attend the event. Dan served the Ndali as Translation Advisor for SIL International, which has Bible translation and language development work underway in thirteen of the area’s languages. For Dan, “It was the congregation, the audience, and how they expressed the importance of their own language and culture. Watching their reaction was really special.” How they would jump to their feet at the first notes of an old Ndali song. How they reacted to those giving speeches. How they expressed their feelings, how they responded to the cues they knew — the Ndali words for things.

This video commemoration of the Ndali 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.

Another Ndali translator and pastor, Boniface Mbande, also knows about watching congregations. Many Ndali churches are located over the border in neighboring Malawi, where Boniface preached for years. “Whenever people tried to preach in English, many people could say ‘No I don’t understand that.’ Whenever they preached in Swahiil [Tanzania’s national language], still they could not understand because that is a foreign language. But when they preached in the Ndali language, many could shout! And many could agree with what was preached! And now both Ndali people in Tanzania and in Malawi will have a New Testament in the language they understand well.

“So the translation has brought a very big achievement to the Ndali people,” Mbande continued. “Because the Word of God will be read by the Ndali people, and actually will bring impact, that is change of lives. Many will turn to Jesus Christ.”

It was two Ndali literacy workers who had the day’s highest honor. Striding into the church, at the head of a parade of singing choirs, they carried the first box of printed Ndali New Testaments, swinging their precious load to the beat.

Another high point was the public reading of several passages from the new Ndali Scriptures by people of various ages. As Mbughi said, “Children can read. Sisters and daughters can read it. Old people also can read freely, showing that what we have translated is understood.”

Finally, Mbughi said of his people, “They are very happy and they welcome the Bible with the happiest heart. People have welcomed it with two hands,” he said, holding his hands outstretched, but clapped together, as if in a great East African handshake.

“It means a good welcome!”

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.