Tanzania’s Simbiti community celebrates their completed New Testament
Nyanchabakenye Village, Mara Region, Tanzania, 31 August 2021 —
“The Lord speaks to us in our language, praise the Lord! We have now God’s Word in Simbiti! Simbiti people say Oye!”
It sounds like “Oh yay!” And a growing crowd shouts it back in response to a well-known and colorfully dressed local musician who’s leading them in procession through the dusty streets of the village. Choirs in the crowd add songs. The scene is far more dancing than marching.
The Simbiti language community (about 35,000 people according to Ethnologue) live in northern Tanzania, not far from Lake Victoria and the Kenyan border. After 12 years of translation and language development work, the community and team have recently completed the New Testament in their own language. Now they’ve gathered to officially receive it and celebrate as a community.
“It was a very joyful event,” said one guest from a partner organisation. “In the middle of the crowd I saw several people carrying a large box, covered entirely in beautiful gift wrapping with ribbons and bows. The parade went from the translation team’s new local office, through the village to a big church that was hosting on behalf of all the area churches.”
“That day’s celebration was not easy,” added Albinus Waynse, Simbiti Translator and Mara Cluster Translation Adviser and Coordinator. “It was market day, and the market is far from this place. It was the funeral day for one of the bishops, so some attended the funeral which was far. And even our main office is not near to the Simbiti area, especially where the celebration was. But the people were very happy to see that now the Simbiti New Testament was in their hands.”
As the parade met others arriving at the church, seats filled and guests of honor said their greetings. “The choirs sang such meaningful songs,” said Andrew Olson, with Lutheran Bible Translators working on Ukerewe island. “One was called Safari Yangu [it means “My Journey” in Swahili, Tanzania’s national language]. These Simbiti Christians were expressing how God leads us, how his Word is a light to our path.”
Passionate speeches were in good supply, as always. The Simbiti Translators themselves, Albinus Waynse and Robert Mago, recounted how the Lord had guided them through the years of work and how it impacted them personally. “The theme I heard from most speakers,” said Olson, “was encouragement to the Simbiti community to proactively engage with God’s Word. ‘Now that we have this precious gift,’ they were saying, ‘let’s not leave it on the shelf to look at — let’s use it, put it to work in our lives.’ ”
Another Translation Consultant, André Kamphuis, roused a cheer when he put it this way: “If a hunter brings home a choice game animal to feed his family,” he asked, “but his wife does nothing to cook it, that would be a shame, right? This book of God’s Word is the Bread of Life for us… it’s not sweet like a soda, but sweet like real honey.”
Olson was struck by symbolic details throughout the celebration. “That big gift-wrapped box they carried in the processional,” he recalled, “they gave it a place of honor during the ceremony. When they finally opened it, with a lot of show, it was the first Simbiti New Testaments. What a great picture. They chose to say, ‘This is the gift of God to us.’ ”
When those first books were lifted from the box, one copy was handed to a woman who had been chosen to publicly read a passage. She opened it and found Matthew 28:19, “Go and make disciples of all nations.”
“She took the reading very seriously,” Kamphuis said. “With a clear voice, and with discernible joy, she read these words to her own people. It was probably the best verse she could have picked. So many evangelists and devoted Christians have expressed their hope and belief that this translation will enable the Church to spread the Gospel among the Simbiti people and disciple them. I rejoice to see that this New Testament is now ready to be used for that very purpose. God will be honoured.”
The morning’s parade leader had another gift for those gathered. With his band of players on fiddle, flute, and a large drum, he performed a new original song in Simbiti that he had prepared just for the occasion. “What a day of joy this is,” the song declared, “We are gathered here to see the Simbiti Bible!”
The lines were quickly picked up by some in the crowd, who joined in singing. Dozens joined one of the bishops, who jumped to his feet and danced with the band. “That same bishop,” one guest noted, “donated hundreds of copies of these Simbiti Scriptures for people in the local community who can’t afford to buy one.”
Another encouraging message came from the Mara Cluster Advisory Committee Secretary, Bishop Daniel Ouma. “How do we hope to be remembered?” he asked. “Many Simbiti people will look back at this day, many who will be saved through this Scripture. We are very thankful for this Simbiti New Testament.”
The ceremonies in the church eventually spilled out into the grounds outside, where the crowd shared a traditional feast and thronged around the team to buy copies of the New Testament. “I’ve never seen book sales get this excited,” said Olson. “Folks were taking their new Scriptures, and spreading out across the field in groups to read them, to show them off. People were taking Bible selfies!”
“Seeing the joy of the Simbiti people,” Olson added, “as they received the Word of God was one of the greatest joys of my career in Bible Translation. Young and old, their eyes were full of light when they looked intently into the Word of God in their own language.”
As the celebration continued, Mago had one last message. “I want to say thank you,” he said, “to everyone who has helped make this possible. I know the Word of God will bring a big change in the Simbiti community.”
Waynse said, “Please can you imagine how happy I was on that day?”
This story was written for SIL Tanzania by:
Kenny Grindall (Communications Coordinator)
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.