“It feels so good to see change and hope in our people…”

26 May 2023, Njombe Town, Njombe Region, Tanzania

“God is doing great things,” says Joshua Mhelela. “Bena people are hearing the gospel. They are being saved from their sins, and we can see changes.”

Joshua, local pastor and married father of five, is one of the Bena speakers who trained and worked for years as a translator on the Bena New Testament project. He and his colleagues have now completed that work, begun 18 years earlier, and they are excited to be part of the big celebration.

Copies of the complete translated Bena language New Testament, on its inauguration day, captivated everyone present including pastors and other local leaders, project partner representatives, and even government officials. (photo: Emmanuel Mwankosole)

Njombe is a large town in the heart of southern Tanzania’s Bena language community, just over half a million people strong. The Bena translation team are part of a Cluster Project office in Mbeya, almost five hours distant by road. Still their colleagues in Mbeya filled a 25-seat rented coach before dawn that morning to make the trek and join the celebration with them.

On the grounds of a partner church the crowd grew to hundreds, and the sound grew to announce the festive event and draw still more. Ceremonies began with a street procession to the church grounds, with choirs and a marching band, then nearly an hour of songs – many in the Bena language – from those choirs. “The Bena people love to promote their language,” said one in the crowd. “They love singing hymns in the Bena language.”

In 2004, the Bena translation project kicked off with years of work to develop the language’s orthography (systems of spelling, writing). In those earliests days, the team also translated and published Mark’s Gospel, Ruth and Jonah.

“Around my home in those days,” said Mhelela, “people there were not believers. But now there are many denominations. Notorious people are no more notorious, and most people who worshiped other gods they don’t practice that anymore. Those beliefs are fading away.”

At the celebration, songs eventually gave way to speeches. How great a milestone this day represents, for the Bena community’s culture and history, was reflected in a long line of VIP guests who were recognised and asked to speak. Like the songs, many were in Bena.

At the Bena New Testament ‘launch’ event, music by those gathered included not only the numerous local church choirs but also bands of instrument players like this one of various drums and concert horns. (photo: Elizabeth Broomhall)

“I am very happy to be here celebrating with you today,” began one speaker, in Swahili. “I thank God for all he has done.” Elizabeth Broomhall, from the UK, served the Bena team many years as a Translation Advisor. “My first work was to help them translate Gospel of Mark,” she went on. “It was a great privilege to learn their knowledge of their language.”

The translation team enjoyed healthy support from the Bena community over the years. Many volunteers make activities in the language area possible, such as reviewers’ meetings and community testing of translated Scriptures. More church denominations came on board as the project progressed, boosting unity among churches in the area. Churches and other groups provided meeting rooms and accommodation for translators and other workers.

“Even the dedication ceremony and now distribution of Bena New Testaments,” said one of the team, “have only been possible thanks to these partner relationships.”

From the beginning of the celebration day, a group of about half a dozen young men distributed a variety of Bena language materials. Once the New Testaments were ceremoniously dedicated, they kept busy serving those who came to buy a copy.

“Given the high appreciation for the Bena New Testament that was reflected in the speeches,” added Broomhall, “and the number of church leaders present, I think these Scriptures will be widely used. Churches will use them to teach and build up believers in God’s word in a language that touches them at heart level.”

One of the women who celebrated the Bena New Testament dedication day event, and spent precious shillings on her own copy, excitedly shares it with others in the crowd. (photo: Emmanuel Mwankosole)

“When I preach using my own language,“ said Mhelela, “it touches hearts because they know their own language. They can hear God speaking their language. I see people leaving their bad and old customs, and turning to God. It’s a preacher’s purpose to share the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ. So I feel good to see change and hope in our people.”

“I’m very happy the people receive this New Testament,” Mhelela continued. “And they want us to continue with the Old Testament. But some say our Bena language has no value in society. They ask if I can do this, such a young man with very little education. I can see that I have a great responsibility, and I think this work is God’s purpose for me.”

“The most important thing is that you know God,” said Broomhall during her speech to the crowd. “That you grow in relationship with him, through his word. My prayer is that you will embrace this book, immerse yourself in these words, and grow in your relationship with God as a result. Thank you very much.”

featured photo, top of page: During celebration of the Bena New Testament, a big highlight was this mixed choir singing one of the songs that were in Bena that day, led by (far right, brown suit) one of the Bena translators. (photo: Elizabeth Broomhall)