The Ndaghaano Mpyaka Mu Lubwisi has been handed to the people.
Friday morning the pointy white party canopies were erected in the football field at Christ school, then lines of plastic chairs and mountains of speakers. Julia and I went down about 10:30 knowing that the event scheduled for 10 would begin between 11 and 12 . . but wanting to visit our friends Ndyezika and Juliet who had a baby girl two months ago while we waited. That was a very sweet time of thankfulness, seeing a new life whose impact and blessing we can only guess, and knowing the suffering and loss and waiting that the last five years have cost them. In that way Abigail and the New Testament are two concrete pictures of the same redemptive process, just as the Word came not only in sounds and writing but in flesh in Jesus.
We then milled about, greeting, talking, waiting, as hundreds of church leaders and community members gathered. Even our normal expectations of a long day of speeches were blown out of the water by this day. The ceremonies didn’t start until shortly before 1pm and went continuously until after 6 pm. That’s a marathon. But when you have something this important and you attract dignitaries from afar, well, everyone must have their say. The guest of honor was the head of the Church of Uganda Rwenzori Diocese from Fort Portal, who could not make it in person but sent another delegate from his office. There were Reverands and Bishops not only from that original Anglican stream but from the Presbyterians, Charismatic Episcopals, Seventh-Day Adventists, and Independent Pentecostals known as “Born Again.” Most excitingly, a delegation from DRC attended, since the Batalinga are close cousins of the Babwisi and in fact share the same language. Back in the late 80’s, our team formed and chose this area specifically to reach this language group and our original intention was to go to DRC. But a series of events led us to western Uganda instead, where it turns out there are actually more speakers.
And the ultimate dignitary who made a dramatic entrance just as we were beginning: the cultural King of the Baamba. Since cultural Kingdoms began to get recognition from the government, the Bakonjo people centered in Kasese (who form a solid minority in this district as well) chose a King and the Babwisi followed suit to assert their culture and avoid assimilation. So there were guards, anthems, standing, protocol, and this ululating noise with waving hands every time he stood up or walked.
Besides the locally invested religious and cultural groups, the main organizations supporting the project also sent representatives. SIL (Wycliffe)’s country and regional directors, the Bible Society of Uganda who did the printing, and of course our delegation of nearly 50 former and current Sergers. The Bensons who were part of our original team were the ones who sparked this language to be a focus for translation efforts, though they could only stay a few years here due to health issues with their second daughter and handed over to the Tabbs who stayed Wycliffe missionaries but functionally lived on our team for support.
All that to say, it takes a huge concerted team effort to translate a Bible. Yes, there are a few translators in an office, first missionaries then local speakers who are trained. Charles Musunguzi and Hannington Bahemuka did the bulk of the work right here a stone’s throw from our old house, in their office. But they were backed up by constant input and checking from SIL consultants, and every word was approved by the Translation Committee of the Semiliki to ensure broad understanding and acceptance. The team on the ground, the technical support from abroad, the funding from SEED company, all played a role. It is a sobering task to be the first ones to determine how God’s word is expressed for an entire culture. And a task with high cost. Over the 25 years of the project, families evacuated, wives died, war came, ebola came, people suffered who were invested in this work. It truly was a take-up-your-cross path that brings life and redemption in the end.
A Bible translation has an interesting cultural effect as well. The Babwisi/Batalinga/Baamba may number several hundred thousand, but in the grand scheme of the world that’s not a quorum that commands much power or attention. Their culture has been encroached upon by other tribes, and more recently by globalization, by the road, by the erosion of time and media and money. Yet encoding the language, deciding on sounds and vowels and an alphabet, standardizing words, has a preserving effect. This is beautiful and important, because God’s image in humanity can not be contained in one culture, but each gives a different facet to an unknowable-in-fullness glory.
But paradoxically, there can be a danger in a day like yesterday. The King, the pomp, the language could be used to exclude or to divide. Bundibugyo district has been torn apart by clashes between tribes in the last few years as these cultural Kingdoms are seen to provoke fear and grabbing for survival. Several speakers addressed this obliquely yesterday, reminding us that the word of God comes to show us primarily his LOVE, and that brings peace. Scott decided to address the issue of tribalism head on, and as soon as he got to that sentence in his speech, the power for the district went out. The microphones fell silent. It isn’t easy to speak to an audience of many hundreds of people outdoors spread over an area the size of half a football field without a microphone. Nevertheless, the crowd fell very silent and he shouted his message aloud. He took the Gospel of resting secure in God’s love a step further and declared “May this translation make the Babwisi a people who are known by their love for their enemies.” As he said to the team afterwards, if you didn’t believe in spiritual warfare you should now. The enemy of our souls wants us to fear and hate each other, and yet the Gospel written on the pages of this book brings the antidote.
Over five hours of songs and speeches can’t be contained in a blog post, even one this long. Pictures will follow from Jack. There were dramatic moments when the Bibles where held up and officially presented to the church leaders, there were songs and dances, there were photo ops and hugs. But rejoice with us that the New Testament, Genesis, and of course Jonah (the first book translated because it is short and simple) all are now available to the people of Bundibugyo. And pray they will read, and experience God in new and deep ways, and that that Presence heals the wounds of war and fear.