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Apr 6, 2016

A New Alphabet Comes Ashore

Written by Kenny G
image: Kisi orthography meeting A tree by the lake makes an outdoor classroom where
Kisi people learn their new alphabet.

Captivated by lanterns sparkling from fishing boats that spread nightly across the vast, dark waters, David Livingstone called it the Lake of Stars. Lake Nyasa, as it is known today, is one of the largest and deepest lakes in the East African Rift system. The southern highlands of Tanzania come to a wild, abrupt end here, where the Livingstone Mountains—still not fully explored—tumble steeply into the Great Rift and into Lake Nyasa. Deep, forested canyons open suddenly onto famously stormy waters.

Along this inhospitable water line (one can hardly call it a shore) cling villages of the Kisi, who may be among the most remote communities remaining in East Africa still without the Bible in their own language.

In spite of logistical challenges, SIL International has been working with the Kisi people to write down their language in preparation for Bible translation. A group from the Mbeya Cluster Project traveled to the Kisi heartland recently to test the orthography (writing system, i.e. alphabet), which has been under development for three years.

Speaking for the whole team, linguist Hazel Gray explained, “We wanted to go to the villages where people are speaking pure Kisi. We wanted to find out if the writing system we had worked out actually made sense to them. We wanted the Kisi to approve it, because this is their language.”

Hazel is energetic, with a passion for order in her work and on her desk. She’ll also flash you a mischievous smile after asking a particularly tough question.

“So we brought various different tests,” she added, “including a reading test using a story written out in the Kisi orthography that we’ve developed. We try to work with people who can already read Swahili. We then ask five or six people in each village to read through a passage, and we just see how they do—where they struggle.”

Lake Nyasa’s northern shore is six hours’ drive from the Mbeya SIL Office, the last half on “good dirt” roads, busy with lorries hauling bananas, cocoa, and local laborers. At the lake, our team transferred a week’s worth of drinking water, their notebooks, 100 liters of fuel, and 4 liters of 2-cycle oil to a small wooden skiff they rented from the local Catholic church.

Philemon Mwilonga, partnership officer for the cluster (and a veteran of five boat trips to the Kisi), had arranged everything, but this light boat was not to his liking.

“You have to bounce. Pah! Pah! Pah!” he said, nervously, as he recalled riding the big lake’s swells. So Philemon didn’t end up standing and laughing in the bow with Simon Bukuku, one of the team’s literacy specialists, who actually enjoyed the lively ride.

On previous trips, SIL teams squeezed themselves into one of the wooden hulks that wallow up and down the lake ferrying local cargo and residents. Philemon liked the slow pace, but little else. Those first aboard get “seats” on crossbeams, others ride sacks of maize or fish. On days when a big load floats perilously low, everyone helps bail. Once, fuel ran out mid-crossing. Good trips are just long and hot—twelve hours without shade or facilities.

Even the hired skiff took six hours of “bouncing” to make the first Kisi enclave. The group arrived well after dark and, since there was no guest house in the village, the travelers were hosted by villagers in their homes.

Philemon, as partnership officer, provides the link between the Kisi community and colleagues from his team in Mbeya, like Hazel. Part of his role is to help the different parties understand each other and work well together. Sometimes there are challenges, as Philemon explained:

“So I went to report to two pastors that we had arrived. I asked them, ‘Did you arrange anything for our work tomorrow?’” The first pastor has not been expecting the team, since the lack of phone network in the area means that messages can take days or weeks to get through, and it can be difficult to make plans in advance. However, he welcomed the group, saying, Since you have come, and our village is very small, I can arrange and find people. Another pastor said, Oh, I knew you were coming. I will try to go and ask people.”

The community was happy and eager to learn about the development of the written form of their language. In each village the team was warmly welcomed. They had good turnouts for sessions on how the new Kisi alphabet works. Where too many had gathered to squeeze into a village office, they met under a big tree by the lake.

Hazel remembered one man especially, who chuckled every time something new came up. There are lots of sounds in Kisi that are just not represented well by using the Swahili alphabet that Tanzanians learn in public school. For example, the Kisi have a j but they also have a jzha sound. You can’t write them both with j because two different words would look exactly the same. “He just sat there,” Hazel recalled “and laughed to himself, as if to say, ‘I can finally write my language!’ He was very excited. It was very sweet to see.”

In one village, a woman stood and spoke for her people...

“We know that our language will now be among the languages. People did not recognize us, that our Kisi was a good language. Now we have a [written] language! Thank you!”

The Kisi still fish at night on Lake Nyasa. They have traded the lanterns David Livingstone saw for banks of LED lights powered by car batteries. The Gospel has also made the difficult journey to the land of the Kisi, but for the young Church here to prosper, they need God’s Word. By creating an alphabet, they have taken a big step. The Kisi now “have a language."


story by Steve Pence; photos by Hazel Gray


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