Over a century since they first heard about Jesus, the Nyole people of Uganda finally have the New Testament, translated into their own language.
— Butaleja, Uganda
On a bright Saturday morning in eastern Uganda, Nyole children playing and riding their bikes in a large dirt field stop to watch a caravan of large trucks arrive. Most are full of tents, chairs, and sound equipment. One is filled with large cardboard boxes.
Within minutes, the grounds are buzzing with action. A large crew sets up seating areas. Small clusters of townspeople slowly fill every shady spot. One man pulls a box from the truck, and carefully cuts it open to reveal a stack of books. From the other people gathered around there rises a soft “Praise God” and “Hallelujah.”
This is the New Testament. It is written, for the first time, in Nyole.
Two rows of tents now extend from either side of a giant tree. Another crew builds a covered podium opposite the tents. The crowd swells quickly into the hundreds.
More people arrive, now dressed differently. They are members of numerous local church choirs, and a small marching band from a nearby school. A man's voice in the loudspeakers introduces himself as an emcee of the day, and makes a brief prayer. “We begin this morning,” he continues, “with a parade through this town. The band and choirs will lead in singing and dancing, as we invite more of our neighbours to come and see what God has done for the Nyole people. And if you want to go with us, you are very welcome!”
Of the still-growing throng, nearly half get back up and join the parade as it forms a dusty arrow aimed straight toward the main market street.
“Nyole people have a proverb,” said Enoch Wandera, the team’s Translation Consultant. “‘Negenda epola yoosi yoola hu munyo’ literally means, ‘Even a cow which walks slowly will also reach the water drinking place.’ Today, after all these years, we have achieved a very important milestone in our long, slow journey to have God's Word in our mother tongue.”
“Before I became a translator,” Wandera continued, “I served as a pastor for the Anglican churches in this area. One day, a man in my parish came to me troubled by a recent sermon.” A lay leader had seriously misunderstood a verse from the Bible in the national language, which had been translated very literally...
“Well, I laboured to set the man's heart at rest,” Wandera said. “Some time later, I was organising a workshop in my church. Another workshop was also happening, and the church sent me to attend so we could learn ideas to improve the event which I was preparing.”
In that other workshop, a translation training team was evaluating candidates to serve as a Nyole language and culture teacher for them. They also hoped that person could later be trained to serve as a Nyole translator.
“Near the end of their workshop,” Wandera recalled, “they gave us several tests — and I beat everyone! When I remember that man's trouble, and how this team came to choose me, I said, ‘I believe God has called me to this ministry of Bible translation.’”
People are still arriving from every direction when the marching band returns, followed by a noticeably larger crowd. Soon the gathering is more than a thousand strong, packed closely under the shade of every tent and the enormous tree.
Celebration continues in earnest. Official speeches are interspersed with worship songs by church choirs, or young dancers entertaining folks with recorded gospel music. An elder woman has been dancing all morning with a copy of the event programme in her hand; now, someone has gifted her a Nyole New Testament from those first open boxes. Smiling wider than ever, she lifts her book high as she twirls and bows through every song.
In a message printed in the day’s programme, the Nyole translation team had written, “Let us allow the spiritual rain to fall upon our dry hearts, as we eat and drink from His Word.” Just as the sun peaks above, an emcee invites several volunteers to stand and read to the crowd from their mother tongue Scriptures.
Men and women, younger and older, take turns at the microphone. For most of an hour, the only sound is a Nyole voice speaking passage after passage, mingled with murmurs of affirmation from throughout the crowd.
During their ten-year project, the Nyole translators published individual books of the New Testament as they were completed. “This kept growing our hunger for God's Word in our language,” said Gershom Hirome, Chairman of the Lunyole Language Association. “You could find everyone picking one book, two books, to keep the Word near himself. When we hear any preacher, we want also to be able to look at that book for ourselves. This has really motivated us to love our language, and God's Word.”
After the Scripture reading, another local dignitary takes the podium with a speech. He is not listed on the programme. Then another unscheduled speech. Someone asks one of the event organisers what is happening. “We invited many officials to join us today,” she explained. “Some of them had told us they would not be able to attend. But now that we are gathered so many of us, they may have decided this celebration was more important to the community than they realised.”
By now, attendance is estimated at nearly two thousand.
More singing, led by more choirs. The sun is beginning to sink when a hand-off ceremony begins. Surrounded by photographers from around the world, the Nyole translation team gives a box of New Testaments to Martin Alibu, Director of SIL Uganda, the organisation under which they serve. He in turn gives the box to Simon Peter Mukhama, General Secretary of Bible Society of Uganda. Finally, Mukhama gives the box to a representative group of local Nyole pastors and church leaders.
“I am especially happy about one thing,” said Rev. Canon Zebulon Munghesi, the now-retired first Chairman of the Lunyole Language Association. “Some here are Catholics. Some are Protestants, or Pentecostals, even other denominations. But you will never find them quarrelling or disagreeing when they are working on the Bible — they are together. Even today, one man told me that his father was very happy when they told him, ‘Ah, we have been doing the book together.’ There is nobody who should disagree and say the book we have printed is bad. No.”
Several community leaders encouraged the crowd that day, saying, “The journey is not yet finished!”
“I see the Nyole people coming nearer to God than before,” said Hirome. “They are proud to have God's Word in their own mother tongue. I see people getting more into a culture of reading these books for themselves. To me, that is a wonderful thing. I have also heard them asking, ‘Now, can we have the whole Bible? When will we get the Old Testament?’”
“For now, many will carry two books to church,” said Gift Asiku, Language Programmes Coordinator for SIL International in Uganda. “They will bring their New Testament in Nyole, and also the whole Bible in Ganda to read the Old Testament as best they can.”
Now that the teams involved in the translation project have officially given the books to the Nyole people, distribution of New Testaments can begin (though event volunteers have been selling them in the crowd all day). First, the ceremonial hand-off box is opened, and those copies are offered in a boisterous auction.
Meanwhile, empty book boxes are passed through the crowd for anyone who wants to donate. All the money raised will help to fund the Nyole team, who are already at work translating the Old Testament. “I was encouraged by that,” said Lydia Teera, with SIL Uganda. “I saw that the Nyole are interested to have the whole Bible, but also determined to take a step of faith to own that vision.”
An emcee leads a final prayer of thanks and praise to God. Then, the proper close of any celebration of this magnitude, in the Nyole community, is feasting and dancing! Music seems to gain in tempo and energy as the crowd enjoys pilau rice with chicken and goat. As they finish eating, many hurry to join the loose formation now dancing in the clearing between tents and podium.
“We have another Nyole proverb,” said Wandera. “‘Onadunda omuleme omudundira erala’ means, ‘When you decide to help carry a lame person (to some place), you carry him all the way through the journey.’ I trust God will give the Nyole people courage to carry this translation team to the very end of our work together.”