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01 March 2011

Suddenly God is speaking to people in their own language...

Suddenly God is speaking to people in their own language...

Hazel Southam reports on an initiative to make the Bible more accessible to Christians in Burkina Faso...

This is the tale of two congregations. The first, in the village of Niaogho in the rural heartland of Burkina Faso, is celebrating its Sunday service. People arrive carrying copies of the New Testament, and follow along when the scriptures are read.

An hour's drive away, in Garango, the scene is very different. The church is full, and for an hour before the service, three Bible studies were held. But none of them used a Bible in the local language of Bissa Birka, because no such Bible exists.

Yet, thanks to an initiative from Biblefresh - a group of 100 Christian organisations here in the UK - this situation may soon change. As part of the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible this year [2011], Christians across the UK are being encouraged to get back into the Bible. But there's more to it than that. Under the scheme, launched in January, there's also the chance to help bring the Bible to Burkina Faso, in West Africa.

Why? According to the United Nations, Burkina Faso is the world's third poorest nation. But it is also Bible poor. Out of the astonishing 66 languages spoken in Burkina Faso, just seven have even a New Testament. The rest have nothing. In a largely Muslim and animist nation, this has made spreading the gospel difficult.

So how can this situation change? Alliance members Wycliffe Bible Translators and Bible Society are working with local people to translate the New Testament into the Bissa Barka language and the Old Testament into the neighbouring Bissa Lebir language that already has a New Testament.

This will ultimately bring the life-changing message of God's love to more than 580,000 people.

It's a life's work. In the village of Niaogho, local people worked for 36 years to help make the translation a reality. For 26 years, one man taught local people to read and write, so that when the translation was complete, they'd actually be able to read it.

Josias Amidou Djenie, 44, was one of the main translators of the Bissa Lebir New Testament. His family's home is in the shadow of the local mosque, and only two per cent of the local population is Christian.

"It's been my life's work, a really big achievement," he says. "I was born into a Muslim family, but after I became a Christian at the age of 16, I had a vision for the Bible for the Bissa people.

"Now I feel as if my vision is being fulfilled, but we still have more to do.

"I wanted my people to know about Jesus in their own language. And it's making a difference. After the New Testament was launched, churches began to preach, study and sing in the Bissa Lebir language. This is making a revival in the Bissa Lebir people."

In the nine years since the Bissa Lebir New Testament was launched, the number of churches in the region has grown by 50 per cent. Josias is clear as to why this is. "Suddenly, God is speaking to people in their own language," he says.

Sixty-two-year-old Philomene Ouedraogo Compaore is one of the villagers whose lives have been changed by Josias's hard work. She's a subsistence farmer in Niaogho. She's been taught to read and write, and now has her own copy of the New Testament. It has, she says, been a revelation.

"What I've learned from the Bible has been incredible," she says, as we sit watching goats graze under the trees. "There's everything in the Bible concerning taking care of others and even about your own thoughts. The Bible is concerned with every aspect of life.

"If you haven't got a Bible, you don't know what's wrong and what's not. You just live in darkness. Without the Bible, life is dark.

"Before, there were things in my life that I shouldn't have been doing, but I didn't know that they were wrong. But the Bible has shown me the right way to go. It's changed my life," she says smiling. "It's made me really happy."

Back in the village of Garango, they long to have the New Testament as their neighbours in Niaogho do. At the assemblies of God church in the village centre, they're already building for the growth that they expect to happen when their New Testament arrives. And the translation hasn't even begun. Nonetheless, the villagers of Garango have laid the foundations to the extension of their church, expecting people to come to faith.

"People will be very happy to have the Bible written in their language," says Pastor Matio Tindano, 52. "So there will be more interest in Christianity. Understanding will grow, so churches will grow."

Yabre Damata, 43, is a mother of six and a market trader, selling herbs and spices in a back alley of Garango. She's been a Christian for nearly 20 years, but never been able to read the Bible in her own language.

"I read the New Testament in the Bissa Lebir translation," she says, "but I can't understand everything. It will be much easier to read a Bissa Barka Bible. I'm really looking forward to it. I can't wait."

But she and Matio will have to wait. A translation of the New Testament takes many years to complete, and if local people like Yabre are to be taught to read first, it will take longer."

But time isn't the crucial thing, says the head of the Bible Society in Burkina Faso, Pastor Dramane Yankine, himself a Bissa Barka speaker. What's vital is bringing the gospel to people in a language that they can understand.

"My family background is animist, but my mother was converted when I was 11 years old," he says. "Since this time, I used to go to church with my mother but she didn't know how to read.

"The church that we attended was in French. She always asked me, 'What did the pastor say?' as she couldn't speak French. So from the age of 11 I translated for her.

"At night, before she said her prayers, she would ask me to read her some verses from our French Bible and translate them and then she would pray about them in Bissa Barka.

"When I remember this, I think that if she knew how to read it would have been much better. Many of the citizens in this country are in her position. So you can see it is very important to give them an opportunity to be in touch with the Bible in their language.

"We are fighting to give a big place to the language in the church so that the Bissa speakers may be converted. When the Bible comes to a place it is like turning a light on in a dark place."

How you can help

£30 could translate a short passage, such as the parable of the sower

£70 could pay for an account of Jesus' feeding of the 5,000

£200 could see the creation account of Genesis re-told

For further details of how you can get involved, visit biblefresh.com

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