Beyond the Rivers of Cush
National church engagement in Sudanese Bible translation ministry
The dust of the church compound rose in rhythmic billows from the feet of the celebrating dancers. Their lower legs bound with rings of strung-together bottle caps to create a chiming, bell-like beat as they moved in close formation, the dozens of Nuba dancers brought a taste of the traditional to the ceremonies. Hundreds gathered and watched in joy and anticipation as they witnessed the dedication of the new Bible translation center in a suburb of Sudan’s capital city, Khartoum.
The translation center represented the creation of a footprint—a definite, solid presence—for the Translation Department of the Episcopal Church of Sudan (ECS), Khartoum Diocese. On hand were local and guest dignitaries, including a representative of Wycliffe who, as keynote speaker for the event, had once directed the translation and literacy efforts of Wycliffe's partner, SIL, in this African nation.
That was 1998. Standing there in that spot of time, one can figuratively glance both backward and forward, into past and future, to see what God has done both to inspire and to sustain the dream of the Sudanese church to meaningfully engage in the translation and use of the Scriptures in the mother tongues of their country.
That moment in 1998 was, in a real sense, just the “end of the beginning.”
Bishop Ezekiel Kondo
It started with a dream. In the southern Sudanese town of Mundri, in the 1980s, was an Anglican theological school called Bishop Gwynne College. Students from many areas of Sudan were in attendance, including several from the Nuba Mountains, a region in north-central Sudan comprising dozens of distinct language groups.
In 1985, two of those students began to share a common dream with one another. Both “wanted to translate the Bible into a language that anybody in the Nuba Mountains could read,” according to Ezekiel Kondo, current Bishop of the Khartoum Diocese of ECS. Ezekiel was one of those students, from the Moro speaking community in the Nuba Mountains. A colleague, the Reverend Fajak Avajani, a Tira speaker, was the other. Ezekiel credits Fajak as the one who embodied that vision, and carried it forward from there.
While Fajak was completing his studies at Bishop Gwynne College, he met some people connected with SIL, who were working in the region. Apparently those contacts further encouraged his vision. When he completed his studies, he returned to the North and began to speak with leaders in the church.
Ezekiel recalled, “So I can say that the original initiative and idea came from Fajak … and other members of the Diocese of Khartoum, who shared the idea with the diocesan bishop, Bulus Idris Tia. People like Reverend Samaan Farjalla from the Kurmuk, South Blue Nile area, and Reverend Samir Bulus, the son of Bishop Bulus, were involved. Then the bishop caught the idea and called for the establishment of the Department, to translate the Bible into the Sudanese languages so that people may read and understand the Bible in their own mother tongue.”
ECS Translation Centre
So there were leaders on board with the vision, and people being trained to actualize it—but where would the locus of their work be? It was not possible, due to civil conflict in the country, to base the translation work in the homeland of the Nuba peoples. It needed to be in an environment where people would have relative peace to pursue their work in an unhindered way.
Outside partners were sought and Wycliffe USA came on board with a commitment to fund the construction of a translation center on the diocesan compound. Wycliffe’s constituency responded generously. Within just a couple of years, the translation center went from concept to reality—bringing those hundreds together on that joyous day in January 1998, to celebrate the center’s official opening.
More than a decade has passed since that day. Looking down that corridor of time, to the present, one can see that God has blessed the ministry of the Department.
In 2004, the Department was given official recognition as a Wycliffe Affiliate Organization.
Presently, there are translation and literacy teams for six language communities laboring within the walls of the center. There, they have office space in which to work, consult, receive training, and collaborate. All of this encourages spiritual as well as intellectual growth in team members, as well as team unity. It also allows for optimization of resources, since consultants do not have to spend a lot of time travelling between community centers in order to work with the teams.
Translation workshop on Romans
Even though the Department is the ‘property’ of the Episcopal Church of Sudan, it freely welcomes and hosts teams from language communities in which other church denominations predominate. A spirit of ecumenism, in the best sense of the word, is encouraged. In addition, the close collaboration between members of different language communities—some of which are outside the Nuba Mountain region—helps to reduce tensions brought about by long standing tribal divisions and to build a spirit of greater understanding and acceptance.
And, in just ten years, the Tira translation of the New Testament (together with some key Old Testament books) has been completed—start to finish—and was dedicated in March 2009.
When Bishop Ezekiel was asked what he saw as the role of Bible translation in the growth of the Church in Sudan, he replied, “The role of Bible translation in the growth of the Church in Sudan to me is so great; the fact [is] that through the translated work the Church continues to grow both in knowledge and number. The literacy work [also] continues to play a great role in the growth of the Church.”
In fact, church- and community-based literacy programs have really taken off since the establishment of the Translation Department within the ECS Khartoum Diocese.
Bishop Ezekiel elaborated on that point: “In most of the churches around Khartoum there are literacy programs still going on. Classes go on in the evenings. There is a center here … where each week the teachers come to get new techniques and then go back to teach the people in the centers. Also in the homelands the program is continuing and there are a lot of activities within the churches. Not only the churches, you know; even others have taken up this program because they have seen that this is the language, and has nothing to do with the church. It is just the language that God has given them.”
Of course, there are serious challenges ahead. Even though a Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed and put into effect in 2005, tensions and uncertainties remain high. One of the provisions of the peace agreement was that, after a six year period, a referendum would be held in the South to decide whether or not the country will be split into two independent entities—“north” and “south.” That referendum took place on the 9th of January, 2011, resulting in an overwhelming decision in favor of forming a new nation. On the 9th of July, 2011 the long-held dream became a reality: the Republic of South Sudan was born.
From the perspective of one who sees the nation’s spiritual needs globally, Bishop Ezekiel favors the establishment of a national, church-based Bible translation organization with two branches: “There should be one branch in the South and another in the North. The majority of Christians are in the South, and in order to help and assist a strong organization in [both] ... Sudan[s], there should be two branches that go hand in hand so they can assist the work.”
The Department also faces ongoing challenges in two key resource areas: personnel and finances. The Bishop would like to see an increase in the number of consultants available to move the translation and literacy work forward. Often, blocks of Scripture are translated and drafted, but long periods of time pass between consultant visits. Thankfully, some of this need is being taken care of by Sudanese personnel who have been trained, mentored and certified as translation consultants. But they struggle to keep up with the demand. As well, funds are lacking to maintain the infrastructure of the Department and to employ qualified technical staff, such as computer technicians.
Despite these challenges, and the fact that the answers to them remain elusive at present, God is obviously at work. He is using the ECS Khartoum Diocese Translation Department as a means to bring the Living Water of his Word to that dry and spiritually thirsty place “beyond the rivers of Cush” (Isaiah 18).
Photos by Craig Combs.
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