Touching Heart and Mind
A Kambari may speak the Hausa regional language and English, but that just doesn't compare to his mother tongue.
Like many Nigerians, the 450,000 Kambari people can speak at least three languages--the regional language, Hausa; the English language; and the local language. So, why not just use Hausa or English Bibles, rather than do translation in the mother tongue?
What many of us who function in largely monolingual societies don't realize about multilingual societies is that each language is primarily used for certain functions.
Hausa is the name of a predominantly Muslim people group, which brought its language and religion throughout the north of Nigeria at about the same time as the coming of the English, and Christian missions, in the south. The Hausa language offered the efficiency of one language. All groups were required to learn it and they speak it to the level of need.
Several different languages are spoken in the marketplace, so as a Kambari you must learn to speak Hausa in order to buy and sell. Using this "market tongue" avoids confusion.
When one goes to school, classes are in English, so one learns that. Introduced by the British, English is the language of education, the wider world, employment and opportunity - should Nigerians have the opportunity.
Each of these languages, then, is mainly relegated for use in those environments. This system works, but there are limitations. Each language is learned only to the level of necessary use.
The "Right" Words
The mother tongue functions differently. It can express the full range of human thought and emotion. The sound of the mother tongue in the ear and its meaning in the heart are trustworthy because they are one with the person. In this situation, when spiritual reality is presented in other than the mother tongue, there's no compelling reason to take it seriously.
Moreover, in traditional African religion, the supposed power of words affects the way people receive a new truth, whether or not they understand the words. That's because in traditional tribal belief, the spiritual world is something like a marionette puppet show: if the right strings are pulled the right things will happen, and the spirit world is obliged to do your bidding. But knowing which are the right strings involves a risk; it could do more harm than good. The shaman provides the solution, with secret knowledge of the spirit world and the "right" words. For example, if one's child is sick, the shaman may explain it's because he crossed a death curse on the trail. He prescribes that the parent kill a chicken and chant a certain phrase. Whether there is comprehensible meaning to the phrase or not doesn't matter; the power is in the words themselves, and you just have to get them exactly right.
This was the situation in the Kambari region when expatriate missionaries first brought their message. The missionaries learned Hausa, the trade language. Comprehension wasn't complete, but for the recipients it didn't matter. The important thing to the Kambari was that this new combination of words was used "just so" in order to control the spirit world. Many Christians in the area have developed a full and vital spiritual life through the second language. Many more, however, are held back from a deep and dynamic relationship with God, because the second language doesn't reach down into the understanding of their hearts.
An Essential Identity
These two factors--a given language relegated to a given function, and a tradition of religious words having power in themselves, regardless of comprehension--contribute to a Christianity without depth or understanding.
In addition, there's the essential identity that goes with the mother tongue. It's here a person's worldview is formed, so he can know good from evil. What makes a person respected and wise is all formulated in the mother tongue. Christianity that is delivered in another language largely functions outside of that worldview base; it doesn't influence someone to make changes.
So, it's not just a nice idea to encourage Bible translation and literacy efforts in the three related Kambari languages (Cishingini, Tsishingini and Tsikimba) - it's crucial.
People may disregard a message delivered in a foreign language. But it's difficult to ignore a message delivered in your mother tongue, the language that touches both mind and heart.