Didinga Bible Dedication – South Sudan

When MAF’s Cessna 182 landed in the village of Chukudum, it was the first time ever that the Didinga people in the south-east of South Sudan had seen a Bible in their mother tongue. It had been almost 40 years in the making and the excitement was great.

Text: Thorkild Jørgensen. Photos: SIL and Florian Poinstingl.

Only three boxes of Bibles in the Didinga language were on the small aircraft followed by two Didinga translation and literacy team members from SIL*, Timan Dominic and Loki Brunos. The two men were going to Chukudum to prepare for the celebration of the new Bible translation together with the Didinga community. Since there is practically no phone network and very limited internet out there they couldn’t possibly coordinate things from SIL’s base in Juba, but had to be “on the ground” in order to get things ready for the big day.

Yips of glee

Two weeks later, on Friday 2 March 2018, a large group of people – several of the women dressed in traditional skirts and bras – walked the three km from town to the airstrip outside Chukudum.

10 o’clock MAF’s eastbound shuttle arrived with 29 boxes of Bibles, and four hours later another MAF Caravan arrived with 11 passengers from Juba plus 50 kgs of workshop and literacy materials. The plane quickly took off again to collect five more people in Torit, half an hour’s flight from Chukudum. Many of the passengers were from SIL, while others were MPs or church leaders from different denominations around the area.

They were all greeted with yips of glee, flower petals, singing and dancing by the group who had been waiting at the airstrip since 6 in the morning. A Bible was presented to the group and it was carried away high above people’s heads. As the animated cries of excitement died down Father Thomas Oliha, Apostolic Administrator from the Catholic diocese of Torit, thanked God and all the people who had been involved in making this Bible a reality. Now, the Didinga people would be able to learn about Jesus Christ in their own language, he told them. More yips of glee rent the air.

Several churches and missionaries have been in the area for decades, but although some Didingas have been devoted Christians all their lives the church is still fairly small and traditional beliefs are the most prevalent. A Bible in their own language will supposedly have a significant impact on the Didingas and may even ramp up the spiritual battles.

Driving to town from the airfield the visiting party passed a school, and all of the children from different classes stood at the roadside singing.

Dedication day

Saturday was the actual Day of Dedication, and around 1,500 people gathered at the Catholic Church and its surrounding Palica (church grounds) to celebrate. The Bibles were dedicated and prayed over and speeches were held by SIL representatives, representatives from the different churches, a national MP, the county commissioner, the deputy governor of Kapoeta state and several others. At the same time teams from the surrounding communities and villages performed with dancing and singing.

Over the weekend the Jesus Film in Didinga was shown three times in different locations around Chukudum. A mind-blowing experience for many who had never watched a movie, let alone one in their own language! In that following 2 weeks the film was shown 2 more times once in Chukudum and once in a neighboring village about a 2 hour walk away. One evening, as people were walking home, Laura Robison from SIL, overheard an older woman saying to another, “They beat him and killed him like that, and yet He still loves us?”

Reading the Bible

Over the weekend people were buying Bibles at a promotional price of 150 South Sudanese pounds (0.65 USD at the current exchange rate). They were eagerly looking through the Bible they had bought, but in reality many of them can probably not read the book, because the literacy rate is extremely low. They bought the books anyway, because it is a treasure to them and they can try to follow when it is read aloud in church.

The younger generation, though, will eventually be able to read the Didinga Bibles. SIL has been training teachers in the primary schools to be able to teach the children how to read the Didinga language, and has developed materials to assist them in this.

Audio Scriptures have also been developed for the Didingas. The New Testament has been recorded and copied on to memory cards that can be listened to on a basic phone, or with Scripture App on a smart phone the text is highlighted as it is read aloud. Laura noticed during the next two weeks that people were listening to their Audio Scriptures each night after having received them.

For Didingas living in other areas of South Sudan literacy material, scripture, audio files and the Jesus Film has been made available on didinga.org.

Sunday School curriculum

After three days of celebration most of the people who came on Friday were flown back again on Monday. Laura Robison stayed! Laura’s job is scripture engagement, and she is responsible for finding ways to help people use and access the Bible. She would be conducting a four-day training workshop to teach Sunday school teachers how to use the first ever Sunday school curriculum in a local South Sudanese language. The material has colouring sheets with scripture verses, ideas for games, teaching and storytelling lessons and other activities – a whole new world to the kids.

SIL’s translators in Juba had developed the curriculum alongside the translation of the Didinga Bible. Four churches (Africa Inland Church, the Catholic Church, Evangelical Free Church and Heaven’s Signal Church) with 30 participants took part in the workshop.

“It went quite well,” Laura observed. “We were only supposed to have 15 students, but they were all excited to take part. They practiced telling stories from the Bible and playing games, and every church had to come up with a plan for how and when they would start their Sunday School programme and who would be responsible for it.”

The following Monday Laura was bound for Juba again, but heavy rain made it impossible for MAF’s shuttle plane to land in Chukudum. She had to make the best of her stay until the following Friday when MAF returned.

War couldn’t stop it

On average it takes eight to ten years to translate the New Testament with well-trained people in a stable environment. SIL’s translation projects in South Sudan have taken much longer than in other places around the world. Due to ongoing wars in South Sudan – which in the ‘80s forced SIL to move out of the country and start over with training new people – and a largely illiterate population SIL has encountered many challenges which have slowed things down considerably.

Beginning in 1979 the project of translating the Bible into the Didinga language has taken almost four decades, and many of those who had committed themselves to the project never saw the end result! Nowadays, many displaced South Sudanese have been in other East African countries and have learned to read and write English. Hence it has become easier to find qualified translators who are able to access English or Arabic versions of the Bible from which they can translate the Bible into their indigenous languages.

Meaning and consistency

When a Bible is translated into a “new” language SIL usually starts with the New Testament plus some portions (Genesis and Exodus) of the Old Testament to give some background to what is happening in the New Testament.

One of the big challenges with translating something as big as the New Testament is to make sure that the key terms are translated properly and consistently all the way throughout the books of the Bible. Trying to find the right words to convey the meaning can be quite difficult. Some languages don’t have enough words that are equivalent to words like grace, mercy, love, peace and forgiveness. These essential terms are quite foreign concepts to them. Therefore, a lot of consulting and proofreading goes into the process.

Linguistics for the illiterate

“Another challenge is that many people groups in South Sudan don’t have a reading culture, and for some, a written form of their language doesn’t exist,” Tanya Spronk tells us. As SIL’s Literacy and Education Coordinator in South Sudan Tanya is in charge of teaching people to learn to read and write mainly in their own languages.

“Most of the translation works that we have done here starts with linguists,” Tanya continues. “The linguists analyse the patterns of the language and the sounds then work with the community to come up with a way to represent the language in a written form.”

It all starts with bringing people from the community together to do writers’ workshops. In small groups they tell each other their favourite folk stories, and then SIL teaches them how to write the stories. SIL checks the translations of words and stories to make sure that they are interesting and appropriate for education, and then the stories are printed in books with pictures, and people can begin to read their own stories. Those who are just learning to read can start with simple books with just one sentence and a picture on each page and then go on to the more complicated ones.

“This procedure is essential to make people interested in and comfortable with reading, before there is any hope of getting them to read the Bible, which is quite complicated,” Tanya explains.

To come up with effective methods to subsequently teach more people to read their language the literacy teachers work with a small group from the community to help them understand what happens in their minds when they are learning to read and write. They find out which key words are good to teach, which sounds that need to be taught, and how to write good stories that are easy enough for people to read. There is a lot of consulting, training, and advising involved to be able to do this.

“As you can see, a lot of background work has to happen before the actual translation of the Bible begins,” Tanya summarizes. “To make the very last part of all this happen MAF has been amazing! Boxes with bibles are quite heavy cargo, and a lot of logistics were involved in getting people and Bibles to Chukudum at the right time. Over a thousand Bibles went out there for the weekend, and MAF went off their routes to make sure to drop enough Bibles and books in time for the dedication. MAF is key to bringing our bibles out to the communities of South Sudan, because it is too insecure to drive them.”

*) Facts about SIL:

SIL International is a faith-based nonprofit organization committed to serving language communities worldwide as they build capacity for sustainable language development. SIL does this primarily through research, translation, training and materials development. SIL works alongside ethnolinguistic communities and their partners as they discover how language development addresses the challenging areas of their daily lives—social, cultural, political, economic and spiritual.

Founded in 1934, SIL (originally known as the Summer Institute of Linguistics, Inc.) has grown from a small summer linguistics training program with two students to a staff of over 4,800 from 84 countries. Currently SIL works alongside speakers of more than 1,700 languages in over 100 countries. The organization makes its services available to all, without regard to religious belief, political ideology, gender, race or ethnolinguistic background.

SIL’s expertise related to community-based language development includes training and consulting for activities such as linguistic analysis, orthography and writing systems development, literature development, multilingual education and literacy.

Bible translations

Bibles or New Testaments have been translated into 27 different South Sudanese languages. SIL has been involved in the translation of the New Testament and parts of the old into 12 of these languages, whereof three are yet to be published. SIL’s involvement in the remaining languages has been in terms of developing literacy & education materials, scripture engagement materials and courses, and assisting with linguistics and writing system development for some of the projects. According to SIL the citizens of South Sudan speak around 51 different languages.

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