Couple translates Bible for West African tribe to learn the 'Good News' of God
Tuesday, January 23, 2007 4:42 AM
Editor's note: this is part one of a two part story about this amazing couple.
"We love the work of Bible translation," Mary Holman stated about the mission work she and husband, Tom, have been doing in West Africa. "We feel like God made us to do this."
They learned and studied the language of the Anufo people in Ghana, and were instrumental in devising a writing system and the translation of the New Testament of the Bible.
Mary, daughter of Don and Doris Gjerdrum, and a 1967 graduate of Spring Grove High School, recalled, "You might say it all began in the 1950s in Sunday School at Scheie Lutheran Church; or in Barb Pitel's release time religion class, when I began memorizing Bible verses; or after the summer Bible camps when I was in junior high, when I remember consciously asking Jesus to be my Savior; or in Pastor Hanson's confirmation classes; or in 1974, after I had been married to Tom for two years, when God renewed our faith and we began attending church in Racine, Wisconsin.
"Certainly my Latin classes from Mr. Evenmoe and Mary Deters also had an influence, because it was there that I learned to love languages and decided to major in Latin (along with music) at Luther College."
But the call to become a missionary happened in 1977, and the specific call to be involved in Bible translation came when the couple was attending Lutheran Bible Institute (now Trinity Lutheran College) in Seattle in 1978. "There was never any telegram from heaven saying 'This is what I want you to do and where I want you to go.' Rather, we prayed, and God seemed to open one door at a time, and we just kept walking through one open door after another," Mary stated.
Following their training at LBI and linguistics training at the Summer Institute of Linguistics (run by Wycliffe Bible Translators), they became members of Wycliffe Bible Translators and associate members of Lutheran Bible Translators. "I had always said I would go anywhere but Africa, but in the end we requested and were assigned to Ghana, West Africa, and went there in 1981. There we were assigned to work in the Anufo language along with Grace Adjekum, a Ghanaian woman who had just finished her degree in linguistics. The three of us moved to Chereponi, a town in the Anufo area, where we lived together in a house with mud walls and a corrugated metal roof, with no running water or electricity."
In Ghana, the Anufo people are located in the northeast corner of the country, on the border with Togo. There are also Anufo in Togo and in Benin, and the total population is about 137,000. About 20% of the Anufo are Muslim, about 2% are Christian, and the rest practice African traditional religion.
What did they do?
In America, the literacy rate is so high that we find it hard to imagine that there are places where the literacy rate is only 2%. This was the case among the Anufo in 1981, Mary reported. Although a previous missionary had devised an alphabet, printed some literacy books, and helped to do a little Bible translation, when we arrived there was little result left from his work. So, in effect, we started from scratch. We began to learn and study the language to see which sounds were significant, so that we could devise a writing system.
She explained that Anufo has several sounds, which aren't common in English. For instance, the sounds [gb] and [kp] are made with both the lips and the back of the mouth at the same time. It's a lot like the sound a hen makes when she's just laid an egg - "gbak-gba-gbak-gbak". There's another sound, which occurs at the end of the word "sing" in English, but in Anufo this sound occurs at the beginning of many words. For example, "nga" means "say", and "ngu" means "see".
Mary continued, "Another feature of the Anufo language was a real challenge for us Americans." It's a tone language, which means that the "tune" of each word is significant, and not just the intonation, like in English. For example, Tom once said to a friend "I want a quarrel" when what he meant was "I like beans". We write tone with accent marks for low tone, high tone, and falling tone. So "quarrel" is pronounced with a low-high tune, and "beans" is pronounced with a low-high-falling tune.
After they had developed a tentative writing system for Anufo, they invited church leaders and other interested individuals to a meeting to discuss the alphabet and approve it. "After this happened, we were able to write a series of literacy primers and some simple story books - that was a lot of work!"
Tom first tested the primers with a good friend, Abudulai, who is very bright and was able to finish going through the whole series in just six months. Later he went on and finished the whole literacy program, which now includes a simple spoken and written English component. On this basis, he was able to get a job as a security officer with a local development agency. People began to see that literacy has benefits!
"When Tom had tested the primers," Mary continued. "We began training people who had some level of literacy skills so that they in turn could teach others how to read and write in Anufo. Eventually we were able to hand over the management of the literacy program to Charles Affo, an Anufo Christian. So far several thousand people have gone through the program, and the literacy books have been used by other development agencies to promote education and development."
Editor's note: watch next week's paper for the second part of this article.