In July we spent 4 weeks in Burkina Faso leading a Wycliffe UK Engage short-term trip to visit Bible translation projects in the country. For the team it was a chance to see what God is doing overseas, and to encourage and pray for people involved in translating the Bible into their own language.
We were based in the capital, Ouagadougou, but had two week-long trips to rural areas to visit translation projects. The first was to the town of Diebougou in the southwest of Burkina, where we were hosted by the Dagara and Djan translators.
This was our first opportunity as a team to see Bible translation happening as the 5 or 6 translators from these two languages worked in their office in town. It was a privilege to be able to get to know them a little bit, and some of the joys and challenges of their work.
On the Sunday we went to the village of Bapla, where we worshipped together with around 150 villagers – almost all Dagara speakers. It was an amazing service, full of life with vibrant singing and dancing, but we were reminded of the difficulty of not having a Bible in your language as a French Bible was read from and translated on the spot. This would be the only access that most people would have to scripture during the week.
After a few days back in Ouagadougou we were off to visit another project – this time in two dialects of the San language in the town of Tougan. Here we stayed with Pam – a Canadian linguist – who is working alongside three San translators as they translate the Bible into their languages. Pam’s job is to analyse the languages and to make sure that the writing systems used are logical and intuitive so that people can learn to read their language easily.
Here we were blessed to be able to spend time with people – just sitting in their courtyards and getting to know them. One family were incredibly hospitable to us, bringing out many varieties of local foods and even showing the girls how to cook in the kitchen and the boys how to plough the field! Their hospitality also extends to housing and feeding widows and orphans, and they are well know and respected in their church and community. It was a real privilege to be able to spend time with people like these, who were so loving and caring to everyone – whether rich visitors from thousands of miles of away, or the poor widow in need of a place to sleep.
One day we also had the chance to take a trip to the nearby village of Kouy. Here we spent time with people and asked them to tell us traditional stories and proverbs in their language, which we then recorded. The recordings would be useful for Pam in her language analysis, but could also be used at some point as the basis of San mini-books, to encourage people to read while at the same time helping them to preserve some of traditional San culture.
We heard some great proverbs to explain the way life works – each with an important moral. As the translators painstakingly interpreted the proverbs for us in the village, it was awesome to gain a small insight into how people live, think and feel, and another reminder of the wealth of wisdom and knowledge in rural African life. We pray that before too long the church in the San area will have access to scripture in their own language, and that they would be able to bless the worldwide church with their unique cultural perspective on the scriptures.
As a team we left Burkina thankful for the people we had had the privilege of sharing a few short days with. Our hope is that the time that we could spend with people, listening to and learning from them will have been an encouragement to them as well as us. We were delighted when the San translators told us of the joy that they had knowing that a team had come from thousands of miles away. Just our presence there was a realisation for them that they weren’t alone as they worked day by day in their small translation office, but that there were people and churches on the other side of the world that cared about them and were praying for them.
We certainly learnt a lot from the trip. I personally was struck by how African life isn’t divided into categories like it tends to be in the west. To distinguish between physical, spiritual and social parts of life wouldn’t make sense to an African – life is just life, to be embraced as a whole. As we read in our Bible study of Jesus saying to the crowd “Is it easier to say to the paralysed man ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or ‘Stand up, pick up your mat, and walk’?”, we realised that Jesus is showing the crowd that physical and spiritual healing have to go together – it doesn’t make sense to separate the two. I started wondering how many problems with the church in the UK stem from the fact that we divide life up into spiritual, physical, social, emotional, and other categories, when actually God wants our lives as a whole to be devoted to him.
We heard testimonies of people who had done exactly that – committed everything to God. One pastor we heard about would pray and fast for 40 days for God to be known and trusted amongst his people. Others had endured through persecution and beatings when they put their faith in Jesus. One of the Dagara translators was the first in his (extended) family to become a Christian, and was rejected and beaten by the others. Now almost the entire family has put their faith in Jesus!
We heard too of the power that witchcraft can have over people, and the supernatural miracles that accompany it. For these people the question isn’t whether there is a spiritual realm, but rather which spirit is the most powerful. We also heard testimonies of when Christians have stood strong in faith and testified in Jesus’ name, with people being healed and even raised from the dead!
As we met with people we promised to share our time in Burkina with our friends and churches back home, so that you can pray for them. So we would ask that you pray for the Dagara, Djan and San translators – that they would have wisdom in their work and that they wouldn’t become discouraged. Pray for protection for them and their families too, and for the churches in these areas in general – that they would be strong in their faith, and that people would be freed from fear.
We also asked people in Burkina to pray for the church in the UK as we seek to be faithful in our witness of Jesus. So our churches can be encouraged that there are people thousands of miles away praying for them too!