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Africa Bible translators led to Jesus through Scripture


June 4, 2003
-by Charles T. Jones

Orodara, Burkina Faso—Western mission workers new to Africa often blunder through an invisible world of perils they can't possibly understand, Africans say. In Africa, it's foolish to dismiss the spirit world.

Beware, they say - following Christ can be a lonely walk, and translating the Bible into local languages can be dangerous for those who do it and aren't themselves transformed.

Donna (Fiske, Sask.) and Loren Entz (Elbing, Kan.) are international workers supported by Mennonite Church Canada Witness, in partnership with Mennonite Mission Network. They have worked in Burkina Faso since 1978 via Africa Inter-Mennonite Mission (AIMM), and collaborate with others, including Wycliffe Bible Translators and nationals of West Africa, in translating the Bible into the Samogho language. AIMM's team in Burkina Faso also includes MC Canada Witness workers Anne Garber Kompaore from Listowel, Ontario and Lillian Haas from Blue Sky, Alberta.

AIMM's work began in Burkina Faso in 1978 with an agricultural assistance program in Orodara; they later began linguistics work (1982). Mission workers originally under the auspices of AIMM and the former Commission on Overseas Mission (COM), now serve in AIMM through Mennonite Church Canada Witness and Mennonite Mission Network. Working with Wycliffe workers, the Entzes and others are translating the Bible into the Samogho language and have put many of the Bible's stories onto audiocassettes.

"If you translate the Bible, it's as if you are bringing to light what was hidden, what the devil has hidden. People are blind, and if you translate, and they receive the good news, their eyes will open, and they will no longer be on the devil's side," said Bananzaro Calixte, an English teacher in Burkina Faso, training to be a Bible translator.

Without God's intervention, he said, "The work you are doing, the devil will not let you do it. The best way is to come to the Lord."

Traoré Siaka, Vice President of the Mennonite Church of Burkina Faso, is also working for MCC and working with the West Africa Network of Peacebuilders. –photo by Wayne Gehman

Ali Traoré is a Bible translator who worked in Samogohiri. His vision is failing. –photo by Wayne Gehman

Bananzaro Calixte –photo by Wayne Gehman

That's what happened to Traoré Siaka, a former Muslim who said he'd found compelling questions in the Islamic texts he'd studied as a boy, but no answers he could use. He said it was the life of Jesus that gave him the answers he'd longed for and which transformed and inspired him.

A similar transformation happened for Ali Traoré, a former Muslim who began working as a Bible translator in 1993.

"I'd had the Bible in my hand before, but I never realized how strong the words were and how wonderful the words in the Bible were," Ali said. He'd left his job as a tailor and began working with French Mennonite Wycliffe workers Paul and Martine Solomiac in Samogohiri, a rural village outside of Orodara.

"My conversion wasn't the result of evangelism. It was the result of being in constant contact with the word of God; that really changed my life," Ali said. He converted to Christianity in 1998 and was baptized in 2000.

Bible translator Traoré Fabé said he was similarly transformed.

"The work that I did really made an impression on me. It wasn't something I could escape. The words really weighed heavily. For four years I worked on the translation. In 1997 I made my decision to follow Christ because I saw that I had to make an active decision to follow the path that God made for me; that God made for man to follow," Fabé said.

In the group culture of village life in rural Burkina Faso, becoming a Christian can cost a man his place in his family and his position in village society. In most villages, it means scorning the group's daily reliance upon a array of demigods, go-betweens and fetishes, and on the goodwill of the dead.

Those values run deep and shouldn't be ignored or mocked, Africans say.

"We have a proverb that says that a stranger - a foreigner - has big eyes, but he sees nothing. The one who is coming, you may let him see what you want. But what you don't want him to see, he won't see it," Calixte said.

In the "traditional" world, adversaries wage unseen battle against each other by tapping into the powers that sorcerers claim to possess. Adherents to traditional religion seek good weather and other favors by making blood sacrifices and doing what sorcerers tell them to do.

All this keeps the sorcerer class employed and often leaves combatants seeking out conjurers of ever greater power; failure to throw up a proper defense would seem careless, said Byema Traoré, a Christian convert who lives in Samogohiri.

"If you don't do the things to protect your children, your parents are going to be upset with you, because you're not doing what you should do - you're not protecting them," Byema said.

Breaking free of the fears of spirit war is one of the great comforts offered by Christ, Byema and other local Christians say.

"In Africa, when someone gets sick, they say there's some reason behind it; it's not just for nothing," said Traoré Ali.

Traoré Siaka, Vice President of the Mennonite Church of Burkina Faso and also head of the Mennonite Central Committee's peace ministry in Ouagadougou, said he recognized the Old Testament prophets from the Qur'an he'd read as a boy. But he said the Qur'an gave him only questions. He said the answers he found in the Bible came to him as logically as a mathematical equation.

"When I got to the New Testament, I saw, 'ah - all men are sinners.' I saw that Jesus came to save us from our sins. People are sinners, and God is holy, and a sinner cannot come close to what is holy. And Jesus came to save us; to help us get close to God.

"I thought, this must be the right way. Because, if God is holy, and we who are sinners try to approach God, there's no way. So the only way is to go through Jesus, and God sent Jesus to take us to him."

He ran with the news to his father.

"I went to my father. I said, 'Father, I need to be converted; I need to become Christian.' My father told me, 'Keep your heart the way it is, don't change, you can't change.' I said if I keep my heart the same, if I don't change religions, I'll stay Muslim. I asked him, 'If I keep your religion and tomorrow we die, are we going to be with God?' My father said, 'No, we can't know that. We have to get there first before we can know if we will see God.'

"I said, 'Father, I've found a savior who the Muslims call the Messiah.' My father didn't say anything more. That's when I became a Christian," Siaka said.

Today, "The village people are looking at them and their families," Calixte said of the translators. "If they have peace, then the others will come."

The Entzes are currently on leave in Newton, Kan., and plan to return to Burkina Faso this summer.


Anne Garber Kompaoré (centre) with co-workers Musokoro Zida (left) and Clarisse Bafiogo (right), at ANTBA (National Bible and Literacy Association) –photo by Peter Rempel

Anne Garber Kompaoré is an MC Canada Witness worker in Burkina Faso. Generous donor support to MC Canada Witness helps Anne serve as a coordinator for some Bible translation projects and as a linguistics consultant for others. Here she offers a glimpse into her life in Burkina Faso, where she lives with her husband Daniel.

While North Americans are enjoying balmy winds and spring flowers, and anxiously await sunny weekends, here in Ouagadougou, we wish for cloudy skies and refreshing rain. This is the hot season.

As I sit here writing, there are over 60 barrels on wheels lined up at our water pump waiting for precious water. The city's water resources are dwindling, as usual at this time of the year, and their method of rationing is to simply turn off the water for hours and in some neighbourhoods, for days at a time.

That leaves people scrambling for alternative water sources, like ours. We have our own bore hole well that serves the school and our home. The lack of water affects the electricity resources, also, so when we so much look for air conditioned relief (for the first time this year, I have an air conditioner in my office), the electricity goes off, and we sweat it out again in 35 degree celsius (and higher). Daniel and I have been sleeping outside on our newly acquired camp cots, for the past two weeks, which gives us relief from heat, but not from outside noises (gusty winds, Muslim call to prayers, roosters, traffic). So enjoy your spring time!

Meanwhile, the situation in Ivory Coast is slowly becoming more stable. The rebels have now joined the political process, and treaties have been signed. This past week steps were made in the reconciliation process between Burkina and Ivory Coast. Continue to pray for peace in West Africa, including Liberia and Sierra Leone.