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Muslim midwife sings psalms for safe deliveries


Dec 28, 2004
-by Lynda Hollinger-Janzen


Workers in Burkina Faso are supplementing their translation work by extending the Bible into worship music. Opportunities for explanation and conversation arise when worship language and traditional music meet.

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Saraba, Burkina Faso — Jonye Traoré, a woman who has known much sorrow, kneels beside a laboring soon-to-be mother, gently coaxing new life into the world. Traoré often uses the biblical psalms of protection to ward off death and the many other unseen enemies that crouch in the shadowy corners of rooms during childbirth in the region around Saraba, Burkina Faso. Malevolent spiritual powers and microscopic afflictions, like tetanus, wait to pounce on the fragile new life emerging from the womb.

“It’s only a short time after I start singing that the baby is in my arms,” Traoré said.

Donna Entz (Fiske MC, Sask.) and Traoré developed their close friendship during the long hours that Entz sat in the courtyard of Traoré’s extended family to record traditional folklore. Entz and her family have lived and ministered in Burkina Faso, supported by Mennonite Church Canada Witness through Africa Inter-Mennonite Mission, since 1978. Witness is a successor to the ministry of the former Commission on Overseas Mission.

Traoré’s husband of her youth, a hard worker and open to new ideas, died immediately after Traoré gave birth to their first child, a son. “The village feels that Jonye’s husband was too progressive and that evil power medicine was probably done against him for defying tradition,” Entz said.

According to the practice of the Samogho, Jonye’s ethnic group, she was given to her deceased husband’s younger brother in levirate marriage. Traoré’s second husband was a talented musician, but incapable of feeding his family because he was a better musician than a farmer. Traoré gave birth to many children, though most of them died due to curses placed on them by another family member, Traoré said.

Traoré, now a matriarch in a compound that includes four generations, is Saraba’s most esteemed midwife and an accomplished storyteller. After Entz sat through several of Traoré’s storytelling sessions, Traoré challenged Entz to reciprocate.

“Reciprocity means that giving and sharing is kept equal, not always in the same way, but good deeds to another need to be repaid,” Entz said. “She told me she had shared her stories, but now she wanted to know what my stories were. I was delighted because the Old Testament stories were ready for teaching in the village.”

Entz and her husband, Loren (Zion MC, Kan.), have worked with Wycliffe translators to put Old Testament stories, the gospel of Luke and portions of the book of Acts on audiocassette tapes to be played in villages where the majority of the population is Muslim and does not read. In their excitement over the biblical message they were beginning to understand, the Samogho translators decided to follow Jesus. 

Intrigued by the Psalms, the Samogho translators begged to translate them next. Entz said that the Psalms give the young Samogho church a prayer language. 

“The translation of the Psalms into Samogho was so easy because the Samogho language is rich in idiomatic expressions,” Entz said.

Another Wycliffe coworker who is an ethnomusicologist, Mary Hendershott, led the Samogho through a process of using traditional musical styles to compose worship music. One day in Traoré’s courtyard, an argument flared up over a psalm newly set to Samogho music.

One woman said, “This is a song to accompany the pounding of grain in preparation for a wedding.”

Another insisted, “No, this is a song of worship to God.” The argument continued to heat up until Entz told the women they were both right. 

“The tune is from the grain-pounding song and the words are from the Psalms,” Entz said.

Though Traore remains a Muslim, the story of Jesus Christ is shared as she re-tells the biblical stories around evening fires and sings babies into this world. 

“Jonye understands God’s love in the Old Testament stories and is fascinated by the parables of Jesus, especially the one about the prodigal son,” Entz said. “She sees how the Samogho people, who are losing the sense of community due to individualism, need the new community of the Acts account. Her life makes her so dependent on God, and the Psalms have given her a way to verbalize those needs to God.

“I know she understands and believes in the forgiveness that came through Christ. She often repeats the long Samogho phrase that means forgiveness at the end of a story. The phrase itself is powerful because sin is described as a weight around the neck. When God forgives you, he 'takes that weight of sin from around the neck and knocks it down,'” Entz said.

Even after decades spent among the Samogho, Donna and Loren Entz continue to be amazed at the power of God's word to transform people when they hear that word in their own language.  "Though there can be confusion for Muslims, there is also excitement when they learn to know God more directly," Donna Entz said.