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Christian faith a struggle in Burkina Faso


January 16, 2008
- Dan Dyck

Tin, Burkina Faso — Beneath Souleymane Traoré’s humble modesty lies a martyr with a deep wisdom, a broad vision, and a gift for languages.

Raised Muslim, Souleymane speaks French, the national language of this former French colony, Siamou, the local dialect of his home region, and Jula, the language of commerce.

Souleymane first connected with Mennonites in 1985 through his work as house help for Paul and Lois Thiessen who represented the Evangelical Mennonite Conference. His employers gradually recognized his linguistic gifts. The word spread, and by 1999 he was enlisted to assist with Bible translation by Mennonite Church Canada Witness/Mennonite Mission Network workers Lillian Nicolson and Donna and Loren Entz in nearby Orodara.

The team recognized early on that bringing biblical values to an indigenous population with an oral culture would mean developing the local Siamou language into written form – a process called orthography by linguists. Souleymane soon found ample opportunity for Biblical translation work among the Mennonites, helping with pronunciation and converting the oral Siamou language into written orthography.

It took years of growing relationships with Mennonite workers, and close attention to scripture, before Souleymane became a Christian himself. “When I understood what Christianity was about, I realized that I really needed to follow the path that was the path of truth,” he told translator Donna Entz in an interview.

That path has not been easy for Souleymane. “There are many religions in this place,” he said, “Especially Islam, which has taken most of this village, so it was not an easy step for me.” People also practice animist beliefs and ancestor worship.

Traoré’s Muslim father, who interpreted Souleymane’s conversion to Christianity as rebellion and disrespect, tried forcing his son to attend the mosque. “But eventually he saw all the changes that came to my life because of Christianity, so he finally left me alone and didn’t force me to do anything else. There’s really no problem today between us. I am fully his son and I respect him as my father and everything is good.”

Souleymane was also deeply concerned about creating tensions in his wife’s family. A move from their home village of Tin to Orodara in 2002 provided some beneficial physical distance. On Dec. 25, 2003, Souleymane and his wife Orokia were baptized in the Orodara Mennonite Church. Today, Souleymane reports that Orokia’s relationship with her family is “generally good.”

In addition to his translation work, Souleymane has provided leadership to a local Bible study group since 2005. He hopes to one day teach from a Bible entirely translated in Siamou. So far he and his group have covered all the available translated portions. “I have to struggle between the Jula and the French to explain it in Siamou,” he says. “It would be so easy and so exciting to be able to explain it in Siamou. This group that I am working with right now is very interested in God’s word but it’s hard because I don’t have the rest in Siamou.”

Exposing people to Christianity is a challenge, says Souleymane. “There are people that want to put up barriers between Christians and Muslims and we don’t want those barriers. We pray that we can love at all times,” he said.