Church and Evangelism

South Sudan’s Tennet tribe receive New Testament in own language for first time

29th January 2022

A Tennet man reading the New Testament in his own language for the 1st time

When Arilo Airstrip reopened this month in Eastern Equatoria State after years of civil war and coronavirus travel restrictions, MAF’s first cargo was welcomed with open arms. In partnership with SIL, MAF delivered hundreds of Tennet New Testaments so that people could finally read the Gospel in their own language. MAF’s Jenny Davies reports… 

On 18 January, MAF pilot Raphael Flach flew boxes of the Tennet New Testament to Arilo for the first time. It was the first cargo the airstrip had seen in eight years.

Due to South Sudan’s civil war, which broke out in 2013, followed by coronavirus travel restrictions, Arilo Airstrip had been closed for nearly a decade.

The New Testaments – originally printed in 2020 – could not be delivered until now.

Hundreds of Tennet New Testaments bound for Arilo in Eastern Equatoria State

A box of Tennet New Testaments for distribution

Arilo – and the surrounding area within South Sudan’s Eastern Equatoria State – is home to the Tennet tribe, which has a population of around 11,000 people according to the Joshua Project. 

Tennet community leader, Commissioner Okach, welcomes the long-awaited scripture:

‘I was a doubting Thomas, thinking that the Bible is not really available in Tennet, but now I believe it is real.’ 

Tennet community leader, Commissioner Okach

On 23 January, a Bible dedication ceremony was held to celebrate the momentous occasion attended by the SIL team – flown in by MAF – plus government officials, and many youngsters from the Tennet community.

MAF’s Raphael Flach (R) & the SIL team head to Arilo for the Bible dedication ceremony

30 years in the making

Translation of the New Testament into Tennet began in 1993 originally in Kenya, Uganda and Sudan. MAF passenger and linguist, Scott Randal, remembers the early days:

‘Translation started because of two Tennet pastors studying at Bible college in Kijabe in Kenya. They asked SIL for help because they needed scripture in their own language, so SIL sent me to work alongside them.

‘We started by recording folktales and investigated the best reading system to use for the language. We then translated some initial scripture. I left after seven years, but Adelino and his team continued the project.’

The dedication ceremony was attended by many young Tennet people

Translator and fellow MAF passenger Adelino Amargira picks up the story:

‘After the language analysis, we continued with the Bible translation. The first book we translated was Luke, which contained stories about the life of Jesus. We finished the Gospels before moving onto Acts and Paul’s letters.

‘We had to do this in Uganda because, by then, there was no peace. We kept moving back and forth between Uganda and South Sudan.’

Even when South Sudan’s civil war broke out in 2013, Adelino pressed on:

‘Before the war, we used to fly to Arilo with MAF, but after 2013 we went by road, which was dangerous. Sometimes, we couldn’t even reach the village.

‘When the other translators abandoned the project due to insecurity, I was left to continue the translation alone, so I went to Torit – another part of Eastern Equatoria – and Kenya to speak to the Tennet people there instead.

‘With their help, we have finally finished the New Testament.’

1st flight to Arilo Airstrip in 9 years following war and covid restrictions

‘Translation is a very long, tiring and tedious process’

Finding the right phrases for scripture in another language for the first time, has also proved challenging:

‘When there’s a Biblical expression that you don’t have in Tennet, you really have to search for the meaning, so you translate it correctly. It’s important to go to the community with words that we’re not sure about.

‘We read different sections to them and listen to what they have to say. They give their input on what’s appropriate. They might say, “this word, doesn’t sound right!” so we adjust the text based on their feedback, without compromising the meaning.

‘Sometimes there are differences of opinion about the right word to use. Translation is a very long, tiring and tedious process, but always worth the effort.’

Another man reads the Bible in his own language for the first time

In terms of the Old Testament, Genesis, half of Exodus and the book of Ruth have also been completed to date.

Overcoming every obstacle for God’s Word

The New Testament in Tennet after 30 years in the making (credit: Linda & FritzFankhauser / SIL)

Despite Adelino’s arduous journey plagued by war, isolation, coronavirus, linguistical challenges and travel woes, his sheer determination and courage has paid off:

‘I am very excited to see the translation in print. It’s a happy day to know that people can finally read the New Testament.

‘One lady said to me, “What’s this?” When I told her it’s the Word of God in Tennet, she said, “Finally the Tennet have become human beings.” That really touched me. Without the Word of God she felt that her community was less than other people.

‘It encourages me to see how much people value the Bible and for them to understand what we are doing.’ 

Christians in Arilo are thrilled to finally read the Gospel in Tennet