‘God did not forget us’ – the story of the Baka Bible translation

‘God did not forget us’ – the story of the Baka Bible translation

Communications Officer Karyn Ball describes how despite 30 years of interruptions and setbacks the Baka New Testament and Genesis was finally dedicated by SIL amid great celebrations in Maridi, South Sudan earlier this year.

'I used to be jealous of white people; they were blessed by having the Word of God in their own language' explained Bukulu Edward Mandeson, political advisor to the State Governor of Maridi, South Sudan.

'The Bible says that God loves all, but we had no Bible in Baka. We were envious of those who had a Bible in their own language. 

'Now I am happy because I have a Baka Bible. God did not forget us.'

In 1979, Bukulu Edward Mandeson helped SIL International (originally known as Summer Institute of Linguistics) with the very beginnings of their translation of the Bible into the Baka language.

Today Bukulu holds an important position with the State Governor of Maridi. But more importantly to Bukulu, today he holds a Baka Bible in his hand!

'Language is our identity, we learn best in our own language. When we read the Bible in our mother tongue, we will understand it best.'  David Masua

Three hundred boxes of Bibles

When three hundred boxes of Baka Bibles were delivered to the SIL compound on December 28, 2016 David Masua, a leader in the Baka Christian community wondered how to get all these Bibles to Maridi. 

‘I first inquired about hiring a truck to join a UN convoy by road. But I was informed that the road from Juba to Maridi is so dangerous that there hasn’t been a UN convoy since 2014. The road is basically closed.’

‘Next I looked into commercial flights, but they were either non-existent or extremely unreliable and expensive. It simply wasn’t an option.

'And then I thought of MAF. When I called, they quickly agreed and said ‘Bring the Bibles over!’’

MAF stored the 12,000 Bibles for SIL in their freight room and flew them at no cost whenever there was space available on the weekly flight.

Celebration and dedication

Past and present SIL missionaries and Baka translators flew up to Maridi for the dedication in the MAF Cessna Caravans. 

'If MAF wasn’t there we don’t know how we would have gotten the Bibles or the SIL team to Maridi!' David continues.

The team spent the weekend meeting the State Governor, reconnecting with past Baka Bible translators, and celebrating with thousands of Baka people.

'Now Jesus Christ speaks Baka too, from now on Jesus will speak to us in Baka!'   Africano Mande Gedima, Governor of Maridi State,

A Bible to call my own 

There was excitement throughout the town on Sunday morning as we walked to the local church.

MAF South Sudan’s own Thomas Titus Bazia, Team Leader for our dispatch crew, is from Maridi and heavily involved in serving the Baka community.

He flew up with MAF for the weekend celebrations and was the main translator for the  dedication service, translating from Baka to English and Arabic as needed.

The morning opened with the hymn 'Pass Me Not, Oh Gentle Saviour' in Baka, sung from SIL produced Baka hymnals.  

Bishop Justin Badi opened the service with these words, 'We rejoice and thank God for His Bible in Baka, it is truly a gift from God.'

7,000 celebrations

The service saw over seven thousand people in attendance. As the Bishop opened the first box of Baka Bibles the congregation cheered with yips and ululations.

Crowds excitedly came forward when the people were invited to come up and purchase their very own Bible for the equivalent of less than £1. 

Bishops and church elders, well dressed community members, and struggling young mothers carrying little ones on their hips all moved towards the front.

'I was so very happy! As I held my own Baka Bible I felt the Holy Spirit blow over me. Finally now, I am able to read and understand God’s Word in my own language.' Mama Eunice

As I sat in my seat and looked to my left and right, I saw men and women eagerly soaking in the Word of God in their heart language for the very first time.

Everyone was excited to see, touch and read the Baka Bible; even the teenage boy selling the Bibles couldn’t wait to flip open the pages.

Mama Eunice

Mama Eunice, an elderly Baka lady, couldn’t keep her eyes off the pages. I asked her how she felt when she got her own Baka Bible.

She answered  'I was so very happy! As I held my own Baka Bible I felt the Holy Spirit blow over me. Finally now, I am able to read and understand God’s Word in my own language.'

The Governor of Maridi State, Africano Mande Gedima is a strong believer and a solid witness within the Baka community. In his message to the congregation he shared 'Now Jesus Christ speaks Baka too, from now on Jesus will speak to us in Baka!'

In his address Governor Gedima expressed his thanks to the SIL translation team as well as to MAF. 'Many thanks to the pilots and the entire MAF team, their names may not be written down in the history books, but they have brought Baka Bibles to us and we are grateful.'

Thomas Titus

For MAF’s Thomas Titus, the highlight of the Bible dedication was the opportunity for his grandmother to hear the Word of God in Baka.

'It makes me so happy to see my habuuba (grandma) receive a Baka Bible before she dies. She has waited so long for this!'

Thomas Titus in partnership with SIL’s Scripture Engagement team was also able to show the Jesus Film translated into Baka.

Over three consecutive nights during the weekend celebrations Thomas Titus shared the film with over a thousand people, all were mesmerized by hearing Jesus Christ speak in their own heart language.

'The crowd cheered and clapped and cried when Jesus first spoke in Baka' Thomas Titus described.

‘On the night I was playing the film in the cathedral, the sound from the film carried a mile out to my grandmother’s mud hut.’

‘As my grandmother lay in her bed that night, she could clearly hear the words from the Jesus film. She was overjoyed to hear Jesus speak Baka. I thank God for this.'

Lasting Impact

'Language is our identity, we learn best in our own language. When we read the Bible in our mother tongue, we will understand it best',  Baka leader David Masua explains. 

Bishop Justin Badi also speaks humbly about his own experience. 'When I read the Bible in English the understanding isn’t deep. But if I read it in Baka, I can understand it better, deeper and fully. Having the Bible written in Baka enables me to really understand God’s words. In English, I can’t even pronounce some of the words and I skip over the big words. Sometimes I can only explain to my congregation the small words. Now when I preach, I can preach the whole message, not just the small words.'

The Bishop, admits he is going to benefit greatly from having the Bible now in his mother tongue. And just imagine how much of an affect this will have on his congregation, the town of Maridi and the entire Baka community.

What does it take to translate the Bible?

Find out more about our partner SIL

SIL missionaries Kirk and Carla Parker moved into a small mud hut in Maridi with their baby boy in 1980 and officially started the Baka translation work.

At that time, Baka was just a spoken language; there was no written form other than the few tonal markings and alphabet that Bukulu had started a year before.

The Baka people had no books, hymnals, nor Bible in their own language. 'This was far from an ideal situation,' explains Kirk. 'We had to take an unwritten language, figure out the alphabet, and begin to translate the Bible.'

The Parkers worked with local Baka men and women such as Bukulu and Rev. Bennett Marona to create a written language.

After five years of laying the ground work for the translation, Kirk and Carla and two young children had to leave Sudan (now South Sudan) due to the civil war.

Translation in troubled times

Pastor Bennett, now the team leader for the Baka translation and literacy project, continued the translation work, even as he and many Baka people were forced to flee to the Congo.

Eventually SIL missionaries Doug and Anne Sampson moved to a refugee camp in the Congo in the early 90s to join the Baka refugees there.

They connected with Pastor Bennett and continued the translation work but it wasn’t easy going for the Sampson family either. They had to move numerous times, were evacuated and their home was looted.

Despite the challenges Doug and Anne translated many books of the Bible into Baka during the ten years they assisted with translation.

Later the Baka translation continued from SIL’s centre in Juba with remote workers like translation consultant Mary Muchesia who had to return to Nairobi while she was pregnant with her daughter Zoe.  Mary contributed to the final checks of the translation via Skype from her bed. Mary’s daughter arrived safely arrived just weeks after she finished the translation.

Story Karyn Ball, photos - Karyn Ball, SIL and LuAnne Cadd