It has taken 30 years to translate the New Testament into the West African Tawallammat language, but that is just the first step in spreading the gospel among the Tamajaq people who speak it.
As translator Andrawes [name changed] admits, there is still a huge task to share the good news of Jesus with these mainly nomadic people, who have a very low literacy rate and live in a very oral society.
The Tamajaq (or Tuareg, as they are often called) roam across Libya, Algeria, Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger, where the biggest group is found. They are usually on the move in search of grazing for their livestock.
Andrawes, who joined the translation team in 1999, is one of the few Tamajaq who has converted to Christianity from Islam. He said, ‘The translation work was started on 19 February 1985, by my colleague, Christian Grandouiller.
‘The first book to be translated was Genesis, because of the lifestyle similarities between Abraham and the Tuareg people, and because Genesis is the foundation of all the great doctrines of the Christian faith.
‘Once the early books of the Old Testament were complete, he started on the New Testament. It was important to do those early books of the Old Testament, because Muslim people are familiar with the characters of those books’.
They finally completed the New Testament on 19 February 2015, exactly 30 years after the work began.
Andrawes added, ‘We had a small celebration, to present our work to members of the missions involved, Serving In Mission (SIM) Niger and our partners SIL Niger. Since then, I have been working to record the New Testament, so it can be distributed on micro SD cards, which can be played on mobile phones or on radios.
‘The Tamajaq have a great oral tradition, and probably less than 10 per cent of them can read, so it is vital they can hear the New Testament in their own language. That’s how it will enter their hearts and make a real impact on their lives’.
The recording is being done in a way which might surprise Europeans, with a single voice reading every part. Andrawes explained, ‘Because the Tamajaq have such an oral culture, they are used to hearing stories being told by just one person. They listen intently and take everything in. Some mission workers tried to do a recording with breaks for music, but the people they played it to didn’t like it. They said the music got in the way and broke the flow of the story’.
For now, Andrawes is working on recording the whole of the New Testament. On the day I spoke to him, he had just finished Luke 16.
The Tamajaq generally live in small family groups, perhaps 5-10 tents together, each home to a family, with 40-80 people in a camp. Each camp can be several kilometres from the next group. That makes it hard to take the gospel to many of them at a time but there is one big advantage for an evangelist, as Andrawes explained: ‘They are usually happy to discuss the gospel in one-on-one or small group situations’, he said.
‘The problems come when they make a commitment to Christ, because that can easily lead them into conflict with their families and with their wider communities’.
The challenge for him and the few other Christians in his community is to bring more people to Christ, in the hope a church might develop which can eventually support and disciple new believers.
Andrawes added, ‘There is quite a lot of hostility to the gospel in some of the places we work, so it’s best if we have workers who understand the culture very well. They could perhaps be North Africans, because they would share cultural similarities with the Tamajaq, or perhaps someone from the Hausa church.
‘We need people who have good Bible knowledge, who can give new believers the tools to discuss their faith and stand up for the truth’.
Tim Allan of Serving in Mission (SIM)
Taken from Serving Him, the magazine of SIM (UK), with kind permission (www.sim.co.uk)