Translation: A New Gateway to the Gospel

Taking off after a great day of celebration.
There was double celebration in Eastern Equatoria in January when MAF pilot Raphael Flach landed on the newly reopened airstrip to bring the brand-new translation of the Bible in the Tennet language. A few days, he landed again with VIP visitors, including Bible translators, to celebrate with the community as the scripture was dedicated.

Arilo and the surrounding area is home to the Tennet, a Nilotic people group with an estimated population of 10-15,000 who are classified as minimally reached with the Gospel according to the Joshua Project. The Tennet live mostly in South Sudan, although war has displaced some into Kenya and Uganda. They were in much need of a Bible translation in their local language.

The last week in January was an exciting week for the Gospel in Arilo. On Monday, pilot Raphael reopened the airstrip in Arilo, Eastern Equatoria State, which hasn’t been serviceable since 2013. Tuesday, he made the first landing at Arilo Airstrip with 170 kg of Bibles, which also happened to be the first delivery of a brand-new translation in the Tennet language to be received in the community. On Friday, MAF flew nine passengers from SIL to attend dedicate the long-awaited scripture portions picking them up again to Juba the following Monday and Friday.

Taking off after a great day of celebration.
Taking off after a great day of celebration.

“The New Testament, which was printed in 2020, but because of Covid-19 we were not able to deliver and dedicate it then. We are doing it now, so the church can begin using it,” SIL Language Programme Manager Paul Otto explained as he prepared to board the MAF plane in Juba. “We will stay for a few days to do some training called ‘faith comes by hearing’, with the church leaders, to teach them how to use it. People who don’t know how to read and write can listen to the scriptures instead.”

Translator Osfaldo Cirino was part of the team travelling to attend the celebrations. “We are flying today for the dedication of the scriptures. We expect many people at the celebration from the town there to attend. Also, some neighbours who will come to celebrate with us,” he said.

Bible dedication

The celebration to dedicate the scriptures took place on Sunday 23 January. The service started with songs and an opening prayer by Rev Peter Lowot. Welcomes were extended to the Bible translators and government officials. Many of those in attendance, SIL’s Richard Malik noted, were children and young people. Most of the elderly people have fled the village due to cattle raiding, hardship and famine.  

Commissioner Okach welcomed the long-awaited scripture. “I was a doubting Thomas, thinking that the Bible is really not available in Tennet, but now I believe that it is real. Please send children to school so that they can be able to read it.”

In his greeting, the Tennet Youth Chairman thanked SIL for helping to preserve the Tennet language. “Now Tennet can read their language through the written word of God. When they preach now, they will listen and understand.”

Tennet home and family in Arilo, South Sudan.
Tennet home and family in Arilo, South Sudan.

Tennet translation

The translation process began in 1993 in Kenya and has continued across three locations including Kenya, Uganda and Khartoum.

Passenger Scott Randal was there at the beginning to help get the translation started. “The translation started because there two pastors studying at Bible college in Kijabe in Kenya. They asked SIL for help, because they realised that they needed scripture in their own language, so SIL sent me to work alongside them. We started with language research, recording folktales and investigated the best reading system to use for the language. We then did some initial scripture portions. I left after seven years, and they continued the project while I was gone.”

“It’s a happy day to know that people are finally able to read the Bible. I was very excited when I first saw the translation in print,” Adelino declares. He shares a story about what this will mean for the community.

“One day, as we were giving out the Bible portion, there was a lady, who said, ’What is this?’ When I told her that it is the Word of God in Tennet, she said, ‘Now the Tennet have become human beings.’ That really touched me a lot! Before, without the word of God they felt that they were somehow less than other people. It encouraged some of us to know how much people valued the Bible. To see the realisation of what we were doing. Translation is a very long, tiring and tedious process – but it is always worth the effort.”

Community members drumming for the celebration.
Community members drumming for the celebration.

Reopening Arilo Airstrip  

Re-opening an airstrip is a community endeavour as pilot Raphael Flach explains. “As I overflew the airstrip on Monday to do an aerial assessment, I could see that they had worked really hard to prepare the strip and done a really good job. There are no cars in the community, and they would have done all of this work by hand.

“Landing there on Tuesday, was pretty exciting. It’s not an ideal airstrip,” laughs the experienced pilot. “It’s kind of tricky, you have to be on your toes, ready to respond. There are soft spots which pull you to left and right so you have to really be on the brakes but also ready to add a bit of power, so you don’t sink in too much. There is a lot going on with the power, brakes and steering, which is fun!”

The challenges of landing at the airstrip are nothing compared to the challenges of travelling by road in this part of South Sudan as Raphael explains. “It is reasonably dry today, but in the wet season, roads in this part of Eastern Equatoria, are completely unpassable. They are some of the worst roads in the country, making these communities some of the most isolated in South Sudan.”

The way back included a few challenges, but as far as pilot Raphael was concerned, the extra stops and operational challenges of flying to Arilo were worth the effort,

“I just love flying the gospel, there is nothing more important,” Raphael concludes.

Daily Life in Arilo, South Sudan.
Daily Life in Arilo, South Sudan.

Story by Jenny Davies and photos by Linda and Fritz Fankhauser

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