In August 2018 the Keliko people of South Sudan celebrated the launch of their New Testament in exile in northern Uganda. Many are now living there in refugee settlements. It is the 1000th New Testament translation that SIL, Wycliffe’s primary partner, has been involved in. Behind the celebrations is a remarkable story of faith and persistence through the traumas of migration and war to bring God’s message of hope to the Keliko people.
In the early 1980s Rev David Gale found himself weeping at a conference near Juba, in what is now South Sudan. Pastors from many people groups attended the conference and each pastor was asked to read a passage from the Bible in their language. Rev David came from the Keliko people. Even though the Keliko were first evangelised in the early 1900s their only access to God’s word came through Bangala or Bari, the neighbouring trade languages. So, when Rev David was asked to read the Bible in his language he couldn’t. Not even one word of Scripture had been translated into Keliko.
Rev David was so overcome with sadness that his people didn’t have the word of God in their language that he broke down and wept.
But he turned his tears into prayers. He asked those at the conference to pray that his people would be able to translate the Bible into Keliko. He also opened his trade language Bible and found Matthew 7:7 – ‘Ask and it will be given to you, seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened to you.’
And asking, seeking, knocking is exactly what Rev David did when he returned home. He went around and gathered a group of Keliko people together to help him write the Keliko language, as there was no standard way of writing Keliko at the time, and to begin translating the Bible. So the journey to the Keliko translation began. But no one knew the difficulties that lay ahead for the Keliko people.
A lot of sickness and death
During the late 1980s as work on writing the Keliko language and initial translation developed, the conflict across southern Sudan was also mounting. Before that stage of the work was complete full-scale war broke out. All SIL and Wycliffe staff were pulled out of South Sudan and the Keliko people had to leave their land to become refugees in Uganda and Congo.
‘I remember in 2007 driving with the Keliko team leader, Rev Isaac Kenyi (who is on the cover), from Juba to northern Uganda to visit another translation team working in a related language,’ Wes Ringer, who works alongside the Keliko and other translation teams in South Sudan, remembers. ‘As we were driving we came across a rise and found ourselves overlooking a valley where the Keliko had been in refugee camps in the 1990s. Rev Isaac became upset remembering there was a lot of sickness and a lot of death when they came as refugees. It was very emotional for him to remember all the people who had died and were buried there. And at that point you would have no idea there had been a refugee camp there at all, all the vegetation had grown back up.’
Work on the translation stalled until Rev David’s grandson, Rev Seme Nigo, who was studying to become a pastor at a theological college in Arua in northern Uganda, met some Wycliffe people who visited the college to talk about Bible translation. Seme told them about the Keliko work that had been started – but not yet completed. This led to the project starting up again, first in Arua and then, after the signing of a major peace agreement, the team moved to the capital of South Sudan, Juba.
Love of God’s word
Between 2000 and 2016 things were relatively stable in the Keliko area and the translation team, made up of their team leader Rev Isaac Kenyi and translators Rev Ezekiah Dada and Rev Enos Dada, along with help from the now Bishop Seme, worked persistently and diligently translating the word of God into Keliko. And with each phrase,verse and chapter they moved closer to realising Rev David’s – who died in the mid-2000s – goal of having the Bible available for his people.
These men worked with deep love for God’s word. Wes recalls that at one point Ezekiah was ‘in a certain sense overwhelmed with the responsibility of being a translator. He would ask: “How can I be certain I understand what is being said verse by verse so I can translate it accurately?”’ Wes spent some time visiting churches in Enos and Ezekiah’s home area and spending time in God’s word together, strengthening each other for the work ahead. ‘It was a bonding time,’ Wes remembers, ‘I was sharing a small hut with Enos and the first morning I woke to his prayers, which moved me to tears. They are very godly men, very committed to this work.’
‘Then in July 2016 after fighting broke out in the capital Juba it spread across South Sudan,’ Jackie Marshall-Ringer, who is the director of SIL in South Sudan and is married to Wes,explains, ‘the Keliko area became very insecure and unstable. A lot of people were killed and most people then left and ended up again in various refugee camps in Uganda or Congo.’ ‘It is a very hard thing for them to go through a second cycle of this,’ Wes observes. Most of the Keliko people have lost their livelihoods.They come from a rich agricultural area and usually sow two to three rounds of crops a year. But the land in the camps is very limited and rocky so most of the Keliko now rely on the UN for basic food.
How do you continue Bible translation in circumstances like this? ‘You pray: “God I don’t know how to plan this?”’ Jackie reflects. ‘We are very thankful that the translators have survived and their families have survived. The translators are all Episcopalian priests. They are very godly men and they pressed on…’
The result of that pressing on was the launch of the Keliko New Testament, which also includes translations of the books of Genesis, Exodus 1-20, Ruth, and Jonah from the Old Testament. This means, Wes notes, the Keliko also ‘have the beginning of the story in Genesis and Exodus, which is referred to in the gospels again and again.’
‘The launch was very creatively put together,’ Jackie says. ‘All the South Sudanese have a gift for music and dance. The Keliko have these African harps, and I suspect they are more like the harps mentioned in the Old Testament than our classical harps. They had composed a few songs especially. The theme of the launch was Psalm 66:5 – “Come and see what God has done” – and one of the songs they wrote that was played on the harps was about the history of the translation. It went something like: “So Rev David, in the beginning he went around and he tried to gather people, but people said they are gathering and eating but nothing will come of it. But, now, come and see what God has done.”’
The Keliko still wait for peace and to be able to return to their land. But even in the midst of that painful waiting they have been able to see how tears of sadness, like Rev David’s, can lead to the joy of now having God’s word in their language.
This story originally appeared in our magazine, Words for Life, which comes out three times a year. Follow the link below to sign up and read more stories that celebrate what the Lord has done.