What do you do when there are no Scriptures written down in a language?
In fact, what do you do when the language isn’t written down at all?
You do the preparatory work for writing down the language. That includes areas such as trying to understand how the language works and how best to write words, working with the community, and creating some form of dictionary.
And as these things develop, you can start creating some oral materials too.
That’s the situation with the Gusilay language in Senegal.
With the language’s first dictionary published in 2019, work has commenced on translating Genesis. While that does mean that the written version is underway, it will be some time before even Genesis is available, let alone any other parts of the Bible.
Oral materials are a vital resource at all times, but they come into their own in situations like this. Before the Gusilay people have the written word, they will be able to hear Scripture in their language through audio versions.
So the translation team working on the Gusilay language has spent time creating radio broadcasts and dramatised readings, and asking Gusilay musicians to write songs based on Scripture.
Genesis is the chosen book – not so much because it’s the first book of the Bible, but more because it offers a bridge between the message of Jesus and the majority religion among the Gusilay, whose followers know and relate to its stories.
Broadcasting the message
Technology provides tremendous ways to reach people with the gospel. In the Gusilay context, one of these methods is radio, which is still heavily used across Senegal. About a year ago the radio station in the town of Thionck-Essyl – in the heart of Gusilay country – gave the team an outlet to broadcast Scriptures in the Gusilay language. These were greatly appreciated by the Gusilay people.
David Wilkinson, who serves with Wycliffe and is a member of the Gusilay translation team, says: ‘The broadcasts are part of a teaching series on the life of Abraham that speaks right into the Senegalese context. The first lesson, based on Genesis 12, highlights that when God called Abraham it’s so that all peoples on earth will be blessed through him. It explains that Abraham was to be the father of the nation from which the promised Saviour would come.’
The team spent a few months recording a dramatised reading of Genesis chapters 11–25 in two make-shift studios in Ziguinchor and Thionck-Essyl. David continues: ‘We had 18 different voice parts to cover, and were able to draw in people from the local community to voice them. Some parts were covered by members of the translation team, but most were done by people who follow the majority religion with whom we have built relationships through a literacy programme and in creating the Gusilay dictionary. They were very happy to help.’
The promise is given to Abraham and Sarah that they will have a son.
On hearing the recordings, Ndeye*, said, ‘Wow, that message is really great, it touched my heart... I pray that everyone can hear that message.’ And Abdou* said, ‘I really like these stories, they talk about prophets who we are familiar with, and it’s in a really good form of the language – true Gusilay – so I enjoy listening to them.’ Both are followers of the majority religion.
David continues: ‘We also wanted some music to accompany the lessons, so knowing that Seynabou*, a Gusilay member of the translation team, has composed a couple of worship songs I asked her if she had anything suitable. A few hours later she’d composed a new song based on the title and opening paragraph of the lessons. That added the final touch.’
The lessons and repeats were broadcast over a period of about six weeks. In addition, a Christian radio station based in Ziguinchor, which reaches much of the region, broadcast the lessons on a weekly basis, and after a few months’ pause is back broadcasting them again.
Accompanying the broadcasts was a publicity campaign on social media, linking people to a website where they could access the broadcasts. The adverts reached over 8,000 people in Senegal and across the world, with 250 people clicking through to the website. David comments, ‘We don’t know how many listened or for how long, but we pray that hearts were touched.’
The lessons are also available as an app that can be downloaded from the Google Play store – something David has been encouraging Gusilay people to do.
Music to their ears
The spoken word is vital for getting people to hear the Scriptures in the absence of the written word. That includes words in songs. David says, ‘Songs are ubiquitous in the Gusilay culture, particularly when one is working, whether cultivating the ground with a hand plough, planting rice, or harvesting it. Songs are the key to unlocking histories, every song has a story to it, and that story is kept alive and remembered through the song.’
Making the dramatised recording of Genesis 11–25 opened the way for Gusilay songs to be written based on some of the key sections of the story.
What the song talks about: Abraham is worried about who will get his inheritance, and the Lord appeared and tells him to count the stars in the sky. Abraham believes, and he ends up with a great number of descendants.
‘We organised a songwriting workshop, and invited a number of Gusilay musicians and composers to attend. We chose about 20 passages from the Abraham story. As there are very few Gusilay followers of Jesus, we involved a number of other people from the community – hence it was important to choose passages that would help them to include the messages we wanted to convey.’
‘About 35 came. We split the songwriters into groups. They listened to the recorded story, and then wrote songs in Gusilay based on the verses they’d heard.’ The musicians composed and recorded a remarkable 31 songs in five days.
The plan, of course, is that people would hear both the story and the songs, and God would speak through all of this.
Aminata*, one of the women who was involved in the workshop, said the songs ‘allowed us to know about what happened a long time ago, because we’ve never learned to read. Thanks to your effort we now know where humanity comes from, what our past is, and now we know about it in songs... I’m really pleased because previously I didn’t know at all, now I know more about these stories.’
What the song talks about: Visitors come and ask Abraham where Sarah is. Abraham replies that she is in the tent. The Lord then says, ‘This time next year Sarah will have a baby’ (literally: will be carrying a baby on her back) and Sarah laughs. The song continues: ‘I’m old, and my husband’s old, that’s why I laughed.’ The narrator takes over and says: ‘The Lord is powerful and will give her a son.’
‘These are exciting times for the Gusilay,’ says David. ‘Seeing the joy and exhilaration as they hear the Scriptures being played on radio, listen to the app, and sing songs about the life of Abraham in Gusilay – that’s made all this so special.’
‘And yet, this is still the early stages – the preparatory work. I can’t wait to see their reactions as we widen the range of available Scriptures. And ultimately, when the Gusilay get New Testament Scriptures and can read and hear the good news of Jesus in their language for the first time!’
‘But that’s a few years away yet. Until then, we continue to build connections with the community, develop ways the Gusilay can engage with their language more, and translate the Scriptures into Gusilay.’
*name changed for security reasons