Sometimes, translating God’s word into your language is not enough: you need something more to enable you to engage with it. That’s where setting Scripture to music can play its part.
‘I’m very happy because we have the New Testament in the Gamo language,’ says Tamiru Tibebu Chirkosha, a literacy teacher who lives in south-west Ethiopia. ‘It’s the language that speaks to us the best because everyone who is Gamo understands this language.’
Having the Bible translated into the language that speaks to you best is crucial. Without the word of God in your own language, you won’t fully comprehend what is being said. Hence the importance of Bible translation. But a successful translation is not the end of the story – people need to engage with it too. The text may be there for the people to read, but will they read it? Do they read it? Can they read it?
That’s why Wycliffe is heavily involved not just in Bible translation but also in Scripture engagement. How you help people to engage with Scripture comes in many forms, such as education and literacy programmes, or the creation of Bible apps in different languages. It can also be through putting Scripture into song, as words set to music are easy to learn and remember. Think of some of your favourite songs – worship or otherwise – and how the lyrics stick in your mind.
There can be many reasons why people don’t engage with their newly translated Bible. Sometimes it can be through habit: people have no history or experience of using their language in church, or even outside their local communities. They only use the national or trade language in those situations.
‘There are some people who feel that Amharic is a superior language than Gamo.’
Sometimes it can because of fear – of being misunderstood, of being looked down on, of being seen as inferior.
‘When we go to the town or the city, we have to speak Amharic or another related language, because we are afraid to use our language,’ says Misgana Melese, a Gamo woman.
Sometimes it can be because one language is viewed as better than another – more cosmopolitan, more sophisticated, a sign of superiority.
‘There are some people who feel that Amharic is a superior language than Gamo,’ comments Tamiru. ‘So they try to use Amharic everywhere they preach. But the entire community may not understand what they are saying in Amharic.’
There are two other key issues that affect the take-up of the Bible in your own language. First, if your culture is orally- based, and, second, how many people can read and write. Overcoming these barriers requires individuals and teams who will help people engage with the Scriptures in their language. In Ethiopia, the Bible translation team has a whole department geared to Scripture engagement, of which Tamiru has been a part. They employ different ways of assisting people to engage with the Scriptures in their language and realise the importance of having and using their own Bible.
One of these engagement methods is workshops that encourage people to write and sing songs that use the Scriptures in their own language. One such workshop was run for the Gamo language group in Arba Minch, south-west Ethiopia, earlier this year.
Championing the language and culture
The Gamo New Testament was published in 2011, after eight years of translation work. Yet its uptake in Gamo churches has been slow, partly because the literacy rate among the Gamo is only about 20%.
‘The Gamo New Testament has been translated and is in use,’ comments Tamiru. ‘When it’s in the Gamo language it is understandable for them. They get the full message in their own language, compared to other languages. The challenge is how to engage people to read and use it.’
‘Music crosses boundaries and overcomes barriers – you don’t need to read or write to sing.’
Music is one way that a culture can learn to engage more with its language, particularly in an orally-based culture where a lot of people don’t read and write, such as Gamo. In such cultures one easy way to get people to engage with the word of God in their language is to put the Scriptures into song.
‘In a culture like Gamo, that requires giving them a push,’ says Mariyam Yohannis, who is a specialist in the Scripture engagement team. ‘So we run workshops that champion the use of cultural music and instruments in churches. We invite people to the workshop, and give them training that equips them to return to their churches and communities and use their God-given gifts to write and sing songs in the language they understand best.
‘Music crosses boundaries and overcomes barriers – you don’t need to read or write to sing. You can learn Scripture and scriptural principles through singing words from the Bible. You can draw strength as a community from singing together in your language. Above all, you’re giving God the opportunity to speak to you in the language that will have the greatest impact on you. Hence these workshops.’
The broken horn
Defersha was the oldest participant in the workshop, and brought a lot of wisdom and experience to the group. However, he described a time in his past when he and a friend shared the gospel with a zay (horn-type instrument) player. The player accepted Jesus. Because Defersha and his friend had been taught that the use of traditional instruments was not allowed in church and Christians should not be playing such instruments, they told the horn player he could no longer use the zay and convinced him to cut it up.
Following the workshop, Defersha now realises what he did was wrong. If this happened now he would not destroy the instrument. Instead, he’d encourage the horn player to use it in his new life in Christ to glorify God and change people’s minds about using traditional instruments in church. One of the commitments Defersha made at the end of the workshop was to seek out the horn player, apologise to him, and help him to build a new zay to play in church.
Happy and joyful
The workshop was held over five days in early March, and around 35 people from churches across the Gamo region participated. The teaching aims to strip away preconceptions about using your own language and music in church, to show that your language is God-given and to be celebrated and used, and to provide opportunities for the participants to write and perform songs in their own language.
‘The workshop will enable the Gamo community to have worship and song and preach in their own language, and that makes them happy and joyful.’
‘This training is for Gamo songwriters and musicians,’ says Mariyam, ‘and teaches how they can write songs from the Bible in their own language. After they’ve attended the workshop and written the songs, they will go back and the community will be able to use them and glorify God with the songs.’
For many, the experience was mind-blowing, revealing to them the importance of using their own language in church.
‘This workshop has encouraged me so I will use the Gamo language for songs when I worship,’ says Abraham Qifu. ‘We used songs in Gamo, using instruments like the krar (a type of guitar) and drum, and our language too. Previously, there was a fear in us. But this workshop has changed all that in a positive way so I can be bold and use it.’
Misgana recognises the impact that the workshop teaching will have on the church. ‘I’ve learnt how to use the Gamo language and traditional instruments in our songs and our church. It’s helped us to focus on our language. The workshop will enable the Gamo community to have worship and song and preach in their own language, and that makes them happy and joyful.’
Some of the participants have come to realise how their language means much more than just what they say, and has an influence that reaches beyond the church.
‘Before the workshop I had no idea about the importance of language,’ says Abel Kussia. ‘This training has helpedme understand about language and identity, and the importance of using our language for our church congregation. Now I’m ready to use Gamo in our church, in our community, everywhere.’
‘Now we are doubly happy because we can use our traditional instruments and the Gamo language for worship in the church.’
Ultimately, it’s about the Gamo people engaging with the Scriptures.
Tamiru says: ‘Many Gamo people have sung songs, but many Gamo people have not read the Bible. Therefore, songs in the Gamo language can engage people with Scripture and draw them into real, deepfelt worship. Writing and singing songs from Gamo Scripture helps people to learn and read their Scriptures and brings freshness.’
The day after the workshop, Abraham and Misgana were already back home, a few hours’ drive from Arba Minch, singing their Gamo songs in their owncommunities. Both were received with great celebration and excitement. Misgana is overjoyed: ‘When I read the New Testament in Gamo I understand everything, whereas the other language gives me no accurate understanding and clarification. Now we are doubly happy because we can use our traditional instruments and the Gamo language for worship in the church. That gives us happiness because everyone can understand it.’
For God’s glory
During his time working in Scripture engagement, Tamiru has seen the difference it makes: ‘When we use music from the Gamo tradition and culture in the worship in church, people feel very happy because they praise God in their own language and use their own culture to praise God. It’s different when they use other languages for worship.’
As Mariyam reflects on this workshop, a broad smile breaks across her face: ‘I’ve seen that in this training so many lives have been changed. So from now on they’re not going to be afraid to sing in the Gamo language. They will sing and use Gamo, for God’s glory and the benefit of the community.’
Your Way of Singing
Among those participating in the workshop was British songwriter-artist Gareth Davies- Jones. He has produced a new CD, Your Way of Singing, inspired by his experiences in Ethiopia, including making music with the Gamo musicians. The album includes recordings made during the workshop of the Gamo musicians playing their instruments and singing their songs, as well as original songs by Gareth. Click below to watch the video of Gareth’s journey.