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Katherine O’Donnell
Scripture Engagement in Tanzania

The launch of a New Testament or Bible translation can often be seen as the pinnacle of Wycliffe’s work. It is indeed a time for rejoicing, but for me, as a Scripture Engagement worker, this event is just one more step towards our overall goal of seeing people accessing and using the Scriptures so that lives are transformed as God speaks to them.

In my work, I aim to help people to engage with the Bible in the language that speaks to them best. When I say engage with, that can be anything from first of all getting hold of a Bible, whether that be written or audio, and being able to read or listen to it, to being able to understand and think about it, and to being able to apply it to their own lives and be changed by it.

Mshewe pastors reading Safwa Bible story books

The direction God wanted me to take

The story of how I became part of Wycliffe is a story of God leading and guiding me each step of the way. I’ve always had a bit of a thing about Africa. As a child, I was really inspired and excited by missionary stories. But as I went through school I started to think maybe I wasn’t just meant to send money, but rather to go there myself. After school, I took a gap year in Kenya with Wycliffe, and spent six months homeschooling children in a remote village. That was my first personal experience of working overseas, and it confirmed to me that that was the direction God wanted me to take.

Our overall goal of seeing people accessing and using the Scriptures so that lives are transformed as God speaks to them

I was then advised to get some more life experience rather than go straight into working overseas. So that’s what I did. After university I worked for two years as a public health nutritionist and then spent two years at Bible college. For my Bible college placement, I ended up going back to Kenya and training Sunday school teachers for a few weeks. And I absolutely loved it! This was more like what I wanted to be doing, as I was getting more concerned with people’s spiritual nutrition rather than just their physical nutrition.

A literacy and Bible study workshop group continue to read their Safwa books during a break

Wycliffe previously hadn’t seemed like quite the right fit for me – but then I found out about the Scripture Engagement side of Wycliffe’s work. And suddenly the stuff I wanted to do and was gifted in doing came together with this organisation I had so many links with and that I knew so much about. That’s when I decided to apply to Wycliffe. I wanted to work in Africa, and I’d been to Kenya, so we looked at East Africa, and the best fit seemed to be the Mbeya Cluster Project in Tanzania.

I love seeing people grow in their understanding of the Bible

Katherine with the Bible college principal and some students at a Bible college children’s day

I’ve now been in Tanzania for about ten years. The most rewarding part of my work is seeing my local colleagues grow in their understanding of the Bible, and in their ability to teach. I also love it when I get to teach, and see people engaging with God’s word in fresh ways and having fun in the process.

Over the years I have done a lot of Sunday school teacher training, and I have enjoyed seeing these adults enjoying themselves playing games, and then later hearing anecdotal stories that their Sunday schools have got bigger because they’ve become more fun.

I was getting more concerned with people’s spiritual nutrition rather than just their physical nutrition

More often these days I teach in Bible colleges, covering foundational methods for engaging with God’s word such as Bible studies, family devotions and personal devotions, or I train my colleagues to train others. What excites me the most is seeing real evidence of people being impacted by teaching on how to use the Bible. That's what keeps me motivated to keep serving God in this way.

People are keen to hear God’s word in their language

Most of the languages that we are involved with in Mbeya have portions of or a whole New Testament in audio format. The audio Scriptures are available on devices called MegaVoice players, which are small solar-charged audio devices, giving enough volume for a small group to hear it. They are also distributed through phones, flash drives and other means. We train people in how to use the MegaVoice players and encourage them to hold listening groups in their churches, communities and homes.

Being able to apply the Bible to their own lives and be changed by it

One of the languages that these audio Scriptures are available in is Safwa. I regularly hear stories of how much people enjoy listening to the Bible in Safwa, especially women and the elderly. At first, some people were asking who had done the recordings, wondering if the voices were expats or people from other language groups. But when they realised that they were Safwa people, from their own villages and surrounding area, they were very happy, saying, ‘Chakula cha Kisafwa kipikwe na Msafwa,’ which means: Safwa food should be cooked by a Safwa person.

Katherine with children from a Sunday school teachers’ workshop she taught

Even more thrilling was the news that at least two people have started attending church as a result of listening to God’s word through a MegaVoice player. One of them, an elderly man, said that since listening to the Bible in Safwa, he has no reason to avoid God, because he has understood everything by listening to the Bible in his language.

The hope that we have in Christ

Encouraging stories like these do not come every day. Something more is needed to keep me going, and that is the hope that we have in Christ. A few years ago, I went through a very difficult time spiritually. It was really hard – I couldn’t pray, I couldn’t sing; I was grappling with big questions about my faith, partly due to one of my MA modules exploring God’s providence and suffering. This culminated in what some might call ‘the dark night of the soul’ in my walk with God.

Translating the Bible into the local language isn’t enough – people also need to be equipped to engage with and apply Scripture to their daily lives

One Sunday evening I decided not to go to church, but instead stayed home and for some reason felt like reading the whole book of Hebrews! There had been one verse from Hebrews going round and round in my head – ‘Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see’ – and so I just decided to read the whole book.

As I read it, it was as if light suddenly started to shine into the ‘dark night’ that I was going through. A significant theme in the book of Hebrews is persevering because of the hope that we have in Christ, and this theme resonated in the midst of all my questions. Life can be very hard. Suffering is everywhere, but without God we have no hope; without Christ and his resurrection there is no reason to carry on living. So we have to keep trusting. Because where else is there hope? And so I remind myself of this line from the well-known hymn: ‘Strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow’, and in God’s strength I seek to press on.

Katherine O’Donnell

A picture Katherine took of the sun setting near Mshewe village in the Mbeya region

Please pray for Katherine:

  • It’s a constant prayer request for me that I would know God more. I can’t do this work and have a half-hearted relationship with God. I want to know him more, understand him more, and understand his character better, so that I might become more like him, and worship him, love him and serve him better.
  • Please pray for our Scripture Engagement and literacy workers in Tanzania – for safety as they travel around their language areas, for vision, perseverance and commitment.
  • As we teach people to read their language and lead Bible studies, pray that God’s word would speak powerfully to them and that a desire to engage deeply with the Bible would grow in the local church.
  • Pray for wisdom in how to reach those who most need to hear the word of God in their language – they are often geographically, technologically and educationally hard to reach.