Editor’s Note: On Saturday, July 29, an estimated 500 people assembled on a soccer field at Christ School in Bundibugyo, in western Uganda. Attendees came from the other side of the village and the other side of the world, all eager to celebrate the dedication of the New Testament in Lubwisi, the language of the Babwisi people.
Festivities got underway in the late morning and stretched through the afternoon. The cultural king of the Babwisi was in attendance, seated prominently and flanked by bodyguards. There were choirs and speeches, as well as a ceremonial carrying of the boxes of books by a group of local women. The initial batch of 6,000 books sold out quickly, and another order was promptly placed.
It was a day 30 years in the making.
“What a beautiful thing it was to witness a people group receive for the first time ever God’s Word in their own language,” says Michael Stevens, Serge Bundibugyo Team Leader. “It was said by a Ugandan leader that the people here used to think that God must only hear them if they prayed in languages that the Bible was written in. But now they know God hears their heart and must love them because His Word is now in their heart language.”
The remarkable story of how this moment came to fruition dates back to the early 1980s, when a Ugandan refugee invited members of New Life Church in Philadelphia to provide relief in his country following a decade of devastating rule by the dictator Idi Amin.
A Serge missionary couple began visiting Bundibugyo from the other side of the mountains in 1986. Within three years, a team was established in Bundibugyo, representing the first time that long-term missionaries had served internationally with Serge.
Along with the Ugandan Presbyterian Church, they discipled young pastors, developed a clean water project, provided medical care, and founded Christ School, a secondary boarding school that today has more than 400 students. They also helped to lay the groundwork for a translation of the Bible into the local language, Lubwisi.
“One of our first challenges was agreeing on the way to write the [Lubwisi] language,” a Serge missionary recalls. Literacy projects in neighboring communities had used the Roman alphabet, but Lubwisi, a tonal language, contained significantly more sounds than they did. “If you don’t do proper rising and falling, no one understands what you’re saying.”
A committee of local Ugandans was convened, and together they spent a period of time determining how to best write the language, a process known in linguistic circles as orthography. In the end, they decided to use the Roman alphabet, while adding some letters from the International Phonetic Alphabet to allow for those important tonal distinctions.
The Lubwisi translation project was formally initiated in 1991 by Rich and Alie Benson of Wycliffe Bible Translators, and Rich was played an active role in the language committee.
After the Bensons returned to the United States, the project was handed over to Waller and Mary Tabb, also of Wycliffe, in 1994. As the organization’s only missionaries in Uganda at the time, Wycliffe formed a partnership with Serge and the Tabbs joined the existing Bundibugyo team.
Over the years, a group of local pastors from a variety of denominations formed a translation review committee.
As each book of the New Testament was completed, they would review it carefully, ensuring it was consistent with the Lubwisi language and providing input on key biblical terms.
“They could sit from morning to evening looking at every word, every verse, every chapter to make sure the Lubwisi meanings were clear,” says Charles Musinguzi, a Presbyterian pastor who in more recent years became the head translator, along with Bishop Hannington Bahemuka of the Charismatic Episcopal Church. Together, they saw the project through to the completion of the New Testament, in addition to the Old Testament books of Genesis and Jonah.
Waller Tabb is quick to acknowledge the range of people who have contributed to the project. “We’ve had people praying for this translation every day for 20-plus years,” he says. “Of course, the translators had to do their part – and be faithful in it… Each partner was essential to the work, and each needed to persevere in it, too.”
Tabb also cites the crucial role technology played throughout the translation process.
Since 2007, he has been living outside Uganda and working as a translation consultant, but has remained involved in the Lubwisi translation project through Skype meetings and by sending and receiving files electronically – technologies that were not available to previous generations of translators.
As he reflects on the significance of the completed New Testament, Tabb is grateful for what has been accomplished but also hopes that interest would extend beyond the New Testament. “We pray the people themselves would demand that there be a complete Bible in Lubwisi,” he says, “and that they would give of their time, money, and other resources to make that happen.”
“The main purpose,” Musinguzi says of the translation, “is to see hearts transformed into the image of Jesus.”
In the days leading up to the dedication ceremony, guests began arriving from elsewhere in Uganda and from around the world. Included among them were some of Serge’s pioneering missionaries who had helped to establish the work in Bundibugyo many years ago.
“What a rare opportunity it was to have everyone together to celebrate this great event,” said Brent and Alisha Justice, who serve with the current Serge team. “Our homes were overflowing, many of us throwing mattresses on the floors to accommodate our guests. But our homes were also overflowing with laughter, stories, and many shared experiences. We felt very encouraged and loved by the previous missionaries that have served in Bundibugyo.”
Two nights before the big gathering, a massive thunderstorm rolled through western Uganda, rattling windows, jolting beds, and “literally shaking the foundations of this place,” recalls Serge member Sarah Crane.
“There is a mighty thing happening, and the creation is trembling and groaning with the birth pains of glory here in Bundibugyo.”