Ask Dan Grove about the impact of a multi-language Bible translation, literacy and Scripture-use effort in Cameroon’s Ndop Plain, and he may tell you the story of his neighbour, Taapro.
"He was a bad man—committed what we would call fraud,” says Dan, supervisor of this field effort known as the Ndop Cluster. “He lied, he stole. He would threaten people with machetes. I don’t think he killed anybody, and I think he figured he was okay because of that.”
“But he was our neighbour. He was our adopted father,” stresses Dan, who lives in Bambalang village with his wife Melody. “I prayed for him a lot for 12 years.”
One day, Dan went to visit the old man in his 80s; he looked tired. Taapro had slept poorly because of hooting owls. When Dan remarked that he liked the birds, Taapro was shocked.
“They call them witch birds,” said Taapro, revealing his deep fear of owls. “They are sorcerers who have changed into birds. They will come and eat your belly and kill you.”
Dan realized again that Taapro was steeped in the beliefs of African traditional religion, like most residents of the Ndop Plain. “I remember sitting there thinking, How is this old man ever going to change his worldview?”
Power of the Word
In March of 2014, Taapro came over to the Groves’ house for breakfast. By this time, Ndop’s first version of the Luke film had been produced in Taapro’s mother tongue of Bambalang. Melody played the first part of the movie and the elderly man was eager to watch more. Over the next eight nights, Dan went to Taapro’s house and showed the rest of the four-hour film. God’s Word in his mother tongue, portrayed in visual form, touched Taapro’s heart. He began asking about sin.
When local Baptist pastor Pius Mbahlegue came to the Groves’ home the next week to work on the Bambalang New Testament translation, Taapro was there too.
“He said, ‘Pius, come here. What are the bad things that keep us out of heaven?’ ” Dan remembers. “I’m sure he was thinking, I’m not too bad because I haven’t killed anybody.”
Interestingly, Pius specifically mentioned lying and stealing. Taapro pondered for a few minutes. Then, putting his hand on his chest, he declared: “I want to make Jesus my King.”
“For me, that’s what the Word is,” says Dan. “It’s the power for salvation to everyone who believes. It’s the change of a worldview of an old man who’d grown up afraid of owls, and sorcerers and ancestors and spirits. And the most prominent thing that changed for him was that he was no longer afraid.”
This past December, Taapro passed away with the peace of salvation in Christ.
White Man’s Book
Experiences like Taapro’s are still too rare in Ndop’s 13 villages, which stretch over an area 100-150 km at its widest point and are bordered by mountains on three sides. Traditional religion, with its animal sacrifices, manipulating of ancestral spirits and wearing of charms, has a grip on most of the 250,000 residents living as subsistence farmers. Minority Muslim and Christian populations are not immune. Dan says the Muslims practise a “folk Islam” and many professing Christian believers, attending a half-dozen or so different church denominations, also mix their faith with traditional practices.
“People will go to church in the morning and then they’ll go home and sacrifice a chicken in the afternoon to help something work better in their lives. You see a lot of children with a charm around their necks to protect them.”
Christianity came to the people of the Ndop decades ago, but it has been treated as a foreign religion. “It was added onto their traditions just like another layer on an onion,” explains Dan. “The Church . . . has been very shallow and weak.”
The Bible is considered by many as a white man’s book. In this English region of Cameroon, the Bible used by the churches is in English or Pidgin, not the languages that people know best.
Training and Supporting
To break through this barrier, initial work began in Bible translation and related ministries, such as linguistics, literacy and Scripture use, in 2003.
Today, a small, international team of Wycliffe personnel from Canada, the U.S., Ireland, Romania, the U.K. and Cameroon bring their expertise in linguistics, translation and literacy. They have been training and/or supporting several dozen locals, who are serving their own people in seven of the 10 related languages forming the Ndop cluster. Each one is named after the village where it is spoken (“ba” means “people of”): Bambalang, Bamunka, Bafanji, Bamali, Bamukumbit, Bamessing and Bangolan.
Wycliffe personnel in the Ndop Cluster have a group mentality, following a strategy to equip and support locals in all of the languages simultaneously.
“We’ve always wanted to be community-led, community-oriented, and seeking to train and mentor,” says Dan, who calls New Brunswick home. “Our goal has been to do what we need to do, not just to get work done, but to help others in that process to be able to do the work.”
The expats on the Ndop team have trained local speakers, often church pastors, to do Bible translation. At present, 24 translators are working part time in the seven languages, most with backing from local inter-church committees. In terms of progress, Bambalang and Bamunka are out in front, with Luke’s Gospel published and all of the New Testament translation drafted. The Luke film in Bambalang (as well as Bamunka) is being shown with great acceptance, and mother-tongue literacy is offered to adults and children at church-run schools.
Language work isn’t as advanced in other languages, such as Bangolan, where Americans Lance and Abby Freeland are serving. But momentum is building.
After translating about half of Luke’s Gospel, the two pastors on the Bangolan team no longer need encouragement from the Freelands to preach in their mother tongue. “They’re just doing it because they see the difference that Scripture in the mother tongue makes,” says Lance, originally from Michigan.
Most noticeable by the pastors is that people in church are not habitually dozing off or unresponsive, says Lance. “When they’re preaching in English or Pidgin, several of the ladies in their churches would fall asleep because they didn’t understand. When they’re preaching in Bangolan, they’re listening, their eyes are open, they’re sitting forward, they don’t fall asleep.”
Adds Abby, a Washington state native: “I think they’re starting to see now that this [translated Scripture] is for us to grow. People need to be discipled, need to see change in their lives. It’s not just a tract in our language to hand out to people. It’s the Bible. It’s the Word of God.”
Read the Whole Thing
The Freelands are eager to see the Luke translation finished so it can be used to prepare the Luke film, as well as an audio version of the Gospel.
“My dream would be that the churches start using the Luke video and recordings, and people come to Christ through that,” explains Lance. “And then they’re able to be discipled because they can understand the Word when they read it.”
The couple is excited to see God’s Word also make inroads among Muslims, who account for up to half of Bangolan speakers. More than a year ago, a translation team member was testing a translation of the Christmas Story with villagers in the marketplace. Several Muslim leaders questioned the accuracy of the Bible because of its many versions. The local translator shared what he had been taught in translation training—how historically, Bible translation has been carefully based on manuscripts in the original languages, Greek and Hebrew.
“And then he said, ‘And soon there will be a version in our language,’” Lance recalls. The pastor read some of the Christmas Story to them in their mother tongue. “Two days later, they came at night to his house and they said, ‘Read us the whole thing.’ These Muslim leaders came, like Nicodemus [in the Gospel of John, chapter 3] at night, hiding, but wanting to know more. So now, he does regular testing with these Muslim guys.
“The English Bible would never cross that barrier, but the Bangolan will.”
With two dozen translators pumping out drafts of God’s Word in their mother tongues, a big challenge facing the Ndop Cluster is getting them consultant-checked before publishing. That huge job falls to Greg Beyer, a Wycliffe Bible translation consultant, who, with his wife Annette, call Pennsylvania home.
The various translation teams need longer and more frequent checking sessions with Greg, but he just can’t give any one team all of his time. “Here, with the Ndop Cluster, because I’m working with seven languages, I’m not able to give them much more than a few days a month,” he says.
This creates a bottleneck in the translation process, but the Ndop Cluster is not unique in this. Consultants are in short supply around the world.
“We could probably have a couple more consultants, at least one more, if not two, and our work would be going a little faster,” says Greg.
In a few years, help will be on the way. Bambalang translators (and pastors), Pius Mbahlegue and Novethan Shanui, already have bachelor degrees in theology from Cameroon Baptist Theological Seminary, and will start MA translation degrees this fall.
“I’m impressed with their abilities already,” says Greg. “They just need to deepen that a bit more, particularly on the linguistic side. I’m confident that they’ll be able to do a good job [as translation consultants] and will be able to help finish up these languages here on the Ndop Plain.”
Past the Obstacles
Dan acknowledges that consultant-checking is not the only challenge facing the Ndop Cluster. A steady source of funding is needed, which is why Wycliffe Canada’s sponsorship of the work is so crucial. More specialists in linguistics, literacy and Scripture use are required to bolster the efforts of existing Wycliffe personnel. And the Ndop communities, who never before had books in their languages to value, must develop a greater vision for using their translated Scriptures.
But Dan looks past the obstacles, envisioning the future potential of God’s Word throughout the Ndop Plain, based on what he’s already seen happen in the village where he lives.
“When we first came I could probably count on one, maybe two hands, the number of strong Christians in Bambalang.
“I would need an awful lot more hands to do that now.”