Some people have a way of brightening up a room. Valerie Hamm is one of those people.
It is noticeable as she first steps through the doorway into a full room of Ndop Cluster staff gathered for a team meeting. With an endless smile and wearing a colourful flowered dress, Valerie greets her friend, Patricia.
“You are looking so beautiful,” Valerie says sincerely as she approaches the hired cook for Ndop Cluster supervisor Dan Grove and his wife Melody, who is the Cluster’s literacy specialist.
Entering behind Valerie is her husband Cam and their three rambunctious children: Noah, Elizabeth and Jojo. Cam, who is a linguist for the Ndop Cluster in northwest Cameroon, watches as his kids disappear in different directions to play with their friends. The goateed Canadian father has a calming confidence. He’s a focused man who chooses his words carefully.
“He’s a man of faith,” says Valerie. “He trusts God for the future; he’s not a worrier, and I like that about him.”
The popular theory is that opposites attract. That is certainly true for these two, who met in 2000 in Chad, Africa, when they were both new to SIL (Wycliffe’s key field partner).
“Well, there was a 60-year-old single, a 40-year-old single and an engaged single,” explains a laughing Valerie about Cam's competition for her attention in Chad.
Although the two are opposites in many ways, their God-given personalities match God’s call on their lives. It’s a call that led them both to Bible translation work before they even met.
As children, Valerie and Cam were separated by a few borders and more than 1,200 km. Cam grew up on a grain farm near Edmonton, Alta., while Valerie was raised in Richland, Wash., a community known for its nuclear power plants. Although many miles separated them, the couple had a similar upbringing—both growing up in Christian homes and attending missions-minded churches.
“I was interested in missions from a very young age,” Valerie explains. “I was interested in people from other cultures in my classroom and enjoyed any projects I had that were intercultural—even in Grade 2.”
As a teenager, Valerie met a missionary from Peru, who told her about Wycliffe and the desperate need for Bible translation across the globe. A missions trip to Peru when she was 15 years old convinced her that this was the path God had for her.
“I don’t feel I am a strong evangelist, but having a way where even the process of Bible translation—if not evangelism—is at least discipleship, that excited me,” she says. “You’re walking through the Word of God with people of God and getting it out where evangelism can happen.”
After graduating with a degree in computer science, Valerie planned to jump straight into the mission field with Wycliffe. But that never happened.
“I filled out an application and I had no peace about sending it in,” she says. “I had a little debt to pay off and I was offered a permanent job which I took. I quickly paid off my debt and I still had absolutely no peace.”
She worked in a financial processing position for a research company for six years, often crying because she felt like her work was meaningless. Valerie wanted to be working in the mission field. Although she felt dissatisfied with the job, she believed that was where God wanted her at that time.
“For me it’s not what I wanted to be doing, but that’s where God had me and I knew it. I like knowing where God wants me.”
Finally, however, after six years of working in computer science, she felt God said it was time for her to join Wycliffe.
Willing and Able
Cam’s calling to missions with Wycliffe began a little bit later in life than Valerie’s—but not by much. He first felt God was moving him to overseas missions work when a missionary to China spoke at the chapel of Prairie Bible College, where he was attending.
“Is God worthy of whole-hearted commitment?” asked the missionary. “He will take care of us no matter what. We just need to be willing and available for God to use us.”
Cam was convicted and took a commitment card that the missionary handed out after he shared. At the end of the year when Cam was cleaning out his dorm room, he found the card lost in a shuffle of papers. Staring at the card, he took stock of his life and his future.
“I found the card and I didn’t want to throw it away because I knew it was something significant,” he says. “I looked at it carefully and realized that I was willing to go anywhere and do anything at any time for any cost because Jesus Christ is Lord. He knows what I need.”
A short time later, God directed him to linguistics work. Cam was looking for an easy class to add to a busy class schedule. A friend recommended he take an intro to linguistics class designed by Wycliffe missionaries. Cam had fun in the class and looked forward to attending. After the class finished a Wycliffe representative spoke to the students and shared how linguistics and a Bible education could be used in Bible translation. Cam was convinced.
“I knew that God wanted me to do something other than stay in Canada,” Cam explains. “I thought about it in my mind, What is the worst thing that God could want me to do? The worst place, the worst job? If that were true, and God wanted me to do it, would that be okay?”
Cam decided that following God’s call on his life was the most important—more than his own comfort. He was going to be a missionary.
With such similar obedient hearts, it’s no surprise that Cam and Valerie met after they joined Wycliffe. Although on the surface they appear very different from one another, it’s their obedience that has made them perfect partners in ministry.
The couple married in 2001 and three years later were assigned to the Ndop Cluster, where they have been working in linguistics ever since.
What Is Linguistics, Exactly?
Cam is a linguistics specialist for the Bafanji language, spoken by about 20,000 people on the Ndop Plain.
He also serves half-time as linguistics co-ordinator for SIL Cameroon, Wycliffe’s key field partner in the nation. From the outside looking in, what he does seems like the average desk job in Canada. He spends many hours in front of a computer screen, studying the language in written form.
Cam’s job is to help local translators translate the most accurate yet understandable Bibles possible. Specifically, he is trying to determine the way that Bafanji people write down what they speak, so that translated Scripture can ultimately be written clearly for the people.
The first task for Cam and Valerie, when they began more than a decade ago, was to develop a Bafanji alphabet, before creating a dictionary and studying the grammar of the language. Today Cam is a consultant for Ndop translation teams—including Bafanji and others—who have begun translating the New Testament. One major way he has helped them is by leading a series of courses for leaders representing six languages, to discover the grammar of their own language.
The Hamms aren’t the ones doing any of the actual translations though. That is best left to trained local speakers of the languages. A straight-faced Cam says that if he and his wife were doing the translation, it would sound like something generated by Google Translation. Or, like the instructions that come with a cheap item bought from a dollar store, “obviously translated into English by someone who didn’t master English or who has never lived in an English-speaking country.”
Only a Few Committed
If a plant is going to grow, it must be watered. If it’s not watered, the plant doesn’t receive important nutrients. Quickly it will bake in the sun, dry out and one day die. The same goes for Bafanji. The people aren’t being “watered” at church, so they aren’t being nourished. At this point, interest in Christianity is still minimal. Church is just another social club.
“It is not always clearly taught to people how to respond to a situation where their tradition says to do one thing and the Bible teaches another,” explains Cam.
Bafanji is a community saturated with traditional animist beliefs. The people worship their ancestors and are committed to cultural customs for marriages, deaths and births. Someone may go to church or a mosque, but they will also go home and make a sacrifice to a local spirit in the evening.
Without a strong church, finding committed, passionate Bible translation partners has been a challenge. It has been difficult to get people from all the different churches to work on the translation team. So far there are only three locals who are committed to having the Bible translated in the Bafanji language—two of whom are pastors in another community. For the Bafanji Bible to have any impact, the Hamms believe the community has to be awakened to Christ.
“We’ve seen other places where missionaries have come in and done all the work and left them a Bible and it’s just sat on the shelf,” says Cam. “Even if we stayed here our whole life, [one day] we will die. So, we need people from the village who speak the language to take charge.”
God Changes Everything
A group of Bafanji children stampede toward Valerie as she opens a story book on a calm January evening. Kids love a story when there is a good storyteller and Valerie is certainly one of those. A small child with baggy pants pushes his way to the front and grasps onto Valerie’s knee. He desperately wants to see the pictures. He wants to see what the other children see.
The Hamms are praying that the Bafanji people become eager like this child. They believe once the people hear the story and see Jesus, they will cling to Him like this child clings to Valerie’s knee.
This is why the Hamms gave their lives to Bible translation work many years ago. The couple knows once the Bafanji people hear The Story in their own language, their lives will never be the same—and they, too, will whole-heartedly commit their lives to God.