Soon after I first arrived on the field, I was assigned a very remote area in which to conduct several weeks of evangelistic meetings. I guess it was assumed, since I grew up in Tanganyika (now Tanzania) that I would have a handle on language and cultural issues. Two or three African evangelists were assigned to travel with me. They would actually do most of the preaching; I would provide the logistics. Sound familiar?
We were ‘way out on the plains that bordered the end of the Smith Sound of Lake Victoria. It was dry season and we didn’t have to worry too much about the marshy areas which are caused when the lake backs up. In fact, years ago, a government minister had suggested either a pipe line or canal be provided to bring water to Tabora, many miles south. I guess vestiges of the Sound depression continued ‘way down toward that area.
The amplifier loudspeakers had drawn quite a crowd. People, in all stages of dress were crowded around. The turntable (remember those?) on the amplifier was playing Sukuma Gospel songs. As I looked at the crowd, I noticed that a number of people were singing along with the record. What? I thought this was an “unreached” area.
The Lord blest the preaching of His Word. Several folks indicated a desire to be saved; the evangelists dealt with each one of them. Later, when we camped for the night, I asked the evangelists about those in the crowd who seemed to know the songs. How come?
That is when I began to learn about the tribal movements over the years. When the Sukuma people first came into the general area where we were now conducting this evangelistic safari, it was dense forest. Only recently had people moved into the area, cutting down the forest on the higher spots of land and developing garden plots. The ground was fertile and rains were good, so corn, rice and millet harvests were very good. Folks from areas where the African Church had been established had moved out to take advantage of these harvests. Thus, they had previously been exposed to the church and its songs. Though some had had this “brush” with God’s word, now it had been brought to them in their new surroundings – and our prayer was that now it would produce changed lives.
Another thing I learned was that in the Sukuma language grammatical construction there was no actual word to indicate a definite article. As the evangelist who was preaching referred to I John 5:12, I noticed a number of older girls, grouped together on the age of the crowd, talking, tittering and laughing together. It was then I found out that, in Sukuma, that verse translated as “uyo ali na ng’wana, ali na bupanga” (he that hath (a!) son hath life! They seemed to feel that this preaching was encouraging them to “fool around”, get pregnant and hope for a son. Later teaching material, in their language, added a clarifying phrase and put in brackets, “he that hath the Son [of God}”, to that material. Of course, this addition brought criticism from Scriptural purists but, in this case, the addition was needed in order to make God’s Word clearer to readers, especially any who may read but are not Christians and to those who taught others.