A Month in Congo

Dayle and I were both in Congo from April 1-29, 2009, in the towns of Bunia then Isiro.  We plan to update this blog every few days.  Look for the Easter edition to appear a few days after Easter.  We hope to report in detail on the Easter service we attend.  The purpose of the trip is to lay the groundwork for starting translation in many more languages in 2-3 different parts of the country.  We will need wisdom, tack, an ability to really hear what church leaders are saying, not to mention good health and safety.

Good news

Sunday April 26 Dayle and I celebrated the end of something a bit different.  For two weeks the simple church in the village of Abone had housed an event which could save many lives.  About 25 Christians from around the area were trained to use a book about HIV and AIDS.  The book tells the story of a young girl who is orphaned when her parents die of AIDS.  The scientific facts are brought in alongside a Bible-based message about preventing AIDS and caring for those suffering from the disease.  We have Congolese  translating the book into local languages.  The translation is done for the two languages around Abone; Mangbetu and Mayogo.  Those trained will return to their home villages and use the book there in their own language thus guaranteeing that the information will be understood and increasing significantly the chances that it will change behaviors.  After the celebration a makeshift recording studio was set up under a tree.  Each group sang songs they had composed about HIV and AIDS which were recorded for use with the book and on the radio.


One of the songs goes:

AIDS is in our villages
AIDS is in our homes
It does not have a cure
No medicine can drive it away
We must protect ourselves
We must protect ourselves

Translating a book on AIDS into a local language is not as easy as it might sound.  A number of the concepts do not have words in the local languages.  So the translators had to use the same principles and techniques we use in Bible translation for similar situations – how do you translate “You sins will be white as snow” where there is no snow?  By using these same Bible translation techniques, we are able to get life-saving and life-changing information about HIV and AIDS into a language everyone understands.  A person’s mother tongue touches the heart in a way other languages do not – something that is very important if one is aiming at changing behaviors, as one is with AIDS education.

We are increasing using the power of the mother tongue and the techniques of Bible translation to put other documents into local languages to give people life-critical information.  One of the realities of Africa is that many Africans are cut off from such information because of language barriers.

Going to church.

This cute little boy is headed to church in Isiro. (The picture is from a previous trip.)  He is carrying his stool on his head to sit on during the church service.

He is the son of Pastor François Atulu, who is responsible for Bible translation in one of the churches in Congo.  I was on my way to church with him and his family one Sunday when I snapped this photo.

There are LOTS of children in church services in Congo.  Like many African countries, half of the population of the Congo is 15 years of age or younger.


Scientists are saying that two volcanoes in eastern Congo are showing signs of erupting.  We will be several hundred miles away from them, but a team of Congolese translators live and work in Goma at the foot of one of the volcanoes.  You can see an early news story at:


When Dayle and I arrived at the Bunia airport on April 1, Dayle introduced herself to the driver sent to fetch us.   She asked him, “Who are you?”  He responded, “I’m the driver”.  But Dayle, of course wanted his name so she asked, “But what is your name”.  “Bahati”, re responded.  His reaction is typical of a preference for titles over names in Congolese society.  The wife of the most prominent MAF pilot here is known as “Mrs. Pilot”.  When we lived in Burkina Faso, I was known up and down the street we lived on as “Matthew’s Father”.

This preference for titles over names is even true among people who know each other well.  The afternoon of our arrival Dayle and I are standing in front of one of the main buildings of the Christian university where we are staying.  We are catching up with two of the professors we know well.  We see the Rector’s wife coming, who we also know well and who is a close friend of the families of the professors we are taking with.  One of them says, the Rector’s wife is coming.  Dayle looks up and says, “Oh, its Feli!”.  In those two sentences I heard the Congolese preference for title and the American preference for first names.  The staff here almost always call each other by a shortened form of their title.  So they are “Rector”, “The Academic” (for the academic dean), or “The Administrative” for the Administrative Secretary.

This preference for titles helps in some translation tasks and even gives the Congolese an edge in understanding some parts of the Bible.  “Jesus the Christ” makes a LOT of sense to them, for example, whereas we make it sound like a name – Jesus Christ.

I try to enter into the culture, but it is quite a shift to leave my anti-formality and “pro-friendliness” feelings and use titles.  I tend to fill the use of titles with the meanings it has in my own culture – formalness (instead of friendship, or perhaps even stuffiness.  Sometimes even the simple stuff in cross cultural work requires effort, and even after doing it for 30 years.

Dayle in Bunia with Ed

Here we are on the campus of the Shalom University of Bunia.  We look across the plains of Ituri province to the mountains in the distance.  It is beautiful.  But even more beautiful are the feet of the Congolese here preparing to bring the Good News in the form of a translation of the Bible to the many peoples of the Congo who don’t have it.  Yesterday I spent two hours with Kabucungu Hand-jinga, the head of the Bible translation department here.  He is just bursting at the seams to get translations going in more languages.  I wanted to tell him to move ahead on everything.  It was so moving.  But, I had to put some realism into his enthusiasm or he would have translation expanding so fast the trainers would be totally burnt out.  That was really hard – dampening that kind of enthusiasm.  Lord, send more people.  Lord, make Kabucungu’s vision come true.

Ngagupai:  I love African names.  It is fun to run Nessiel Nodjibogoto, Mbainodji Nektobkor or Kabucungu Hand-jinga off my tongue.  Friday evening I met with Pastor Ngagupaï, pronounced Ng – gah – goo – PIE.  It is a great name, but I can’t help having a little fun with it.  I wonder if he has neighbors named Coconutpai.  In any case, none of these names are Asamericanaasapplepai.

Ngagupaï speaks the Zande language.  There are millions of Zande speakers spread over three countries: Congo, Sudan and the Central African Republic.  There is a translation of the New Testament in Zande; done many years ago.  But many Zande find it very hard to read.  So much so that few even try.  The alphabet does not represent the language very well.  It has five vowels, but linguists think that there are at least seven and perhaps nine.  In any case, the church leaders want to have a translation in Zande that everyone can read and understand.

Nagupaï was THRILLED to hear that Zande is a high priority.  He wanted to know what to do. and the next step is to choose the translators and train them.  So we prayed for Pastor Ngagupaï and the Zande translation and sent him off.  He has his work cut out for him.  The Zande area is big, the roads are poor and a rebel movement, the LRA, has come into the area and is causing lots of problems.  Over 1,000 have died in their attacks and over 100,000 displaced.  Travel is dangerous because of LRA attacks There will be hard choices to make.  Some of the best translators may already be beloved pastors or teachers.  People will miss them if they are reassigned to translation.  In many ways this next and very important step – the choice of the Zande translators —  is out of our hands.  It is in the hands of Ngagupai, other church leaders and, of course, the Lord.  Even an injection of money probably would not help that much.  It is not a task we could call Aseasyaspai

We found this rhinoceros beetle outside our door in the morning.  I wanted Dayle to put her finger next to him so that you could tell his size in the photo.  She was, of course, reluctant.  Here finger was not quite close enough in the photo, so I fixed that with a little photo editing.  Some local people believe that this beetle is poisonous and you can see why.

I spent two days with this group of fun guys.  They are all involved in Bible translation and they are all smarter than I am – two PhDs and five MAs, all in translation and related domains.  So here we are talking about what training and education we need to give to Congolese translators to ensure quality translations and out comes stuff like, “we must have a a spiritual calling and give spiritual service”.  One of these men lost a son in a tribal conflict with a tribe of one of the other men.  I think that I get to meet some of the best people in the world.

Easter worship service

Dayle and I felt like we really celebrated Easter.  The church service we attended was a wonderful and joyous celebration.  I have posted a detailed description at Easter_2009

Life is hard for most people here in Congo.  These two ladies are wives of theology students at the Christian University.  They have to go up this hill each morning and bring back about 45 pounds of clean water, so that they can cook, drink and bathe.  When we were in Burkina Faso, the ladies carried everything on their heads, but here many use tump lines over their foreheads to support the weight.

We are so glad to live in an era of technology, especially when it comes to communications.  In the evening on Easter we were able to make phone calls to our son Mark and to Dayle’s parents using Skype.  Only two cents a minute from the Congo to the USA!

Dayle and I attended the dedication of five books of the New Testament and a dictionary in the Ndruna language. At one point the “Chief” of the area gave (in photo) a history of translation work in Ndruna. He said that as a child the only primary school near enough for him to attend was Catholic. In the religion class he was taught to pray in Latin. He even recited a few lines he still remembered from those many years ago. He was disappointed and frustrated that he could not understand anything of what he was praying. So in 1942 he and some others decided to try to translate the Bible into their language – Ndruna. They had all kinds of problems because they did not know enough. Today, he said, he is so happy even though it has taken many years, because the translation is very understandable and all the Ndruna can know God’s Word. He is also convinced that the work will be completed, because the translators are so well trained that even if the assistance from Wycliffe is cut off, they will be able to continue on their own.

This is forty dollars in Congolese francs.  The largest bill is 500 francs which is worth 60 cents.  In Isiro, where I am writing this, most items of any value over $20 are priced in dollars while local produce is priced in Congolese francs.  So we do not often need to carry around chunks of money this big. The Congolese franc has lost about a third of its value against the dollar in the last year and inflation is just below 60%.

On Wednesday April 22nd, we connected with Pastor Atulu and walked around Isiro to get to know the town.  We stopped at this shop, which was the only place ot get a cool drink – cool cokes at about $2 per bottle.  Dayle and I offered one to Atulu, who otherwise would never by one.  This shop is one of the biggest in town and you see about half of it in this photo.

It is the begging of the rainy season here.  It is quite dramatic when the storm fronts laden with rain come through from the east.  The good thing is that we can see it coming for 10 minutes before it hits, So there is time to take clothes off the line or get home.  Before the rain comes the air gets still and the humidity, which is already high, goes up.  If feels heavy and the slightest exertion causes me to break out in a sweat.  With the rain comes wonderfully cool air.  The rains often come in the late afternoon or evening, so we are blessed with cool nights for sleeping.

(This blog originally appeared in a different format. It was republished in March 2012)

Easter 2009 in Bunia

The church service described took place at the CECA-20 church “Centre Ville” in Bunia on Easter (April 14) 2009

The services started a 9 AM sharp with a congregational song.  The sanctuary was only about 20% full.  This church normally has a Swahili language service at 8 AM and a French language service at 10 AM, but the combined the two services for Easter and went from 9-12.

The church was decorated for the occasion and extra chairs had been brought in.  The pulpit and pulpit area were decorated with lights, similar to Christmas lights, of various colors in strings which blinked on and off.

There is also sound equipment at the front and instruments: a set of drums, two electric guitars and a bass guitar.  The guitars mostly play Congolese style – quite loud and high pitched.

By this time it is 9:25 and the church is 1/3-full.

A ladies choir of about 20 sang in Swahili.  I know enough Swahili words to figure out that the words say that Jesus is alive forever.  Next is a mixed quartet signing a capela a traditional Easter hymn.  Both groups get applause when they finish.  Third comes a mixed choir of about 25, about 2/3 women and composed mostly of younger people.  They are wearing pink shirts and blouses and dark grey slacks and skirts.  They sing with the all the instruments (guitars, base guitar and drums) and use microphones.  Normally the choirs would sing on floor in front of the platform, but that is taken up with extra chairs, so they are squeezed in behind the pulpit.  They sing in a style so popular in the Congo and which Congolese have made famous around the world.  They also sing in the language of much Congolese music – Lingala – with some verses in French.  I was a bit surprised by this as Swahili is the lingua franca in Bunia, not Lingala. They sing for about 10 minutes – but only one song.

The worship leader exhorts us to continue celebrating Jesus’ victory over the cross.  He switches effortlessly between Swahili and French.

Now it is 9:40 and the church is over half full.

Next is a congregational hymn in Swahili in the style of a Western hymn but with the guitar and drum accompaniment in Congolese style.  EVERYONE knows the words.  There are no hymnbooks, no song sheets and no projection on the wall.  We only sing for about one minute.  There are lots of these little “choruses” during the service.  The worship leader starts singing, often without announcing that we are going to sing, everyone joins in after the first line and sings with the leader.

There is are flags I do not recognize with Scripture on them to one side of the platform and a Congolese flag to the other side.

Children’s Presentations

Now a couple men come up to the platform and move the pulpit back.  A man announces that the children have prepared special presentations for Easter.  The first is the recitation of memory verses.  A little boy, no more than five years old, recites a longish section from Isaiah, maybe 10-15 verses.  Everyone is stunned.  Then follow a series of about 20 children ranging in age from 5 to 13 (a guess) each of which recites a verse or two, occasionally two recite a verse in unison.  All of the passages are about Easter in some way.  All the verses are in French except one girl, Maziga the daughter of a Congolese colleague who studied in the UK, who recites in English.

It is now 9:50 and the church is packed full.

Next follows an Easter skit from the children.  It is the story of the first Easter.  The children act it out while reciting the relevant passages from memory.  The ladies go to the tomb, find it empty, speak with the angel, then go back and tell the disciples.  Two of them go to the tomb, find it empty, speak to an angel and then go back to the others.  Eventually all of the disciples go around telling everyone “He is risen!”.  One of the ladies (played by a little girl) is jumping and dancing and running through the congregation announcing the great news.  Then the skit continues with Jesus appearing to the disciples.

We are then told that the children have prepared a sermon.  A young man about 12 in a black suit with a Bible in one hand and a cordless microphone in the other comes on the platform accompanied by a girl about the same age also with a Bible and microphone.  The young man starts preaching in French and the girl translates into Swahili.  He is telling the story of the empty tomb.  The two have all the right intonations and gestures down.  The boy is consulting note in his Bible.  It is a riot.  He says that people around the world worship many Gods, but Jesus is alive.  They finish (it is now 10 AM) and get a huge round of applause.

Now the children all sing an Easter song in Congolese style accompanied by the guitars and drums.  They wave their hands and sing enthusiastically, as though there is not a shy one in the bunch.  They get a big round of applause.  The man who introduced this segment makes a quick appeal for more Sunday School teachers and the children are gone.  The pulpit is moved back into place.

Now they introduce visitors.  Dayle and I stand up with about 20 others scattered across the congregation.  We are told to only say our name and where we are from.  We all stay standing until our turn comes, then we sit.  Many do not follow the instructions, but add details about the purpose of their trip.  Some speak in French and some in Swahili, but no one translates either way.  Everyone starts out with halleluiah, hello church, or some such greeting.  It is not an exercise for the shy.  The guitars and drums are playing light background music throughout the introductions.

We are seated near the front, so standing gives me my first good look at the whole sanctuary.  It is packed.  The benches are crowded.  It is wall-to-wall people.

Now it is 10:15.

Lost in Worship

Now begins and amazing time of worship.  Four flags are brought in from the back of the church during a very lively worship song.  Each is a different color and has Bible verses on it.  People are swaying to the music, raising their hands.  Many are obviously lost in worship and in the meaning of the words –which are in Swahili.  The flags are brought to the front and waved during the worship.  At one point the worshipers put their arms over each other’s shoulders and form swaying lines.


Prayerful worship

Then the mood and the music get quieter and more contemplative.  People are still swaying to the music, but most have their eyes closed in personal reflection.  Some sit and pray with their heads low and in their hands.  The songs are being sung as prayers.

The intense worship ends at 10:37.

Now there are announcements, in both French and Swahili.  The most interesting is that the church has letters to send to Aru and other towns, so if anyone is traveling to those places the church would appreciate the travelers would stop by the church office and take the letters.  The post office is not yet functional here.  In fact in some places it has not functioned since the mid 1980s.

The offering is taken.  Actually, they make a distinction between tithes and offerings and so they pass two different kinds of containers, one for each.  For tithes, it is a cloth bag on the end of a pole that the usher pushes down each row.  For offerings, it is a little basket passed down each row.

It is now 10:50.

An amazing men’s group (about 10) sings.  Their style is like Southern Gospel and they sing a cappela in Swahili.  One of their songs has parts going in an out and up and down a bit like a madrigal.  It was awesome.

Now comes the sermon.  It is on the story of the road to Emmaus.  The meaning of the resurrection was not evident to the disciples, and it is not readily evident to us.  The power of the risen Lord can only be effective in our lives as we hear and put into practice what Jesus said.  The pastor quotes many verses of Scripture without turning to them in his Bible.  At one point he asked the congregation about certain verses and most of the congregation quoted them back to him in Swahili or in French.

The preacher prays to close the sermon at 11:47.  He gives and opportunity to people to come to the risen Christ or come back to him by raising hands or standing up.

At 11:53 the congregation sings a song in Swahili.  There are a couple quick announcements including that there are counselors available for those who raised their hands or stood.  The Pastor and Elders are dispatched to the various doors to greet people on the way out.  Then the choirs go out and then the rest of us, row by row starting from the front (out the side doors) and the middle (out the back doors).  While this is happening the younger choir sings a song in Lingala.  It is now 11:59.  We were done by noon!

(This blog originally appeared in a different format. It was updated and moved to a different blog site in March 2012.)