Working in South Sudan is working in a land of many languages. I live in a guesthouse primarily run by Ugandans who speak a mixture of Luganda, Lusoga, and Swahili. The guests come from all over the world. One day I hear Dutch, the next German. The official language of South Sudan is English but the lingua franca is Juba Arabic – an oral Arabic derivation. Of course, Juba Arabic is distinct from classical Arabic, the only written form of Arabic found in South Sudan. Arabic bibles, signs, newspapers, and business documents are all written in classical Arabic. The tribal languages are many. When the British colonized Sudan over 100 years ago they forcefully reduced the 60+ southern tribal languages they encountered to a more manageable single digit number. Within the Diocese of Rejaf, people primarily speak Bari, but there are also congregations that worship in Dinka, along with other countless members from areas with a different “mother tongue”.
When we lead a workshop in South Sudan, we will spend valuable time repeating scripture readings in Bari, Zande, Moro, Lingala (a Congolese language), Arabic, Dinka, and sometimes English for those who don’t speak the other languages well. (Ironically, the Dinka, the tribe with the most political and economic clout, are yet to complete a full translation of the bible. The Dinka’s have the New Testament and a few choice verses of the Old Testament, but disagreements along dialects have stalled a complete translation.) The goal is to let as many people as possible hear the scriptures in their “mother tongue”. I remember during one teaching, the scripture was read in at least 5 African languages, but we only taught in two languages – Juba Arabic and Bari. I asked Mama Rose why we needed to spend time reading in five languages if we were only going to teach in two. Mama Rose responded, “the people understand it better when they hear it in their own tongue.”
A better understanding is the entire goal of the project. We’ve tried to frame the lessons to speak directly to the situation of South Sudan, giving examples straight from the South Sudanese context, adlibbing to include examples distinct to particular villages. Even the art we use as teaching aids are intentionally drawn so the audience will see themselves in the images. Whenever I teach, I speak in English. I know a few words in Bari and Juba Arabic, which I sprinkle in from time to time. “Piong Nake” means clean water in Bari. “Mojo Nadif” is clean water in Juba Arabic. Aside from these and a few others, Mama Rose translates my words into the idioms of the people. Occasionally I’ll say five words, and she’ll translate them using many words. I’ll ask, “Mama Rose what did you say? I didn’t say all that.” She’ll respond, “I’m just saying it so they’ll understand”.
This clash of languages always drifts my imagination back to the day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit was first poured out. Until my time in South Sudan, what most amazed me about Pentecost is that the people spoke in other languages. I no longer see what was spoken as the greatest Pentecost day miracle. My attention is now drawn to what was heard. Even the scriptures spend only three verses (or 62 words) describing what was spoken, and spends 7 verses (or 104 words) describing what was heard. Jews from every nation heard the wonderful works of God in the vernacular that was most germane (or understandable) to the individual. They heard words in a way that broke through confusion and removed ambiguities about the world’s most important message. It was effortless hearing. The grand lesson of Pentecost seems to be that Holy Spirit inspired speech enables the hearer to hear the wonderful works of God in a form that is natural and personal. This is our goal as we teach, and we pray that the Holy Spirit inspires us.