Suzanne Djebre (aged 32) is a subsistence farmer and has been harvesting okra and chilli peppers when we meet. She lives with her mother, Marie, who is 70, and her four children. Relational life, she tells us, has changed completely since they have had the New Testament:
‘There used to be a lot of antagonism between me and my mother,’ says Suzanne. ‘We were always quarreling. But that’s changed. When I read the Bible, it touched me. It taught me that this wasn’t the way. I knew that I had to go to my mother. I did. I begged for forgiveness, and since then, we’ve been reconciled.’
Her mother, Marie laughs as she recalls that the arguments were always about food. ‘I was critical of my daughter’s cooking,’ she says. ‘I didn’t think it was good enough.’ Everyone rocks with laughter.
But it’s a serious point; old enmities have been overcome simply through reading the Bible and seeing how relationships should be: through learning about love.
‘Whenever I’m sad, I read the Bible and then my sadness goes away,’ says Suzanne, ‘and I am happy again.’
‘Before we had the New Testament I used to pray, but I didn’t understand my faith. With the Bible, when you pray it gives you light and makes your faith grow and it gives you more happiness.’
‘Now I am able to educate my children in the Lord’s ways. The children like the Bible stories. When I read about Jesus’ birth, they love it and they want to hear it again and again and again.’
Josias Amidou Djenie (aged 44) was one of the main translators of the Bissa Lebir New Testament. He lives in the town of Niaogho, population 25,000, of which only 2 per cent are Christian; the rest are Muslim.
‘It’s been my life’s work,’ he says, ‘a really big achievement. I was born into a Muslim family, but after I became a Christian, at the age of 16, I had a vision for the Bible for the Bissa people. It was a feeling that I had in my heart. Now I feel as if my vision is being fulfilled, but we still have more to do.
‘I wanted my people to know about Jesus in their own language. And it’s making a difference. After the New Testament was launched, churches began to preach, study and sing in the Bissa Lebir language. This is making a revival in the Bissa Lebir people: before, we had 100 churches, but in the eight years since the New Testament was launched, 50 more have been opened. That’s because of the New Testament.
‘Now we pray that we will be able to distribute the Bibles efficiently to the right people and also that they will have a spiritual impact and that people will become well-rooted in their faith. We pray that there will be a lot of conversions to Christianity.
‘We thank God that the New Testament is available and are sure that there will be a big harvest because of it. Suddenly, God is speaking to people in their own language.’
‘The Bible has changed my life,’ says Philomene Ouedraogo Compaore (aged 62), a subsistence farmer from Niaoghou. ‘It’s made me really happy’:
‘Before, there were things in my life that I shouldn’t have been doing, but I didn’t know that they were wrong. But the Bible shows me the right way to go. Add to that the fact that it gives me the opportunity to help other people to follow the right way!
‘What I’ve learned from the Bible has been incredible. There’s everything in the Bible concerning taking care of others and even about your own thoughts. It even tells you what sort of thoughts you should and shouldn’t have. The Bible is concerned with every aspect of life.
‘If you haven’t got a Bible, you don’t know what’s wrong and what’s not. You just live in darkness. Without the Bible, life is dark. If you haven’t got a Bible when times of trouble come, then it’s difficult really. If you have got a Bible, you can read it and it can give you comfort. So, the first time I read the Bible I was very happy.’
Francois L Sare (aged 51) is a subsistence farmer with two children. He lives in the region where Bissa Barka is spoken. People live in mud hut compounds, though increasingly there are cement and brick buildings, as family members emigrate to Italy to work in the tomato business and send funds home. It is unspoilt and quiet: people travel largely either by bicycle or donkey cart.
‘I became a Christian in 1989. During all those years I haven’t been able to read the Bible in my own language. I’ve got my own French Bible and recently, I got the New Testament in Bissa Lebir. That meant that I could understand much more than in the French version.
‘But my first language is Bissa Barka. If the Bible was in Bissa Barka then I would be able to understand more than I can now.
‘There are already some portions [of the Bible] in the Bissa Barka language. I’ve read the book of Esther in Bissa Barka. That really touched me, especially when the Lord intervened to liberate the Jewish people.
‘Prayer’s been important in my life. I can see the Lord’s hand in all my projects when I pray. This year I prayed for a good harvest,’ he says, entirely surrounded by corn on the cob that is drying after being picked. ‘Last year, I didn’t get as much as this, but it still fed my family for the year. This year I have even more. The Lord has blessed my work.
‘I think about how long it will be until we have the New Testament. I’m in a hurry to have it.
‘I would say to people in Britain that I hope that the Lord will help them and give them the strength to support this project.’
Pastor Timothee Balbone, president of the Assemblies of God Church for the Bissa region, explains: ‘It’s not really easy to lead people without having a Bible because you try to teach people something, but they can’t remember what you’ve said [as nothing is written down]. It’s not a happy situation. We don’t like it but we have to cope with it.’
Pastor Matio Tindano and his wife Agratou Reba are both former teachers. Matio now pastors the local church and talks about the challenges they face without a Bible in their language and the possibilities that one would provide:
‘I’ve had the Bible in French since I became a Christian,’ says Agratou. ‘I understand a bit of French, but it’s not as if it’s my mother tongue. I have to look words up in dictionaries, and at the same time, I also use the Mòoré Bible [one of Burkina’s four major languages, used in business], and even then I have to see the pastor and ask questions about what I’ve read.
‘But if I had the Bible in Bissa Barka maybe someone would come and ask me questions instead.
‘I studied French for eight years or more, but at the end of that time, I couldn’t teach anyone else about French. But in my own language, I was first a teacher, then a school’s co-ordinator.
‘Often I don’t read the Bible because it’s just too difficult. Every time I read the Bible to my children, I have to translate it so that they can understand. It’s been difficult.
‘I’m really in a hurry for the Bissa Barka New Testament to arrive. Then my neighbours and other Muslim women will listen to me when I talk about Jesus. There will be a lot of people listening to me then. It will help them. My grandchildren will be able to read the New Testament in their mother tongue and will understand it better.’
He says: ‘It’s difficult to try to teach people [about Christianity] when you don’t have the Bible in your own language. The first difficulty is that in order to share the gospel with the Bissa Barka people I use the Moore language. But there’s an historic problem [between the two peoples] that is a block for ordinary people. So they don’t listen to what I have to say.
‘I didn’t use to preach in Bissa Barka. I didn’t understand how important it was to talk to people in their mother tongue. I was a bit of an academic. But now I can see the importance of it.
‘Even before you preach, you talk to someone and you share the gospel with them. If you start greeting them in Bissa Barka, they will be more interested in what follows. People are ready to understand the gospel now that I preach in Bissa Barka. There are no obstacles. I think that when the Bible is available in Bissa Barka evangelism will be easy.
‘People will be very happy to have it written in their language. So there will be more interest in Christianity. Understanding will grow, so churches will grow.’
Jacob Tarnagda is 45. He became a Christian 20 years ago, when he was still living with his Muslim family at home:
‘My family really reacted and I spent three years with them. After that I got married and today things have changed. We all live together without any problems.
‘But it was very difficult for me because it was the same year that I left primary school. Because of my conversion, my family refused to pay for me to go to secondary school, so it really affected my life.
‘I had thought that I would like to go on and do a theology doctorate and work for the Lord. Instead, I’m a farmer and I build houses.
‘My family thought that because I was a Christian I was impure, so they wouldn’t eat with me. They thought that my faith was like a wound and it would infect them through the food, so that they would become dirty. They wouldn’t even look at me. I used to stay outside the house until it got dark and only go in when everyone was asleep. From time to time my mother would leave food out for me. But I was hungry for three years.
‘It’s been worth it, because what I have is bigger than what I would have had if I’d stayed with them, refused the faith and remained lost.
‘I started reading a French Bible and later a Mòoré one. I went to Mòoré literacy classes so that I could use it. I can understand bits when I read, the problem is when I have to talk to people about the Lord, without the Bible in my mother tongue I haven’t got the right words to talk to them.
‘I have no translation experience so it’s difficult to reach people with what I know. They reject what I say. My faith is trapped inside me and I can’t reach people with it.
‘So I will be happy to have the Bible in Bissa Barka, because in the churches we use the Bissa Lebir Bible and we don’t understand it. We have to use several Bibles at the same time in order to understand. This is too hard.
‘If we have the Bissa Barka Bible it will make it easier to teach people at church and spread the gospel to those who are outside the church.’
Jacob attends the Baptist church in Soumagou, a large village in the rural south-east. It’s been up and running for 7 years and has a 26-strong congregation. He says, ‘When we have the Bible in the Bissa Barka language, I am sure that the church will grow quickly.
‘I am sure of it because people will get well-rooted because they will understand the faith more and those who are not Christians will be interested in reading the Bible.’