I had the great privilege of attending this dedication last Saturday, especially exciting because I (like so many others) played a small part.
Saturday, 25th November, 2017 dawned warm and cloudy in Kon-Babetta, central Cameroon. “African time” was not heeded because the Yambeta people, and one man in particular, Léonard Bolioki (Léo), had already been waiting so long for this day. At two minutes to 11 o’clock, the historic ceremony began: the ceremony of the Dedication of the New Testament in their language, Yambeta.
For Léo, he had not been just waiting, but working, for 39 years towards this day. He has been the main Yambeta Bible translator and finally this good news of Jesus, so precious to him, was available to his 6000 or so countrymen also.
One hundred and fifty people were present as the government officials of the area, the Prefet and Sous-prefet, arrived and were greeted by the choirs with singing and dancing. The Cameroon National Anthem was sung not in the official languages of French or English, but in Yambeta, by a choir led by another Yambeta Bible Translator, Raoul Mongo. Pastor Georges, a Yambeta literacy teacher, opened the ceremony in prayer and then the official speeches could begin.
The Mayor led off; his speech focussing on the title of the Yambeta New Testament, Nɛsɔ́g nɛ́ Nɛwa, which means The New Covenant. Such a New Covenant was a call to unity, peace and selflessness, he said. The Vice-President of the Organising Committee for the Dedication welcomed everyone to the event. An elderly lady, Maman Mandjana, gave her version of a speech – a song in Yambeta, honouring her “son”, Léo, thanking him for all his work and letting him know how proud his people were of him! Léo read a letter from a former SIL Cameroon worker, Patricia Wilkendorf, saying how proud she was of the quality of the Yambeta translation. Another elderly grandmother, Mama Yangben, told us in Yambeta language that she doesn’t know how to speak French, but today she can understand God speaking to her in her language!
Léo’s speech combined, of course, his personal history with that of the Yambeta New Testament’s, since the two have been so intertwined. “I have dreamt of this Word of God transforming my community for so long,” he shared. The story began for him in 1978 when he went to SIL Cameroon’s training centre in Yaoundé, 150km south of his village, for translation training. Among the texts he translated on his return was the Passion of Jesus from the book of Luke. He was the only one who could read Yambeta at the time, so, rather than the multiple-actor reading of the Passion that usually happened in his Catholic church at Easter, he instead read it to the congregation as a monologue by himself. It being so long, he thought that maybe people would fall asleep. On the contrary! Three women approached him after the service and asked him why he’d never before told them that story of the man who suffered so much for their sake. He had to reply that it was the same story they listened to every year! The difference was that until then it had been read in French or Ewondo language. One of those women was Mama Yangben; the other two have since died.
It was at that moment that Léo realised he needed to translate the Bible into Yambeta so that his people could hear. He has done so, on and off, ever since. Sometimes he worked part-time, sometimes full-time when supported by the Oeuvres Pontificales Missionnaires (Pontifical Mission Societies), or by The Seed Company. Léo thanked them, the Cameroon Association for Bible Translation and Literacy (CABTAL) and many members, past and present, of SIL Cameroon. He mentioned the help of Mona Perrin, Patricia Wilkendorf, Keith Patman, Keith Beavon, Ann Kapteyn and Gretchen Harro for translation. For linguistic help, he thanked Kathy Philips, Kat Higgins and Ginger Boyd. In literacy, he mentioned Mary Endersby, Kathy Cummins and Helma Branger (née de Gooijer). There were indeed many SIL Cameroon personnel celebrating with the Yambeta, with about twenty present on the day.
The General Director of SIL Cameroon, Bert Visser, lauded the perseverance and endurance of the translators when it was his turn to speak. He reminded all present that “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my (Jesus’) words will never pass away” (Luke 21:33) and encouraged the Yambeta people to therefore read the New Testament they now have in their language. Similarly, the Interim Director of CABTAL, Emmanuel Keyeh, drew his encouragement to the Yambeta from the text of the Bible, calling us to remember that it is the Word of God that “gives light…and understanding to the simple” (Psalm 119:130).
By midday, the crowd had swelled to 400 people and the celebration really began to get underway. A representative of the Yambeta chief, Siadé Robert, gave a stirring speech warning against a “disembodied” faith, one that was not adapted to the Yambeta culture. He also noted that many languages are receiving a serious blow from the influence of bigger languages. However, he and the Yambeta Ethno-arts Troupe then proved that the Yambeta language is indeed alive and well by performing a long drama sketch in Yambeta…without a single French word mixed in! It exhorted the Yambeta to legalise their marriages and have the proof of a marriage certificate.
The entrance of the Yambeta New Testament book into the community was a joyful event with much symbolism. A group of Yambeta chiefs assembled to welcome the New Testament, carried on a palaquin on the shoulders of four people, as a chief might be. The book was in a small, purpose-built traditional “house” made of palm thatch, grass and bamboo, and decorated with flowers. The chiefs took the New Testament towards the population to show they accept it and its authority, including the head-chief, who belongs to another major religion. Meanwhile, the choir and dance group sang the Anthem of the Dedication, intimating that “the light has dawned on our village and on our night. We say ‘No’ to Satan and ‘Yes’ to the light!” The copy of the New Testament in its “house” was given to CABTAL, who passed it to the church leaders, who in turn passed it to the Prefet of the Division. There was much rejoicing as it made a tour around the arena of the ceremony and was prayed over.
At 1pm, with maybe 500 in attendance, three passages were read from the new Yambeta New Testament: Acts 2:1-4, Romans 13:8-10 and Ephesians 2:11-17. As the Yambeta people heard about the coming of the Holy Spirit, the preeminence of love, and the peace with God made possible through Jesus, the fact that this message is for all was evident by the readers being a woman, a young boy and one of the back-translators of the New Testament, Jean. What hope for the beloved people of Yambeta! There was more celebrating and dancing and three girls recited words of local wisdom in Yambeta language. Eighteen Yambeta literacy teachers were honoured with certificates, and the three Bible translators, Léo, Raoul and Lazare were presented with their very own copy of their years of work. SIL and CABTAL were equally presented with a copy of the New Testament and a token from the area by the chiefs present.
The ceremony was wonderfully concluded with a speech by the Prefet, himself a believer, urging the Yambeta people to take, read and meditate on the words in the New Testaments they had received today. The New Testaments went on sale for 2500FCFA each, as well as to those who had pre-ordered them at the early-bird price of 2000FCFA. A sumptuous lunch was enjoyed by all and dancing and singing went on well into the night back at Léo’s home. Heading off to church the next morning at 8am, one man, Marino, stopped by Léo’s house to get his own copy.
God’s words have made their home in Yambeta country, in Yambeta language. Let’s pray they keep making their way into many Yambeta people’s hearts!
(text courtesy of Kathy Cummins)