International Literacy Day: opening hearts for God in Zambia

Tuesday 8 September 2015

International Literacy Day is celebrated on September 8 around the world. As an associate of UNESCO, the United Nations agency responsible for education, Bible Society’s literacy work is globally recognised. Bible Society uses Bible-based literacy resources and partners with local churches to help people understand the Bible in their own language. In 2015, Bible Society Australia has committed almost $1 million for literacy projects around the world, including the introduction of the first literacy classes in five communities in Zambia.

“I will be proud to hear God talking to me in my own mother tongue,” says Gasiano Chawala, a Nsenga man leading the Nsenga Translation Project Committee in Zambia, in south-central Africa.

Bible translation work in five local Zambian languages will help to preserve the languages for future generations. The Bible translation in Nsenga is almost finished, well ahead of schedule because of the enthusiasm in the community for the project and the dedication of local Bible translators.

Five Zambian communities will soon receive the Bible in their own language. Bible Society is starting literacy classes in these communities, including among the Nsenga people, like this woman.

Five Zambian communities will soon receive the Bible in their own language. Bible Society is starting literacy classes in these communities, including among the Nsenga people, like this woman.

“We’ll be very happy,” says Chawala as he looks ahead to when the Nsenga Bibles are ready. “To me, it’s a sign of prestige to hear God talking in my own language. And my confidence grows that God knows me by my own language, not by a foreign language.” Chawala says with a Bible in Nsgena, he can know God as his own; he can know God personally. The God who speaks Chawala’s own heart language doesn’t appear distant or foreign.

But Chawala is one of only a few people in his community who’ll be able to read the Nsenga Bible when it is finished.

Nsenga is one of over 72 languages and dialects spoken in Zambia. The official language of Zambia is English, and the Zambian Government has chosen seven local languages to be taught in schools too. Nsenga isn’t one of them. That means there are thousands of Zambians who speak Nsenga as their mother tongue – their “heart language” – but who have never learned to read or write it. It also means that there are few written materials available in Nsenga. The Bible, due for completion by 2016, will be one of the only materials in modern Nsenga in common usage today.

Bible-based literacy classes starting in the Nsenga community are set to change that.

CEO of Bible Society Australia Dr Greg Clarke is head of the United Bible Societies Global Literacy Affinity Group. The group is implementing and strengthening Bible-based literacy projects around the world. One of its goals is to coordinate Bible translation projects with literacy work.

“If your community is receiving the Bible in your heart language, then it’s the perfect opportunity to start literacy classes too. We see a great connection with translation work and transforming the community to become a reading and learning and teaching community,” said Dr Clarke.

“To my mind this is the ideal combination. The word of God comes not just in a book that will sit on a shelf unopened, or opened by only a few readers in the community, but it is opened up to the community by the addition of literacy skills there.”

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Bible Society Australia is supporting the first literacy classes in five communities in Zambia, including the Nsenga. Classes will start at the end of the year, with work underway to use the almost-completed Bible translation to create Bible-based, audio literacy resources across three basic levels.

Dr Clarke says it is easy to underestimate the importance of being able to read and write in your heart language, especially for those of us for whom English is our first language.

“If you have grown up with a language, you think in that language, your symbolism and emotions are in that language. All those things are deeply important to properly understanding the Scriptures.

“We hear time and time again from people who have received the Bible in their language for the first time that it’s like finding out that Jesus cares personally for them. That’s how important a heart language Bible is to people.”

And while you don’t have to be a reader to know God, Dr Clarke says Christianity is an “articulate faith.”

“It’s a faith that helps you not just know God but to know that God in great detail, and it’s the Bible that reveals that detail to us. So the more you can read, the deeper that knowledge becomes.”

That’s a gift that Bible Societies around the world want to share with the over 780 million adults who are still illiterate.

“Literacy adds depth to your spiritual life. Literacy adds understanding. Literacy adds flavour and nuance and meaning, so that you can not only learn how to live but how to avoid error and work out what it means to walk along the straight and narrow path,” said Dr Clarke.

“And you will always be more articulate in your heart language than a second or third language you don’t speak or think in.”

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