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We’re starting the first literacy classes in Zambia this year

NEWS | Kaley Payne

Saturday 1 August 2015

Want to read the Bible? Find one. Read it. It’s that simple for most Australians.

Yet what can seem like such a simple act for an Australian Christian has taken Christians in Zambia many years to be able to do. In fact, many still haven’t quite got to the end of a long journey that will see them read the Bible for themselves.

TESTZAMBIAThe process of getting a Bible into someone’s hands in Zambia is the same process that has been replicated by Bible Societies around the world many, many times. It’s a tried and tested, step-by-step system that Bible Societies are renowned for.

The first step in the process is for the Bible to be translated into a language that Zambians can understand. There are seven official languages taught in schools in Zambia.

But for those in rural areas, many tribal languages are still strong. Zambians want the Bible in the language they usually speak in their communities, the language that speaks to their heart.

Zaccheus is a Bible translator working with The Seed Company in partnership with Bible Society in Zambia. He says that his people, the Ila people, like the sound of God’s word in their mother tongue, and particularly how easily young people can understand it.

“Jeso wakaamba ati, ‘Ndime cinkwa cipa bumi. Kufwumbwa muntu uzhiza kwangu takafwi linji inzala, aze wezo uushoma mwangu takafwi linji inyota pe.’ ”

That’s John 6:35 in Ila, a passage that Zaccheus and his translation team have recently been working on. “Then Jesus declared, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.’”

Bible Society in Zambia has five translation projects that are either complete or nearing completion, including an Ila translation of the New Testament. An old 1940s translation of parts of the Bible in Ila is woefully out of date, says the Bible Society. It’s almost impossible for modern day Ila speakers to understand it. The Ila people live in southern-central Zambia, along the bend of the Kafue River.

According to The Joshua Project, the Ila say that a rock that sits in the heart of their homeland is the “footprint of all creatures, including humans.” They say that God dropped man where the rock sits today, and from there they started migrating in other directions.

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Today about 60 per cent of Ila-speakers claim a Christian faith. Yet a strong belief in animistic spirits and traditional practices, including ancestor worship, child marriage and widow cleansing – where a widow must have sexual intercourse with a male relative of her deceased husband to rid her of her husband’s ghost and protect her children and her village – are still common place. Bible Society says these beliefs are a symptom of illiteracy and, for Christians, an inability to read the Bible for themselves.

“Yes, most of the Christians practice sexual cleansing [and other traditional rituals] because of their cultural background,” says Benson Musuku from Bible Society Zambia. “However, through literacy, the people can develop the ability to read and understand the written word, which empowers them to abandon practices not supported by the teachings of the Bible.”

Zaccheus, the Bible translator, is one of the lucky ones. Church leaders in Zambia claim that functional literacy levels in Zambia are as low as 40 per cent in rural communities like those of the Ila people. Yet he can read and write well. He knows it is a weighty responsibility.

“[Bible] translation is a high calling,” he says, quoting 2 Corinthians 6:3-4. He says the calling echoes his commitment to live according to God’s word: “We live in such a way that no one will stumble because of us, and no one will find fault with our ministry. In everything we do, we show that we are true ministers of God. We patiently endure troubles and hardships and calamities of every kind.” (NLT)

Zaccheus is also a preacher in his village, helping to make sure that even those who can’t read the Bible can at least hear it.

The Ila Bible translation is well ahead of schedule, following an ambitious plan to halve the amount of time a New Testament would usually take. A translation of the Book of Luke was published in 2014, welcomed with much excitement by the Ila people.

The completed New Testament is due for completion by July 2016. And while that is being finalised, Bible Society is committed to the next step of the process: distribution and literacy. In particular, there is renewed emphasis on increasing the literacy skills of the Ila people so they can read it for themselves.

Bible Society in Zambia, with the support of Bible Society Australia, is setting up literacy classes through local churches in five communities where Bible translations are in progress, including the Ila community. Across Zambia, the aim is teach 25,000 people to read and write in their mother tongue over the next five years.

Bible Society Zambia’s project manager Benson Musuku believes Bible reading in the Ila community, and others across Zambia will serve as an intervention, helping Zambians to “discard wrong cultural practices and engage with Scripture.

“Bible Society wants to see Zambia transformed by the Bible.”

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