As Rev. Kelvin Koroma watched the video playing on the missionary’s phone, he grew visibly excited. “You have the ‘JESUS’ film in Themne!” Kelvin said. “Can I put it on my phone?” Rev. Kelvin was speaking with Josh Wagner, a Scripture engagement adviser for the Themne translation project in Makeni, Sierra Leone. Josh and his wife, Ruthie, have served with Lutheran Bible Translators there for the past three years. Smartphones are gaining popularity in Sierra Leone as their price falls. When people learn that content such as the “JESUS” film is available in their language, they use it. Rev. Kelvin showed several other people the “JESUS” film as soon as he downloaded it onto his phone. They immediately wanted it on their phones so they could not only watch it, but share it. “The greatest reaction was the fact that the people feel at home with the film,” Rev. Kelvin says via email. “That is, they said, ‘Here is Jesus speaking my mother tongue. Christianity is not a white man’s religion but the way to God for every nation.’”
Using Language that Matters
Churches in Sierra Leone, like many bilingual places, find that language choice is always a complex issue. Leaders in Makeni gather often to discuss how to encourage people to use Themne in their communities. Songs, Scripture readings and preaching are often in English or Krio, the local trade language. That means the majority of churchgoers don’t hear God’s Word in the language they know best. In addition, people who don’t usually attend church often do not feel comfortable attending services they don’t understand. Although English is important in business, Rev. Kelvin is one of the growing number of people who recognize the need to use the Themne language in churches. “It is important to have biblical materials in the Themne mother tongue, because the expressions of God’s Word in the local language of the receiver is more understandable than speaking or reading it to them in the missionary’s language,” he says.
Reaching Further with Technology
While Ruthie works with the Themne translation team to produce a written Old Testament, Josh is training people to access Scripture, Bible-related content and educational materials through technology. He uses devices such as RACHEL and BIBLEBOX, both of which provide a free Wi-Fi signal. RACHEL offers free educational materials for all academic levels. BIBLEBOX provides local language Scripture materials that people can watch, listen to or download for free. Josh has also been exploring Reading App Builder to address the need for distribution on cellphones. “It’s so easy to build apps for stories, songbooks, training materials and even dictionaries,” he says. Rev. Kelvin has used many technology tools to tell people the Gospel: the “JESUS” film on DVD, the “JESUS” film and stories of local conversions played from SD cards, cellphones and the BIBLEBOX. “These tools have been helpful in my outreach programs, especially in making them available in the mother tongue of the receiver,” he says. Josh’s first app was a proof-of-concept for the Bible Society in Sierra Leone. It presented text and audio of the recently drafted Book of Jonah in Themne. “Apps are great in Sierra Leone because people engage with the audio,” Josh says. “And apps can be shared phone-to-phone without using the internet, which is so expensive here. Tools like these give our partners new options for Scripture engagement in the digital world.” Josh cautions that Wi-Fi devices and app builders are only tools. “Exciting as they are, it is a big oversight to think that the tool is the solution,” he says. “In my experience, the tool is 10 percent of the equation, and relationships are the 90 percent. Sierra Leoneans have an invaluable sense of what is necessary and effective, and we rely on this heavily. “Having known our neighbors and colleagues for over three years, we are finding that our relationships are stronger, conversations are more meaningful and work is more productive. The foundation of relationship makes technology powerful.”