For the Safwa people, the launch of their New Testament was a joyful occasion.

‘When I first came to the Mbeya project in Tanzania in 2007, the team was working with nine languages. Safwa is the last of these languages to launch its New Testament,’ says Katherine O’Donnell, who serves with Wycliffe.

Image of a man reading his newly launched Safwa New Testament

It may have taken longer than the others, but perhaps that’s one of the reasons why the launch celebration of the Safwa New Testament on 23 September was such a joyous event.

That, and as Amani Mwandezi, a Safwa man who has helped the Safwa people to engage with their Scriptures for many years, says: ‘They like their language, they want to praise God in their language!’

Katherine continues: ‘There was a sense of great joy at the launch, with lots of singing and dancing and waving of branches! As the procession with the gift-wrapped box of New Testaments moved into the church, the women who were busy preparing food for everyone came with them, waving their big cooking spoons, cooking pots, branches and even tomatoes and onions on sticks! No one wanted to miss this joyful moment!’

‘What excuse do we Safwa have?’

One of the features of the launch was the amount of Safwa that was spoken, rather than everything being in the national language, Swahili. Katherine says: ‘It was wonderful to see so much Safwa being used during the service.’

Image of two men looking at the Safwa New Testament at its launch event

Whenever Safwa was spoken instead of Swahili – and especially when Andrea, a German member of the translation team, gave some of her speech in Safwa – the people’s response was immediate and enthusiastic. It sums up how the Safwa people are excited about their language and are engaging with the Scriptures in their language. After hearing Andrea speak, one Safwa dignitary commented that if a German speaker can learn Safwa then ‘what excuse do we Safwa people have not to learn to use the Scriptures?’

A tricky situation

One participant commented about how the translation team made the translation as understandable and inclusive as possible, given that there are six dialects of Safwa and different words are used for the same thing. He noted that the translation brings together all these different dialects by using the word that is most widely understood by all.

Image of Amani Mwandezi holding the Safwa New Testament at the launch event Amani Mwandezi with his Safwa New Testament

That comment harked back to the very beginning of the project – and the good reason why it lagged behind the other translations. Hazel Gray explains: ‘We had a tricky dialect situation to deal with before we could get going. I’ve just looked up some old updates to remind myself of the story. One from 15 years ago caught my eye in particular. It was written after we had a meeting to decide which dialect to use. It says: “The committee members very graciously gave us their blessing to choose a dialect based on our research. Hopefully this will mean that the work we do will be accepted by all the Safwa, regardless of the dialect they speak. I’m very excited about the future for the Safwa translation. It will be a while before Safwa can catch up to the other languages in the project, but we have a good foundation now and the way ahead looks brighter.”’

‘Their lives will be changed’

The good news is that the Safwa New Testament is indeed being accepted by the Safwa – in fact, not just accepted but fully embraced.

Amani says, ‘The Safwa New Testament will be very important for our people. When they read the Bible in Safwa they will understand and their lives can be changed. It touches their hearts. Swahili can be difficult, but Safwa is easy to read.’

Amani also recalls a comment made by a participant in a recent workshop, who said: ‘I have always read in Swahili, and I thought that reading Safwa would be difficult. But after holding a Safwa book in this workshop and learning to read, I want to put my Swahili Bible to one side and just read Safwa as it is my language!’ This person duly bought a Safwa New Testament.

Charm offensive

During the launch service, Lawi Mwasovye, one of the Safwa translators, showed people how vital it is to have the Scriptures in Safwa by asking someone to read Matthew 23:5 in Swahili. The verse contains a couple of Swahili words that are commonly misunderstood. One of them is ‘hirizi’, which is usually used in Swahili to mean a kind of lucky charm that someone might wear on their body, but in this verse it is referring to phylacteries! Lawi then read the verse from the Safwa New Testament, where the Safwa word makes it clear that it is talking about a Pharisee wearing a phylactery.

Image of people waving branches during the procession at the launch of the Safwa New Testament People waving branches during the procession at the launch of the Safwa New Testament

Story by: Jeremy Weightman

Date: 14/11/2023

Wycliffe Bible Translators logo Close
Close modal