The Hdi translation team was struggling to find the right translation for the verb ‘to love’.
They had discussed it thoroughly, but one more conversation was needed to reveal God’s fingerprints on this language, and his love for this Cameroonian people group.
Almost every verb in the Hdi language has forms ending in i, a, and u, each with a different meaning. But when it came to the word for love, there were only dvi and dva.
Dangwa Pierre, president of the Hdi translation committee, remembers how the discussion started:
‘Could you dvi your wife?’
‘Yes,’ everyone agreed. That would mean that the wife had been loved but the love was gone.
‘Could you dva your wife?’
‘Yes,’ Dangwa said. That kind of love depended on the wife’s actions. She would be loved as long as she remained faithful and cared for her husband well.
‘Could you dvu your wife?’
Everyone laughed. ‘Of course not!’
‘It just doesn’t exist’
Dangwa explained: ‘If you said that, you would have to keep loving your wife no matter what she did – even if she never got you water, never made you meals. Even if she committed adultery, you would be compelled to keep on loving her. No, we would never say dvu. It just doesn’t exist.’
Thinking about John 3:16, the Bible translator asked, ‘Could God dvu people?’
There was complete silence for three or four minutes; then, tears flowed down Dangwa’s face. The other men began weeping too.
Finally, Dangwa responded, ‘Do you know what this would mean? This would mean that God kept loving us over and over, millennia after millennia, while all that time we rejected his great love. He is compelled to love us, even though we have sinned more than any people.’
‘This would mean that God kept loving us’
One simple vowel changed the meaning from ‘I love you based on what you do and who you are’ to ‘I love you based on who I am’. God had encoded the story of his unconditional love into their language. For centuries, the word was there – unused but available, grammatically correct and quite understandable.
When this new understanding of love was discovered, it challenged the entire traditional belief system of the Hdi people. If God was like that, did they need the spirits of the ancestors to intercede for them? Did they need sorcery to relate to the spirits? Many decided the answer was no, and the number of believers quickly grew from a few hundred to several thousand.